STEMinist Profile: Emily Mason, Ph.D. Candidate in Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience

Emily Mason

Emily Mason

Ph.D. Candidate in Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience

Vanderbilt University

What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
I have a long history of wanting to experience EVERYTHING… I was all over the place as a kid! I wanted to be a writer, a large-animal veterinarian, a firefighter. My senior year of high school, I decided that forensic pathology was clearly the place for me so I went to college planning to go to medical school. As it turns out, it only takes a summer of working with corpses to decide not to spend a lifetime working with them and by my junior year I needed a new career path.

I had developed an unhealthy obsession with all of the nerdy media (PBS, NPR, Discovery Channel) and I was fascinated with how the mind works, so I decided to go into neuroscience research. Because science in the media was the inspiration for going into my career, I’m also interested in the communication of knowledge from scientists to non scientists in a way that is engaging for both.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
Storytelling is what binds people together, and the older a person is the better their stories usually are. My research interest is Alzheimer’s disease primarily because it strips people of their personal stories and I am horrified by that concept. One of the major difficulties of Alzheimer’s is that diagnosis doesn’t occur until there is already severe and likely irreversible neuronal damage. At this point, even the most promising therapies would only slow the course of the disease.

In my opinion, Alzheimer’s disease can best be studied by examining humans non-invasively and magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, is a great method for achieving that. For my thesis project, I’m attempting to validate state-of-the-art MRI techniques that could some day identify people who will likely develop Alzheimer’s decades before they experience any memory problems. These people can be enrolled in clinical trials at a time when treatment is most effective and Alzheimer’s pathology can be drastically slowed, prevented, or even reversed. We are at a time when there are tremendous advances being made in MRI, and it’s exciting to be part of the field!

Role models/heroes:
One of the reasons I never felt like I couldn’t be a woman in science is because several of my mentors have been brilliant, successful women. My academic advisor in college, Dr. Deb Martin, would wave off any insecurities I had about classes and just say, “Oh come on, I know you can do it, just go for it.” She gave me the confidence to succeed that I would have never had.

When I was working as a tech after college my mentor was Dr. Cheryl Conover. Her work with PAPP-A is incredible, but I admired her the most for the enthusiasm she showed every single day. She’s not afraid to get her hands dirty and dig into bench work. She is highly respected in the field, but she still made time to talk to me and give me invaluable career advice.

Why do you love working in STEM?
I love my own work and find it fascinating, but one of my favorite parts of STEM is talking to and collaborating with other STEMers. Good scientists think their project is the coolest thing on Earth, and their passion makes science exciting.

Advice for future STEMinists?
First, I would say the same thing that my advisor said: “Oh come on, you can do it, just go for it!” Don’t ever let a gender disparity prevent you from pursuing what you want. Secondly, the best way to learn is to teach. Become a mentor for someone younger or less advanced than you and you will not only be helping someone else out, you will get a deeper understanding of your own work.

Favorite website/app:
Following intelligent people on Twitter has really helped me expand my science horizons and keep in touch with what’s going on in other disciplines. It can be great for learning, networking, or just passing the time when an assay is running. There is also a great project for becoming a pen pal to a 7th grader to instill in them a love of science. You’re only required to send four letters a year! You can find it here.

Twitter: @ejmaso05

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