STEMinist Profile: Jessica Ball, Ph.D. Student in Volcanology

Jessica Ball

Jessica Ball

Ph.D. student in Volcanology
University at Buffalo, SUNY


What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
I got interested in geology when I was quite small—I used to live close to Washington, DC and one of my favorite things to do was visit the Smithsonian Natural History Museum. I went through a dinosaur phase and a rock phase like a lot of little kids do, but the difference with me was that I never outgrew them! I kept interested in it all through grade school, but it was in college that I really got hooked. I took a three-week geology field trip after my freshman year, and even though I struggled the whole time, I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else for a career.

I really enjoy geology because it’s such a unique science. Not only do geologists get to spend time in the lab and the field, we get to incorporate pretty much every other branch of science you could think of, and a good chunk of engineering. In the course of my graduate career, I’ve needed to use chemistry, physics, thermodynamics, computer science, statistics, and a whole slew of other skills. Plus the field aspect can be really fun—I mean, who wouldn’t want to visit amazing and beautiful places while collecting data? I also think volcanoes are fascinating, so getting to study them is pretty much a dream come true for me.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
In terms of research, I haven’t had time to do a lot, but I think my thesis work in volcanology has been pretty cool. I study lava domes, which are constructions of silicic magma that erupt from a volcano and pile up over the vent. They also tend to collapse, and sometimes this happens because water has gotten into the dome and altered the rock, or gotten trapped in spaces where it gets heated and pressurized and destabilizes things. This is really important in terms of hazard assessment—if you know where the weak rock on a lava dome is, you can make some predictions about how it might collapse in the future.

My work is at a group of lava domes called Santiaguito, at the Santa Maria volcano in Guatemala. I’ve combined field mapping, rock and aqueous geochemistry, and satellite remote sensing to try and paint a comprehensive picture of the state of alteration in those domes, and we’ve found out some interesting things! The project itself was also exciting because I got the chance to go to Guatemala in the first place; it’s a beautiful country, and the people there are very welcoming. (It’s also full of volcanoes, which makes me happy as a volcanologist).

Role models/heroes:
There have been many people I could put into these categories, but there are a few that stand out for me. My entire undergraduate geology department at the College of William and Mary—particularly the professors—were a really great influence on me. They were demanding, but they genuinely loved their students and they were wonderful teachers. They were always pushing us to do better, try harder things, take chances. My undergrad advisor especially—he encouraged me to go on a field trip as a freshman that was tough even for the senior students, for example, and he never accepted less than my best effort in his classes. He was the one who made me realize what I needed to do to become a good geologist (which I hope I have!)

My current advisor at Buffalo is another person I aspire to be like. She’s a respected volcanologist and she knows a lot of people in our field, but she’s also really great at balancing her work and family life, and that’s something I appreciate as a woman. I also love that she guides her students but doesn’t discourage them from taking their work in new directions, even if she’s not familiar with them herself.

I guess the final two people that I’d name as heroes are my parents. They never, ever, not once, told me that I couldn’t do something. They put up with years of rock collections and countless museum visits and even (I kid you not) got me a seismograph for one birthday. They let me make my own decisions about what I wanted to do, and made it possible for me to go to the college I wanted, and have just been fantastic in so many ways. I owe them a lot.

Why do you love working in STEM?
The chance to discover new things about the world! As a volcanologist (and a geologist), I see myself as a kind of combination of detective and storyteller. Geologists get to think up really clever ways to find clues (data) about how the Earth works, but then we also get to turn those data into a fascinating story. I love when I can look at a rock or a landscape and find something to deduce about it—it’s like being able to see into the past.

Another thing I really like about working in STEM is that there’s always something new to learn about how to do your job. You can’t just learn a set of skills and then stop—you’re always needing to improve them, or adopt new and better techniques. Sometimes I’m just blown away by how cool the new techniques are, and that I get to use them!

Advice for future STEMinists?
Don’t let anything—or anyone—discourage you from doing what you love! It’s the best thing in the world to enjoy your job. And make sure to surround yourself with people who believe in you and support what you’re doing, no matter how different it is from what they do. No one in my family is a geologist, and I’ll be the first to get a doctorate in science, but they’ve all encouraged me to pursue my dreams.

