Women in Science: The Next Generation. Featuring Lauren Uhde and Her Amazing Friends! (Women In Science 36)

For the past thirty-five episodes of Women in Science, the key word has been Bleak. We have seen a startling array of brilliant people ground just short of oblivion by titanic societal and institutional forces, lit here and there by moments of understated triumph. But what is it like for a woman embarking on a career in science today? To find out, I talked with Lauren Uhde, a tumor immunology grad student from Portland, Oregon, at the very start of her career, who in turn was so kind as to harass her scientific colleagues for me to get their perspectives on what it means to be a scientist in the up and coming generation. The story they tell is largely an encouraging one, but with a melancholy undertone of gender expectations no less powerful for being less overt.

We begin with Lauren Uhde herself.


Dale:   When and where were you born?  What did you like doing as a child?


Lauren: For the sake of saving you from my entire life story I’ll stick to what I think is most relevant, I suppose. I was born in California but have lived near Portland for a great deal of my life except for about four years during/after college when I lived in Seattle. I was born in 1990, which I think was a great time to get into science at a young age, actually. I was raised by a TV (Magic School Bus, Bill Nye, Gargoyles) before I could read, raised by TV and books after that, and then comfortably came of age in front of a computer screen. I did of course dabble in playing with dolls and stuffed animals and board games, but since I didn’t have many friends around my own age those sorts of things didn’t really hold my attention. I have an older sister who bullied me well into my teens but we’re okay now.


When did you first realize a pull towards science?  How were you encouraged/discouraged along those lines?


I was naturally very good at math and reading but I’m not great at learning by watching or listening– I’ve been told that my “working memory” is exceptionally poor. Math was easy because you could write it all out and see the parts before putting them together. There’s memorization, but you always can go back to those most basic blocks and derive everything else, and I think that that sort of bottom-up comprehension is absolutely essential to really understanding almost anything. Reading was never that straightforward– it was also so subjective and, while fun, there’s a great deal of baseline knowledge that’s assumed or you have to ask someone or look it up. So, it started with math.


I was pulled out of normal classes for some experimental program for “gifted” children in the third grade. I remember walking up the ramp on the first day thinking that the classroom would be full of little boys with short-sleeved dress shirts and pocket protectors and glasses but as far as I can tell it was totally normal. We broke into groups based on ability for things like math, but everything else was done at the same time– we read the same books, we did the same art projects, and science was always a game. I think that that’s really important, actually. I wasn’t really focused on a career at this point, I think I was thinking I might be a pilot (like my father) or an astronaut (I liked reading about constellations), but it was just a broad exposure to lots of different educational topics without any of them really seeming like work.


I noticed that I wrote “little boys” above and decided to keep it. I can’t put my finger on why it was definitely boys that I pictured but it was. I didn’t feel excluded, but it was something that I was conscious of– for the record, it was probably 2/3 girls. Gender never came into why I wanted to study what I study.


What do you recommend kids in high school do who are interested in pursuing a career in science?  What did you do?


I was… not a great high school student. I’ll preface this section by pointing out that I have a B.S. in chemistry and biochemistry.


I skipped the first year of science courses offered at my high school (physical science) because I was told it was pretty remedial, and went straight into honors biology. I loved biology, and the following year I went into pre-AP chemistry and enjoyed that too. Pre-AP chemistry was some knowledge and calculations, stoichiometry, etc. and lots of experiments.


During that time my math education just completely fell apart– I started high school with geometry and hated the way it was taught– group learning and there was just so much time spent drawing the Cartesian coordinate graphs by hand so we could draw a line or whatever. It was plodding and there was no flexibility. So, the next year I decided to skip that nonsense and sign up for an online trigonometry course through BYU– that was also terrible. I put it off for months and in the end I crammed all of my self-taught trig learning into a month.


So, my junior year of high school I was set to start calculus at my local community college and AP chemistry. The first was great but I was so far behind without having a real math class in years (I had no idea how to study, honestly) and the latter was terrible. So, so bad. The teacher gave you a textbook and a reading assignment and sat at the front of the class and watched, for months. None of us got anything done but eventually I just stopped going and– this was the only F I got in high school. I dropped it after a semester and took chemistry my senior year at the community college– the best decision I’ve ever made.


