“A confusing experimental result almost always means you’ve stumbled upon something interesting and maybe even exciting. I think that’s what makes science fun,” says Lauren Parker Jackson, Ph.D., an assistant professor of biological sciences at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee. Check out the highlights of our interview with Dr. Jackson to learn how she became a biologist and what she studies in her lab.
Q: What sparked your interest in science?
A: I credit my high school chemistry, physics, and biology teachers with getting me interested in science. They were quirky, they were talented, they were energetic, and they weren’t afraid to push us. As a teenager, I did a lot of science fairs and quiz bowls, where two teams compete to answer academic questions. As a high school junior, I took part in the Governor’s School for the Sciences and Engineering, where I spent a month at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, studying chemistry in a lab. That exposed me to research for the first time.
At 9 years old, Raven Delfina Otero-Symphony wanted to be an astronaut. As a fourth-year statistics student at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, she still dreams of working for NASA—but as a statistician. You might be surprised to learn that she spent high school and her first semester of college preparing for a career in music, convinced that science and mathematics weren’t for her.
Strings to Stats
Raven enjoyed and excelled in both STEM and humanities classes as a child. As she got older, her interest in STEM wasn’t encouraged, and she began to believe she “just wasn’t a science person.” She concentrated on music because she felt very supported in that pursuit. She played the viola—a stringed instrument slightly larger and deeper in tone than a violin—and performed in symphonies throughout high school.
Dr. Darden with her mentor, Dr. Philip Efron. Credit: Courtesy of Lyle Moldawer, Ph.D.
“I’m an African American woman from Memphis, Tennessee; you don’t see very many people like me in medicine or in science,” says Dijoia Darden, M.D. She’s working toward becoming an academic physician, which will allow her to treat patients, teach, and conduct research. “I’m hoping that as an academic physician, I can inspire other women, especially women of color, to pursue things they’re passionate about.”
A Path to Medicine
Dr. Darden was drawn to science from a young age, inspired by her microbiologist mother. She recalls that her mom often helped her create science fair projects, including one where she grew penicillin-producing bacteria taken from a lemon. Later on, during her high school summer breaks, Dr. Darden worked in a lab that studied how certain genes might contribute to cancer.
Dr. Brian Munsky. Credit: Colorado State University.
“I think having a career in science is really the best way to rechannel the inner child, to remain forever curious about the world,” says Brian Munsky, Ph.D., an associate professor of chemical and biological engineering at Colorado State University, Fort Collins. Check out the highlights of our interview with Dr. Munsky below to learn how his childhood practical jokes led to him running a research group that uses computational and experimental methods to study complex processes inside cells.
Dr. Akhila Rajan. Credit: Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
“What makes being a scientist exciting is that I don’t know what I’m going to find tomorrow,” says Akhila Rajan, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the basic sciences division at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washington. Dr. Rajan is supported by an NIGMS early stage investigator Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award. These awards provide stable and flexible funding for a program of research that falls within NIGMS’ mission. Check out the highlights of our interview with Dr. Rajan to learn about her research and journey as a scientist.
“If I was going to do science, I wanted it to help people,” says Julia Bohannon, Ph.D., an assistant professor of anesthesiology at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee.
Dr. Bohannon researches therapies that could help prevent infections in patients with severe burn injuries. Infections are common in these patients because burn injuries typically suppress the immune system. Dr. Bohannon originally planned to become a burn surgeon, inspired by the doctor who treated her after she was severely burned as a child. But during her junior year of college at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond, she started working in a genetics lab and enjoyed it so much that she began considering a research career.
Choosing a Path Forward
After graduating with her bachelor’s degree, Dr. Bohannon worked for 2 gap years in a translational research lab at the University of Kentucky to decide between pursuing an M.D. or a Ph.D. She ultimately entered a Ph.D. program at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston and conducted research in the lab of Tracy Toliver-Kinsky, Ph.D., at the Shriners Children’s burn center. Upon earning her Ph.D., Dr. Bohannon took a postdoctoral position with Edward Sherwood, Ph.D., at the University of Texas Medical Branch, where she studied potential treatments to improve immune cell function after burns. To continue her work, she followed Dr. Sherwood a year later when he moved to Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
Dr. Ramos-Benítez researches interactions between pathogens—such as the viruses that cause Ebola and COVID-19—and their hosts. He’s also the founder and president of Ciencia en tus Manos (“Science in Your Hands”), a nonprofit organization that presents scientific information in Spanish and aims to provide a community to support the next generation of scientists.
“You’re not going to be able to do biology without understanding programming in the future,” Melissa Wilson, Ph.D., an associate professor of genomics, evolution, and bioinformatics at Arizona State University, said in her 2019 NIGMS Early Career Investigator Lecture. “You don’t have to be an expert programmer. But without understanding programming, I can assert you won’t be able to do biology in the next 20 years.”
A growing number of researchers, like Dr. Wilson, are studying biology using computers and mathematical methods. Some of them started in traditional biology or other life science labs, while others studied computer science or math first. Here, we’re featuring two researchers who took different paths to computational biology.
“A scientific career is really worth it,” says Hong Liu, Ph.D., an assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at Tulane University School of Medicine in New Orleans, Louisiana. Check out the highlights of our interview with Dr. Liu below to learn about his journey as a scientist and his advice for students.
Q: What makes a career in science exciting?
A: I think there are at least two things that make a science career very exciting. The first is that doing science means you have freedom to explore a lot of new ideas. The second thing is it’s rewarding. The “rewarding” I’m talking about here is not like how much money you can make. It’s rewarding in the answers you find and the new knowledge you reveal.
Josephine (Josie) Chandler, Ph.D., first became interested in science when she took a high school chemistry class. In college, she fell in love with microbiology and ultimately earned a Ph.D. in the field. Today, she’s an associate professor of molecular biosciences at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, where her lab investigates interactions in bacterial communities. By better understanding these interactions, scientists may find new ways to stop infections or break down environmental pollutants—a process known as bioremediation.