STEMinist Profile: Christine Clarke, Research Associate, Microbiology

Oct 12 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

Christine Clarke, Research Associate (Microbiology)

Taxon Biosciences

What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
Both of my parents are scientifically-minded – my father has a degree in biochemistry and my mother has hers in kinesiology – and they did a good job of instilling my siblings and me with a sense of wonder about the natural world. Not only a sense of wonder, but a sense that there were answers: answers that we were equipped to find ourselves. Equipped with those mental tools, it became irresistible to try and find the answers.

As soon as I took high school biology, everything clicked with me and I knew that was what I had to study. Nothing was more inspiring or more meaningful to me, so I knew it was my calling. Luckily, biology is still as exciting and fulfilling to me today as it was when I was a child.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
The coolest project that I have worked on has been a microbial ecology study. Science has become very interdisciplinary these days, so don’t be surprised when I say that we were using next gen genetic sequencing techniques to study microbes on the community-level (rather than on the individual species level) in order to better understand the geology of the area. Microbes have an ecology going on just like the traditional “a lion eats a zebra” example.

We used the microbial community to sense what was happening in the environment both chemically and geologically, because geology affects microbes while microbes affect geology. Using next gen sequencing, we were able to identify certain core “consortia” of microbes which always seemed to co-occur (they all seemed to need each other to survive).

Using targeted isolation techniques, we were able to find and grow all the species in one such consortium under laboratory conditions, and then study their metabolisms both individually and as a community. We were able to produce a carbon-flow model of what happens in the environment, and how those microbes interacted to produce some of the mineralization we observe and by-products they produce.

The study of biogeochemistry is becoming very important, especially now as we learn more about things like the nitrogen cycle and the methane cycle, both of which are driven by microbes but have global-scale effects.

Role models/heroes:
Melissa Jurica is one of my major role models. She is a brilliant woman who has been able to start a family and stay in academia – no small feat. It is true that in the USA, STEM women tend to leave academia for industry if they want to have a family and/or children because industry is more accommodating towards maternity. This shouldn’t be the case, but it is.

A few more of my heroes include: Dorothy Hodgkin because, really, X-ray crystallography is intense and never fails to impress me; Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins for their work in evolutionary biology and for helping the public and non-specialists to understand and conceptualize the major points of their field; Margret Sanger for helping forward birth control advocacy and sexual rights; and Betty Dodson for helping women accept and embrace their sexuality.

Why do you love working in STEM?
I love working in STEM because it gives me a chance to explore the world around me and make discoveries about life itself. It is a very gratifying experience to contribute to new data and discoveries, and I think it gives me a healthy sense of self-worth and pride in my abilities.

When months or years of work suddenly starts to fall into place and you start making sense of all your meticulously-collected data: that is the greatest feeling in the world. I also love that it forces me to keep learning new things every day, and that I am always finding new things that amaze me or blow my mind.

Advice for future STEMinists?
If you get bogged down by the day-to-day drudgery of STEM work, take some time to step back and look at the big picture and remind yourself of the big questions you are asking. Sometimes STEM work can feel tedious, especially since there are times when you must focus so much of your brainpower onto a tiny (yet crucial) portion of your work, and that can get both mechanically tedious and mentally exhausting.

If you find yourself in that situation, taking a short break to reflect on these things will give you a better perspective, and instead of feeling stuck you can recognize that your work has not been mundane. Much of the progress in STEM builds up slowly over time, which is why looking back is helpful.

I will also say that you should really work on building a solid foundation in math and computers. This might seem obvious but a lot of people (men and women) shy away from math and computers, especially in some of the biological disciplines. However, those fields actually do use a lot of math and computers on a daily basis, so if you beef up your mathematics, you will stand out as being very valuable in your field. Don’t assume that you won’t need mastery of math or computers for any STEM job you want to pursue.

I can guarantee that no matter which field you want to work in, both skills will help you succeed and advance. For example: yes, an ecologist needs to be very good at ecology, but everybody else working in ecology does amazing ecology work as well – that’s why they’re in that field. But if you’ve also taken a class in programming, are familiar in Linux, and are not scared of using mathematics; you’ve got an edge. You’re valuable.

Favorite website/app:
I have two apps that are very impressive and absolutely indispensable:

Sigma-Aldrich’s “Substructure Search” is invaluable to me, and also free to use (they want it to help you buy chemicals from them). They have brought together MarvinSketch, JME Molecular Editor, and ChemDraw (all amazing) in one applet. You can “sketch” an organic molecule, and then have the applet calculate the IUPAC name for what you have just drawn (and vise-versa). IUPAC naming is a good method of standardization, but it can get tricky.

Common names are easier to remember, but are not standardized (and often result in 10 different names for one molecule). This does lead to trouble sometimes! That’s why we all remember our O-Chem professors giving extra credit problems on our homework with a drawing of a very huge and ugly molecule, with the deceptively simple instructions “Give the IUPAC name for this molecule.”

