What is your scientific background?
I received my B.A. in Biochemistry, with a Minor in Biomedical Humanities, from Hiram College in May of 2011. In the summer, I started in the Toxicology Ph.D. program at the University of Rochester School of Medicine. In October of 2013, I passed my Ph.D. candidacy qualifying exam and received my Master’s degree. I am defending my thesis on June 13, 2017.
Why did you choose to become a scientist?
I chose to become a scientist because I loved learning about chemistry and biology, as well as wanted to help people through research.
How did you choose your field of study?
I chose to pursue an advanced degree in Toxicology after a summer undergraduate research experience. I had an internship in the lab of Dr. Paige Lawrence at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry. Over the summer, I helped with a project examining how developmental exposure to BPA (a chemical that was often found in plastic bottles) affected responses a respiratory viral infection. As I read about the impact of environmental exposures on human health, I realized that I wanted to find out more about toxicology. The field combined my interest in biomedical science with my beliefs in protecting the environment and promoting sustainability.
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 study how exposure to biomass smoke from cooking fires causes inflammatory (and damaging) responses in the lung and impairs immune responses to respiratory viruses. I started this project when I joined the #SimeLab. The lab had previously done a lot of research on tobacco smoke. However, in 2012, an article in Science described the global health issue of biomass smoke, which is the leading environmental cause of death. Thus, my mentor decided to pursue this area of study. Additionally, I had an interest in global health. I had gone on a 3-week study abroad to Guatemala and been a member of the Intercultural Forum during my undergraduate studies.
Did you have a role model that influenced your decision to work in science?
My high school Chemistry teacher, Doc Brock, influenced my decision to pursue a career in science. I learned about interesting scientific concepts and how chemistry related to the world in his class. He continued to support my passion for science with an extra-curricular AP Chemistry club. Additionally, my undergraduate mentors in the Chemistry Department, Jody Modarelli, and Carol Shreiner cultivated my love of science. They encouraged me to apply to Ph.D. programs for Toxicology.
Do you come from an academic family?
Both of my parents attended college. My mom worked as an Occupational Therapist at a school for children with special needs and my dad got a teaching degree and worked with adults who had disabilities. Also, my twin brother is currently a graduate student pursuing a Ph.D. in microbiology at the University of Nebraska.
How does your family regard your career choice?
My family is very supportive of my decision to pursue a Ph.D. in Toxicology. They encourage us to follow our hearts and do what we love.
During your career, have you been specifically mentored or supported by someone?
During my undergraduate studies, Professor Jody Modarelli and Professor Carol Shreiner mentored me. They taught me about research and encouraged my passion for science. I learned that science is fun by working with them.
Dr. Patricia Sime is my Ph.D. advisor and mentor. She helped guide and support me throughout graduate school. I am a better writer, public speaker, and researcher today because of her. She is like my graduate school fairy godmother, who gave me the tools to succeed in the Toxicology Ph.D. program.
What are your biggest achievements, and what your biggest failures?
My biggest achievement was getting the William F. Neuman and Margaret W. Neuman Award for excellence in research and good citizenship. I think that collaboration and teamwork are very important for scientific research and felt honored to receive this award. Another important achievement was winning a Scientific Poster Award at the Rochester Global Health Symposium. At this poster session, I communicated my science to an audience of both scientists and non-scientists. I can’t think of a biggest failure per se, but there have been times when it seemed like every assay I touched over an entire week went wrong.
What is a typical day like for you?
A typical day as a graduate student (after completing the required courses and qualifying exam) involves benchwork experiments and writing. I often arrive and prepare samples for assays, such as an ELISA, Western blot, or quantitative PCR. I also often culture primary human cells, which involves changing the media, passaging cells, and planting them in culture inserts. While assays are in progress or samples are incubating, I often check and respond to emails. Additionally, I may be writing or editing drafts for manuscripts or reading recent papers about biomass smoke. I generally work from 8-9 am to 5-6 pm on weekdays, and occasionally come in a few hours over the weekend. There are times when I have to work longer days due to a specific protocol or an unexpected glitch to my plans. Lab work is often dynamic, so I am often doing different things each day. It also helps to be flexible, since last-minute projects or problems can arise. Also, a nice thing about my lab is that I can make my own hours. I have to be self-motivated and accomplish my tasks, but I can come in earlier if I have to leave early for an appointment, or I can arrive later and stay longer.
What are the hardest parts related to your work?
