Monthly Archives

February 2012

Profiles

STEMinist Profile: Stephanie Chasteen, Science Teaching Fellow

Stephanie Chasteen

Stephanie Chasteen

Science Teaching Fellow at Science Education Initiative, University of Colorado at Boulder
Owner and operator of my own independent business, sciencegeekgirl enterprises

What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
I have always been interested in learning how the world works.  When I found out (in 8th grade Home Economics, out of all things) that a physicist was someone who figured out how the world works, I said “that’s for me”.  I took a very indirect path, however.  I began my undergraduate career as a physics major, and switched out after the first year.  I felt that it should be easier, and was also intimidated by the men in the class who seemed to know just what they were doing all the time.  I was the only woman out of all four years of physics majors at the time, in a small liberal arts college.

Years after I switched to psychology, my advisor told me that I was one of the best students in the class.  I was always resentful that he didn’t encourage me more.  However, it worked out well, because psychology has always fascinated me — much as physics is figuring out how the world works, psychology is figuring out how people work.   I took much more physics and math in my undergraduate career, and eventually got a PhD in physics.  I have since become involved in STEM education, which is a very nice blend of the physics and psychology backgrounds.  I have a very broad view of science and education because of this background.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
I was a postdoctoral fellow at the Exploratorium Museum of Science, Art, and Human Perception in San Francisco after finishing my degree in physics. This was the best job ever; I particularly liked the chance to put together cool hands-on activities that gave insight into something in the world. For example, in one live webinar, I used a plexiglass tube to “core” a layer cake, to show how ice core samples drill down into the ice.

Role models and heroes:
My mentor at the Exploratorium, Paul Doherty. Paul is a physicist who can not only explain anything, but can infect you with his enthusiasm and excitement for the mystery of the world and help you figure it out yourself.

Also Steve Pollock, an instructor at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Steve cares so deeply about his students, and is bubbling over with energy and excitement. Again, his respect for others helps empower them to figure things out for themselves.

Both of these teachers have the ability to inspire others to work hard and do their best, because we want to work hard for people who work hard for us.

Advice for future STEMinists?
Follow your interests, even if it doesn’t always make sense. I had no idea what I would do with physics, since I didn’t think I would go into research, but I knew I wanted to know more physics. And now I’ve created an amazingly diverse and interesting career for myself based on physics and education.

For a metaphor on my career path and how you can “sniff” out the best paths, see my post “How a Scientist Becomes a Freelance Science Writer.”

Favorite website or app:
Phet.colorado.edu — great, interactive simulations on various areas of science

Twitter: @sciencegeekgirl
Site: blog.sciencegeekgirl.com

Profiles

STEMinist Profile: Katie Biittner, Archaeologist

Katie Biittner

Katie Biittner

Archaeologist



Currently a Sessional Instructor (term contracts) in Anthropology for various institutions. When I am not teaching I am the Communications Assistant for the Graduate Students Association at the University of Alberta (currently on leave for Winter Term 2012).

Organizations: University of Alberta (on and off since 2008), Okanangan College (Vernon and Salmon Arm campuses, Winter 2012), University of Lethbridge (Edmonton campus, Summer 2012)

What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
I always loved the sciences. As a child I wanted to be a mad scientist (literally, I’d describe these plans for a lab in my basement and the crazy schemes I had for taking over the world) or a medical doctor (cardiology), but once I got into high school I became really passionate about studying other cultures. I also started to realize that although I loved chemistry and biology, I wasn’t performing as well in them as a student as I was in history.

Anthropology, and more specifically the sub-discipline of archaeology, provided me an opportunity to do both. As an archaeologist I use scientific methods to study past cultures and answer questions about behaviour and culture. I borrow methods and techniques from chemistry and geology to characterize the types of rock (lithics) used by people for tools in the past.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
This reminds me of the number one question archaeologists get: what is the coolest thing you’ve ever found? For me, the answer to both of these questions relates to the same project. In 2006 I began working in Iringa region, Tanzania as part of my PhD supervisor’s research program called IRAP (Iringa Region Archaeology Project). I’ve since finished my PhD and am now a collaborator, running an offshoot of IRAP called CHIRP (Cultural Heritage in Iringa Research Program).

