Research Associate (Microbiology)
What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
Both of my parents are scientifically-minded – my father has a degree in biochemistry and my mother has hers in kinesiology – and they did a good job of instilling my siblings and me with a sense of wonder about the natural world. Not only a sense of wonder, but a sense that there were answers: answers that we were equipped to find ourselves. Equipped with those mental tools, it became irresistible to try and find the answers.
As soon as I took high school biology, everything clicked with me and I knew that was what I had to study. Nothing was more inspiring or more meaningful to me, so I knew it was my calling. Luckily, biology is still as exciting and fulfilling to me today as it was when I was a child.
What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
The coolest project that I have worked on has been a microbial ecology study. Science has become very interdisciplinary these days, so don’t be surprised when I say that we were using next gen genetic sequencing techniques to study microbes on the community-level (rather than on the individual species level) in order to better understand the geology of the area. Microbes have an ecology going on just like the traditional “a lion eats a zebra” example.
We used the microbial community to sense what was happening in the environment both chemically and geologically, because geology affects microbes while microbes affect geology. Using next gen sequencing, we were able to identify certain core “consortia” of microbes which always seemed to co-occur (they all seemed to need each other to survive). Using targeted isolation techniques, we were able to find and grow all the species in one such consortium under laboratory conditions, and then study their metabolisms both individually and as a community. We were able to produce a carbon-flow model of what happens in the environment, and how those microbes interacted to produce some of the mineralization we observe and by-products they produce.
The study of biogeochemistry is becoming very important, especially now as we learn more about things like the nitrogen cycle and the methane cycle, both of which are driven by microbes but have global-scale effects.
Melissa Jurica is one of my major role models. She is a brilliant woman who has been able to start a family and stay in academia – no small feat. It is true that in the USA, STEM women tend to leave academia for industry if they want to have a family and/or children because industry is more accommodating towards maternity. This shouldn’t be the case, but it is.
A few more of my heroes include: Dorothy Hodgkin because, really, X-ray crystallography is intense and never fails to impress me; Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins for their work in evolutionary biology and for helping the public and non-specialists to understand and conceptualize the major points of their field; Margret Sanger for helping forward birth control advocacy and sexual rights; and Betty Dodson for helping women accept and embrace their sexuality.
Why do you love working in STEM?
I love working in STEM because it gives me a chance to explore the world around me and make discoveries about life itself. It is a very gratifying experience to contribute to new data and discoveries, and I think it gives me a healthy sense of self-worth and pride in my abilities. When months or years of work suddenly starts to fall into place and you start making sense of all your meticulously-collected data: that is the greatest feeling in the world. I also love that it forces me to keep learning new things every day, and that I am always finding new things that amaze me or blow my mind.
Advice for future STEMinists?
If you get bogged down by the day-to-day drudgery of STEM work, take some time to step back and look at the big picture and remind yourself of the big questions you are asking. Sometimes STEM work can feel tedious, especially since there are times when you must focus so much of your brainpower onto a tiny (yet crucial) portion of your work, and that can get both mechanically tedious and mentally exhausting. If you find yourself in that situation, taking a short break to reflect on these things will give you a better perspective, and instead of feeling stuck you can recognize that your work has not been mundane. Much of the progress in STEM builds up slowly over time, which is why looking back is helpful.
I will also say that you should really work on building a solid foundation in math and computers. This might seem obvious but a lot of people (men and women) shy away from math and computers, especially in some of the biological disciplines. However, those fields actually do use a lot of math and computers on a daily basis, so if you beef up your mathematics, you will stand out as being very valuable in your field. Don’t assume that you won’t need mastery of math or computers for any STEM job you want to pursue. I can guarantee that no matter which field you want to work in, both skills will help you succeed and advance. For example: yes, an ecologist needs to be very good at ecology, but everybody else working in ecology does amazing ecology work as well – that’s why they’re in that field. But if you’ve also taken a class in programming, are familiar in Linux, and are not scared of using mathematics; you’ve got an edge. You’re valuable.
I have two apps that are very impressive and absolutely indispensable:
Sigma-Aldrich’s “Substructure Search” is invaluable to me, and also free to use (they want it to help you buy chemicals from them). They have brought together MarvinSketch, JME Molecular Editor, and ChemDraw (all amazing) in one applet. You can “sketch” an organic molecule, and then have the applet calculate the IUPAC name for what you have just drawn (and vise-versa). IUPAC naming is a good method of standardization, but it can get tricky.
Common names are easier to remember, but are not standardized (and often result in 10 different names for one molecule). This does lead to trouble sometimes! That’s why we all remember our O-Chem professors giving extra credit problems on our homework with a drawing of a very huge and ugly molecule, with the deceptively simple instructions “Give the IUPAC name for this molecule.”
I use this applet for my work all the time, but I can imagine that if I had this as a child, I would have loved to spend hours drawing the weirdest molecules possible, trying to “stump the program.” I think this is a natural tendency kids have, but in the process they would still learn a lot about molecular naming and be entertained by discovering that this atrocity they have just drawn actually has a name.
The ARB Project is another free program that I could not do without. If you have a Linux computer, you can download it and start making phylogenetic trees (the image on their homepage is a good example) at home. You don’t even need to generate your own genetic data to get started, you can download some reference trees of genetic sequences submitted by other scientists from http://www.arb-silva.de/and then start playing with them in ARB. You learn a lot about taxonomy and phylogeny just by playing around with trees in ARB.
Website and Twitter: My personal Twitter account is @Steenaire, and my personal website is www.certainly-strange.com. I mostly blog about personal things or post silly doodles, but recently I have decided to try my hand at science reporting that is accessible and interesting to non-specialists. After reading far too many “evolutionary narratives” in popular science reporting, I decided that if I really wanted anything to change then I should be contributing.