What really sparked your interest in science?
Definitely being outside and playing with the mud and the dirt. Seeing life and trying different things and being curious, but I never really saw this as science until later in life. I remember my very first science fair project, which I think was in first or second grade. My aunt used to give me Ranger Rick and National Geographic magazines. I used them in my project. I would cut out 2 animals and put them together and circle how they were similar or different. For example, a cheetah has this sort of leg (very fast) and a horse has this sort of leg (also very fast). And a human has this sort of leg (not so fast). And I remember telling my teacher that this was what I want to do for my science fair project and thinking she was going to tell me, “That’s not science!”, but she was very encouraging. As early as 2nd grade, my mom has my report cards saved, and in 2nd grade, the only handwritten comment on the report card is “seems to enjoy science!”
What was your experience and background in terms of your education after high school?
After high school, I knew I liked science, but everybody always encouraged me to be a doctor, a physician. When I graduated high school, I was fairly certain I was going to go to medical school, because that seemed to be the only option. I became pre-med and I majored in biology and chemistry. I enjoyed my science classes, except for those that were dominated by premed students. When it came time to take the MCAT and apply for med schools, it really hit me that I didn’t want to be a physician.
In the end, I graduated and decided I wanted to work and take a break from school. Through college, I had to work, so I was used to juggling a lot. The idea of having a job for a bit without also needing to juggle school work was very appealing. I started working as a Habilitation Aide at a home for people with developmental disabilities. I loved it, but because I had a bachelors degree, my boss told me I really should become a case manager. This meant that I would be doing more paperwork instead of working directly with the residents, which was not my preference. However, the organization offered to pay for my training, so I took the opportunity to be a case manager who also worked closely with the home’s residents. In this field, I really loved teaching people new things and seeing them grow and achieve their goals, but I really missed science. So I decided to go to graduate school to become a science teacher. I enjoyed being a high school science teacher. In 2004, I was first introduced to ISB when I learned that Lee Hood was interested in changing the way we taught science. I had a lot of questions in response to this, which led to me being invited to work at the ISB in the summer to learn more.
How did you decide to work at ISB full time?
After working at ISB for three summers, I decided to take a break from the classroom. At the time I had two little kids and I felt like my home and work responsibilities were incredibly hard to balance. I didn’t want to let my kids at home down and I didn’t want to let my kids at the school down. Teaching science well takes a lot of time and I didn’t see how I could make it all work. I decided to go on leave and my school district was very accommodating. At that time I was coordinating ISB activities as part of my regular teaching job. When I told Nitin I was going on leave, he asked if I wanted to come to ISB to coordinate the program for 16 hours a week. The schedule I had here made it a lot easier to balance the things I had going on at home and here at work. We then grew the program into what it is today. As my kids grew older, I slowly transitioned up to full-time ISB work.
What was one of the best decisions you’ve made?
Not going to med school was one of them. In retrospect that was the wrong career. Another one is being vocal and being an advocate for myself and my students. That allowed me to come here and totally change my career. I knew that there was something that I was not happy with and I vocalized that, and I think it worked out for me in the long run.
Being a woman in STEM, what advice would you give?
You have to be an advocate for yourself. When you are an advocate for yourself, you also have to be ready to make your case as clearly as possible. Some of the issues for women in STEM center around salaries and job promotions. It is crucial to make sure that you are wisely choosing and fighting your battles. Having a community to help you through that is important as well. Make sure to reach out to others and find that support. This can be from both men and women. If you have somebody who you’ve worked for or with and you stay close with them, they can be your best advocate. Foster those relationships and be loyal to them when appropriate. Also, try not to take things personally and don’t let other people make you feel bad. Evaluate feedback and use it to be your best person, but don’t let it make you feel bad. Remember that everyone has something to give and it is important to use your qualities to strengthen what you are doing. But also learn to strengthen and build the qualities you don’t have.
What is your day to day like?
I do a lot of writing and communicating. I go through a lot of emails every day. Many people reach me through the website asking about the curriculum, internships, teacher experiences and traveling to teach about systems biology. I work with other people to get them going on projects and programs. I write grant proposals, project reports, evaluate project feedback and outputs, etc. It is different most days.
What is one thing that you wish interns did that they usually don’t?
I notice people who are interested in STEM sometimes email a lot of researchers with a form letter. It is instead better to email a researcher or someone working in the field with a unique note that connects directly to their research. If you are truly interested in what they do, then email one person, or just a few, and build that connection. Also, when you send a letter or email, proofread carefully before sending your letter.
Do you have any advice for college?
My advice is that you can get a good education at any college – that is the truth. It is not about the school you go to, but more about what you do at that school that really matters. Also, make sure to stay connected with your professors so you can get a good recommendation letter later. Be a presence in what they do and make sure to build the network from there. Another piece of advice is to write and use that as an opportunity to get better at writing.
When you interview high schoolers what are some traits you see and lessons learned?
It is okay to be nervous. It is actually a good thing because I get to see that you care. Providing thoughtful answers and taking the time to answer is really good. Make sure to include times that you have collaborated because that is crucial. Also, if you have an option to bring some work, bring something. Another important thing is to remember that every interaction that you have with someone is part of the interview process. We keep track of all of the little things; email responses, eye contact, your attire, etc. It is important to keep all of that in mind.