So, for kids in high school, I think it’s important to give yourself some slack. Education is a team effort– the parents, the teachers, the administrators, etc. are all key to helping you find what education style works best for you. I remember going into high school thinking I had to know exactly what I wanted to do for the rest of my life because they had you choose all of the classes you were going to take, all at once, for your schedule. That’s not at all how life works. I think a good place to start in high school is just have the vaguest idea of the idea you’d like to go. When I graduated, I had some vague idea that I might like to be a doctor but only because I had strong parental guidance to go into a field that made money, and all of the other money-making fields I was exposed to bored me stiff (the only career fair I’ve ever been to was in 7th grade and there I decided I absolutely would not be an engineer because that man was so incredibly boring and gave us a slide show where he featured many angles of a cubicle — idiot).


I have a lot of students who are, to put it mildly, freaking out about college and what it will hold for them. What’s your advice about the college experience?


College is full of kids who don’t know what they’re going to do, so don’t worry about it too much. I started college with enough community college and AP credits so I was forced to choose a career path really early (my parents paid as long as I could finish in three years), but this is not the norm. All you need to know when you get to college is that you actually want to be there (a lot of kids drop out or stay and waste money for years without any aim, and it’s just not productive). Other than that, just keep taking classes you’re interested in until you read a point where you think “yeah, I could do this for a while.”


When you finally get to the end of your degree, you’re not going to feel like you know how to do anything except in a few very specific programs. For your first year or two, you should take classes to get basic skills (biology or computer science or whatever) and then for the rest you should actively seek experience in your field in parallel. You just can’t get into a graduate program without undergraduate experience of some kind, an internship or undergraduate research position. You probably won’t get paid, but if you love it you’ll know right about now.


A note about my undergraduate experience: I had three years, and didn’t start research until my third, and I was totally behind the other kids that wanted to go to medical or graduate school. I didn’t even know what applying to graduate school would look like. But I went to my biochemistry course’s office hours and heard that if you ever want to go to graduate school you need at least a year of research, so I went to my counselor’s office, grabbed a list of faculty and sent out dozens of emails. When I got a hit, I joined the lab and totally fell in love. It was really mundane work, too, but I just got intense satisfaction out of doing it. I didn’t understand what I was doing or why and my background on the research was really poor, but I just loved working with my hands in this tiny, technical way. Kind of like setting up those circuits when I was nine, it just clicked.


I jumped around undergraduate labs, too, since my boss moved after about five months. In every new lab I was awful and eventually got better at the things I enjoyed doing. I’d like to emphasize this point, too: don’t ever be afraid to fail. Taking classes without your friends or taking a new job that you don’t know how to do or asking questions that feel really basic are all totally terrifying and totally normal. But honestly, the coolest stuff happens only when you step outside your comfort zone and learning to fail well is so important to being a functional human.


Also important: most of the people I’ve worked with or met in science are really great about teaching– they know what it’s like to not know, and they overwhelmingly love talking about their work. Every single scientist you talk to has a different story about what they study, their background, where they want to go and how they’re going to get there. Sometimes someone’s less great, in which case you should immediately get out of that situation and find someone better. There are just so many options and so many ways in, you can only really figure it out by trial and error.


Tell us a bit about your research.


My program is an umbrella– Program in Molecular and Cellular Biosciences. My department is less broad– Molecular Microbiology and Immunology. My actual research topic is much more specific– I study the immune response around solid tumors and how radiation therapy can be used to improve the ability of T cells to target cancer.


It starts with some really cool basic principles– your immune system has lots of different components that work together in different ways. Some of these components tell your body when something’s foreign, and some of them tell your body that a protein/cell/device is totally fine. In cancer, your cells start out normally until the DNA is mutated in any of a number of ways by any of a number of causes. Most mutations are disadvantageous and lead to death by internal signaling or by the immune system, but some are really sneaky. Those mutations tend to lead to other mutations, and so eventually the proteins that the cell expresses are messed up. You have mechanisms in your cells so when a protein get worn out or is seen as dysfunctional, it chews it up and expresses a little piece on the cell surface– at any time your cells are expressing some cross-section of what’s going on. Your immune system recognizes mutant proteins and kills cells that make them, but it can also sense the levels of proteins expressed on the cell surface. I think that that is just the coolest thing.


