STEMinist Profile: Emilie Clemmens, Postdoc, Bioengineering

emilie Clemmens

Emilie Clemmens

University of Washington
Department of Bioengineering

What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
Innate curiousity about the natural world was and still is my primary motivator. I was encouraged by success in math and science courses in high school, too. In my hometown of Ashland, KY there were several programs that supported students going into engineering (due to local industry), so I went down that path.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
I’m working on it now! I’m developing a tool for our lab that will allow us to carefully stretch individual proteins. My interest is in mechanotransduction and mechanical sensing in cells and proteins. The protein I’m hoping to play with soon is called von Willebrand factor; it’s a critical anchor for platelets during clotting and it’s turned “on” (binds platelets) only when stretched out by fast blood flow. Sometimes it gets turned on when it’s not supposed to, such as in a clogged artery, and this can initiate clot formation when you definitely don’t want it. Those clots can initiate a heart attack or stroke, for example.

By carefully stretching this protein under controlled conditions, we can better understand how this process works and hopefully that will lead to improved thrombosis therapies. This project is so cool because I’m doing a lot of engineering to design and troubleshoot the tool AND I am studying the behavior of proteins too. Physiology is my passion, but there’s nothing more satisfying than truly understanding where your measurements are coming from because you built the tool yourself.

Role models and heroes:
Sometimes our role models and heroes aren’t overt, and I think that’s the case for me.  I believe the simple fact that I know of female Nobel Prize winners and that I’ve witnessed the successes of female faculty at the schools I’ve attended has proved to be inspiration enough.  If those trailblazers hadn’t been there, I wonder if I would feel less capable somehow.  So I’m grateful for them and the paths they’ve forged.

I’m also inspired by all individuals, regardless of gender, who are working to change the paradigm of traditional lecturing and apprenticeship at universities. The discipline barriers have been broken, and I’m seeing universities become more open to active learning in the classrooms–these are good things.  I also believe we need to continue to explore alternative paths to “success” in science, both in terms of how we fund it and the ways a person can participate in academic science.

Advice for future STEMinists?
I’ve just recently returned to science. I initially left to be home with my kids, who are now 6 and 4, and then I taught biology in community college for a number of years. According to the traditional path to “success”, I thought I had veered too far off the university track to get back on. I decided to just TRY, and I found a way. I applied for a fellowship I never thought I’d get, and I got it! Always try. Many women (and men) are grappling with issues of childrearing vs. career, and in my experience these were tough decisions.

But looking back, I’ve known so many parents who have done both, who eliminated that “vs.” and found a solution that worked for them. There’s no one right way. Make the decisions that you believe are best for you, keep in touch with your network, and roll with the unexpected–there’s always a lot of that. For the younger set, my advice is to challenge yourself. Don’t think you can’t handle the math–you can! Keep trying! Find a good teacher or tutor. And you don’t have to be an expert at everything. Do not forget that you have something important to give.

Favorite website or app: In 10-20 minutes, I can learn something new or see the world though another’s eyes. Far more interesting to me than snarky blog wars. Other than that I don’t spend much time on websites. With 2 kids and a full-time job, something’s gotta give.

Twitter: My Twitter account is @MommaSci. I had grand hopes for it, but I just don’t have time. I pretty much avoid Twitter!

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