I use this applet for my work all the time, but I can imagine that if I had this as a child, I would have loved to spend hours drawing the weirdest molecules possible, trying to “stump the program.” I think this is a natural tendency kids have, but in the process they would still learn a lot about molecular naming and be entertained by discovering that this atrocity they have just drawn actually has a name.

The ARB Project is another free program that I could not do without. If you have a Linux computer, you can download it and start making phylogenetic trees (the image on their homepage is a good example) at home. You don’t even need to generate your own genetic data to get started, you can download some reference trees of genetic sequences submitted by other scientists from then start playing with them in ARB. You learn a lot about taxonomy and phylogeny just by playing around with trees in ARB.

Website and Twitter: My personal Twitter account is @Steenaire, and my personal website is I mostly blog about personal things or post silly doodles, but recently I have decided to try my hand at science reporting that is accessible and interesting to non-specialists. After reading far too many “evolutionary narratives” in popular science reporting, I decided that if I really wanted anything to change then I should be contributing.

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STEMinist Profile: Maria McKavanagh, Research Associate, Wireless Sensor Networks

Oct 09 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

Maria McKavanagh

Post Graduate Research Associate, Wireless Sensor Networks

The University of Manchester, UK

What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
I have always loved mathematics and physics from a very young age. I liked how logical they were and how I could always see why I was right or wrong. My brother, who is now a software architect, gave me a book called "Java in 24 hours" when I was 12. This was my first taste of computer programming and I loved it!

When I went to grammar school there were many "Insight into Engineering" days and I went to all of them. My love for problem solving just grew and grew and so a degree in Electronic Systems Engineering was an obvious choice.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
My coolest project would have to be the one I worked on in the third year of my degree. It was a colour reader for blind and visually impaired people. I have always wanted to help people, and teachers at school suggested I become a doctor, however the sight of blood makes me faint so it didn't seem like the career choice for me!

The outcome of this project was something that had the potential to seriously improve the quality of some people's lives and I thrived on that. The realisation that being an engineer still allowed me to help people reaffirmed that it was the career for me.

Role models/heroes:
I watched a TED talk a short time ago by Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook. It was called "Why we have too few women leaders." I found it extremely inspiring. I would also have to say my mother. Despite never having worked as one, she is one of the best engineers I know. She can solve any problem and I've seen her fix everything from a shelf to an extractor fan. She is determined and will stop at nothing to solve a problem.

One day I witnessed her saw off a door frame to move a piano from one room to another, and have it glued back on and repainted before my father got home! When she decides she is going to do something, she will always find a way, no matter how long it takes to learn how to do it—I definitely have her to thank for where I am today.

Why do you love working in STEM?
Working in STEM makes me feel like I can change the world! That may sound silly, but in my research I may just discover something that no one else has before. Every single day is different which keeps me motivated. Working in a university means I cross paths with some of the best in the field of electrical engineering and I find them fascinating to talk to.

Advice for future STEMinists?
If you are considering a STEM career DO IT! It is challenging but there are big rewards. For those embarking on their career I would say work hard and have confidence in your ability. STEM is still male dominated which can sometimes be a bit intimidating, particularly early in your career, but women bring skills to STEM that men can't.

We are lateral thinkers which means we can sometimes come up with very innovative solutions to problems. I have heard many men in the profession say that women bring a whole new aspect to their team and so industry is crying out for more of us to join.

Favorite website/app:
I love Appy-geek. It is an app for Android and iPhone which gives you all the latest technology news in one place. It has an alerts feature so when an article on something you are interested in becomes available you know about it straight away.

Twitter: @IgorinaJP

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STEMinist Profile: Jarita C. Holbrook, Researcher

Oct 08 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

Jarita C. Holbrook, Researcher
Women and Gender Studies at UCLA

What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
My career is really two stages if not three. I hold degrees in physics, astronomy, and astrophysics through my doctorate. At that point in time, I wanted to be an astrophysicist but by the time I finished my PhD, I had changed my mind.

The next stage of my career has been as a social scientist focused on the links between humans and the night sky: Cultural Astronomy. To make the transition from physical science to social science was not easy! I had to learn a new language and way of approaching and analyzing data.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
The third stage of my career is that I am a filmmaker! When I am making documentary films I focus on minority astronomers and astrophysicists. Being a cultural astronomer takes me to amazing places and I talk about the sky and gather information about the sky from everyone I meet; when I am making a film I follow astronomers to cool places and focus on them and their research.

Role models/heroes:
I have many great mentors but role models is more difficult: Anthony Aveni added respectability to Cultural Astronomy and his work is amazing. I love the work of filmmaker Julie Dash, but I have never met her. Angela Davis is my role model for how to always be gracious no matter how famous.

Anthropologist Brackette Williams taught me how to undermine my opponents because they are predictable. Finally, former dean of the UA business college Ken Smith taught me some tricks to being an effective academic leader. All of them I consider to be my role models.

Why do you love working in STEM?
I like being able to develop a hypothesis, design a research project to test it, and then to look at my results to see if my original hypothesis was correct. This step 1, step 2, step 3 that you can always fall back on. What I absolutely love is when I am looking for one thing and I discover another thing!