So, my project uses an attenuated strain of listeria to prime T cell responses with tumor-specific proteins (the bugs aren’t infectious but get taken up into cells, and their proteins get chewed up and expressed so your T cells remember and can ramp up a response very quickly).


I should also mention that I didn’t take any immunology courses until I got into graduate school, and now I’m actually an immunologist. There’s just so much emphasis on planning but really, if you want to do something, you can find a way to do it. My #1 piece of advice is to take your career in little pieces, one fork in the road at a time. There are very few things that you simply cannot do because you didn’t know you wanted to do it early enough.


What is a typical day like for you?


My job is flexible, and my boss is very understanding when it comes to balancing course work and lab work. I’m mostly self-directed when it comes to scheduling, and the day-to-day varies a lot, along with the month-to-month, and next year I’ll probably be doing something completely different. But most people in the field would agree that the schedule is flexible but also that you have to give up the idea of a weekend. When my mice or cells need me, I have to be there. I can plan most of my experiments around time off, but to do this job you have to enjoy it– it can easily take over your life.


Could you walk us through one of your experiments?


Here’s one that builds off of the central dogma of biology: DNA -> RNA -> protein. I think general high school biology courses under-represent this, that pretty much every product of a cell is a protein (made of amino acids, instructions from the RNA which is a temporary transcription of DNA). That’s not including some specific cases (RNAs can act as enzymes, phospholipids that make up the membrane, carbohydrate modifications to proteins, DNA replication, etc.).


Your cells constantly cycle through proteins, mostly through a process called autophagy. When a protein is degraded, autophagy is done by the proteasome, which breaks a polypeptide strand into smaller pieces (the proteasome is a complex of several proteins that interact with the strand to break the peptide chain at specific locations). A sampling of these small peptide chains are presented on the outside of the cell on a protein complex called the major incompatibility complex (MHC). Circulating immune cells constantly check the surface of the cell to make sure that the proteins being produced are supposed to be produced, that they’re being produced at the correct levels, and that the cell is presenting the peptides efficiently. When the immune cell recognizes that the cell is messed up and responds, that peptide is called an antigen.


The type of immune cell I’m most interested in is a cytotoxic T cell. They’re cells that have responded to MHC/antigen combo and respond to the same combo when it sees it again by rapidly multiplying and producing cell-killing proteins (inducing apoptosis– self-killing– or perforating the cell membrane generally, but they also have other roles in killing pathogens through oxidative damage, etc.).


So, a bit more specifically! In cancer, the cells start out as healthy, normal cells. Likely through

some random mutation or stress-induced mutation, the cells start expressing proteins in weird ways: they can be shortened or lengthened, or more/less can be produced, or they can be expressed at the wrong time or constantly or never. As I said before, almost everything a cell makes is protein, so there’s a wide range of stuff that can be messed up.


A part of my research is focused on a mutated protein called EGFRvIII. It’s a truncated version of the normal epidermal growth factor receptor, which basically tells cells to grow and divide when it receives its signaling molecule (epidermal growth factor, oddly enough). EGFRvIII is truncated in such a way that its “inside the cell” domain looks the same so it can still turn cell replication on, but its outer domain is messed up and it doesn’t bind proteins that should pull it back into the cell to be degraded (by the proteasome) very well. So, it’s stuck in the “on” position and the inside of the cell doesn’t know any better, so the cells grow really quickly. A lot of different types of cancer have this mutation, probably most commonly a type of brain cancer called glioblastoma multiforme in maybe 30% of cases about 90% of cells express that mutant protein.


One more piece! When a tumor grows, it sucks a lot of resources from the rest of the body, primarily blood flow (i.e. nutrients, water, and oxygen). Along with the blood comes immune cells, which would normally recognize the messed up antigens presented. When cancer is sneaky, though, it slips by and tricks 1) regulatory T cells into telling the rest of the body: “hey guys, he’s one of us, it’s totally cool” and 2) macrophages into releasing anti-inflammatory signaling molecules. There are some other mechanisms of immunosuppression by cancer cells, but that should hold us.


