What is your scientific background?
I am an immunologist working in tissue engineering and regenerative medicine.
Why did you choose to become a scientist?
I have always liked puzzles – and science for me is one big puzzle.
How did you choose your field of study?
When I finished my bachelor’s degree, I had an interest in immunology, but also in biomedical engineering. During my PhD I was able to combine these two fields in a tissue engineering lab, and work on both rebuilding tissues, and investigating the complex and sophisticated network that is our immune system.
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?
Currently, I am working on creating materials that instruct our immune system to help build tissue. With my background in immunology, I think I have a unique perspective coming into tissue engineering, which helps me analyze what the immune cells are doing in our scaffolds (materials used to grow tissue) in a way that leads to identifying targets for regenerative medicine therapeutics.
What are your biggest achievements, and what your biggest failures?
I graduated from college summa cum laude and was selected for an “Outstanding Graduating Senior in Biological Sciences” award from UMBC in 2011. I was accepted into Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine for my Ph.D. (which I still can’t believe) and my thesis research was published in Science. After my Ph.D., while at MIT for my postdoctoral fellowship, I was named a Convergence Scholar by the Marble Center for Nanomedicine, and in 2018 I was named a TED Fellow along with 19 other innovative young leaders from around the globe.
With each of these achievements comes ten times more failures. I have been rejected from several fellowship applications. I have failed exams, though my college GPA should’ve placed me in a well-regarded honors society, I was never invited, I have applied to several awards and just never heard back. Beyond these applications, the small failures in science must number in the thousands. Just this morning I realized I left a cell culture out on the bench instead of in the incubator over the weekend. Science is 90% failure. It just selects for us stubborn ones that relish in that 10%.
What is a typical day like for you?
I wake up in the morning, check my email and make some breakfast before heading out on my bike ride into lab. At lab, usually I start the day off organizing what I will be doing and finishing sending emails or whatever other paperwork I need to get done, then work on my experiments, my undergraduate research mentee comes in in the afternoon, and I spend the afternoon working with him and teaching him about experiments we are running. We often have evening seminars, so I will go to the seminar, eat some free pizza, bike on back home, feed the cat and watch some Netflix. If it’s a good time of the year and I’m feeling motivated, going to the gym or going for a run is thrown in there somewhere.
Did you ever doubt your abilities as a scientist? Why? How did you handle these situations/feelings?
All the time. It is hard to be 100% confident in yourself when experiments fail or your grant doesn’t get funded. I handle this usually by popping by a friend’s lab bench, going to grab some coffee, complaining a little, and ultimately figuring out a solution to the problem; or, if there is no viable solution, deciding it is not worth worrying about.
What is the funniest or most memorable thing that has happened to you while working in science?
In graduate school, I was pushing out the last bit of data for my thesis, and we were really relying on this experiment to tell us if the next part of our hypothesis was correct or not. I had just pulled three 16 hour days in a row, and was absolutely exhausted. I walked into my thesis committee chair’s office, laid down the printed off graphs on the table, and he just went “that’s it!”. It was the eureka moment I will never forget.
Do you come from an academic family?
No. My father is a military veteran, who went into the service straight from high school, joined up with IBM when he finished his tour of duty, and worked there for 38 years before retiring. My mother is a retired school teacher. Growing up she was a feminist and a hippie but told by her parents she could be a nurse or a teacher since she was female. She was a teacher for years, then left to go work at IBM where she met my father. My sister was the first person in our family to get a doctoral-level degree (in physical therapy), and I was the first PhD in the family.
Besides your scientific interests, what are your personal interests?
I love being outside and traveling. I am an avid backpacker and hiker, and will jump at the chance to travel to a new country, especially exploring less touristy areas. I like sports, I was a swimmer through high school, played rugby in college and participated in long distance running and triathlons. I’m always down for an adventure – I have gone skydiving, whitewater rafting & kayaking, scuba diving, cave tubing, and cliff diving (well, moreso non-graceful cliff jumping).
If you had the option to give advice to a younger version of yourself, what would that be?
Don’t be afraid of failure. It will happen – A LOT – but the more times you put yourself out there, the more experience you gain and the higher probability you have for success.
What kind of prejudices, if any, did you have to face? How did that make you feel? Were you able to overcome these?
In one lab, I was working with a postdoctoral fellow who flat out told me that I should leave hard science to men and go get a job with spreadsheets, something easier for women. There was also a conference where after I gave my presentation, one of the senior male scientists came and chatted with me over lunch and we walked around talking about immunology, and one of my male colleagues was quick to say “you know exactly why he is following you around, don’t you?” suggesting that it wasn’t my intellect that the senior scientist was interested in. In the end, in the first instance, I corrected the postdoc by mentioning that the top 5 GPAs in my class were all female who went on to laboratory science, and in the latter, it was something I decided to just take a breath and, well, ignore them.
In your opinion, which changes, if any, are needed in the scientific system to be more attractive to women in science and possible future scientists?
The recent pushes to create a more open dialogue are critical. Increasing awareness of even the small prejudices or unwanted advancements that occur without our male peers knowing those things happen, I think is very important. Groups that support women in science are helping bridge these gaps, as they serve as both a peer support system, as well as increasing visibility for junior scientists.