Favorite website or app:
The Global Volcanism Program website. Anything you want to know about an active volcano, they can tell you!

Twitter: @Tuff_Cookie
Website: my American Geophysical Union blog, Magma Cum Laude

STEMinist Profile: Sara Callori, Physics Ph.D. Candidate

Sara Callori

Sara Callori

Physics Ph.D. Candidate working on ferroelectrics
Stony Brook University

 

What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
I always loved science growing up. My parents always supplied me with science kits and took me to museums and science centers. I ended up attending a science magnet high school and it took me until my junior year to start liking physics. From there, I had a meandering path to physics. I liked music and free stuff so I thought I’d work in the music industry. But after internships in the industry I found the work boring and wasn’t intellectually interesting. So I turned back to physics.

I thought I would end up becoming a high school teacher because I love teaching. (I worked at the education department of a zoo during my college summers.) I love sharing the excitement of science with others because I think people too often thing science, especially physics, is very daunting. Then, I took a “Solid State Physics” class in college and was fascinated by the material and experiments in the field. It was that class that made me want to go to graduate school and keep learning and doing physics.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
My favorite experimental technique to work with is x-ray diffraction. This is a technique were we use x-rays to determine how atoms in materials are basically stacked together to make up the material. Usually we make samples of our materials first and then do x-ray measurements on them to look at the final structure. But for my favorite experiment, we have set up a growth chamber at the synchrotron x-ray source at Brookhaven National Lab. What we do there is use x-rays to look at the structure of certain ferroelectric materials grow while they are growing. I think it’s amazing that we can observe, in real time, the growth of material layers that are less than half a nanometer thick.

Role models/heroes:
Two of my favorite scientific role models are Rosalind Franklin and Hedy Lamar. Rosalind Franklin has a very interesting story because she strove so hard to be a strong scientist when women scientists weren’t respected. She also worked on x-ray crystallography, which is one of my favorite fields.

As for Hedy Lamar, most people know her as an old movie star. But she also co-invented a way of encoded communication that was used in WWII and served as the basis for a lot of different communication technology. I love that she is someone that combines glamour and science. I find that too many people think science is scary or the domain of old, white guys. So I’d like people to see science the way I do, as something exciting and interesting and yes, even sometimes sexy.

Why do you love working in STEM?
I love working in STEM both because I get to “do science” and interact with people about it. By the first part of that, I mean I get to work to make new materials and discover things about them that no one has seen before. And sometimes, what we find is surprising, so when you find something not only new, but unexplained, well that’s just amazing.

I also enjoy the communication aspect of working in STEM. I find science fascinating and exciting and I love to help other people see this side of science. Whenever I tell people that I work in physics, it almost always turns into an opportunity to get people to see physics as it really is (and physicists as they really are!) and not as a stereotype.

Advice for future STEMinists?
If you know that a STEM career is for you, get an early start. You don’t have to be in tenth grade with a full time summer lab job, but keep on the lookout for interesting programs, internships, or opportunities to work in scientific settings. Also, be open to trying new things in science. If you’re curious about both the chemistry of the oceans and observing far away black holes, try both. Combine this with an early start and you will have a lot of opportunities to find out what type of science you are passionate about.

Also, don’t underestimate how important your communication skills are. A lot of people think that to be successful in STEM careers all you need to be is good at doing science. But an integral part of these fields is helping others understand what you are doing and why it’s important.

Favorite website or app:
Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal comics – There are always so many super funny comics about math and science. Either that or a number of celebrity gossip sites, because that’s definitely my guilty pleasure.