The experiment (set-up is pretty simple):

  1. Take mouse (specific MHC type)
  2. Inject cells expressing EGFRvIII on one flank (hind leg/back). Repeat with other hind limb.
  3. Seven days later, inject the mice with attenuated listeria (listeria with two virulence genes removed so it doesn’t spread to other cells before the immune system kills the infected cells off) expressing the peptide sequence of EGFRvIII that binds to an MHC to trigger T cell responses.
  4. Let tumors grow for 14 days total, measure as they progress.
  5. Irradiate one of the tumors (with x-rays!!).
  6. Monitor growth of both tumors.


The most ideal outcome would be that both tumors would respond to the treatment even though only one was irradiated. Radiation triggers apoptosis in cells, including regulatory T cells, and produces a lot of damage signals that can override the suppression by macrophages. The T cells would be set up to recognize the antigen released when the cancer cells burst and their memory response would be fast enough to be effective before the tumor repopulates with immunosuppressives. That’s the theory, anyway.



Rad.  What is one thing people might not expect about the usual routine of a cancer researcher?


I like to do science advocacy on the Internet a lot, because I don’t think that people understand that scientists are totally normal people without ulterior motives of mind control and are generally really nice, if awkward. Everything I do in the lab is pretty easy to explain step-by-step (e.g. take this and add this and shake and centrifuge and add this and shake and centrifuge…), but both the process and the concepts behind it build on years of education and practice.


I can spend between one and fifteen hours in the lab, depending on the day. A lot of the work is time-sensitive (T cells die really quickly after removal from the host) but most of us look for easy stopping points so we can go home and see our families. If I’m not in the lab, I might be crunching data or talking to someone down the hall with 40 years’ experience in the field or reading papers. We have to read a lot, and learning how to read scientific literature is a job on its own. Sometimes, I go home early and sleep because I’m no use if I can’t think properly.


Other than that, it’s a totally normal job. I’m friendly with my co-workers and we’ll drink beer together or I’ll play with their kids. A lot of people work 9-5 if they’re not on a tenure track. We work closely with physicians and take confidentiality very seriously– we’re given ethics courses and breaching the codes have serious consequences. The only difference, I think, is that it’s really hard to talk about your work with people who don’t do it. Like, I’m about to give a talk titled “Priming CD8+ T Cells in a Murine Model of HNSCC Expressing EGFRvIII,” but to describe that to a lay person takes a lot of time. I put in a lot of effort to develop an idea of what a normal science background is and when I hear things like “GMOs are poisonous because your body can’t digest them normally” I don’t even know where to start with the inaccuracies and leaps taken.


What is something you wish they told you before you entered the field?


I wish I had been told about how gradual the knowledge comes. I was so frustrated for years and felt like I was at a complete dead end. But science is forgiving, and if you want to learn and pay attention and make an effort it eventually comes. I don’t understand everything about everything, but if I can understand what I’m researching and why, that’s a huge step forward.


Have you ever experienced any gender-based discrimination?


I’m lucky– my field is becoming more and more open to women as scientists, and you can actually see the gender equality kind of filtering up the tenured positions where all of the 70+ year old scientists are men, but then maybe 20% are women from 50-70 and it’s a lot closer to 50% under that. But I’m in a biological field. In chemistry, physics, math, and computer science it’s completely different.


I will say that the discrimination I do experience is subtle. I always have to check myself to make sure I’m assertive, not bossy. I have to explain myself twice as clearly because people get defensive very quickly. I spend a lot more time in the lab cleaning up after other people and making sure everything’s in stock– I can’t find the article right now but I’ve read that that’s very common.


My appearance is judged more harshly than a man’s, both by men and women. When I first started I was pretty young and wore obvious makeup– it’s hard not to notice the lingering gazes. When I got serious about my work that had to stop being a priority for me. I found this article from our women in science facebook page.


What I notice most is that laypeople don’t take me as seriously as if I were a man. Once you’ve heard me talk about my work, it’s hard to ignore my competence, but if someone asks me what I do and I say “I work at XXX” I’ve had any range of insulting assumptions– my personal favorite, “Oh, do you work in the gift shop?”


