Becky Howsmon, PhD

Becky Howsmon, PhD

What got you interested in science?

My mother was a major role model for me. She started out in bioengineering during a time when very few females were majoring in this field. She was one of 2 females in her entire undergraduate class. She eventually went on to become the first female police officer with the Vermont State Police department and had a long and successful career as a police detective. She also volunteered her time with the local ambulance squad and taught CPR. My first explorations with science were with the many bandages and medical equipment she had in her medical case. I used to pretend to be a vet and “treat” my stuffed animals, bandaging them up, listening to their heartbeat with the stethoscope, etc. I would also go to the CPR training classes with her, entertaining myself by playing with the female and baby manikins like dolls.


In high school, I really enjoyed biology and sports, so when I started thinking about what I wanted to study in college, athletic training seemed to be a natural fit. Unfortunately transitioning from a very small rural town to a large urban campus across the country from family turned out to be a bit too much change for me at the time, and I ended up getting my very first “D”, in biology. After that first year of college, I took a short break from school to assess what I wanted to do and what would be a better fit. I ended up moving to Seattle where I had some family and started taking classes at Seattle Central Community College to complete my core courses and establish residency in WA state.


Once again I was enjoying my science and math classes and doing well in school. I transferred to the University of WA through their Direct Transfer program where I majored in Cell and Molecular Biology (MCB) and minored in anthropology. While at UW I was fortunate to gain hands-on research experience at Fred Hutch and through the UW’s apprenticeship program at Friday Harbor.  These experiences provided me with the skills and connections necessary to begin working after graduation as a Research Assistant in a genetics lab at Fred Hutch.


I was very interested in continuing my education, and my combined biology and anthropology studies had piqued my interest in public health. After working at Fred Hutch for a couple of years, I was accepted into the UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health Ph.D. program, where I studied the host-pathogen relationship of the bacteria Mycobacterium tuberculosis.


What are some of the best decisions you made throughout your career?

Throughout my life, I have always had some involvement in education. As my career in science continued I began to realize that as much as I enjoyed science, my heart was always drawn to educating and working with students. So the best decision I ever made was to take advantage of an opportunity to work with the Science Education Department at Seattle Children’s Research Institute (SCRI). I was very lucky to be introduced to the Director of the department while working as a Research Scientist at SCRI. As soon as I learned about the work they were doing a lightbulb went off in my brain and I knew that was the direction I wanted to take my career. I took every opportunity to talk to and learn from the Director of the science education field, so when a full-time position opened up I was hired.


The second best decision I made was to step outside of my comfort zone and take a position with a computer science education program, TEALS. Not only was the focus of the program a field I had little experience in, but I was also working on a nation-wide level and in a corporate environment – completely different than the nonprofit and academic environments I had been in thus far. Not only did I learn a great deal about myself, I was able to gain a broader knowledge of other STEM fields, and ways in which they are all interconnected.


Finally, accepting my current role as Project Manager of Systems Medicine Education at ISB has been the easiest decision yet. I feel this role engages so much of what I love about science and working with students, and I am thrilled that everything I have learned and experienced in the past 20 plus years has culminated to this point.


What is your favorite part of ISB that’s different from the other places you have worked?

My favorite part about ISB is their systems approach to everything. It’s not just applied to the research, but also to the educational experiences they provide for students, teachers, and others. Because of that, there is a natural culture of collaboration amongst the staff (leadership included), and a core focus on education.


What current or future project are you most excited about?

I am very excited about the systems medicine curriculum that we’re working on! This will be quite different than the other curriculum modules developed over the years at ISB, which means there will be a lot of exciting challenges ahead. But I am thrilled that in the end, we will be able to provide students with the opportunity to learn how science and technology are being integrated to improve health outcomes, and how this systematic approach to health and wellbeing has the potential to change the way we experience healthcare in the future.


So far, what’s the hardest part of your job?

I think the hardest part of any new job is figuring out the new processes and the best strategies to meet your goals and objectives. The great thing about ISB is that the curriculum development process is very well sculpted, with many experienced people you can reach out to for help and guidance.


What advice would you give to students interested in pursuing STEM careers?

  1. Every so often along your career path take a moment to stop and think about where you are headed and ask yourself if that path is leading you in the direction that feels like an authentic fit. If it doesn’t, explore other options until you get on a pathway that gets you to where you want to be.
  2. Don’t be afraid to step outside of your comfort zone once in a while and experience something new. Even if it turns out not be a perfect fit you will gain a great deal of knowledge and broaden your perspective.
  3. Make and maintain strong connections. Many of my best jobs (including this one) came about because the person hiring knew me directly, or I was recommended to them by someone they trust.


Do you have any inspiring heroes or mentors in your life?

My mom and my best friend from growing up are two of the strongest women I know who have had a lot of curveballs thrown at them in their lives, and they’ve managed to come out on top. Anytime I have a problem that seems overwhelming, I think “if they can overcome their hurdles so can I”.  My grandmother and a previous boss are also huge role models to me because of their amazing positivity and kindness towards everyone. They both showed me the immense impact a little dose of kindness can have on any situation.


How do you maintain a balance in between your work and personal life, or do you?

I try to. I have a family and 2 small children who I want to spend as much time as possible with, but I also love the work I do and want to make sure I bring my best self when I am working with colleagues and students. Its challenging to do all that and find necessary down time for myself. I enjoy reading so I try to read a book on the bus when I am commuting, which also helps me transition from work-mode to home-mode. I also try to fit in exercise as often as I can, biking home from work, going for walks during the day, or doing something active with my family. There’s no magic combination, so I just do what I can and try not to put too much pressure on myself to “do it all”.


What was your experience like at Berkley?

I loved it. I applied to five graduate schools and got accepted into three, so while I was looking at each one and balancing the pros and cons, Berkeley felt like an ideal fit for personally and professionally. I felt a great sense of community and collaboration amongst the students and researchers on campus, and I enjoyed the lively and diverse culture of the Bay Area.   I still consider Berkeley my home-away-from-home and visit as often as I can.


Do you have a favorite animal?

Yes. Giraffe.