Twitter: @SaraDoesScience
Website: saradoesscience.tumblr.com

STEMinist Profile: Emily Rose Jordan, Ph.D. student in Neuroscience

Emily Rose Jordan

Emily Rose Jordan

Ph.D. student in Neuroscience
University of Cambridge, Gates Cambridge Scholars



What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
I have always been interested in travel and in human behaviour, so I initially pursued a major in Anthropology at university. However, I was also required at my university to take a certain number of science classes so I ended up signing up for a course on human decision-making and judgement, thinking it would relate to my anthropology courses. My TA was an amazing and interesting woman and I ended up working with her in her lab for a semester. Once I realized how creative and fun it was to do research in science, I was hooked. Being in the lab is so different to reading a textbook or sitting through a lecture, and it requires teamwork, which I love.

I am so glad that my university had that science requirement and that I tried something new because otherwise I never would have realized that I was completely fascinated by the human brain. While in anthropology I could observe human behaviour, in neuroscience I could actually manipulate it and conduct groundbreaking experiments. I was also lucky to find a great mentor like my TA, who encouraged me to pursue my interests even when it seemed daunting to change my major and take on a research project.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
I worked on an experiment where we were able to show that social enrichment changes behaviour in mice and that these changes are passed to their offspring ‘epigenetically,’ or without actually changing the genetic sequence, but rather the expression of those genes.

Role models/heroes:
My teachers and professors who encouraged me to become a scientist. At times I was intimidated by a career in science and thought that I was not up to the challenge. I owe my decision to pursue a PhD and my success in winning a scholarship to do so to three key teachers I had in high school and college who saw my passion for science and encouraged me when I might have given up. I remember their words and actions as vivid moments in my career where I began to think “I can” instead of “I can’t”.

Why do you love working in STEM?
I love working with a team of smart, interesting, international people. That makes it fun to go to work. I also think the brain is a pretty cool machine, so getting paid to figure out how it works is not too shabby.

Advice for future STEMinists?
Take chances. If you are interested in something, go for it even when it seems daunting. Get to know your teachers and professors; they want to help you do your best.

Favorite website or app:
I love listening to the Scientific American podcast Science Talk when I’m working in the lab; it is a fun way to learn about other branches of science.

Twitter: @drsciencelady
Website: Read more about how I got into science and ended up in the UK

STEMinist Profile: Jaime Hutchison, Ph.D. Student in Physics

Jaime Hutchison

Jaime Hutchison

Ph.D. Student in Physics
The University of Massachusetts Amherst



What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
I always enjoyed math and science in middle and high school, and I have an uncle who is a physicist. Both my parents and I assumed I would continue on with math and science after high school, however, I rebelled a bit when it came time to make a decision about college and ended up at art school. After art school I entered the work force as a bank teller. In my early twenties I began really missing math and science. I was working hard, but was not being challenged mentally. I borrowed some of my uncle’s physics textbooks and began going through them on my own after work. Eventually I decided to go back to school and ended up getting my bachelors degree in physics when I was 29.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
Of course I think the coolest project I’ve worked on is the one I’m working on now! I’m interested in membrane proteins that are able to both sense particular membrane curvature and induce changes in membrane curvature. What I love about this project is that it has required a very interdisciplinary approach. I’m a physicist at heart, but while working with these proteins I’ve learned a bunch of chemistry, biochemistry, and molecular biology.

Role models/heroes:
I’m always inspired by scientists (or anyone, really) who doesn’t have blinders on. By that I mean scientists who are sincerely interested in things that are going on outside their particular subfield.

Why do you love working in STEM?
Well, I don’t ALWAYS love it. When things are going well—you’re getting data, and you have some idea of what the data is saying, it’s supremely exciting and makes it all worthwhile. The other side of the coin is the struggle that comes when things aren’t working, or when things are working but you don’t understand what the data is telling you. For me the most difficult part of doing research is overcoming the fear that you have no idea what is going on and that everyone else on the planet must have a better understanding of it than you do. I guess, in the end, I just love the challenge. It’s a challenge to get everything working, it’s a challenge to understand your results in as detailed and precise a way as you can, and it’s a challenge to then communicate those results to the scientific community.

Advice for future STEMinists?
As with any career I would suggest trying to make sure that you’re doing something you love to do (at least most of the time). For me a key part of figuring this out was becoming involved in research as an undergraduate. I was able to get a pretty accurate glimpse into what graduate school and life in the lab would be like.

