Annie Otwell, PhD

“. . . science is the opportunity for creative and independent thought”

Could you tell us a little about yourself?

I’m from a small town in Northern Michigan. I went to Michigan State. There I studied microbiology with a focus on the environment. I got introduced to this field by working in the lab of a professor at Michigan State. Before this I did not know much about scientists or how to be one. Meeting the professor at Michigan State and doing undergraduate research in her lab really helped me to get interested in science, eventually leading me to major in microbiology and apply to grad school.

I went to Cornell University in upstate New York for grad school, which I chose because the program had many professors working in the field of environmental microbiology. I really liked Ithaca. I studied anaerobic microbiology there, with a focus on organisms that use metals as electron acceptors.

I moved to Seattle almost a year ago, and started at the Institute for Systems Biology as a postdoctoral fellow last October.

What was your experience in grad school?

Overall, I really loved the grad school experience. I feel like it was a time that I developed in a lot of positive ways. During the PhD program, it’s much more research focused. I really liked how grad school was mainly self-driven. It felt like an amazing time for learning and exploring.

What is your current project and position?

In undergrad and graduate  school, I studied anaerobic microorganisms and their physiology and metabolism, especially ones that can reduce metals like iron and contaminants like uranium. My background is in anaerobic microbes living in soil environments. Here at ISB, I’m working on the ENIGMA project, studying processes carried out by microbial communities in the subsurface. Our field site is at a contaminated site in Tennessee at Oak Ridge National Labs. This is where the isolates I work with come from. Because nuclear waste was dumped there for decades, there are plumes of contamination like radionuclides, heavy metals, and nitrate in the subsurface.

The ENIGMA project focuses on microbial ecology, asking questions like what are living in this site and what functions are they carrying out. I am working with isolates and studying mainly processes related to nitrate reduction. I am also designing synthetic communities of these isolates to study field-related processes.

How do you balance work and personal life?

During graduate school, there were definitely periods where I was working too much, but overall, I try to have balance in my life. A cool thing about graduate school, at least in my case, is that it was mainly self-driven. Sometimes I would take it easier, whereas other times I’d be really excited about something or have a certain deadline and work really hard during that period. My husband really helps me stay balanced as he’s probably the more naturally balanced one.

What is your favorite part about your career in science?

One of my favorite parts about science is the opportunity for creative and independent thought.

What is it like being a female in science and have you ever faced any gender bias?

That was something I didn’t think about during grad school at all. If you look at statistics for women in PhD programs, especially in biology, I think it’s one of the more balanced fields. It’s becoming more equal in terms of how many women are in the programs and actually getting PhD’s. But as you go up in terms of experience, especially at the professor level, there are still way more men. Gender and these dynamics have been on on my mind somewhat more since starting my postdoc. Gender bias isn’t something I have felt often on an individual level, but it is something I notice in a broader sense, perhaps at a societal level.

Do you have any advice for people pursuing a science career path?

My advice would be to follow what you are interested in and find important. It’s easy to follow a path because you’re really good at it, like you’re getting good grades and people are telling you that you’re good at it, but when you get down to it and you’re finished with school and you have to do this thing every day, you need to feel like you made a decision because it’s what you truly want to do. During undergrad you should really try to explore different areas. Even in science there are so many different areas to get into. Teaching during grad school, I saw a lot of undergrads who seemed to worry most about grades and were pretty stressed, and if you can focus more on learning and developing, then I think that’s a really good thing.

If you could start your career over again, do you think you would take the same path that you did, or would you change?

I don’t think I would change the path. Something I feel like I’m starting to learn now is that it’s important to figure out what you need in a certain environment to be the most productive. Certain environments you are more able to thrive in than others. Looking back, I would have tried to change certain situations I was in more than I did, but I wouldn’t necessarily change where I was or what I was doing.

Did you go to grad school right after you finished your undergrad?

Yes, I went right after. This worked well for me because I was excited to get more into the field of environmental microbiology, and I didn’t feel burnt out after undergrad. I think for other people it also works well to take a break before grad school. I think if there are other opportunities you’re interested in or you’re not really sure about grad school or what you would want to study, then taking time off from school can be good.

Short term vs long term goals?

I would say right now I’m just really trying to make progress on the project I’m working on. I am still figuring out where I might want to go after my postdoc, but for now I just want to make a solid contribution to what I’m working on now.

ISB High School Interns 2017