Our first field season in 2006 started off as a “simple” reconnaissance project: we wanted to survey the region for archaeological sites, record them, and conduct simple test excavations to establish a culture history for that region. At one of the two larger sites we identified we found six and a half fossil hominid teeth. I found the first one! These teeth have since been studied extensively (we hope to publish the results soon!). We are now slowly but methodologically excavating our sites in Iringa focusing on the recovery of additional fossil fragments as well as samples for dating.

We are contributing to the ongoing discussion concerning the origin of our species, and believe we have some sites that are yielding important evidence of occupation during the extremely cold phases of the late ice age when large parts of Africa were abandoned. This project is the coolest because I love working in Tanzania, and following in the footsteps of so many famous palaeoanthropologists and archaeologists. Like most research projects, I love that our goals and methods are constantly changing based on what we recover and what our analyzes yield.

Role models and heroes:
Mary Leakey, who really paved the way for female palaeoanthropologists and archaeologists in East Africa. Barbara E. Luedtke, who conducted some of the best chert sourcing studies in North America; I still aspire to achieve the quality of work she did. Glynn Isaac, an amazing geoarchaeologist who did brilliant, pioneering research and wrote such great, accessible papers about it.

My MA supervisor (Susan Jamieson) and my PhD supervisor (Pamela Willoughby), who were excellent mentors and are well respected contributors to their fields. My grandfather because he inspired me to follow my passion, and always made sure I had National Geographic as a kid.

Advice for future STEMinists?
Follow your passion; people always say this because the simple fact is: if you love what you do, it won’t always seem like work and it will be rewarding. Don’t think any goal is out of your reach. You are NOT an imposter (this last thing is easier said then done, I still have attacks of imposter syndrome). Contact people who inspire you and with whom you want to work. I still wish I was braver about this. I missed out on so many opportunities to work on amazing research projects because I never thought to ask.

Favorite website or app:
Twitter is a great tool for connecting with colleagues from around the world, and for communicating with students outside of the classroom. But hard days are always made a little better by a quick stop to icanhazcheeseburger.com. I really like weather apps: I like knowing what the weather is like back home in Edmonton when I am in the field in Tanzania and vice versa. I also keep track of all the other places I’ve lived or where I’ve done field work (Idaho, Ontario). It’s a nice way to stay connected with these places and I know I’m not the only archaeologists/anthropologist that does this.

Twitter: @kbiittner
Site: www.katiebiittner.com (information about research, course syllabi, CV); I also have a blog (Mental Debitage) about my research, teaching, and life outside of the classroom.

Profiles

STEMinist Profile: Kiki Prottsman, President/CEO, Thinkersmith

Kiki Prottsman

Kiki Prottsman

President/CEO
Thinkersmith



What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
My father was always very interested in technology. He encouraged me to build it, explore with it, and enjoy it. He used to tell me that the job I would have as an adult probably hadn’t been invented yet. That outlook helped me become comfortable with the idea of exploring a career in an area with few peers. To some extent, I think I looked forward to that.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
Creating my non-profit, Thinkersmith, has been pretty darn cool. It’s been so exciting to take the creativity and passion that I grew up with and spread it to others — introducing them to computer science in a way that makes them feel individual and inspired, instead of bored. It’s also liberating to know that all of this can be done in a way that’s ultimately good for society and not just commerce.

Role models and heroes:
My hero in this industry has to be Admiral Grace Murray Hopper. She was such a character! Quite a brave and intelligent individual. Her ingenuity brought many advances to the field of computer science, but she remained such a humble woman.

Advice for future STEMinists?
Hold your head high and smile. If you want it, go for it. Whether you’re the only girl in your group or you’re surrounded by estrogen, you can make a positive and memorable contribution to your team. Don’t get stuck thinking that the only valid jobs already exist. Figure out what you love to do and convince someone that they need you to do it!

Favorite website or app:
Picture Me in Computing provides a link to some fabulous resources for women in technology.

