Meet Dr. Adria LeBoeuf, a multi-disciplinary scientist and specialist in scicomm!

What is your scientific background?

I’ve worked in many domains of biology. In terms of perspective, I like evolutionary and biophysical approaches and in terms of techniques, I like biochemistry, bioinformatics, modeling and automated behavioral analysis.

Why did you choose to become a scientist?

You’re always learning, and unlike many professions, you are actually creating new knowledge for all of the humanity. It’s creative, challenging, and you meet amazing intelligent people from all over the world.

How did you choose your field of study?

Ha! It took some time. I’ve known since high school that I wanted to study how social behaviors are brought about and regulated, mechanistically. Like, “how can you build social behavior?” The tricky thing is, how do you study this? I ended up working in various domains of neuroscience, biochemistry, biophysics, and evolutionary biology.  In the end, I decided that social insects were the best access point: small, low ethics requirements, social, exhibit collective behaviors. Researchers come to social insects from many different and interesting viewpoints making it a diverse field. I’m using social insects as a context to study socially exchanged fluids, a field I want to build up.

Which topic are you working on at the moment? Why did you choose this topic and how do you think you’ll make a difference?

I’m studying the social fluids passed mouth-to-mouth amongst ants and bees. This is a fun handle to study how social organisms influence one another. Now I’m doing two projects, one looking at how ants control the development of their young through this mouth-to-mouth feeding (kind of an equivalent to breast-feeding in mammals), and the second is on how the molecular machinery in this social fluid has evolved. I really broke open this field by showing that more than food is passed in these mouth-to-mouth interactions–there are hormones, proteins, small molecules, recognition cues… It’s a veritable smorgasbord of opportunities for individuals to manipulate one another!

What are the hardest parts related to this work?

Right now, the lack of permanence. At the moment, I’m on what I consider a “science residency” working at the Weizmann in Israel (it’s a short postdoctoral fellowship). I’m away from my husband. I’m on the job market. I have collaborators who want to move projects forward, but I can’t make promises because I don’t know where I’ll be in six months! Science is a long-term endeavor, but unfortunately, science jobs are often very unstable.

What are your biggest achievements, and what your biggest failures?

Achievement: During graduate school, I fell in love with physics and the biophysical approach to understanding how the world works. Unfortunately, I hadn’t studied physics much in undergrad. In spite of this small roadblock, I decided to go for it, join a biophysics lab where I thought I would learn a lot, and get a serious physics education during my Ph.D. #learningbydoing <= my motto! This was rough–not just because I was thrown into the deep end of a subject I wasn’t too versed in at the time and a subject that is notoriously sexist–but also because I had to make the sacrifice of working on a topic that only interested but didn’t thrill me. I made it! It was an enormous learning experience for me, teaching me both that you can do anything you set your mind to and the value of passion.

Adria giving a talk/ Adria LeBoeuf

Achievement: Every ah-ha moment! That feeling when the previously befuddling puzzle-pieces finally slide into place and you can’t imagine the system any other way.

Achievement: The Catalyst. I founded this organization in Lausanne shortly after I moved there and it has touched so many lives. The Catalyst teaches improvisation skills to scientists and science communicators and puts together creative projects showcasing science and scientific thinking to the public through entertainment. The number of brilliant people who have told me that The Catalyst has changed their lives blows my mind every time I think about it. Many young scientists–extremely creative people–somehow manage to get boxed into thinking that their creative brilliance has no place in research. This couldn’t be further from the truth. I believe we need to create the world we want to live in. For me, that means allowing my passions and talents to intersect, and that happens to take the form of The Catalyst.

Failures: There’s something so final about the word failure! All the things I could look at as failures, I look at more as things I’m still working on, as missed opportunities or as learning experiences. I wish I’d cared more about publishing many small papers instead of a few big ones…? Does that count?

In ten years, what do you hope to have accomplished in terms of your work?

