Since “Genetics” is the theme of this month’s Scientista newsletter, we thought it no better than to speak with two of the most amazing female scientists in this field: Life Sciences 1b Preceptors Amy Hansen and Casey Roehrig! While LS1b students have already quickly come to admire Amy and Casey as incredible teachers through their office hours and Friday Problem Solving Lectures, Scientista was fortunate to have a chance to learn more about the preceptors’ love for science and teaching, early experiences with research, thoughts about the advancement of women in academia and the improvements that still must be made, and much more:
Could you tell us a little bit about how you got interested in science? Were you always interested in biology or was this something you explored more as an undergraduate?
[Amy Hansen]: It was definitely something I was always interested. Especially because I went through the Scottish school system...you kind of define your interests a bit earlier. I went to university at 17 and I knew I was going to do biology. You apply for a particular subject and in the first year and second year, you get exposed to everything in biology. By the end of the second year, you start to narrow down your interests, and that’s when I started to get interested in genetics. I liked the problem-solving nature of the field.
[Casey Roehrig]: When I was in high school, I was actually more focused on studying music. I played mostly the flute and the piccolo but a few other wind instruments. And I thought that I wanted to go to college to become a music teacher. My senior year of high school I did the whole applying and auditioning process and when it came time to actually make a decision of where I wanted to go, I started taking a closer look at the music teachers I worked with and loved, and began recognizing that they weren’t as thrilled with their job as I wanted to be with mine.
Conveniently, I had applied to the wrong school at NYU. If you want to study music, you’re supposed to apply to the school of education; I had applied to the college of arts and sciences. And I ended up going to NYU as opposed to a music school, purely because I had filled up the wrong application! My freshman year of college I took introductory biology and I really liked it. I had always liked biology in high school, and I kept taking biology classes.
And you eventually decided to go to graduate school? Were you always sure about research, or did you ever consider going into other fields, such as medicine?
[Amy]: Yes! I really enjoyed research and ended up moving to London to complete my PhD at the University College London. I did deliberate doing medicine at one point. In your PhD, it’s common to do rotations during the first year, and I did a rotation in an ovarian cancer lab. I spent a lot of time in the hospital collecting samples, and I think it was really there that I realized that that wasn’t the environment I wanted to work in. While I was inspired by the doctors, it was really the research setting that got me the most excited.
[Casey]: Yes, I thought about medicine and even considered becoming a high school biology teacher. But then my freshman year, as I was looking for a job as many college students do, my lab TA got in touch with me to let me know that one of the postdocs in his lab was looking for an undergraduate research assistant. And so I decided to interview, just to see what this research setting would look like. I ended up getting hired, and I really liked the people I was working with in the lab and that everybody was working on different projects that related to some common goal. And on a day-to-day level I liked that I got to do different things every day that I came in. So I kept working in that lab for two and a half years. The professor actually ended up moving down to Duke my senior year, so I had to find a new lab to work in. One of the postdocs in the old lab switched to a new lab, and I sort of followed her there. I actually had my own project, which was a lot of fun, and I decided to stick with research and went to grad school!
Could you tell us about about the research you completed during your PhD?
[Amy]: I continued to explore the field of genetics during graduate school, but this time in a cancer setting. I was investigating a virus that causes cancer in people with HIV. So people with HIV have a depressed immune system, they get infected with viruses that you and I could fight off, and the viruses take hold of the patients and cause cancer, which can be a leading cause of death in people with HIV. It was a great problem to research, and I had the chance to learn about cell biology as well as genetics.
[Casey]: I worked in Craig Hunter’s lab, studying developmental biology, specifically of the nematode C. elegans. I was looking at the genes responsible for cell fate determination in early embryogenesis. In particular, I was looking at a small network of genes that are responsible for deciding between skin and muscle cell fates.
But you eventually decided to transition into teaching?
[Amy]: Since my time in London and even when I first moved to the States, I always liked teaching. As I was getting towards the end of my postdoc, I felt more excited by teaching and that I could give more to the world of teaching. But obviously, when you’re teaching, you’re constantly surrounded by the world of science and you have to keep yourself up-to-date with the latest research.
[Casey]: One of the things that I discovered in graduate school is that there are elements of research that I did not like as much. I’m not such a fan of the more competitive aspects of scientific research. And some of things that I was working on, I felt a bit isolated. I wasn’t motivated to continue with research as I neared the end of graduate school. In graduate school, I had the opportunity to teach for a bit, and I really, really liked that, so I decided to pursue that instead. I found teaching more rewarding than the experimental aspects of bench research.
Was it a difficult choice to leave the research world?
[Amy]: Yes, I really like research, and it’s always difficult to leave one path because you know you’re closing certain doors. You open up new ones of course! But it’s hard. And I think that’s actually a common problem for women in science. Because when you’re a postdoc and you go on to be an assistant professor, it’s usually in your early 30s. And that’s also when women are starting to think about having families, and the life of an assistant professor is very tough and very demanding. People talk about the STEM pipeline being a leaky pipeline and there’s a big hole between postdoc and professorship for women. I definitely had those feelings of “I’m going to be in the lab for several hours of day and my partner’s not a scientist, how is this going to work?” This of course wasn’t the deciding factor because I felt more passionate about teaching, but I did think about it a bit.
