Nina Arens

What peaked your interest in the STEM field, and how did it bring you to your current position?
I got interested in biology in particular because my mom used to put me in Audubon Society camps. We had a big backyard. So a lot of my childhood was in the mud, and in stick building.I started to like biology because I thought everything was just so interesting and interconnected. Later, when they do the 8th-grade genetics course that made me think “okay, well maybe I like science a bit more.” Then they brought me in a 10th-grade honors biology at Boston University. As part of the field trip, we needed to run a gel, and they had already cast all these gels, and they gave us the pipettes, and they told us okay we have to load this and I had the best gel in the entire the class, and I was very proud of myself. I then decided that maybe this is what I want to do all the time because I was really good at making gels. Now I do that all the time. I was the high school student that knew what major I wanted to declare, so I knew I wanted to do biology by the time I went to college. And then in college, my school was very small didn’t really have even distinctions between a biology degree in terms of ecology, or medicine, it was just biology. So when you needed to do a senior project, it was hard for me to figure out what I wanted to do because it was either all taken by other students, or it wasn’t in the field that I liked and I really like cells. I really liked cellular biology. I ended up applying for internships in my junior year of college and I managed to get one at ISB, and I swear I got the majority of my training in terms of lab skills there. After college they needed someone to continue doing experiments, so that set me on a trajectory at ISB.

Do you have your masters?
I have a Bachelor of Science and Biology, and then I have a Masters in Science and Museum Studies. That’s a completely different story altogether.

Who was your mentor when you first got the internship here.
Ah, when I first got my internship here. I was put with a very ambitious post-doctorate named Yakun Wan. He was from China and had been living in the states for the last like 3 or 4 years. By the time I saw him, he was what scientists call “paper hungry.” He had done a bunch of different research in a variety of fields and he just wanted to publish. So he hired an intern thinking it would be like slave labor. He taught me an incredible amount, in a very short time. So I didn’t have a lot of context to a lot of the things that I learned because he showed me exactly what to do. I think I learned more than any intern in that graduate program. When people asked me where my research had gone in the short weeks, I had been everywhere from growing cells to RNA sequencing, to proteomics, to microscopy. He literally taught me everything. He would make up for the crazy amount of work he demanded of me by making me like Chinese dumplings, and inviting me to his house. We’d roll dumplings together at his kitchen counter like we were at our bench, and just make dumplings and feast. It was fantastic. He was a very quirky guy. It made things really fun. He was a very funny guy. You just had to understand his sense of humor I suppose. He’s an interesting figure. He taught me everything I know.

Going off of that, who would you say your role model in science is?
Man, there are quite a few really cool people in science. Some people really like Carl Sagan; I’m not a Carl Sagan kind of person. I think I shy away from role models in science that spin science in a positive light all the time. Science can’t solve everything. So Carl Sagan was like screw everything that’s not solved with science. Everything is solved with science, and I disagree with that. One of my favorites, though, is probably Betty Lamarr. Betty Lamarr was an immigrant. She came to the United States as an actress, but technically she was actually very very smart, and she ended up inventing a variety of different knowledge to influence cell phones and radio frequencies. But she was known for her beautiful face and her movies. She basically led to the use of cell phones, satellites, and a bunch of different things. I really like her. Karry Mullis is another person that I think is kind of quirky. But he’s not a person I totally admire, but he’s the inventor of PCR. He’s just an interesting guy in that he cares very much about science, but his invention was very much not in the way you’d think science could be invented or discovered. He was trying to figure out how do you amplify pieces of DNA in a much faster way because they didn’t have PCR back then. They had to put in water baths over and over and over and time yourself for hours. He then asked, what if there’s a way you can already do that? He thought about it for a while, and he couldn’t figure it out, and then he took drugs, and then he figured it out. So he invented PCR in a very unconventional way for science. I like mentors in science that don’t necessarily seem what you think science is. I think that’s probably because I have a lot of art in my background as well as science and so I always identify with the people who weren’t super into science and numbers their entire life, and they have other interests.

Have you ever tied your skills in art into the science you work on at ISB?
Oh yeah. I mean I try. Science is a little hard in terms of recognizing the power of art in that unless it’s a beautiful figure or some really nice microscopy picture they don’t really see the point. But it’s starting to change now. I think art and science are just two ways of looking at something. Like two sides of the same coin is some ways. My art background hasn’t really translated a ton to ISB, but I’ve used it in other areas. Before ISB I was working as a curator for the Seattle Science Festival and we had to do a bunch of different high profile events where you took artists and scientists and you merge them in a big speaker series and you had to get them to talk about the same topic. I know how to draw and illustrate and do a bunch of those things, but I think my attitude in looking at art has attributed more to my work than tons of art in particular.