Twitter: @kiki_lee, @thinkersmith
Site: www.Thinkersmith.org

Profiles

STEMinist Profile: Megan Schrauben, Educator / Director, Jackson County Math and Science Center

Megan Schrauben

Megan Schrauben

Educator / Director
Jackson County Mathematics and Science Center



What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
My mother is a sixth grade science teacher and when I was going through school I was always involved in after school STEM learning opportunities that my mother, other teachers, and a community volunteer provided for students in our area. I believe that I was impressed by seeing all of the different occupations available and what you could do with a STEM career—I mean the creative projects and inventions you could do. I enjoyed all of these learning opportunities and couldn’t make up my mind—I enjoyed learning everything, so I decided to teach, to hopefully inspire those that would create the next generation of technologies or engineering marvels.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
The coolest project I have worked on is one that is happening right now. This project is called the MI STEM Partnership and it is just forming. I would say it is the “coolest” project because it is the first time that I have been involved with everyone in the state that is interested in seeing the STEM capabilities of our students and populace increase. The potential for bridging the gap between education and the work place is huge in this initiative and brings with it exciting challenges and opportunities for learners in our state.

Role models and heroes:
My grandmother has always been one of my biggest role models. Even with a limited education she wouldn’t let that slow her down. She showed me and my siblings the value of hard work and doing things with your own two hands. I highly doubt that I would be the person I am today without the early and constant influences that she has had on my life.

Advice for future STEMinists?
Take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves! Even if you believe that you may not be the best choice for the job or the experience, take advantage of it. There is a reason why the opportunity is there for you, learn from it and you might even surprise yourself with what you are able to do.

Favorite website or app:
the moment I can’t say that I have one favorite, but my iPad would probably say that my favorite app is the euchre game that keeps me busy while in the airport or on the plane!

Twitter: @MeganSchrauben
Site: www.MIstempartnership.com

Profiles

STEMinist Profile: Ann Martin, Postdoctoral Fellow, NASA Langley Research Center

Ann Martin

Ann Martin

Postdoctoral Fellow & Program Evaluator on the NASA Innovations in Climate Education



Organization: NASA Langley Research Center

What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
When I was a little kid, I loved everything about space that I could get my hands on. My parents were both really interested in the history of the manned spaceflight program, so I grew up watching shuttle launches on TV, taking family trips to the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum, and memorizing the names of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo astronauts. I even went to SpaceCamp . . . twice. I loved science and math, but I also loved my English classes where written and oral communication was important.

Ultimately, I majored in both English and physics when I was in college. Now I have a PhD in astronomy from Cornell, but a career in science research isn’t for me. Instead, I’m interested in working on science education and public outreach/communication, and especially in increasing the diversity in astronomy and other STEM fields. That brings both of my skill sets, thinking like both a scientist and a communicator, to the table.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
During my dissertation work, I was part of a large research collaboration, called ALFALFA, led by my advisors at Cornell and involving over 30 other institutions. We used the Arecibo Radio Telescope in Puerto Rico to take a census of nearby galaxies, studying their reservoirs of hydrogen gas, which is the basic ingredient that galaxies use to cook up new generations of stars.

As part of this work, I ran the world’s largest telescope for many nights, trained other students and faculty members to use it, traveled to the telescope in Puerto Rico and to others in California, discovered and published information about unknown galaxies, and wrote my dissertation on the properties of our sample of over 10,000 galaxies – it was an amazing experience!

Now that I have worked in astronomical research for so long, it’s can be too easy to forget that thrill of discovery. But sometimes on a clear night, the night sky (especially a good naked-eye view of the Andromeda galaxy) will take my breath away. In those moments, it hits me that I’ve been so lucky to be able to call myself an astronomer. I still can’t believe I’ve been a discoverer of galaxies!

Role models and heroes:
In grad school, I shared an office with another grad student working on ALFALFA, Sabrina Stierwalt. Sabrina has taught me so much about science, but even more about being true to myself while working on a career in science. For us, that means finding a satisfactory balance between our work and our personal lives, working to improve our communities, and not being shy about the “feminist” part of being a STEMinist!

