A career path in science is rarely clear cut and linear, which Elimelda Moige Ongeri, Ph.D., can attest adds to its excitement. She went from working in animal reproductive biology to studying proteins involved in inflammation and tissue injury. Dr. Ongeri is also currently dean of the Hairston College of Health and Human Sciences and professor of physiology at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (NC A&T) in Greensboro. In this interview, she shares details of her career, including a change in research focus to human physiology; her goals for the future; and advice for students.
Q: How did you first become interested in science?
A: I was born and raised in Kenya, and, at that time, junior high students were required to select a path to pursue (e.g., the arts or the sciences) and three specific subjects to focus on. My teachers encouraged me to pursue the science path, and I eventually chose to focus on biology, chemistry, and math. Math was my favorite subject at the time, but I didn’t feel that a math degree could lead to many job opportunities, so I chose to pursue biomedical science.
Although Dr. Santiago-Frangos wanted to become a scientist from a young age and always found biology interesting, by the time he was attending high school in his native country of Cyprus, he had developed a passion for physics and thought he’d pursue a career in that field. However, working at a biotechnology company for a summer changed his mind. “That experience made me want to dive into biology more deeply because I could see how it could be directly applied to human health. Physics can also be applied to human health, but, at least at that time, biology seemed to me like a more direct way to help humanity,” says Dr. Santiago-Frangos.
Adam Gormley, Ph.D., describes himself as a creative and adventurous person—albeit, not creative in the traditional sense. “Science allows me to be creative; to me, it’s a form of art. I love being outdoors, going on sailing trips, and spending time adventuring with my family. Research is the same—it’s an adventure. My creative and adventurous sides have combined into a real love for science,” he says. Dr. Gormley currently channels his passion for science into his position as an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Rutgers University in Piscataway, New Jersey.
Learning How the World Works
Both of Dr. Gormley’s parents worked in science and medicine—his mother as a medical doctor and his father as a physician-scientist—and they instilled in him a curiosity for how the world worked. When he was young, Dr. Gormley and his parents would tinker with cars or boats and fix broken household items together, all the while talking about the individual parts and how they functioned as a whole. “I always had that technical, hands-on side of me,” he says.
“One of the biggest things I hope for in my career is that in 20 years, I still feel the same joy and enthusiasm for research and training that I feel now,” says Prabodhika Mallikaratchy, Ph.D., a professor in the department of molecular, cellular, and biomedical sciences at the City University of New York (CUNY) School of Medicine. Dr. Mallikaratchy talks with us about her career path, research on developing new immunotherapies and molecular tools using nucleic acids, and her belief in the importance of being passionate about your career.
Q: How did you first become interested in science?
A: Growing up in Sri Lanka, I was always a curious child. I remember being drawn to science and math, but there was no particular incident that sparked my interest. By the time I reached high school, though, I had become especially interested in chemistry.
“I love that you can change the molecular-level structure of a material, then pull it, bend it, or twist it and see firsthand how the molecular changes you introduced influence its stretchiness or bendiness,” says Frank Leibfarth Ph.D., an associate professor of chemistry at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill. In an interview, Dr. Leibfarth shares with us his scientific journey, his use of chemistry to tackle challenges in human health and sustainability, and his beliefs on what makes a career in science exciting.
“Our main goal is to get elementary students excited to learn about STEM, and for them to see how beautiful and relevant science can be to communities in eastern Montana,” says Amanda Obery, Ph.D., an assistant professor in elementary education at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Washington. Dr. Obery co-leads the Authentic Community Engagement in Science (ACES) project with Matt Queen, Ph.D., an assistant professor in biological and physical sciences at Montana State University Billings (MSUB).
When she started college, Anne Carpenter, Ph.D., never guessed she’d one day create software for analyzing images of cells that would help identify potential medicines and that thousands of researchers would use. She wasn’t planning to become a computational biologist, or even to focus on science at all, but she’s now an institute scientist and the senior director of the Imaging Platform at the Broad Institute of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard in Cambridge.
Starting Out in Science
Before beginning her undergraduate studies at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, Dr. Carpenter’s strongest interests were reading and writing. Then, her subjects expanded. “In college, I liked science as much as anything else, and I realized that was unusual, as a lot of other people really struggled with it. I decided to pursue science because I enjoyed it and the field had good job prospects,” she says. Dr. Carpenter majored in biology because she felt it had the “juiciest questions” as well as a direct impact on human health.
Scientists who are deaf and hard of hearing (DHH) are underrepresented at all career stages, especially at the Ph.D. level. To address this, the Undergraduate Research Training Initiative for Student Enhancement (U-RISE) training program for undergraduates who are deaf and hard of hearing at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) in Rochester, New York, has committed to lifting barriers and increasing DHH representation in science.
Part of RIT’s National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID), the program is now in its fifth year and prepares undergraduate students who are DHH to enter graduate programs through community-building activities, mentored research training, communication access services like interpretation, and much more. We’ve interviewed two RIT U-RISE students and its director to learn how the program supports its trainees.
“An important part of being in science is being in a community,” says Neil Garg, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor and chair of the department of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA). That philosophy has led him to prioritize mentorship, diversity, and inclusion—while maintaining research excellence—as well as re-envisioning what it means to educate students and the public.
Falling in Love With Chemistry
Science was always a part of Dr. Garg’s childhood. He participated in science fairs as a kid but says he did it for the community and not necessarily for the love of science. “When I look back on those projects, they were always with friends—never by myself,” he says. His parents were both scientists and strongly encouraged him to go into medicine, and although he became a premed major at New York University (NYU), he ultimately chose a different path.
Students with blindness and low vision are often excluded from chemistry labs and offered few accessible representations of the subject’s imagery, which can significantly hinder their ability to learn about and participate in chemistry. Bryan Shaw, Ph.D., a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, hopes to change that through a program funded by an NIGMS Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA). His inspiration to start the program came from his son, who is visually impaired due to childhood eye cancer, and his son’s friends who have also experienced partial or complete vision loss.