I will have my lab, a handful of graduated Ph.D. and Masters students, a pile of research on the evolution and function of different species’ social fluids and how these fluids are used for manipulation and direction in social groups. We’ll have collaborations with theorists, computer scientists, social scientists, looking at how groups self-regulate. In terms of science communication, I’ll have more of a back-seat role, but The Catalyst will have expanded and more young scientists the world over will be learning to express themselves through creative projects concurrent with their research. And while I’ll just be a small part of it, I hope to see a new movement promoting critical thinking and rational creative inquiry world-wide.

Do you come from an academic family?

Yes, my father was a professor of animal behavior and my mother has a Ph.D. and continued doing research for much of my childhood.

During your career, have you been specifically mentored or supported by someone?

Not particularly. Perhaps I’m too independent? Too female? (see answer below at the **)

If you were completely free to choose a scientific topic to work on, which would it be?

That’s what I’m doing! I just wish I had about 20 more lives to pursue other projects (machine-learning/neuroscience, membrane signaling, intracellular signal integration, network modelling…to name a few)!

Adria during field work/ Adria LeBoeuf

What were the biggest obstacles you had to overcome? Did you ever have the impression that it would be easier/harder if you were male?

Yes. Especially in my physics years. I felt that I was not taken seriously. I had important powerful academic men cross serious lines with me both in words and in deeds and I won’t forget. Being a woman in science made me a full-fledged feminist. I do what I can every day to fight these battles.

What kind of prejudices, if any, did you have to face? How did that make you feel? Were you able to overcome these?

** Being overlooked for my intelligence, creative and intellectual contributions. Being more valued for service/teaching/care-giving roles. I think women have a harder time being championed/promoted/supported.

In your opinion, which changes, if any, are needed in the scientific system to be more attractive to female scientists and possible future scientists?

I think we need mandatory paternity leave. Once we have that, the system will shift.

Also, I think we should work on encouraging professors, and everyone else, to become more aware of their unconscious biases.

Did you have a role model that influenced your decision to become a scientist?

I’ve had a few role models:

As a kid and teenager, I tried my best to avoid being a scientist (both my parents were scientists) and I was a little rebellious. But, nonetheless, I loved my mother’s approach to understanding the world. Everything was viewed in the light of evolution, including the behavior of my classmates and friends (I heard a lot about “sub-adult males”). Even when she left research, she never lost that perspective and curiosity.

As I shifted to more molecular approaches, I worked for three years with then-grad student Sasha Levy (he’s now a professor at Stonybrook) on microtubule dynamics in Stu Feinstein’s lab. It was great to work closely with someone not just on the busy work of research, but also on the problem-solving, writing, and creative thinking. Even in the dark days of grad school, Sasha enjoyed the process of research and that was inspiring. During this time, we worked with the then-grad student in physics Jenny Ross (now a professor at Amherst), and she also had this crazy inspiring enjoyment of the scientific process. Over those years, I learned plenty but most importantly I got hooked on collaboration and those ah-ha moments and on asking questions and managing to answer them. That’s what convinced me to go to grad school.

In grad school, I started collecting science role models who were successful and who I could identify with: Lucy Shapiro, Bonnie Bassler, Leslie Vosshall @pollyp1, Cori Bargmann @betenoire1. All amazing women scientists who are vital, creative, brilliant and invigorating. Seeing their success helped me imagine that I too could be a professor, that it wasn’t just a grizzly old men’s club.

Did you ever doubt your abilities as a scientist? Why? How did you handle these situations/feelings?

Yes. Often. So much of research is about doubting! Seriously though, like so many others, I struggle with imposter syndrome. Even when I’m interviewing for professorships, or giving seminars at international conferences, I push back those feelings.