Favorite website or app:
For STEM-related issues: FemaleScienceProfessor 
For a good laugh: Damn You Auto Correct

STEMinist Profile: Sonia Watson, Ph.D. Student in Physiology

Sonia Watson

Sonia Watson

Ph.D. Student in physiology/pharmacology/neuroscience
University of Aberdeen, Scotland, UK

 

What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
As far back as I can remember I’ve always been curious about the world around me and always trying to figure out how things work. I remember going to the science centre here in Aberdeen as a small child and being totally fascinated. One of my favourite books to sit down with was this heavy, hard bound medical encyclopedia that had amazing colour pictures of the various systems of the body (nerves, blood vessels, etc.).

I hadn’t even really considered that the things that really interested me were all science related until it was pointed out to me by a high school teacher when I was choosing which subjects to study at standard grade level (GCSE/3rd year of high school). I chose to study all three sciences (biology, chemistry and physics) from that level on and I was hooked. Since then I’ve known that whatever it is I do, it’s science that gets me up in the morning.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
The coolest project I have worked on is my current Ph.D. research.

Most people are unaware that they have a 6th sense, which without you couldn’t drive, type or walk without looking at your feet. It’s called proprioception and it sends information from your limbs back to your brain giving you a sense of where those limbs are in relation to the rest of your body. My work focuses on the puzzling presence of a particular signaling system within sensory nerves that, at the cellular level, modulates this sense.

This project excites me because it is all about figuring out how the body works. Additionally it has medical consequences as it is now thought that the regulation of blood pressure also uses this signaling system.

Role models/heroes:
There are loads of amazing female academics at my university who I look up to and I think this is part of the reason I don’t really consider my gender as being a barrier to what I want to do. My heroes would have to include my parents who always encouraged me to do whatever it was that excited me (whether that was learning to play the violin only to give it up again once I got bored or buying me an electronics set so I could build my own lamp). They allowed me to figure out for myself what I enjoyed and never said no just because it wasn’t a “girly” thing to do.

During my time as a Ph.D. student I have met some great fellow students who have inspired me to get more involved in communicating how amazing science is to the public.

Why do you love working in STEM?
I love working in the lab, essentially figuring out puzzles all day, but working in STEM has given me the opportunity to get involved in other fun projects. I’ve done a little “science busking” – demonstrating small experiments to children and adults of all ages and co-run Aberdeen’s Skeptics in the Pub.

People tend to think of scientists as locked away in a dark room all day but it can actually be a very social career. I love attending conferences where you get the chance to meet amazing people from all over the world and discuss your work (as well as life, the universe and everything!).

Advice for future STEMinists?
If STEM is what excites you, do it. STEM subjects can give you a great start wherever life may take you—it gives you a way of thinking that can be applied in all walks of life. Speak to people at different levels in your subject area and find out what it’s all about. Twitter can be a great way of doing this informally.

Favorite website or app:
Difficult question! There are so many! I use Noteshelf to collate notes and make to-do lists for my research and different non-uni projects I’m involved in. I am on Twitter far too much (I use TweetCaster on my iPad). FaceTime is great for talking to my Mum.

Twitter: @nonisa

STEMinist Profile: Catherine Pratt, Grad Student, Biochemistry/Developmental Biology

Catherine Pratt

Catherine Pratt

Graduate Student
Brown University



What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
When I was in high school I would bug my Mum all the time to let me come to work with her. As a veterinary surgeon she got to do some pretty cool things, and I loved watching her and the other vets do their job. I remember being very proud of myself for making it through a rather nasty orthopedic operation on a dog. The vet school student, on the other hand, fainted rather dramatically.