Sabrina helped me get involved with a lot of the astronomy education projects, like the Ask an Astronomer service at Cornell, that ultimately pointed me toward the career I’m now pursuing. It is really helpful to have such a good friend, colleague, and role model who reflects my aspirations and pushes me to think about my place in the world.

Starting many months ago, Sabrina and some of our other STEMinist friends began to notice that the “Doodles” appearing on the Google homepage from time to time had a disturbing pattern – we were seeing far, far too few women represented! With Sabrina’s advice and encouragement, I started a blog called Speaking Up For Us and posted an open letter to the Google Doodles team. We all know that role models are very important for women in STEM, and the Google Doodles could be such a great platform for sharing the contributions of women with everyone who doesn’t have a Sabrina in her or his life.

Advice for future STEMinists?
A support network is such a critical thing, whether that means your friends, your family, your advisors at school, all of the above, or some other (formal or informal) mentor. Seek out this support wherever you can find it, and learn about ideas like impostor syndrome so that they can’t slow you down. If you’re a student, MentorNet.org is a great place to start. Research and personal experience has shown that this support helps young women — and members of other groups underrepresented in STEM — stick with it and pursue their dreams.

Another, more personal piece of advice: There are so many interesting, twisting and turning paths to fulfilling careers in STEM. It took me a long time to find my own path, and in the end I realized that I couldn’t push parts of my personality aside to try to force myself to stay on a path that wasn’t working for me. Incidentally, it also turns out that those other skills and priorities have a lot of value in the STEM world. We all have something to bring to the table, and it’s OK if your path turns out to be a little twisty like mine was.

Favorite website or app:
I couldn’t do my work without Google Reader, an RSS feed aggregator that lets me do one-stop shopping for updates on my favorite blogs. It helps me keep up with everything from scholarly journals to the latest STEM education news to my friends’ blogs.

Twitter: @Annie314159
Site: Speaking Up for Us

Profiles

STEMinist Profile: Carole McGranahan, Associate Professor of Anthropology, Univ. of Colorado

Carole McGranahan

Carole McGranahan

Associate Professor of Anthropology; specialist in Tibet, Nepal, and the Himalayas
University of Colorado

What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
As a junior in college, I studied abroad in Nepal. I was introduced to anthropology and conducted my first independent research project. From that moment on, I was hooked by fieldwork, by the anthropological method of participant-observation meaning to live within a community as both participant and anthropological observer.

For me, immersing oneself in a community in order to best understand and interpret it made intuitive sense, was deeply effective intellectually, and also greatly rewarding personally. I knew then that I wanted to become a professor of anthropology: a field researcher, a teacher, and a writer. I thought it would be the best job in the world which is exactly what it turned out to be. I love all aspects of what I do.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
Am I allowed to say all of them? Cultural anthropologists tend to work on a solo practitioner model, so all of my research projects have been my own independent, original research. I have had phenomenal mentors over the years, as well as wonderful colleagues I’ve collaborated with on writing projects, and most importantly, hugely inspiring individuals with whom I’ve worked in the Tibetan exile community.

If you made me choose just one project, it would be my longstanding research on the Tibetan resistance army Chushi Gangdrug. This was a joint anthropological and historical research project (as I hold a PhD in both anthropology and history from the University of Michigan) culminating in my book Arrested Histories: Tibet, the CIA, and Memories of a Forgotten War (Duke University Press, 2010). Arrested Histories tells the story of how ordinary Tibetans rose up to defend their families, their leaders, and their country against the People’s Republic of China in the 1950s.

It is a history of this independent army which was funded and trained in part by the CIA, and an ethnography of contemporary life for the Tibetan veterans. What does it mean to have fought an unsuccessful war, to have lost one’s country, and to have this history forgotten within your community? How do those Tibetans who saw their military service as a form of religious service reconcile this with the Dalai Lama’s current policy of nonviolence? And, what do the stories of these retired veterans, now mostly anonymous old men, tell us about broader politics of community, history, truth, and hope in exile?

