Alison Paquette, PHD

Alison Paquette, PHD

What sparked your interest in science, to begin with?

I grew up in Rhode Island and I had a great high school biology teacher who made me really excited about learning how the human body worked and biochemistry. I was involved in a science fair all four years of high school and I enjoyed figuring out a project, executing it, and writing up my results after. I decided to go to an engineering college and focused my path on figuring out scientific research.


What brought you to Seattle?

My entire family is in New England. I came to Seattle specifically to work at the ISB. I saw Nathan Price give a talk at my graduate school when I was in my last year about the 100k Wellness Project and the systems biology-based approach he was using to analyze large, dense data clouds, and it was really intriguing to me and drove me to learn more about it.


What has your path been like going into research?

I went to Worcester Polytechnic Institute which is an engineering school in Massachusetts, where I was involved in a variety of internships. I did an internship at the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) in toxicology research. While I was there I began learning about how environmental pollutants influenced child development. This sparked my interest in children’s health outcomes and how to study them. At the same time, I did more traditional experimental biology research at New Mass Medical School for my senior project. I was also applying to med school at the time, and studying for my MCAT and through my own research experiences, I realized that I didn’t want to go to med school and that I enjoyed the process of research more. I applied to a variety of graduate schools in the New England area with Toxicology programs, and joined the “Program and Experimental and Molecular Medicine” program at Dartmouth College; a transdisciplinary program with the focus in Cancer Biology, Immunotherapy, and Molecular Therapeutics. Students were required to do three rotations and after these rotations, I decided to join a molecular epidemiology lab. My thesis project involved studying DNA methylation in the placenta and infant neurobehavior. I was looking at how specific changes in DNA methylation in the placenta altered placental gene expression, physiology, and later life outcomes for the newborn. For my Postdoc, I I wanted to move beyond epigenetics and learn more about other omics fields, such as transcriptomics, proteomics, and metabolomics. When I heard about Nathan’s research and he told me about his new research focus which involved investigating biomarkers for preterm birth, I thought this was a great opportunity to gain these skills.


How long have you worked at the ISB?

I came in July 2015 so exactly three years.


What is your favorite part of the job?

I enjoy trying to translate the work that we do into something that we can share with the community, through writing papers and generating figures.   Fortunately, this involves the majority of my job.


What is the best decision you made along your educational career?

Choosing my graduate advisor was one of the most important and best decisions I’ve made. I was interested in research but it is equally important to pick a mentor that is nice, kind and a good teacher who will be really involved.


What is your least favorite part of the job?

I don’t enjoy working with the nitty gritty details of processing the raw data.  There are a lot of subtle changes and ways to perform this task that can alter the results, but you can get pretty lost while doing this.  Ideally, I would prefer to just get useable data in instead of doing this myself.


What is some advice you would give to someone pursuing a career in STEM?

Definitely, learn how to program, it’s really important. I didn’t take any programming classes my entire life, but it makes up the majority of my job. I do all my research through computer programming and I feel like I had multiple good opportunities to take programming classes in undergrad and I didn’t know it was this important. Also, don’t get discouraged when you’re writing papers or performing an analysis and they’re not going well or you get stuck, don’t say hung up on yourself, try to push forward with your ideas.


When you were in high school, how did you envision your future?

When I was in high school, I was vaguely interested in science; I thought that I was going to work in a pharmaceutical company or go to med school. I didn’t see myself doing this kind of research but I think it’s because I didn’t know it existed. I think if I did work in a pharmaceutical company it would’ve been a lot more stressful and less fulfilling than the work I do now. Also being an MD, I think wouldn’t have been a good career fit for me which I couldn’t fully appreciate until  I had friends that pursued that path.


How do you balance your work and personal life?

I think goal setting and prioritizing what you want to/need to do s the most important thing. =. make a very clear schedule of what I am going to do throughout the day and week and dedicating the times to those specific things. Also, setting some weekends aside to do personal activities, but also finding the time and being flexible to work on things at home for work like grants. Lately, I’ve been trying to schedule a weekend day where I go on a hike or something, and then another weekend date where I do errands around the house or catch up on work. I think switching from a time-oriented mindset to a results-oriented frame of mind has helped me keep the balance between work and home. Also, not procrastinating, because  I feel like I do my best work when I’m not rushing through to meet a deadline. Doing computational work has allowed me a lot more flexibility that I enjoy.


How long were you in school?

I spent four years doing my undergrad and I actually did my Ph.D. in four years, but that’s not super common and my Ph.D. program did not require a master’s degree, so I completed everything in 8 years but that is not the norm, and it often takes about 10-12 years.


What are your goals for the next five years or in life?

My five-year goal is to start my own lab, either here at ISB or somewhere else studying systems biology of pregnancy, following women throughout the course of pregnancy and tracking changes that occur, as well as changes that occur in women who end up experiencing pregnancy complications.


Have you had any results from the lab that you are especially proud of?

I’ve published a couple different papers, and I think the first paper that I published in graduate school about the serotonin pathway in the placenta was really exciting. This project involved analyzing methylation in a gene that is involved in the serotonin response and we found that this gene was altered in babies with neurodevelopmental problems. Something exciting here at ISB was a project that I worked on involving aggregating all these smaller studies into one large one which allowed us to make new findings of genes that are altered in the placenta of babies who are delivered prematurely. Integrating all of these small studies was a nightmare, but it was exciting when I was able to do it properly and get some reasonable results.


What is it like to write a paper?

It is pretty hard to start out with. It’s hard to decide when you’re going to start writing and where it’s going to go with your analysis. It is exciting once you begin actually begin writing things down as you go along with the research that you’re doing, and you begin to see an interesting story emerge or details develop.  From there, there is a lot of editing that goes into the paper that takes a very long time and can be frustrating, as well as rejection. Once your paper gets into a journal, it is very rewarding to see it cited and how it has advanced the field.