I think that the hardest parts related to toxicology research are experimental failures and rejection. It can be difficult to stay optimistic and positive when important experimental assays are not working right (ex. positive control not showing up, machines breaking down, etc.). It can be hard when you spend so much time on an experiment, only to learn that you have to repeat it due to a technical error. Another hard part of research is rejection, especially in terms of grant proposals and publishing. As graduate students, we often apply or help with proposals and submit manuscripts with our data to be published in scientific journals. However, articles are often rejected (especially from the first journal they are submitted to) and many proposals don’t receive funding. It can be disheartening when years of your research isn’t accepted by others in the scientific community. However, you have to persevere by submitting your paper to other journals and revising proposals.
Did you ever doubt your abilities as a scientist? Why? How did you handle these situations/feelings?
I think that every scientist has doubted his/her abilities at some point. These thoughts often creep in when experiments are not working. I also felt this way as I was preparing for my qualifying exam. I remember feeling like I would never know enough about all the different things related to my project after practice question and answer sessions. However, my friends helped me handle these feelings. They reminded me that I knew a lot about biomass smoke and the lung. My friends also said that my mentor would not let me move forward with the exam if she didn’t believe that I was ready. They told me to be confident in myself.
What (or who) motivated you in difficult times?
My friends, including my lab-mates and fellow Toxicology students, motivated me during difficult times. They gave me support, encouragement, and advice. My friends help me believe in myself and boost my self-confidence during hard times.
In ten years, what do you hope to have accomplished in terms of your work?
In ten years, I hope to be a science writer who makes people excited about scientific research and discoveries.
Is there any scientific topic (outside of your field of research) that you think should have more scientific attention? Which one?
I think pulmonary fibrosis, or lung scarring, deserves more scientific attention. Other people in my lab study this disease. The median survival after diagnosis is only ~3 years, and there are few effective treatments for this disease.
If you were completely free to choose a scientific topic to work on, which would it be?
Right now, if I was free to choose a scientific topic to work on, I think it might be dermal toxicology. This would combine my background in toxicology with my interest in fashion and make-up.
What is the funniest or most memorable thing that has happened to you while working in science?
A memorable thing that happened to me was presenting a talk during a scientific symposium at the 2017 American Thoracic Society Conference. The chairs of the session and other speakers were well-known experts in the field. I felt start-struck to be introduced and referred to in the talks following mine by these amazing respiratory researchers.
Besides your scientific interests, what are your personal interests?
I enjoy reading, fashion, tweeting, blogging, and watching movies/T.V. shows. I also enjoy physical activities, such as running and PiYo.
Is it hard to manage both career and private life? How do you manage both?
I think during my first couple years of graduate school, it was hard to manage school and a private life. I spent a lot of time studying for classes and in the labs where I was rotating. I was worried that if I didn’t spend as much time reviewing my notes, I would get two C’s and fail out of graduate school. However, I have a much better work-life balance now. As an older graduate student, I am better at time management. I also realized that it is important to take time for myself, which helps me maintain productivity in the long-term. This is one of the reasons that I started monthly Toxicology student outings. The activities help the Toxicology students relax and take a break from their work, as well as promote camaraderie within the group.
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?
I think public speaking and networking were (and still are) my biggest challenges. I never had the impression that these things would be easier if I was male. I have had women scientists as role models and strived to be like them. The only time I felt there was a gender issue occurred when I was practicing for a talk. I had to practice projecting my voice (which is higher pitched), and couldn’t do it as well as some of my male colleagues in the lab.
What kind of prejudices, if any, did you have to face? How did that make you feel? Were you able to overcome these?
I never felt any prejudices. In fact, the Toxicology Ph.D. program at the University of Rochester contains a majority of female graduate students.
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 feel lucky to have been mentored by women scientists, who have supported and encouraged myself and many other female trainees. There is something more comfortable about the relationship between female mentors and mentees. However, I know that there is a gender disparity in the advancement of women scientists. Thus, I think this issue needs to be addressed. It is important to have tenured women scientists across many disciplines that can be role models and mentors for the next generation of female scientists.
If you had the option to give advice to a younger version of yourself, what would that be?
I think I would tell myself to be more outgoing and social. My younger self was very shy and quiet. I never raised my hand in classes or asked questions. I wish I had stepped out of my comfort zone more back then.
Do you have anything else that you’d like to tell us about?
I like to write creative pieces related to science, which I post on my blog (clairemcomms.blogspot.com). I also think Twitter is a great way to promote science.