What is the best and worst thing about your work?


The worst thing for me is the constant threat of everything I’m working on just failing– it’s completely new, right? So if I work on my project for three years and at the end all I have are negative results, it’s over. You can’t publish negative results in a good journal. As a graduate student, I have more room for error, but I was just talking to some proper professors today and it’s common knowledge that if you have a lab and can’t produce results, you can’t publish, and you can’t get funding. It all falls apart. You have to be on your A game 90% of the time or you can easily fall behind.


But, you know, that’s also the best part. It’s a high stakes game, but when you get a good result, one that nobody has ever gotten before– that’s magical. No matter how small, every little bit counts. I wrote in a personal statement once that I enjoy the idea of studying medicine, but I don’t want to do it professionally because, well, why would I only want to learn what is already known?


Where do you see your field going in the next ten years?  


There are rumors that less and less of our funding is going to come from the government, and more will come from private donors and industry.


There’s a sort of schism in science: once you get your PhD, you can either go down the academic route (which will only have room for 10% of us in tenure tracks) or you can go into industry, where you have less control over your work but make a living wage. More and more people are going into commercial science, and a lot of that feeds back in to academia (making a tool for academics to use) but a lot is competitive (a company developing a vaccine for malaria will make a lot of money). I think we’re going to see a lot of profitable breakthroughs coming out of the industry side and fewer coming out of large universities as the workforce shifts.


If you had to do it over again, would you still pick a career in science?


I couldn’t do anything else.


Can you recommend some books for people who are interested in your field?


Yes and no. Scientists in general hate popular science books and documentaries because, honestly, they oversimplify and get a lot of things wrong to make a point. And because science moves so fast, you’re much better off using the Internet for most current scientific topics. That being said, I cannot emphasize enough learning how to discern good sources on the web from bad sources. Honestly, for most things Wikipedia is really great, but you can only use that for background.


A lot of major scientific journals publish articles that summarize the scientific papers, state the significance, go into the background, etc. is a great place to get topical articles that don’t make you want to cry (I use it when I’m looking into something from another field– astronomy or geography or physics). is similar. A lot of the proper papers are behind a paywall but the articles should be free.


I’ve also heard great things about The Emperor of All Maladies, which I believe is about to be released as a miniseries with Ken Burns narrating. It was given to me by my cancer biologist gentleman companion and shamefully I haven’t yet read it. I’ve also heard really good things about the Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.


I mostly read books popular books on psychology when I was at that age– Stumbling on Happiness by Dan Gilbert and Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. I think that those are great books to develop an interest while not getting too political (Dawkins’ books would be great if he wasn’t such a dick– he’s a PhD specializing in evolutionary biology) or technical.


And I know it sounds silly, but I still recommend students watching the Magic School Bus (on Netflix!) or Bill Nye at any age. It’s a broad overview, oversimplified, but they give you a great idea of basic systems and concepts without weighing them down too much.


And I always think science should be done with your hands as well as your brain. Making and learning is a lot more fun than just learning.


A common complaint about being a scientist is that it takes up every hour of your life.  Do you think that’s true, and if not, what past-times do you pursue outside of the lab?


The way I look at it is that it’s the same with every job: if you want to be the best, at the top of your field, you work more. If you aren’t looking to be a professor emeritus, you have a lot more options. I think that that view comes from the old school idea that if you go into a scientific career, you go into academia and spend the rest of your life at that one university and will have an office there until you die. The relatively-new diversity of job opportunities will change that impression I think.


As a graduate student, I don’t have a ton of days off and I don’t have scheduled holidays or sick leave. But my work is so flexible and my boss is understanding so it’s not a struggle. I focus on each day and each experiment as it comes and do my best. If I need to take time off, I can do that too. Some of us are marathon runners or exceptional painters or raise families or rescue dogs. My special thing is I make giant elaborate cakes. Just because it’s hard to talk about our work without inadvertently being overly detailed or condescending doesn’t actually mean that it’s our entire lives.


Anything else you think people ought to know?  


