What is your scientific background?
I took every biology class I could in college and loved most of them, although I hated chemistry. I got really lucky at the beginning of my sophomore year when I was hired as a work-study student to extract DNA from aphids for Dr. Patrick Abbot. The next year, I got a different job and began doing actual research for credit for Patrick. He was a fantastic mentor and I still seek his advice to this day. My undergraduate thesis looked at how the proportion of intruders into an aphid colony affected the fertility of the colony. Although I really loved genetics at this point, I decided I wanted to work with something I didn’t need a microscope to see. So I applied to 8 different graduate schools – I wanted to use genetics as a tool to understand animal behavior and fitness, or the success of some individuals over others. I eventually chose to get my Ph.D. with Dr. Christine Drea at Duke University, studying how genetic diversity at genes of the immune system (e.g., MHC genes) could influence survival and reproductive success in the ring-tailed lemur, an endangered primate from Madagascar.
Why did you choose to become a scientist?
Pretty much as soon as I gave up on the idea of being an Olympic figure skater (I can’t skate, which was problematic), I wanted to study animals in the wild. I grew up catching turtles, snakes, and frogs in my backyard and rescuing injured crows and raccoons. I also spent a lot of time watching the Wild Kingdom and Shark Week on the Discovery Channel – The idea of spending weeks in the Serengeti studying cheetahs or the snowy forests of Siberia studying timber wolves was magical to me. Then, as I went through school, particularly high school and later college, I became fascinated with genetics as well.
Which topic are you working on at the moment?
Currently, I’m finishing up a NIH IRACDA postdoctoral fellowship at Emory University with Dr. Donna Maney. The NIH IRACDA program is a postdoctoral program that combines a traditional mentored postdoctoral research experience with an opportunity to develop academic skills, including teaching, through workshops and mentored teaching assignments at a partner institution dedicated to serving minority students. For the research portion of my fellowship, I’ve been using the white-throated sparrow to study how gene expression of genes like steroid hormone receptors influences behaviors like parenting and aggression. I also mentored several Emory students in the lab and taught at Clark Atlanta University, a historically black college.
What are your biggest achievements, and what your biggest failures?
Sometimes I feel like my biggest achievement and biggest failure was the last year of my PhD. I ended up doing all of my data analysis, thesis writing, and applying for jobs in the last 9 months of my graduate career, so I’m still trying to publish that work. Thus, it often feels like my biggest failure was failing to do that before I left graduate school and my biggest success was just surviving that year. I still struggle with feeling like a failure for not publishing more, although that’s something that all academics and scientists deal with. I’m also incredibly proud of a collaboration I’ve built with Michelle Sauther and Frank Cuozzo working on wild ring-tailed lemurs. They are two fantastic colleagues and collaborators, and I feel really proud of the ideas we’ve put together for future work. Finally, the funding I received for my next postdoctoral position with Dr. Perry at Penn State is something that was a huge accomplishment. That grant was one of my favorites to write, the NRSA fellowship is very competitive, and I’m really excited about the work we are proposing to do.
Did you ever doubt your abilities as a scientist? Why? How did you handle these situations/feelings?
I rarely doubt my abilities as a scientist anymore. I’ve been involved in science and doing lab work for over 10 years now, so even if I don’t know how to do something (which still happens often!), I know I can figure it out. A PhD is really training for how to learn and problem solve, rather than how to do a specific technique. I feel like that is the most important lesson on self-confidence I can share with other PhDs and aspiring PhDs – You are more than capable of finding the solution to this problem if one exists, although it may take time. I mostly struggle now with feeling like I will never be able to show people what I’ve accomplished because I’ve had a hard time getting my work published. Mostly this is my own fault because it’s hard to scrap enough time together to finish my PhD publications in the evenings and on the weekends while juggling a full-time postdoc. But I just keep telling myself I will get there!
During your career, have you been specifically mentored or supported by someone?
I have been fortunate enough to have several really excellent mentors: my undergraduate mentor Patrick Abbot at Vanderbilt, my PhD advisor Christine Drea at Duke, and a few other people including members of my PhD committee like Greg Wray and Ken Glander, people at the Duke Lemur Center like Erin Ehmke, and my collaborators Michelle Sauther and Frank Cuozzo. I hope to emulate them as a mentor myself someday.
What is the funniest or most memorable thing that has happened to you while working in science?
