“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.
“Being a researcher is special because there aren’t many jobs that allow you to spend the majority of your time thinking about the things you find the most interesting in the whole world,” says William Ratcliff, Ph.D., an associate professor of biological sciences and the director of the interdisciplinary graduate program in quantitative biosciences at Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) in Atlanta. We talked with Dr. Ratcliff about his career path, research on yeast, and advice to budding scientists.
Q: How did you first become interested in science?
A: My family owns land in Northern California that has been passed down for more than 100 years. When I was a child, my brother and I would spend summers on that land getting lost in the woods. We would really see the forest for its parts: seeing how organisms interacted with one other, tracking stages of development, and listening to birdcalls. My grandmother would identify plants by their scientific names, and we’d discuss their reproduction strategies. We became amateur natural historians during those summers. Perhaps it’s no surprise my brother and I both got Ph.Ds. in biology.
Brenda Andrade, Ph.D., assistant professor at California State University, Los Angeles (CSULA), wasn’t sure what she wanted to do when she first started community college. Through a program at her high school, she’d participated in Saturday morning science labs on the CSULA campus, and that introduction to science led her to think about pursuing some sort of scientific degree. She recalls flipping through the course catalog to the list of science classes needed to transfer to a 4-year university, and “naively going down the list and taking them.”
When a professor asked her if she’d thought about doing research, she responded, “What’s research?” That professor introduced her to the transfer program between the community college and nearby CSULA, and he encouraged her to apply to the NIGMS-funded Bridges to the Baccalaureate Research Training Program. When she did, she was accepted and began a summer research internship working in the lab of Linda Tunstad, Ph.D., a successful chemist with a similar background to Dr. Andrade’s. “That experience set my career trajectory,” she says. “I saw people like me, other Latinx people and people from underrepresented groups, doing research and thriving, like Dr. Tunstad. It really motivated me.”
Anyone who’s spent time in an academic science lab has probably heard about lab culture. Many labs boast long, rigorous working hours, while others require graduate students and postdoctoral trainees (postdocs) to meet often-unattainable experiment quotas each week. But is sheer quantity really the gold standard we want to hold ourselves to when it comes to training the next generation of scientists?
Neil Garg, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor and chair of the department of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), and Jen Heemstra, Ph.D., Charles Allen Thomas Professor and chair of the department of chemistry at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, think not. In fact, they both felt so strongly that this mindset of training is so outdated and detrimental to academic excellence and integrity that they joined together to create #MentorFirst, an initiative encouraging academics to embrace mentorship in conjunction with research. “As faculty, both research and mentorship are important,” says Dr. Heemstra. “But it makes a huge difference which one we put first.”