So a career in veterinary medicine seemed to be the direction I was headed in…until I visited my Aunt’s biochemistry lab. There was something about the smell of the lab, the ticking of the geiger counter, the humming of the fume hood. I was only 16 at the time, so there was very little I could actually do, but I had fallen in love. I applied to college to study biochemistry, spent every summer in some lab or other, and after spending the year after graduation as a lab technician, applied and was accepted to the graduate program in Molecular Biology, Cell Biology, and Biochemistry at Brown University.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
I should be honest here and explain the jadedness that can hit a grad student who has been working on the same project for 5 or 6 years. Things that seemed cool at the outset often morph into the stuff of nightmares. Hypotheses become twisted, experiments that worked last week fail this week, and your confidence takes beating after merciless beating. But I digress. When I began the project that I am currently writing up for publication, it was the coolest thing ever! I have been very lucky to have a P.I. who lets me do what I want to do, as long as she thinks it’s a reasonable idea.

So when I came to her with a list of predicted miRNA binding sites for the mRNA that we study, she let me take that project on and test whether these regulatory molecules were indeed causing the biological effects we see in our system. As the project grew there were these little blips of pure joy as our hypothesis was proved positive. These blips, at least for me, are too scarce, and in my memory the last couple of years have been extremely challenging. In that time, though, I discovered my passion for science communication and started my blog. In it’s own way, that website has been the coolest project I have ever worked on!

Role models/heroes:
My most influential role models over the last decade have been my Aunt and my advisor. In different ways they have each shown me how to be a great scientist and a great woman, and that those two things do not have to be mutually exclusive.

Why do you love working in STEM?
As someone who is leaving academia to focus on STEM communication, I often find myself contemplating what I will miss. I keep coming back to the conversations and the camaraderie. A lab is more than just a place where people in white coats churn out data for publication; it’s a family. We are all working towards a common goal, but as we chase that goal we need the odd pep talk, or to see the latest YouTube clip that went viral, or a beer at the end of the week. It’s that community of smart, fun, like-minded people that I will miss being around every day.

Advice for future STEMinists?
Do it. Don’t be intimidated. Ask questions. Make sure you have a support network, whether it be friends, family, colleagues, or all of the above. And don’t be afraid to ask for help (both in and out of the lab).

Favorite website or app:
Twitter. By a MILE!!! It’s a great place to meet other scientists, get help with experiments, and keep abreast of what’s going in other fields of research.

Twitter: @Katie_PhD
Website: www.katiephd.com

STEMinist Profile: Shannon Jaeger, Masters Student in Computer Science

Shannon Jaeger

Masters Student in Computer Science
University of Calgary

Founder, Jaeger eMedia Inc.



What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
STEM was a calling to me. I have always been curious about why things are the way they are in the world around me. Enjoyed learning about science in school, however, I felt very alone in this desire. I come from a small town where I may have been the only girl in my grade that enjoyed math. Fortunately I had a female science teacher in grade 8, and a female physics teacher in high school. I’d have thought I was really odd if it was not for having a female science teacher, and I’m not sure that I’d have pursued a STEM career.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
Coolest project is probably the first major project. Perhaps because it was the first, perhaps because it was such a great success. I was one of five developers who worked on the Gemini Telescopes Data Handling System, which might still be running at the observatories. The system consisted of 7 client/server processes written in C/C++ with Tcl/Tk user interfaces. It was cool because the software worked well and we delivered it on time and on budget and it is an important part of the observatories’ software system.

Role models and heroes:
Obviously my grade 8 teacher Mrs. Sallows, my physics teacher Ms. Karbeshewski. Later in University: Lady Lovelace. One of my early instructors called me Miss Lovelace; he meant it in a derogatory way but I took it as a compliment.

Why do you love working in STEM?
As stated before, STEM is a calling to me. I can’t imagine doing anything else. I love problem solving and unraveling mysteries. STEM careers have plenty of problems and mysteries.

Advice for future STEMinists?
This is not my quote and I do not know the author, however it is what I’d like to pass onto others: “Obstacles can’t stop you. Problems can’t stop you. Most of all, other people can’t stop you. Only you can stop you.”

Favorite website or app:
There are far too many too choose from that I enjoy. However, I am going to pick ted.com. I think the Ted Talks are a rather clever way of sharing ideas to the world.

Twitter: @shannon_jaeger
Website: www.jaeger-emedia.com