Even if you don’t go into science for a career, please try to be scientifically literate. Know what a good source is and vaguely what’s going on in science policy. Please consider expert opinions carefully before disregarding or even taking them too seriously. A doctorate does not translate to genius (think: Dr. Oz or that terrible terrible person Dr. Wakefield), but if someone has been studying a topic and publishing for years they probably know what they’re talking about.


And never feel awkward about shooting an email to a scientist about their work. We honestly love talking about it. Say, you’re interested in AIDS research and see an article in the New York Times. Look up your nearest university with a lab studying HIV and send either the PI or lab manager or postdoctoral fellow an email and ask some questions. The worst case scenario is that they don’t reply, but there are literally thousands of other people you can ask. Just don’t be a dick and you’ll find someone who can teach you something really cool.


Need more Women in Science? Pick up the whole first year of comics n articles this very moment at Amazon!


Thank you, Lauren Uhde! Next up, Dr. Abby Dotson, a postdoctoral researcher in Portland, OR.



When and where were you born? What did you like doing as a child?

Kansas, 1981. As a child I loved being outside, playing sports and being creative.

When did you first realize a pull towards science? How were you encouraged/discouraged along those lines?

I didn’t even know women could be scientist, engineers, etc. Even though my dad was an electrical engineer, I had no female STEM role models. Then my 8th grade (male) science teacher asked if I had ever thought about science as a career because I was really good at it and it came so naturally to me. From then on it was all I ever wanted to do. I also largely credit my career path to The X Files being a hit TV show when I was in high school. Haha.

I was completely encouraged from my family and mentors to become a scientist and I was the first Ph.D. in my family.

What do you recommend kids in high school do who are interested in pursuing a career in science? What did you do?

Get good grades and get into a good college. Be super curious about how/why things work or happen. Take on some leadership roles and get involved in other activities outside of academics. No one really realizes how important leadership and project/time management are in science. I was a super involved kid…played every sport and ran every club or committee I possibly could. I developed amazing leadership, management and social skills and I use them all the time to direct my technicians, run multiple studies at once, meet crazy deadlines and collaborate with other scientists.

What is your perspective on the college experience in the sciences?

Most science classes will be in lectures of 30-150 students, depending on the size of the institution. It’s easy to blend in and not get noticed by your professors so you’ll need to find ways to make yourself stand out. I recently taught a virology lecture class of 65 students. The students that I remember (and will continue to write letters of recommendation for) are the ones that participated in class lectures and asked insightful questions.

If you want to get into graduate (or medical) school you should plan on doing an undergraduate research project. This could be for class credit or just for experience. Do not expect to get paid. I would start talking to faculty that run an active research lab as early as your sophomore year (if you wait until your senior year to look into a research project, it’s already too late). Do something that you’re genuinely interested in! Science research is a labor of love. As an undergraduate, you’ll be putting in 5-10 hours of research for every one hour of class credit. The only way that works is if you’re excited about what you are researching.

Again, get good grades so that you can get into a good graduate/medical school (if that’s what you want to do).

What is your area of study?
I’m an immunologist. I study the function of the immune system, which can be either good or bad. I chose this field because the immune system is a key factor in almost every disease and that allows me to use my expertise to do research on a variety of illnesses. Previously, I worked on making the immune system better to fight cancer and infection or alternatively on shutting down the immune system to treat autoimmune diseases such as type I diabetes, multiple sclerosis and equine uveitis (an autoimmune disease in horses).

Currently, I study how the immune system leads to the degeneration of neuron cells in the brain after stroke.

Walk us through a typical day for you.

Until now, my days were mostly filled with active bench work (performing actual experiments). Most experiments would take a full day or multiple days to complete. They would consist of processing tissue from mice (for example: brains, spleens, blood) to look at the immune cells. I used multiple techniques and instruments including lasers and microscopes to analyze the cells. Then I’d spend days or weeks trying to decide what all the data meant and how it was important.

Currently, I manage two major research projects on stroke, both funded from the National Institute of Health. My job is a mix of designing the study and experiments, managing and supervising research technicians who perform the experiments, writing grants and research publications, keeping up with a few administrative tasks (making sure we are compliant with all animal research boards, etc.) and I still get to do a little bench work. I have various meetings with my boss or collaborators who we team up with to do some of the studies. I’m also involved in a few outreach groups on campus such as Women in Science, OHSU Pride and the OHSU Postdoctoral Association.