Oh goodness, I have so many great stories, as do most scientists particularly field biologists – just look up the Twitter hashtags #overlyhonestmethods or #fieldworkfail for examples. One of the most memorable was running through the forest after a lemur troop in full retreat from another group, and finally stopping in a clearing, only to realize the stump in front of me had two wild mouse lemurs just waking up for their nightly activities. Another time, I had been collecting samples all morning from captive ring-tailed lemurs at the Duke Lemur Center, during which there is a good possibility you will get pooped upon. Later that day, I ended up giving a talk to my Ph.D. committee member’s lab with lemur poop in my hair because collections ran long and there was no time to shower. Halfway through my talk, she stopped me to ask what was in my hair. There’s just no way to recover a talk after you explain that situation.
How does your family regard your career choice?
I’ve been really lucky – Both of my parents, as well as my aunts and uncles, completed college, and my dad is a medical doctor (we have to clarify because now I’m Dr. Grogan too!). Aside from a few questions about when I would graduate, my family was always very supportive of my desire to get a Ph.D. and become a scientist. I don’t think anyone ever questioned my ability or my prospects, which is pretty amazing considering the initial time investment and ‘lower’ pay.
Besides your scientific interests, what are your personal interests?
I’m a huge dog lover – I own a 3-year-old Border Collie/English Setter mix who’s very active. He and I run several miles 3-5 times a week and it’s a great opportunity to de-stress. I’m also addicted to reading – I read fun books (e.g., fantasy and trashy romance novels) for about an hour before bed every night. I also love hiking, baking, and obviously spending time with loved ones and friends. Finally, I have a really bad bug for traveling – I try to leave the country at least once a year, either for work or fun and go somewhere off the beaten path. My last trip was teaching Evolution to Tibetan Buddhist monks in India and before that, I backpacked through Northern Thailand and Myanmar with a college girlfriend!
What is a typical day like for you?
A typical day for me involves a lot of time in front of my computer answering emails, preparing for experiments in the lab, analyzing data, and writing up my work for publication. Some days I sit in front of my computer for the entire day just trying to write a few paragraphs of an introduction to a paper. Other days I will spend 10 hours at the lab bench extracting and amplifying DNA, running gels, and generally collecting data. I also spend a lot of time formally and informally mentoring members of my lab, including graduate students and undergraduates. We talk a lot about the science and the best way to collect the data we want, and we also talk about how to be a good scientist, how to deal with the struggles of graduate school and academia.
Is it hard to manage both career and private life? How do you manage both?
I would say it can definitely be hard to manage both my love of science and my private life. I tend to be a workaholic, and to feel enormous guilt about tasks undone, papers unpublished, data uncollected, and grants unwritten; however, I learned in graduate school that I’m much more efficient and do better work if I give my brain time to recharge. There is a lot of research to back up the idea that personal time is really important to productivity, particularly for workers in the “knowledge field” (See this old Salon article). I try to work less than 50 hours each week and take at least one day a week completely off. Having a dog really helps me – I would have one anyway because I love them, but owning one means I can’t stay at work longer than 9-10 hours per day, and I have to take him on an hour of exercise every night. I use that hour to be outside, to watch him play with other dogs, to hike, etc. Since owning a dog is non-negotiable for me, his presence makes it much easier to push back against the guilt that I’m not working because I feel much guiltier if his life is negatively impacted. I figure it is practice for spouse or family time in the future.
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?
So far, during my 10 plus years in science, I have been incredibly lucky with regards to obstacles related to my gender. It’s not that I haven’t experienced harassment or discrimination, but overt instances have been extremely rare for me, I think in part because of my mentors and also my personality. Personally, I tend to come across as confident and out-spoken, and I’m also very aware of how my gender might influence a situation. I try to educate myself on discrimination of all kinds, and how best to handle it when it happens to you or you witness it. Additionally, my Ph.D. mentor was amazing. She made it very clear from the beginning that she would not tolerate bad behavior directed towards her trainees, and I always knew that not only did she have my back, but she was also willing to go to bat for me and her other mentees against anyone, including the upper administration, if a situation arose. She did this numerous times about funding, teaching load, and research needs, and she was also very candid about her own experiences. Similarly, during my field work in Madagascar, the senior scientists on my team were very supportive and protective and stepped in if my age and gender either became a barrier or made me a target. My hope is to model my own career off of theirs because they have really been instrumental in my success!
If you had the option to give advice to a younger version of yourself, what would that be?
I think I would tell myself that all projects in science take much longer than you think they will – whatever estimate you’ve come up with, triple or quadruple it. I’m really happy with all of the choices I’ve made, not necessarily because they were the best choices, but because they’ve worked out really well and I learned really important lessons from the experiences I’ve had. But I still struggle with forgiving myself for not finishing projects in what I consider to be a timely fashion.
Please email me at Kathleen.firstname.lastname@example.org! I’m happy to answer any questions.
You can also find Katie on Twitter!