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.
Career Development Subcommittee
University of Illinois at Chicago
The creativity and curiosity of my late advisor David Featherstone helped expand my research interests. Shortly after joining my current lab, my advisor pointed out that within the now-sequenced human genome, thousands of genes remain uncharacterized, many of which are highly conserved. If we ever truly want to understand how genes and their protein products interact, we need to know what each gene does. I was tasked with studying one of these highly conserved yet novel genes in Drosophila that we named Optimus-prime. We identified the protein through a screen designed to find uncharacterized gene regulators of the Drosophila larval neuromuscular junction.
Drosophila larval neuromuscular junctions contain ionotropic glutamate receptors similar to those found in mammalian brains, making them an easily accessible model for studying the development and regulation of excitatory glutamatergic synapses. These glutamatergic synapses play a huge role in learning and memory formation, and defects in their development and maintenance are linked to many human brain diseases. Genome-wide association studies have implicated the human homolog of Optimus-prime in several diseases including migraine disorder, bipolar disorder, and autism. Using techniques such as confocal imaging and electrophysiology, my studies have revealed that Optimus-prime plays a presynaptic role in regulating synaptic development and transmission. These findings provide new insights into glutamatergic synapse function and possibly provide a novel therapeutic target for treating neuropathies.
As a PhD-trained scientist, you have many career options. What career paths interest you the most?
After completing my undergraduate studies in biochemistry, I worked in Research & Development for Newell Rubbermaid. I loved the environment and my fellow scientists, but the research questions I was investigating didn’t intrigue me. I realized to be engaged, I needed to be passionate about the scientific questions I was researching. For me, this means questions broadly related to human disease instead of industrial chemical research. Although it was a great experience because I was able to work collaboratively in an R&D environment, I decided to move on and explore my career options as a biologist.
Coming back to the bench was very exciting, especially because of the fast-paced research environment in neuroscience right now. I find bench work and the planning that goes into it very rewarding, and I’m looking forward to using these skills while also working with and managing a research team. I’m interested in transitioning back to a career in industry. Long term, one of my goals is to get experience on the business development side of research so I could possibly move on to other roles within a company.
In addition to your research, how else do you want to advance the scientific enterprise?
As a mother in science, I think it is very important that parents, in both academia and industry, have a voice. Working parents bring value to their roles in science and leadership by adding a new perspective and sharing their diverse experiences. There are unique responsibilities for scientists with families—particularly for women—and maintaining proper work-life balance can sometimes be difficult. I would like to encourage open communication to try relieving the stigma that can be associated with having a family and being a successful researcher. Parents should be encouraged to advocate for equal parental leave policies in the workplace and for other changes such as dedicated lactation rooms, on-site child care, and flexible hours. These changes would not only benefit parents but would also encourage everyone to find a healthy work-life balance. Employees and workplaces that are well supported will likely have increased productivity, leading to higher quality work, and an overall happier environment.
As a leader within the Genetics Society of America, what do you hope to accomplish?
GSA-sponsored conferences have been a great resource for me through my graduate career. They have given me an avenue not only to present my own work but also to meet other like-minded researchers. When speaking to fellow attendees at conferences, as well as my colleagues in graduate school, I noticed a common theme: many people hadn’t given much thought to planning their career path and weren’t aware of all the different options. I began exploring career events at my institution and developed a strong desire to help my peers by providing more information and resources to those who were less certain of their career plans so they could seek the skills, experience, and guidance needed to reach their goals. My goal as a GSA leader is to provide my peers with information about other scientists’ career paths through the Decoding Life blog series, as well as to share my own experiences. The more informed we are as early career scientists, the more likely we are to find a fulfilling career and to reach our full potentials.
Previous Leadership Experience
Undergraduate Mentor—University of Illinois at Chicago Honors College
Clerical Training Lead—University of Michigan Hospitals