This project involved years of research in Nepal and India, countless hours spent in people’s homes recording their stories, digging deep into the social politics of the refugee community, making sense of how cultural logics inform historical truths. I use critical theory to make arguments about ethnography and history, translate rare texts into English, interview both Tibetan veterans and retired CIA officers, and embrace the unique, embodied, and messily precise methodology of participant-observation.

Anthropology is a discipline that traverses the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities. My corner of it is where the social sciences meets the humanities. Our research is not lab-based, nor does it involve replicable hypotheses. Instead, it seeks to find, articulate, and explain cultures as they are actually lived, experienced, and understood by people in their everyday lives. This part of what I do—meeting people in their own worlds, being trusted to pass on their stories, and doing so within a committed disciplinary framework—is the heart of cultural anthropology.

Role models and heroes:

  • The Dalai Lama.
  • The late father of the Tibetan family with whom I have lived in the field for the last eighteen years.
  • My grad school mentor Ann Stoler.
  • My undergraduate mentor Mary Moran.
  • The musicians, artists, writers, and poets of the world: science needs them too.
  • And my two kids. They inspire me daily.

Advice for future STEMinists?
Find something you are passionate about. Follow your dreams and don’t let anyone or anything stop you. Work hard to create opportunities for other women, and all worthy individuals whose paths you cross. In terms of lingering gender discrimination in the academy and STEM worlds outside the academy, commit to creating the world you want and find good partners and colleagues to do it with. Believe in yourself.

Favorite website or app:
For anthropology: anthropologyreport.com (a new, but immediately indispensable blog featuring fresh content, great resources, and committed to showcasing anthropology’s relevance to what’s happening around the world)

Anthropology Major Fox (whose url is slightly crude although the site is not at all. Instead it is an insightful, funny meme that covers all of anthropology: archaeology, biological anthropology, and linguistics as well as cultural anthropology)

For Tibet: highpeakspureearth.com (an invaluable site that translates writing—journalistic writing, blogging, poetry, song lyrics—from inside Tibet in either Tibetan or Chinese into English, with excellent commentary as well)

General: twitter.com (I think of Twitter as a micro-blogging platform allowing me to share and exchange ideas and information. It’s my personally curated newsfeed and has introduced me to other anthropologists, activists, writers, and scholars doing excellent, inspiring work around the world including the STEMinist team.)

Twitter: @CMcGranahan
Site: University of Colorado Bio

Profiles

STEMinist Profile: Lori M. Olson, Senior Software Architect, Labrador Technologies Inc.

Lori M. Olson

Lori M. Olson

Senior Software Architect (Consultant)
Labrador Technologies Inc.



What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
From a very young age, I started to develop an interest in reading, eventually leading me to science fiction, which I found fascinating (and still do). That interest in science fiction shaped most of my future education.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
I’ve developed a lot of different software projects over the years. The coolest is probably my current project, eTriever, a web-based retriever of oil and gas data. See the video here. This is the coolest, if only because we’ve been pushing the bounds of every technology that we’ve used in development of our product.

Role models and heroes:

  • My grade 4 teacher was probably one of my first important role models. Although I can’t say she was a scientist, she did her best to encourage my life-long love of reading, and for that alone I will remember her always.
  • One of my first supervisors, Myrna Krakiwsky, after I started working at Shell Canada, immediately after university. She was both a scientist (Masters degree in Chemistry) and a very strong and confident leader. At her insistence, I attended a public speaking course, which has been a one of the most valuable skills for personal development that I have learned.
  • More recently, I’ve become interested in the idea of using my skills to build a product-based business of my own. Amy Hoy is both my teacher and mentor in this process.

Advice for future STEMinists?
First, it’s important to not sabotage yourself. Lack of self confidence is one of the most common, and hardest to overcome, problems I see in young women in the STEM fields. This article should be required reading for young women in STEM:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impostor_syndrome

Second, I think it’s important to point out that a STEM career will almost certainly require a commitment to, and a love of, learning. I have learned, and re-learned, and re-invented my career at least 3 times so far. Can’t see that changing any time soon, either.