Advice for future STEMinists?
Being an interdisciplinary scientist is difficult because the academy is rigid so everyone wants to fit you into somebody else's box. However, I think that the most exciting work is occurring in the spaces between disciplines.

Career-wise, I have had to compromise and occupy places where I do not fit intellectually, however I have always learned things important to my research from my colleagues in every situation. I have occupied history of science, applied anthropology, Africana studies, and now women and gender studies not to forget physics and astronomy, too.

Favorite website/app:
I have always been a movie person so nothing beats IMDB and their app.

Twitter: @astroholbrook

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STEMinist Profile: Mónica I. Feliú-Mójer, Ph.D. Candidate in Neuroscience

Oct 05 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

Mónica I. Feliú-Mójer_Steminist Profile
Mónica I. Feliú-Mójer

Ph.D. candidate in Neuroscience at Harvard Medical School and vice-director of Ciencia Puerto Rico

My Ph.D. program is based at Harvard Medical School and my laboratory is in Massachusetts General Hospital. Ciencia Puerto Rico is the non-profit I co-direct as a volunteer.

What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
I grew up in Vega Alta, a small town in northern Puerto Rico, where nature was my playground, so I was always curious about how the world around me worked, what the biological basis for events that surrounded me was. While I never really had a scientific role model as a child, my parents were always very encouraging of my interest in science.

When I was 11 years old, someone very dear to me was diagnosed with a mental disorder and upon seeing how that person's behavior was changed as a result of this affliction, I began to develop an interest in learning how the brain works and how it leads to behavior.

At the beginning I thought I would become a physician, because I didn't think there were any other career options in science, until my General Biology professor (the very first scientist I ever met) encouraged me to try a summer research program. After that first research experience I was hooked, and I knew that was what I wanted to do: be a researcher.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
The coolest project I have ever worked on is Ciencia Puerto Rico, the non-profit I've volunteered for during the last 6+ years. Ciencia Puerto Rico is a resource and expert network for anyone interested in science and Puerto Rico. Through its online collaborative platform, Ciencia Puerto Rico brings together members of the greater Puerto Rican scientific community and leverages their knowledge to give back to Puerto Rico and help advance science, research and science education in the archipelago.

Ciencia Puerto Rico has given me the opportunity to give back to Puerto Rico; to connect with scientists and individuals with shared interests, background and experiences; and to mentor younger students (from grade school to college) interested in STEM. Moreover, this project has helped me realize the impact of science beyond the bench and the importance of public engagement with science.

Role models and heroes:
There are many people that fit in this category. I would say that everyone that has taken the time to mentor me at different steps of my career and my life. The best advice I ever got is to have multiple mentors, figure out what they do best and how they do it, and learn from that. The support and advice from my mentors has helped me achieve my goals, and they are the reason I want to pay it forward by mentoring others.

Amongst these people, I have to give a special mention to my undergraduate research mentors, Carlos Jiménez-Rivera and Rafael Vázquez Torres, who really helped shape my scientific interests, gave me the first opportunity to think independently, and to explore my capabilities as a scientist to the fullest.

They were always demanding, but loving and encouraging, and frankly made me fall in love with scientific discovery. My Ph.D. advisor, Josh Kaplan, has also been very supportive of my academic and non-academic interests, and has allowed me to grow and mature as a graduate student and a scientist.

I also have to single out the Ciencia Puerto Rico volunteer team. They are a group of professionals highly committed to the organization's mission and to each other. They are a great source of advice, ideas and inspiration, both at the personal and professional level. We are like a family to me and working with them is a privilege.

Last but not least, my family. They have been a constant source of inspiration, support and encouragement.

Why do you love working in STEM?
Nothing compares to the thrill of discovery and of contributing to the advancement of knowledge. Working in STEM has encouraged me to be curious and think outside the box, something that is definitely helpful in the lab and in life. Also, being a scientist has allowed me to meet people from diverse backgrounds and expertise, and that diversity has enriched my life.

Advice for future STEMinists?

  1. Be passionate about what you do.
  2. Keep open to new directions and think outside the box.
  3. Be a leader.
  4. Have multiple mentors.
  5. Don't be afraid to network. You'd be amazed at the unexpectedly great opportunities that arise from networking.
  6. Believe in yourself and be confident.
  7. Don't let people say you can't or that it is too hard to do it, particularly because you are woman. I was once part of a panel and someone asked me if I ever felt at disadvantage because I was a double minority in science (a woman and Hispanic). My response: No, because I never let that define me. I've never seen myself as a Hispanic woman scientist; I am a scientist that happens to be a Hispanic woman. The way I see it, being a Hispanic woman is an advantage rather than a disadvantage, because of the diverse set of skills, experiences and knowledge that I can bring to the table.
  8. Work hard.
  9. Don't be afraid to ask for help.
  10. Always be curious.

Favorite website or app:
My email! It is an important tool for work, to stay in touch, network. Twitter is my one-stop for news about science, current affairs and issues that I care about. Facebook allows me to keep in touch with family and friends.

Twitter: @moefeliu

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