Do you think it’s valuable to have both a liberal arts background and a science background?
Oh yeah, oh definitely! Those people who are just going straight into a science degree, with no other core classes, are going to be at a disadvantage, for sure in the next couple years, and probably beyond. What I initially noticed at ISB in my first couple years working here after college was that people here are very collaborative and they’re very multidisciplinary and very multi-talented. I grew up thinking that maybe scientists were going to be a certain type of person. When I came to ISB, and I realized that the chemist in the upstairs lab also plays in a band and will come and play with his band in the lab. The person downstairs who works on proteomics, this person does dance and writes. There’s a lot of different types of interests and I think science is blending a lot of the different fields. Biotech was never really a field until the 90s. People before split them as biology and technology, and now it’s a hybrid field. You have the same thing with biology and chemistry. You have more with bioengineering, and synthetic biology and even bioethics and other types of humanity oriented fields. I’d say a liberal arts degree is going to probably and that kind of science education in college is super, super useful. That’s what I got. The other courses at the UW, or something, that don’t necessarily let you spread out your interests into a liberal arts field I think don’t let you see how much science can impact other facets of life, and that would be very sad; it’s really interesting to see that.

What would you recommend for high schoolers going into college? What sort of courses to take and how you chose the path that you took?
I suppose I would encourage people to go to a college that you feel like you would want to live in for four years. That’s not a trivial thing. If you feel like you’re not going to want to stay in Florida for four years, even though they have a fantastic chemistry department, then don’t stay in Florida. You can always make a program into something that’s useful to you. So don’t get too obsessed with that kind of thing. But as far as courses, I didn’t really know, I just followed the same type of trajectory that they normally give students, but I had declared early. I knew in my first year, this is the type of course I would take, and I’d take more later. What I ran into, actually, were two things that made my college experience kind of unique. That was that I transferred colleges. I didn’t like my first college. I thought that I wanted to aim for these big Ivy League schools because I wanted the sweatshirt, I wanted to wear the hats. It was a branding thing. So when I didn’t necessarily get into them, I picked a school arbitrarily, and then I really didn’t like it. So I quickly decided that I would transfer out of that situation and into a different school. I tell that story in that I think people, in high school, think that your choice in school is final and that’s the only one you get to pick and you can say no, this place isn’t actually as cool as I want or isn’t giving me what I want to pay for, I will change. Or, I want to stop for two years, then come back to school. People definitely do that. That was something that happened to me. Another thing that happened to me was that I wanted to dual major, and it was very difficult. I wanted to major in art and science. I went to my biology department counselor and I asked them what kind of career could I have in biology and art and he said I don’t know. He didn’t there were really any of those out there. And I thought “That can’t possibly be true. There’s like Leonardo Da Vinci, and Buckminster Fuller and all these amazing artists and designers who have a science and engineering background.” I tried really hard to fit all the classes in, and in the end, I couldn’t get the major, but I had two minors in chemistry and fine art. That was kind of interesting though because when a person said no you can’t’ fit all those courses in, or no, I don’t know what to tell you, I can’t give you the answer about what to do next after college. That just got me thinking about it more, and I realized that museums were maybe a place where I could combine both. That’s something that brought me to choose museums as my second love.

If you were a crayon color, what would you be?
I’m going to pick some of those new age crayons that had the twisty two color in it. The swirly ones that you can twist it and it will draw different colors. I would pick one of those crayons and if I had to pick a color I’d maybe pick cranberry and orange. I don’t think I could pick between two colors like I can’t pick between art and science either.

What has been a big failure for you, and how have you overcome it?
One of the biggest failures of obstacles that I had was when I decided to go to this graduate school for museum studies, and it wasn’t exactly what I had expected. I had found this program that was in Sweden. It was for two years and it would teach me a variety of museum study style stuff. It was free which was also a really great opportunity. I wanted to go and learn about only science museums, but when I got there, the course was a lot about art and history and cultural museums, and I started to panic thinking I had left everything to come to this program, and not get anything out of it that I wanted. I had sold everything I owned. I had quit my job. I had taken the ten grand I had saved up and I just moved to Sweden. I had just set up my life and I was getting into courses like “How to Recover Archived Paper” and “Study the Gender Difference in this Diorama.” In the end, I had to take a look at the obstacle, or this potential failure and see that I could turn it around, and the only way to do that was to fish out the things that I liked about the courses, things that I thought make sense in science, or in a science museum. Turns out, no one really does that in museum studies courses. There’s not a lot of literature out on science museums in general and how their representations of how science is to people is very skewed. It kind of put me onto this brand new opportunity of finding what it is about science museums that I really, really like. Does it reflect what doing real science is like, and why doesn’t it? There’s a whole mess of reasons for that. Instead of just quitting and running back and going home, I decided if I can’t get it in the course, or I have to fish it out of the course, I’m going to go to as many science museums as I can possibly go to while abroad and see how they do it. I, to date, have been to 94 different science museums and discovery centers across the world. They all do it in a very different style.

What are you aiming for in science? What is the impact you are hoping for when it’s all said and done?
I hope that my impact in the science field could be towards something good, for all the research and effort I’ve put into projects. Sometimes, even if they’re not super great papers or something doesn’t really come from it. I know that it’s still a step in the direction that maybe could, and that’s the research side. On a grander scale, more personal scale, I hope that I may leave this Earth with an impact on science stereotypes. I think people don’t necessarily understand the scientific culture and I work very hard to do that in my career, even as a tech here, but also in all the project I do on the side, like my pop-up museum and the other types of education work I’ve done.