What is one thing people might not expect about the usual routine of a cancer researcher?

How much I write and how important writing is in science. Scientists need to be able to convey the importance of the science in writing. I was a terrible writer growing up and English was by far my worst subject. Luckily, the more you write the better you get at it. However, I remain and will always be an awful speller. Yay for spell check!

As mentioned before, leadership, project and time management and social skills are extremely helpful in science (although I know plenty of scientists that lack the latter).

What is something you wish they told you before you entered the field?

1) Find a graduate advisor who is well funded. I chose to do my Ph.D. research in a lab that did really interesting science but was poorly funded. I was pretty restricted in my research because we didn’t have a lot of money (science is expensive!!). I also had to do a lot of outside teaching for my stipend (salary) during grad school. That really cut into my research time and therefore it took me a few years longer to finish my Ph.D. than my peers.

2) Develop other skills and get other experience besides science. There are a lot more scientists (at the Ph.D. level) than there are science jobs right now. Only about 10% of Ph.D.’s in the sciences will get a faculty position in academia and biotech/industry are just as competitive. The scientists that have other skills (business, law, project management, teaching, etc.) will have a better chance being flexible when looking for jobs.

Have you ever experienced any gender-based discrimination?

Yes. I tend to not be taken seriously. I have to fight harder to get my ideas and my science respected than men usually do. Even worse, I’ve often been sexualized in my role in academia. Again, it stems to a lack of respect and value. Science is still very much a boys club but it’s getting better.

Sadly, the sex-based discrimination is worse for women with families. Having children in the science and medical professions is seen as a disadvantage for women but not men due to an entire history of females being primary caregivers. Personally, I’ve put off having children because of my career in science. I’m now 34 and trying to start a family and I’m happy with my decision to wait.

What is the best and worst thing about your work?

Best: I get to do something so meaningful and gratifying. It’s a great feeling knowing that my research will contribute to therapies and even cures for diseases. How many people get to say that!?

Worst: The job can be very demanding and require long work days.

Where do you see your field going in the next ten years?

I see immunotherapies becoming a key player in treating disease. Why develop a drug when you can alter someone’s immune response and have their own body be the therapy? This has already started in some cancers and autoimmune diseases.

I also hope to see women and LGBTQ scientists better represented in science industry and academia in the upcoming decade

If you had to do it over again, would you still pick a career in science?

Yes. Science will fail twice as many times as it will succeed but that makes the success even more rewarding. Besides, I like the challenge of figuring out how to make something work or trying to understand what different experimental results mean.

Can you recommend some books for people who are interested in your field?

Ugh, I’m really stuck on this one. I read a lot of sci-fi (because, nerd) although one of the most influential books of my adolescence was The Hot Zone about the origins of the Ebola virus. Just anything that sparks your interest in science!

I also feel that girls specifically should read about how to become good negotiators. Women tend not to fight for themselves in a career setting. We need to change that!

A common complaint about being a scientist is that it takes up every hour of your life. Do you think that’s true, and if not, what past-times do you pursue outside of the lab?

It can but doesn’t have to if you manage your time well. Graduate school was the worst for working long hours and weekends. After that, as long as you are productive and smart about how you develop your studies, you can really maintain a 40 hour work week. The great thing about being a scientist is the flexibility in my schedule and the ability to work/write at home. I may have a few 10 hour days but then when the work slows down I’ll take a day or an afternoon off. Science is an ebb and flow in that there will be super relaxed days and there will be busy, intense days. I like the variation.

Science is such a cerebral job that when I get time off I really like to relax. In the summers I like going to the beach and going on hikes. In the rainy, long Portland winters I like to try new restaurants, read and marathon TV series (anything sci-fi or by Joss Whedon).

Anything else you think people ought to know?

Science isn’t always a lucrative career. Some scientists are extremely well off but most make a very modest living. No one should get into science for the money.



And to close, here is a perspective from a Y-chromosome-haver, Dr. Edward Fox. He is a Seattle-based cancer biologist specializing in high-fidelity DNA sequencing and colorectal cancer.



