Early Career Leadership Spotlight: Kristen Navarro
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.
Communication and Outreach Subcommittee
Ohio State University
My love of science did not initially come from a place of positivity or wonder. It came from a place of failure. All my life, I was abysmal at mathematics, which proved problematic as it became part of more and more of the school subjects throughout my early education. For the longest time, I felt extremely excluded by the sciences due to my inability to perform well mathematically, and I was at risk of leaving the field altogether. Just as all hope was lost, I discovered genetics.
Here was a field that, at the time, required far less mathematics than such disciplines as physics or chemistry. I found it so intriguing that the field focused on inheritance and the passing down of predominantly qualitative features: a person’s eye color, the color of a single kernel of corn, the shape of a flower, and so on.
For someone like me with a predominantly visual mind, this form of alternative analysis allowed me to quickly grasp and fall in love with science and the critical thinking needed for experimentation. Another wonderful feature of genetics is its flexibility and applicability to countless other scientific disciplines. I discovered cell and developmental biology from the qualitative analysis performed in genetics and appreciated how these disciplines were able to determine key molecular mechanisms from further qualitative analysis, like examining cellular behavior and animal development.
However, cell and developmental biology also intrigued me because I was able to learn critical and statistical analysis in a way that felt more relevant and easier to grasp than my many high school math classes. When combined all together, I was able to find a place in science not only where I belonged but also where I could study clinically relevant issues, such as human diseases and disorders.
Currently, I am extremely passionate about applying fundamental biology concepts and mechanisms to translational research. My current thesis work reflects this interest. In short, I am studying the transmembrane emp24 domain (TMED) proteins in C. elegans. The TMED protein family is highly conserved, so studying the molecular mechanisms is important for understanding how these proteins might be involved in health and disease. C. elegans, a model organism relegated to basic biology, is also an amazing example of applying basic biology concepts to translational experiments, thanks to its high genome conservation with humans.
As a PhD-trained scientist, you have many career options. What interests you the most?
I am most interested in pursuing the academic career track and becoming a principal investigator at an R1 institution. Ever since I started doing research in my undergraduate career, I have been interested in becoming a PI. I enjoyed seeing how my mentor was free to pursue his scientific passions and share his interests with undergraduate students who wanted research experience.
Like me, he was from a marginalized background, which was very impactful as all the scientists I had met or seen on television up to that point were not. He made me realize that we need more PIs from marginalized backgrounds. We can provide critical perspectives and insights into the scientific field that may not have been offered by other, more privileged scientists.
I also firmly believe that by writing, a key component of any PI’s career, I can provide my perspective on my selected field. Aligning with one of the core missions of the Communications and Outreach Subcommittee, I would strive to write about and share my suggestions for diversifying the sciences—a goal easily accomplished as a PI.
Additionally, I have long had a strong affinity for mentorship, and I love being able to teach and guide others through the scientific field. As a researcher, I have been blessed to be able to directly impact the lives of undergraduate students working in my lab by passing down valuable lessons and stories from my scientific career. As a graduate teaching assistant, I have also been able to share my wisdom with my students. By becoming a PI, someone whose personal responsibility is to mentor along with conducting research, I will be equipped to guide countless students across all levels, igniting within them a deep appreciation of and curiosity for science. Now, more than ever, it is critical to encourage students to enter and remain in the scientific discipline. Becoming a PI will give me a direct route to do just that.
In addition to your research, how do you want to advance the scientific enterprise?
Through my thesis work, I have gained the skills necessary to learn about and connect the fundamental molecular mechanisms and classical genetics I am working on with topics that may fascinate a wider audience, such as human health and disease. In the future, I would like to take the skills that basic science has given me and switch to the more translational sciences. I would like to advance the understanding of mechanisms involved in genetic diseases and disorders by applying discoveries first made in basic science model organisms and continue by studying them in vertebrate orthologues, such as cell lines and human tissue samples. I want to continue exploring the cellular, molecular, and genetic causes of diseases by further exploring preliminary work done in orthologous model organisms.
I would also like to make novel discoveries of my own and contribute new findings to my future field. I hope to inspire myself and others by discovering new potential causes of and therapeutic targets for a variety of diseases with complex causes. Finally, to further advance the scientific enterprise, I would like to be someone who can talk and write about science simply. Now, more than ever, it is critical to be able to discuss science in an easy-to-understand fashion and spread that information in an accessible way.
As a leader within the Genetics Society of America, what do you hope to accomplish?
As a leader within the Genetics Society of America, I hope to leave behind a legacy of challenging and overcoming systemic issues caused by the lack of consistent, meaningful, and diverse access to scientific understanding. Though Gregor Mendel had good intentions when studying his pea plants, the field created in his wake—genetics—has historically been used to harm marginalized peoples. From assigning one’s “fitness” to the shape of their skull or color of their skin to irrevocably altering a woman’s body without her consent, the field of genetics has a long and bloodied history of oppression and cruelty.
Even today, awful beliefs caused by those unscientific fallacies continue to perpetuate systemic harm and suffering. With this historical precedent, I, a woman of color who would have been part of the “genetically inferior,” strive to give the Genetics Society of America the perspective and critical thinking on how to communicate science, especially genetics, to groups who have been historically damaged by individuals claiming to work as scientists.
I aim to use my writing abilities to produce works that can bring understanding of all the sciences to all audiences. My dream is to help dismantle the negative associations and cruel history of genetics and make it a discipline that everyone, especially marginalized people, can access and enjoy. By working closely with the Communications and Outreach Subcommittee, I can reach both the general and marginalized audiences with my published works. The subcommittee will provide me with the tools, critique, and assistance to ensure that I meet my desired goals. Ultimately, I hope to serve as one of many who are actively working to educate the public on the virtues of science, hopefully contributing to undoing the harm caused in the name of science.