We’re taking time to get to know the members of the GSA’s Early Career Scientist Committees. Join us to learn more about our early career scientist advocates.
Policy and Advocacy Subcommittee
Worcester Polytechnic Institute
I have always wondered why. “Why do we make certain choices?” “Why does the smell of cookies bring up a specific memory?” My desire to know why drove me into science as I was growing up. Heading into higher education at Assumption University, I explored the field of neuroscience and began learning how the brain processes information.
As an undergraduate student, I researched neuroscience from the biochemistry perspective in the lab of Dr. Jill Zitzewitz at the University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School. I learned more about how amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) forms its toxic protein aggregates. “Why are these proteins associated with this motor neuron disease? Are they the cause or an effect of the disease?” Being so focused on a single protein, matrin 3, took me in a different direction when I started wanting to learn the why in neuroscience. After graduating college, I went in a more behavioral direction.
I found my way into the lab of Dr. Jagan Srinivasan at Worcester Polytechnic Institute as a research technician, where we work on deciphering neural circuits in the model system C. elegans. “Why do these worms behave the way they do?” Many of our projects originate in trying to understand the olfactory mechanism that these worms use to communicate with one another using pheromones called ascarosides. From first identifying the individual neurons that respond to exposure of these chemicals to then narrowing our focus to find the individual receptors that enable the neuron to respond, we attempted to understand how this little worm moves throughout the world.
After a few years as a research technician, I joined the Srinivasan lab as a graduate student. Since then, my work has taken me in disparate directions that will really enable me to understand why. “Why is it important for C. elegans to communicate to one another?” To understand this, I am involved in a project to develop a new technique to study the function of individual neuropeptides, first in C. elegans before expanding the technology to other organisms. I have also been able to explore other whys. “Why, in a population where half of the people will experience an instance of trauma in their lives, do 5% of people develop post-traumatic stress disorder? Why are females twice as likely to be diagnosed with PTSD?” The social implications of this project make it incredibly difficult to tease apart the factors and adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) that may predispose some and not others to PTSD, but I am attempting to develop a model for PTSD using C. elegans to begin to understand some of the genetic markers that may lead to resilience during trauma.
I hope to continue to learn why.
As a PhD-trained scientist, you have many career options. What interests you the most?
In graduate school, I am really taking the time to learn about all different career options. Talking to more scientists, I realize how many specialized fields a PhD can get you into. I was already aware of options in academics and large-industry research, but I am currently exploring careers outside of the lab and academics.
My first motivation for pursuing the PhD path was my interest in education. I am very interested in teaching and participate in many teaching and mentorship programs targeted at high school and middle school students. It is immensely satisfying to fuel someone’s passion and spark their interest. I am currently expanding my teaching portfolio so that I can effectively teach a wider variety of students with different interests.
On the Policy and Advocacy Subcommittee, I am discovering other options that exist in advocating for science policy. On more of the science communication side, I am interested in paths that enable scientists to communicate more effectively with non-scientists. This underlies an essential part of being a scientist in the modern age: being able to communicate the work being done and advocate for its importance and relevance. This skill exists in many future careers, though the audience may change.
Overall, I am still in the process of exploring avenues for the future and am open to what may come next.
In addition to your research, how do you want to advance the scientific enterprise?
I want to make STEM accessible to all people. I am starting by facilitating young scientists’ entry into research. I spend time in graduate school mentoring middle school to undergraduate students who are interested in STEM. This research mentorship is very important because not only is it relevant to the research being done, but we are also building young scientists’ skills and confidence in their abilities. I try to instill the belief that we can explore fields and have the perseverance to surmount troubles we encounter.
I also teach and mentor outside of the lab, with students who are interested in science. I run biology camps during the summer for high school students who are looking to dive into science outside of the classroom. It was in a summer biology camp when I was in high school where I really discovered my passion for science and learned about neuroscience for the first time, so I understand the potential of these programs.
After graduate school, I intend to continue my outreach and science education activities by promoting leadership in communities lacking a clear path into research. I will accomplish this after graduating by moving into education and policy development to improve scientific communication on a larger scale. To prepare for this, I will be taking courses in my graduate career to identify and shape my teaching pedagogy and skills in policy development. On a shorter timescale, I am working to create a program at my graduate school to create a program to fund undergraduate research opportunities during the academic year with a focus on making research accessible to our larger community. The goal of this program is to afford economically challenged students the funding and resources necessary to perform research and promote scientific outreach in underreached communities.
As a leader within the Genetics Society of America, what do you hope to accomplish?
I am looking to connect with a passionate community of scientists outside of my institution. After attending the International C. elegans Conference in 2021, I learned about this early career leadership panel and what kinds of programs were organized. I would love to contribute to the network of scientists within our community while also reaching those outside it. Communication is an essential skill, and while in graduate school, I am honing the ability to talk to others within my field about my work. One underdeveloped yet essential skill for many is the ability to communicate what we are working on to people outside our field. It is often more difficult to communicate with someone who doesn’t know what you’re doing and why it is important. I think that this skill can be achieved through the Early Career Leadership role.
On the Policy and Advocacy Subcommittee, one initiative I am finding very interesting is our interview series. Here, we are interviewing scientists who are involved in advocating for science policy, have worked in a space where they communicate with lawmakers, or have a passion for advising socially responsible researchers. In a few interviews, scientists have shared their perspective in communicating with policymakers. In these discussions, they mention that it’s important to not enter conversations with a deficit mindset: “If only they had the information I do, they would change their mind.” This is difficult ground to build a conversation on. Recognizing this mindset, we learn to appreciate different perspectives that others bring, and together we can find a more harmonious solution. It sounds so simple, but it’s important to remember that we are all humans just trying to do the best we can.
While providing information on what careers in science policy look like, our subcommittee also supplies resources for scientists looking to get involved in science policy. We have a science policy fellowship database where we accumulate all the active fellowships into a searchable database to provide researchers paths into this field.
Previous leadership experience
- NASPA Peer Health Educator, elected to represent New England on Panel, at Assumption University
- Program Coordinator for Women in STEM Leadership Academy at Worcester Polytechnic Institute