Twitter: @wndxlori

Profiles

STEMinist Profile: Pamela Broviak, Civil Engineer, City of Geneva

Pam Broviak

Pamela Broviak

Civil Engineer – Asst. Dir of Public Works/City Engineer
City of Geneva



What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
In 1980 the assistant dean of engineering with the University of Tennessee contacted me when I was still in high school because he had seen my ACT scores and wanted to encourage me to change my intended major from psychology to engineering. After corresponding for a year and visiting with him on campus, he convinced me that engineering would be a great career choice.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
The implementation of automatic meter reading (AMR) because:

I’d spent five years watching as another entity tried to unsuccessfully implement a similar project that never worked correctly and continually drained money from the city. With our project we were able to propose an implementation that not only was half the cost of what a private consultant had proposed, but it was successfully installed in one year with no major problems.

It was also a cool project because it allowed us to monitor water usage throughout the city on almost a real time basis, and it monitored water leaks on private lines and on our mains. So the end result was the replacement of a failed project with one that was installed efficiently and economically and provided us with useful data to help us better serve customers and operate our system. And AMR systems provide a foundation that will make other innovations possible.

Role models and heroes:
The many older engineers/professors who mentored me and patiently laid the foundation of my engineering knowledge.

Advice for future STEMinists?
Develop your confidence, communication and technical skills, and network – they will provide the support you need to meet any challenge.

Favorite website or app:
Anything by Google.

Twitter: @pbroviak
Site: www.publicworksgroup.com

Profiles

STEMinist Profile: Jen McCabe, CEO & Cofounder, Habit Labs

Jen McCabe

Jen McCabe

CEO, Cofounder
Habit Labs

What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
I was obsessed with biology, particularly zoology, as a kid. For a long time, I thought I’d be the next Dr. Eugenie Clark. Before buying my first pet, a yellow rosella budgie named Sunshine, I researched parakeets – their behavior, habitats, etc. for months. I think my mom still has that folder somewhere. I was in 2nd grade, so some of the spelling may be off…

I read constantly and my favorite series were about animals and science fiction – first I devoured anything about horses (of course) and later Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonrider novels about genetically engineered fire lizards that human colonists use to create empathic dragons that bond with their rider. We’re talking really geeky stuff here.

I was sure I’d do something with animals, like vet school. I was always picking up strays. But then after a car accident I fell in love with human healing. The body and mind as machines that work in tandem fascinate me. It took me a while to figure out I’m not cut out to be a doc (although organic chemistry was a pretty good road block). Then I worked in healthcare management and administration – really boring stuff – before starting to develop freakish theories about consumer engagement in wellness and individual behavior change. Only a tech startup would give me the room needed to play fast and loose with multiple hypotheses about why people want to change, but hardly ever do.

Role models and heroes:
Victoria Claflin Woodhull, the first female candidate for President. Rosalind Franklin, the dark lady of DNA. Wilhelm Rontgen, who invented xray tech and open-sourced it way before open-sourcing was cool. My mom, who is a behavioral health RN, aka Supernurse. My sister, who is a former aeronautical engineer who is engineering a family of 3 kids (Ellen, Ada, and Boden) in Virginia.

Advice for future STEMinists?
Don’t be concerned with prerequisites or rules. These are social hierarchical structures that can be hacked, usually. Demonstrate your competence repeatedly, and then own it. Don’t dilute your value by displaying a lack of confidence in your ability. That said, try not to bludgeon others over the head with it, until it’s time to negotiate pay and bonuses. Don’t ever accept less than ANY counterpart, male or female.

You may have to make sacrifices. Big ones. Still. I wake up every day doing things other women dream about. I am blessed. Acknowledge when you don’t know how to explain your good fortune. Try not to be jealous of the good fortune of others. You are NOT them, whoever they are. Work hard to follow luck whenever she opens a door for you (about 2% of the time) and work your ass off the other 98%. Always ask what you are doing that is in danger of killing project X. If the answer is you, change, or get out. If the answer is anything else, fix it, or tell it to fuck off.

