Meet Dr. Alana Rister, a chemistry researcher passionate about supporting graduate students!

What is your scientific background?

When I took my first chemistry class, I absolutely hated it. I felt like I could never understand anything in the course and thought that I never wanted to take another chemistry class. However, in my sophomore year of high school, I had to take the course Introduction to Chemistry. My professor for that class was so creative and energetic that I actually truly enjoyed learning chemistry and understanding how it connected to the real world. I quickly starting taking advanced courses in chemistry in high school, including organic chemistry and chemistry research. In the summer between my junior and senior year, I was granted the ability to go to the University of Alabama and complete research focused on the synthesis of polymers. By the end of high school, I knew that I wanted to get my college degree in chemistry.

In my sophomore year of college, I started taking sexuality and gender studies classes and became fascinated with the topic. I created an independent major in sexuality and gender studies to complement my chemistry major. I was able to obtain further research experience in my undergraduate career as well. I completed two theses, one for each major. Furthermore, I spent a summer at the National Institute of Standards and Technology studying methods for personalized medicine between my sophomore and junior year. Before my senior year, I spent a summer at James Madison University synthesizing antimicrobial compounds and studying their characteristics. In 2016, I completed my double major and continued to pursue my doctorate in both of these areas.

My Research Group During My Summer Research Opportunity In College

In my Ph.D. program, I developed a new research path at the intersection of these fields, where I created new methods for analyzing steroids and lipids in reproductive tissues. Steroids are an important hormone that acts as signals in the body to trigger different biological processes. Specifically, sex hormones, or the hormones that develop secondary sex characteristics, are steroids. I spent my first two years in graduate school primarily developing new methods to study steroids. Then, in my last year and a half, I worked in a collaboration with a reproductive physiologist to further investigate how steroids and lipids are altered by maternal obesity during pregnancy. Ultimately, in 2019, I graduated with my Ph.D. in chemistry with a minor in women’s and gender studies. Afterward, I pursued a postdoctoral scholar position in reproductive toxicology to continue this theme in my research.

Dr. Alana Rister being hooded at her graduation.

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

I think it is fairly normal to doubt your abilities as a scientist. When you start graduate school, you start to realize how much you do not know. Generally, this will drop your confidence and your confidence will slowly increase as you become more aware of your field and start conducting research. There were so many times from high school to graduate school where I debated if I would ever actually become a scientist.

In my first graduate school lab on a Saturday!

Every critique of a paper. Every rejection from an award. Each time, I questioned if I was really good enough to make it. However, starting in my 3rd year of graduate school, I started to realize something that changed my thoughts about my abilities. It does not matter if I am good enough. Being a scientist is a skillset that you learn not innate abilities that you cannot change. If you want to be a scientist, then keep working toward it. When you receive a critique, take that as a direction arrow pointing to the next skill you should be focused on. You are only not good enough if you stop trying to improve yourself.

For this reason, I created Science Grad School Coach, to help other science graduate students learn the necessary skills more easily and increase their confidence in their scientific abilities. Additionally, mentorship is so important in graduate school, and especially for women in science can be difficult to easily find. I wanted to create a safe mentorship space for all science graduate students outside of academia.

Do you come from an academic family?

I do not come from an academic family. My mother had the highest degree in my family with an Associates’s degree that she had earned when I was young. My family did not know much of anything about graduate school or academia. This presents a unique challenge for first-generation graduate students. Simple things that academic families know that non-academic families do not know can create a major difference in your academic progress. Especially around graduate school, I had to learn and now inform many students that in most scientific fields, you do not need a master’s degree to enter a Ph.D. program or that you will generally get paid, although not much, in a science Ph.D. program.

Dr. Alana Rister on her trip to Chicago in Graduate School

There are so many students that suffer simply because no one ever knew or told them that these were facts. So often, other students will inform me that they won’t get a graduate degree because they cannot pay for it, even though they want one. One of my aims is to ensure that this information is more available online and easier to find.

Connect with Dr. Alana Rister on Twitter at @scigradcoach or on my website.

Download her free Scientific Research Paper Checklist.