STEMinist Profile: April Lowell, Ph.D. candidate in Molecular and Cellular Biology

April Lowell

Ph.D. candidate in Molecular and Cellular Biology

Brandeis University

What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
Growing up and throughout my adult life, I have always been very curious about how and why things work the way they do in our bodies and in Nature in general. Some of my favorite discussions and introspective moments revolve around why we are the way we are and how life on earth works. Since I excelled in my biology classes throughout my education and had a genuine interest in my laboratory classes, I felt that I would enjoy a career in science research and communicating my work to others.

I also really wanted to pursue a career that could make a contribution and help other people in some way, and I felt that I could do this through medical and scientific advances or just through educating others about science and introducing them to new and interesting ideas.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
This is a tough one because I value a lot of the projects I have had. I am currently working on understanding the molecular mechanisms and neuronal circuitry of thermosensation in fruit flies and this is cool because it gives us an understanding of how organisms in general sense heat and pain, as well as certain aversive chemicals. But I do still have a strong fondness for the work that I did as a technician in a cancer research lab before graduate school.

My colleagues and I did a lot of work to understand how different chemotherapy drugs can have different effects on proteins in cancer cells and the cell cycle. This type of work is important because not all cancers of the same tissue are alike and so some drugs may work better for some patients versus others. We gained knowledge about which drugs may work better for cancers with particular types of mutations. I liked the fact that this work had a direct connection with helping patients who were in and will be in clinical trials for these drugs.

Role models/heroes:
While I have had a few great mentors and teachers including high school biology teachers and postdoc fellows who have trained and guided me, my first hero and role model has always been my father. He has always encouraged me in my interest in science since I was a young girl, asking me a lot of questions in response to my questions about life and how things work in the universe. We would have long discussions sometimes considering what he knew to answer me and if he didn’t know the answer, what the possible answers might be.

And eventually if we couldn’t come up with the answers right then he would encouragingly say, “Well, maybe you can figure it out some day for us.” So, he has always had a big influence on how I approach questions and my interest in science and life in general. He has also always encouraged the importance of and been a great example of lifelong learning.

Why do you love working in STEM?
I love it because I truly have a curiosity that cannot be quenched with just a single answer. I really want to know as much as I can about how life works and how it evolved here on earth. I love finding out new and surprising things that I never would have thought of before and it feels great when your experiments work and you find that your hypothesis seems to be right.

That being said, it certainly can be grueling, tedious, and disappointing fairly often too! But the payoff is in the understanding that I gain about how cells and molecules, neurons and systems, and diseases work. It’s the fascinating new knowledge that then makes me want to know more that keeps me going, as well as trying to reach my overall life goals.

Advice for future STEMinists?
Stamina. Stamina. Stamina. I find that working in science is often a test of endurance, so if you are sure that this is what you want to do (and you need to be sure in the long run), then just keep on chugging along and eventually you’ll accomplish your goals. That’s what I try to tell myself anyway! Try not to let the disappointing moments get you down too much and just keep putting one foot in front of the other, so to speak.

It also helps to have a good mentor (although I understand how those can be tricky to find) to bounce ideas off of and provide support when you need it. We all need help and collaboration in science and it’s important to talk things out, like what experiments are worthwhile and which ones are not. And I also highly recommend doing as much as you can to practice and polish up your presentation and communication skills, especially when presenting your work in a formal setting. Know your audience and keep it simple. The better people understand your work, the better and more helpful your feedback will be, which will hopefully lead to better experiments and a good reputation for positive communication.

Favorite website/app:
Too many good science pages to list, but is a classic & a must for Drosophila researchers. Also, Facebook and Twitter have become surprisingly good sources for great new science news because many official journals and associations can be followed and are active on them now.

Twitter: @AMLgirl

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