Favorite website or app:
I’m biased towards health apps that are simple, clean in terms of the user experience, and effective at tracking both a new behavior and sustaining a behavior change over time. Other than ours, I’m a new fan of Swole.me. It’s an automatic diet planner built by the Louis DeMenthon, the little brother of one of my YCombinator batchmates, Eric DeMenthon.

I also love 23andMe for making genetics consumer friendly. They’re revolutionaries, although I’ll be much happier when they move from a SNP method to whole genome sequencing. I think we’re still sort of taking a Polaroid of our genomic expression, like a still life, and as soon as we’ve captured it, it’s probably out of date. When we have an app that shows us our own whole genome with complete, constant sequencing in real time – then I’ll get *really* excited.

Twitter: @jensmccabe
Site: habitlabs.com

Profiles

STEMinist Profile: Karen James, Biologist

Karen James

Karen James

Visiting Staff Scientist, Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory
Consultant, International Barcode of Life Scientific Steering Committee
Co-founder and Director, The HMS Beagle Project

What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
Like every child, I was curious about the world. My mother tells me that at the age of four, I confidently theorized about such biological processes as the origin of cantaloupes (cantaloupe factories, of course) and from which body part the spider spins her web (her heart, apparently). I wondered why we don’t have skin between our fingers, since “it is so annoying to have to dry there every time we wash our hands” (I still get annoyed by that). I think in my case, that curiosity just never went away.

That said, I wasn’t always sure I wanted to be a scientist. I switched majors several times in college. I started out as a Pre-veterinary student but then a summer internship at a vet hospital made me realize that it is possible to love animals too much to be a vet. So, I switched to Engineering. As part of my first year of courses, I took honors Biology, and that was it. I loved it… the intricate, elegant world of the cell… the way that organisms make themselves. So I switched to Biology and never looked back.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
While I was a postdoctoral researcher at the Natural History Museum in London, I coordinated a program of science projects for the Museum’s Darwin200 campaign (a series of activities and events celebrating the bicentenary of Charles Darwin’s birth). As part of this role, I worked on a project in collaboration with Paquita Hoeck and Lukas Keller at the University of Zurich, and Rosemary Grant and Peter Grant (famous for their work with Darwin’s finches) at Princeton University. The project involved coordinating access to and taking a small tissue sample from the toe-pads of historical mockingbird specimens collected by Charles Darwin and Robert Fitzroy in Galapagos in 1835.

Dr. Hoeck and I extracted DNA from these toe-pads (she in Zurich and I in London, to minimize the possibility of contamination from other sources of DNA in one of our labs), and then carried out a genetic analysis to contribute to a conservation genetics study on modern populations of these birds, which are extremely rare in the wild today. The resulting paper can be found here. I’ll never forget how exciting it was to have the tubes with the toe-pad clippings on my lab bench… “these were on the Beagle!” I kept thinking.

Role models and heroes:
There have been many great explorer-naturalists, but only some of them were also great communicators: Charles Darwin, of course, but also Alexander Von Humboldt, John Muir and, today, David Attenborough. I also just recently learned about the botanist Jeanne Baret, who, disguised as a man, became the first woman to circumnavigate the globe.

Advice for future STEMinists?
Man or woman, the scientific career path isn’t always a bowl of cherries. It’s hard work, there’s a lot of unfairness in the system (more so if you’re a woman), it doesn’t pay particularly well, and stable academic jobs are scarce. But if you love science, you enjoy your work at each stage, and you keep an open mind about your next-step career options, it can be a whole lot of fun.

Don’t let senior academics brainwash you into thinking that getting an increasingly rare tenure-track position is the only way to consider yourself a “success” in science. Do it because you love it, not because you want to make a lot of money (ha!) or because you want to impress or make someone else proud.

Favorite website or app:
The TimeTree app lets you enter the names of two organisms and tells you how long it’s been since those two organisms shared a common ancestor. The answer is based on published molecular time estimates and it lets you follow links to the published papers that support that estimate. I’m also a little bit of a Words With Friends addict. Ahem.

Twitter: @kejames
Site: www.hmsbeagleproject.org