[Casey]: A bit. I very much liked working in a research lab. I liked the questions that I got to ask and answer in biology. But, I found teaching to be a lot more fun than doing experiments. It was always great when your experiment worked out and you got a great result, but those moments were few and far between. I feel like I far more often have a good conversation with a student that leaves me with a great, awesome feeling than I got out of bench research.
While biology does not seem to have as much problems with gender representation as male-dominated fields such as physics or math, did you ever have experiences where you felt isolated or alone, especially as you headed towards graduate school?
[Amy]: Biology majors actually have a 50/50 gender split, or a greater number of women. But there are still far fewer female deans, heads of departments, lab heads, and professors. Some people might say there’s a latency effect, especially as biology only experienced gender parity in the 1990s. But the latency is not enough to explain the disparity that we see in high-level positions. And it’s almost even more frustrating that we have managed gender parity in the classroom and that we are not seeing that reflected in higher level positions. In fact, there have even been studies that have found that new female professors receive significantly less lab startup money compared to their male counterparts.
[Casey]: I think that when you look at tenured faculty members, it still skews quite male. And a lot of that is for historical reasons. But I think that also the process of becoming a tenured track and then a tenured faculty member is especially difficult for women given issues of family. It’s just very very challenging. It isn’t to say that there aren’t women out there who aren’t succeeding. It’s just that it’s difficult. In graduate school, it was quite even for me; we might have even had more women in my class than men. And so in that sense, I always felt that there were other people who understood what I was going through. But for me though, the challenges were just going through school as a graduate student and not specific to being a woman.
Did you have any mentors or role models that shaped your path in science?
[Amy]: From a very young age, both my parents, particularly my dad, set a great example. He always emphasized that his children could do anything that they wanted. They always said that if you want something, you work at it, and you can get it. What matters is your perseverance. And that was a great equalizing message. I was raised with a very strong sense of everyone should have access to the opportunities to do things that they want to do.
I also had a great group of friends in university, all of whom were very motivated and enthusiastic. And that was really inspiring, because when you looked around you saw people with big goals and big dreams.
In terms of research, in my PhD lab, there was a postdoc who was an excellent mentor and he had a very good approach to science. He was always very patient with me!
[Casey]: For science, the best role models I had were the postdocs in the labs that I worked in. And there were some really excellent women scientists as well as male scientists. One of the things that I did see was that women who did get pregnant as postdocs had a hard time balancing the maintenance of a research project with having a baby. But there were always women who powered through it! But it was really the postdocs who encouraged me to keep doing science and also gave me great advice about going to grad school and picking labs.
Do you have any advice for young female students (and undergraduates in general) interested in science?
[Amy]: I think that it’s very important to listen to yourself and think about what makes you most excited. Often times, there’s a sense of what one “should do” or what the “prestigious” path is, but I think you’re able to give more to the world and get more out of your life if you do things that fire you up. And that’s what I’ve always used as my guiding principle when making difficult decisions.
One thing that I struggled a lot with as well was ridding myself of this notion that your value somehow comes from the success of your experiment. Now, it’s very hard to do that and maybe impossible, but you can have a healthy relationship with that instinct.
[Casey]: Stick up for yourself and when something is going on that you think probably shouldn’t be going on, say something early and try to resolve any issues that come up than letting them weigh you down. Don’t get discouraged by things that other people say. Be confident and recognize that you are valuable and that you have things to contribute, and be comfortable letting other people know that.
I found out after the fact that the reason I got hired for my first assistant position during undergrad instead of the other people was that during the interview, the postdoc who was interviewing me mentioned something about cDNAs, and I asked him what they were because I wanted to understand what the research was about. It turned out that I was actually the only person during the course of the interview that asked a question.
So in that sense, acknowledging the limits of your knowledge and being willing to ask questions-- that’s what it is to be a scientist.
As a young female student interested in biology and research, I’m excited to begin my career in science and thrilled to see the advancements that women have made in STEM in the past few decades or so. But there is a part of me that does worry about some of the challenges that women still face, particularly in academia. As Amy and Casey mentioned, perhaps part of these issues are ones that need to be addressed at an early age. There was a popular TED talk given by Reshma Saujani, who argues that young girls, unlike boys, are taught to be perfect, not brave and that this contributes with the underrepresentation of women in STEM. And I partly have to agree with this; in a setting such as that of science and research, in which failure is commonplace, all students should be reminded to not be afraid of mistakes they will inevitably make and to take risks sometimes.
But while there are still improvements that can be made, I have to say I feel pretty lucky, not just to live in a time in which so much progress has already occurred, but to also have so many amazing role models to look up to, such as these two amazing preceptors. Although there might not be as many female professors as there should be yet, Amy and Casey serve as wonderful mentors to my generation, and I am inspired by their success, thrilled to see how women can excel in STEM, and honored to learn from them everyday.