Early Career Scientist Leadership Spotlight — Alexandra Erwin
We’re taking time over the following weeks to get to know the members of the GSA’s Early Career Scientist Committees. Join us every week to learn more about our early career scientist advocates.
Co-Chair, Early Career Scientist Steering Committee
University of Kansas
Broadly, my research interests are in the fields of genetics and epigenetics. Epigenetic factors influence the expression of genes, and some can be transmitted across generations. My current project looks at how these epigenetic factors change with age, since not all cells are affected by aging in the same way. For example, the cells that give rise to future generations, known as germ cells, show increased protection from the effects of aging than other cells of the body. Epigenetic factors have been shown to contribute to age-related changes in some cells, and I’m investigating whether that’s also true for the germline and the reproductive tissues. This research may help us better understand what specifically makes the germline more impervious to the aging process and could help us gain insight into the decline in reproductive function that occurs with age. I use fruit flies as a model organism.
As a PhD-trained scientist, you have many career options. What career paths interest you the most?
I want my career to embody my passion for helping early career scientists. There are many mismatches between scientific training and the labor market. For example, even though PhD training is geared towards academia, only about 15% of PhDs in the biological sciences find themselves in academic tenure track positions. Moreover, the need for increased diversity at various levels and sectors is being echoed across all STEM disciplines.
My scientific training, which includes critical thinking, data analysis, and problem solving, equips me with the tools needed to address problems facing next generation scientists. An opportunity to be involved in contributing to policies that target scientific workforce issues while advocating for and implementing efforts that improve training for early career scientists would be very rewarding. More specifically, I am passionate about the scientific workforce issues that are unique to my geographical region in the Midwest, such as talent retention and acquisition, and would be thrilled for an opportunity to work on ways to cultivate relationships within and outside of the scientific community to further build and retain scientific talent in our area.
In addition to your research, how else do you want to advance the scientific enterprise?
There is still a lot of work to do to make science a more accessible and fulfilling career path to people with different backgrounds, experiences, and circumstances. We need to be committed to reducing and eliminating barriers that keep those with a passion for science from staying in the field.
For trainees especially, the new jobs landscape is intimidating, but I would encourage us all to to take action early to explore diverse career interests and interact with people in various careers and sectors. There are so many roles that scientists can play to move the scientific endeavor forward as a whole. It’s important for us to be adaptive and flexible professionals that can share our skills and passion for science across varying areas of employment sectors.
Why were you interested in a leadership position?
A leadership position at the GSA is not only a way for me to engage more with a professional society that I have a lot of respect and admiration for, but it is also a new opportunity to develop my passion for helping early career scientists on a broader scale. Much of my professional development so far has been through opportunities at the GSA, so I’m excited to use this chance to encourage other trainees to get involved and supplement their research with rewarding professional experiences.
Involvement with the ECSSC is a great opportunity to learn from a diverse group of people and experience a new organizational environment that is much different than the university setting I’m used to. I think some of the most useful skills members of the ECS committees will gain through this experience are team-work and collaboration on a scale we likely wouldn’t have in our regular research setting. One of my favorite things about the structure of the organization is the involvement of advanced career advisors. Not only can trainees participating in ECS committees gain new skills and get feedback from successful leaders in the sciences, but they also have a chance to expand their network and grow as professionals.
As a leader within the Genetics Society of America, what do you hope to accomplish?
The steering committee is an umbrella committee for the policy, communication & outreach, and career development subcommittees. For my first project, I will be collecting and analyzing data from the community to understand the interests, concerns, and challenges of early career scientists. My co-chair Alessandro Bailetti and I will use the results to guide the focus of the subcommittees and our focus as a whole. We will also provide feedback and direction for the three subcommittees. I’m eager to work with the rest of the steering committee as we develop programming, advocate for trainee interests, energize engagement, and highlight the unique insights and experiences of the trainee community.
My short term goals as a co-chair of the steering committee are to make new connections within the organization. Our committee incorporates trainees from different model organism communities, with different areas of research, and at various career stages. We have a great opportunity to learn from one another and work together to explore the current policies and practices that impact trainees.
My long term goals for committee involvement are to find effective ways to adapt quickly to the needs of our trainees and offer unique resources for trainees of the genetics community. I also think an important long-term goal is to help foster a permanent culture of engagement from next generation scientists. As the scientific landscape rapidly changes, it’s important for us to develop communications outside of our immediate communities and to connect with scientists and nonscientists in various sectors. The GSA provides a great platform for building these relationships.
Previous Leadership Experience:
- Founder and Lead Organizer of Jayhawks Breaking Barriers, an initiative to close the gender leadership gap in STEM -The University of Kansas
- Lead Organizer of the SEARCH Symposium (Scientists Exploring non-Academic Career Choices) – The University of Kansas
- Co-president – The Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Graduate Student Organization
- Graduate student senator – University of Kansas Student Senate