In spite of all of the failure in research, I find that I am somehow resilient. Maybe it comes from all my failed auditions from when I was a child/teenage actor. When things don’t go well, I usually find a way not to see it as a reflection of me as a person. Often it’s simply bad odds (e.g. the job market), someone is having a bad day or it’s my mistake to learn from. Dwelling in it simply doesn’t help anyone! Emotions are a way that our genes steer our behavior. If I’m unhappy in some part of my life, perhaps it is not the best thing for me. I’ll take that message from the bad feelings and move on.

Toward the end of my Ph.D., I doubted whether I should stay in research.  I decided I would study something that I thought was truly awesome, and then, if I didn’t like it? Done. That’s it. No more research. Once I got started with the ants, science was way more fun and I got hooked again. But a few years in, I started getting recognition for my science communication work. In my head somewhere, I started measuring: how much praise/recognition do I get for scicomm vs. science? As the balance tilted in favor of scicomm, I thought, “maybe I’m not meant to be a scientist!”

Adria teaching in Uganda for TReND in Africa/ Adria LeBoeuf

When you are on stage, you perform, you bow, people clap, and they tell you how much they enjoyed the show. It’s elating, joyous, life-giving. Also, you are special. Not everyone likes to go on stage! When you do get up there, people notice. In research, we rarely get overt support and recognition. A friend once told me of a conversation with her PI where she expressed that she never felt supported during her work in his lab. He said, “I supported you for five years! How can you feel unsupported?!” Support with a paycheck is important, but support through feedback, guidance and mentoring is another matter and most of us get far too little of it.

Over time I’ve come to accept that recognition for science, especially as a pre-publication postdoc or Ph.D. student, is extremely and painfully rare. We can and should change that–every one of us–by complimenting one another when we are impressed by each others brilliance. One way I’ve been working on this recognition problem is through the creative opportunities within The Catalyst. Remember that applause I mentioned above? It’s an amazing antidote for recognition-starved academics.

What (or who) motivated you in difficult times?

My friends and family. My stubbornness. In spite of all of the dark moments, I do have this comically unshakeable confidence that the world needs more Adria, however, I happen to be applying myself.

What is a typical day like for you?

It’s so variable! I wake up not-so-early. My sleep is one thing I’m unwilling to sacrifice. I catch up on email, news, and social media over breakfast. I start looking at my Habitica (It’s a habit, to-do, personal project management game. 100% recommended. Great for long-term creative projects). I get to work and start in on some science tasks. Lately, I’ve been doing some long-term behavioral tracking experiments, so I check on the ants before I get to work on my data- and image-analysis programming #learningbydoing! I like to lunch with colleagues and friends, but often I end up doing science communication “business lunches” where the team meets up over lunch to push the project forward. When there is a good talk I make sure to go. Skype meetings, emails, more science…Lately, science has been image analysis programming, laser-cutting, designing imaging set-ups, bioinformatics, and biochemistry. Then, evening often involves either improvisation or science communication (hooray!), dinner with my husband (hooray!), or academic job applications (…).

Besides your scientific interests, what are your personal interests?

Improvisation, new media, immersive games, making things.

Adria doing field work in Florida/ Adria LeBoeuf

How does your family regard your career choice?

My father knows that the academic job market and funding climate are harsh and at one point he actually discouraged me from continuing in research before my postdoc, suggesting industry instead (!). My mother is determined that I’ll rule the world through research, but she would’ve preferred that I went into medicine. But hey, my brothers are musicians, and my parents approve of that!

Is it hard to manage both career and private life? How do you manage both?

It is hard to manage my science, my scicomm, and my relationships, but I manage them. I don’t yet have children, but if and when I do, there will surely be a day of reckoning, but I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it. Years ago at a lunch with Prof. Lucy Shapiro, someone asked if she had kids (‘yes, three’) and how she managed. She had this amazing no-nonsense response, of ‘you just deal with it when it happens. You’ll find a way.’

If you had the option to give advice to a younger version of yourself, what would that be?

Don’t be so afraid of failure. You are more powerful than you realize.


You can contact Adria through twitter, LinkedIn or through her website!