When and where were you born?  What did you like doing as a child?  


Dublin, Ireland 1978.

Sports and learning things.


When did you first realize a pull towards science?  How were you encouraged/discouraged along those lines?


I always like science subjects in school. They always made more sense in how you learnt them than say languages. I was fortunate that my school and family were always very accepting of anything I wanted to study.



What do you recommend kids in high school do who are interested in pursuing a career in science? 


See if you can get to work in a real research lab for the summer. This will give you a chance to understand what it is actually like and whether it matches your perception of it. The best way to know if you like something is to actually give it a try. It will also give you access to people who can advise and mentor you. In particular, if you are interested in biomedical science it is worth exploring the differences between doing research as an MD, MD/PhD and a PhD.


What should a budding scientist do when they hit college?


Again, expose yourself to as many different types of lab and research as possible. It is a time in your life when you can try out lots of different things.  It’s worth taking a chance and getting different experiences. I have always been lucky in working with and meeting great people. The more people you interact with the more people will be invested in helping you find your passion.


What is your area of study?


Cancer research – specifically cancer genomics. I am interested in cancer as an evolutionary process; how that can be used to understand and predict the disease.


What is a typical day like for you?


Ideally: 40% bench work, 30% writing papers and grants, 30% meetings and strategy.

I think of myself as most productive when I can advance all of those areas, at least a little bit, each day.



What is one thing people might not expect about the usual routine of a cancer researcher?


We are constantly trying to prove what we think is wrong. Everyone has more ideas than they can work on – you want ideas to ‘fail fast.’ as hard as it can be to let go of what you think is ‘your’ good or great idea, if it is in fact wrong you want to know that as soon as possible. You don’t want to spend a year on something that does not work (although negative results are important, it is best to get them out of the way as soon as possible).  We are all talented and could spend our lives do lots of worthwhile things (that add value to society), but you want to take ‘effective’ risks.


Also running a lab (or just being a researcher as in some sense every researcher is a lab of one, even in highly collaborative settings) is like being a small business in many ways. You have to, at some level, be able to do everything (or get everything done).


What is something you wish they told you before you entered the field?


Communication, communication, communication.



Have you ever noticed any gender-based discrimination at work?


Not personally but I have seen PIs who (off the record) factored it in to their hiring decisions. They considered the idea that a woman having children would affect her productivity. It’s often insidious and hard to fully recognize.


What is the best and worst thing about your work?


Best thing: Pure discovery – advancing knowledge.

Worst thing: excessive need to compete for grant money. But I can’t really think of a better system – it is just sensitive to larger economic and political factors (not about the science itself).


Where do you see your field going in the next ten years?  


The funding climate and consequently the willingness of the cancer research community itself to take risk is ultimately dependent on the health of the national economy. The more money in the system the more risks we will be able to take with our work, knowing that many will fail, but that’s a good thing.


If you had to do it over again, would you still pick a career in science?


Yes, I would consider doing it as an MD/PhD rather than a PhD. It is financially more stable, and for cancer research, in particular, it would open up different possibilities but I think I would be a very different scientist, possibly less creative and more dogmatic.


Can you recommend some books for people (say people at a high school AP Bio level) who are interested in your field?


The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee


A common complaint about being a scientist is that it takes up every hour of your life.  Do you think that’s true, and if not, what past-times do you pursue outside of the lab?


In part but it is not a complaint – science is a passion not a profession. If you do want you are passionate about (art, science, your own business), it will never be far from your mind. A major life skill is to achieve balance, no matter what you’re passionate about.


Anything else you think people ought to know?  


For me, science is about doubt and what you don’t know; we must always entertain doubt about everything – even the things we are sure about. Dogma is the enemy and asking the right (and many) questions is fundamental.



                And there you have it, kids. Special thanks to Lauren Uhde, Abby Louise, and Dr. Edward Fox for taking time out of their busy schedules to give us a glimpse into the day to day life of a young scientist in this early 21st Century of ours. If you’re interested in reading more perspectives about the current state of Women in Science, I’d also recommend you check out a copy of Emma Ideal and Rhiannon Meharchand’s Blazing the Trail: Essays by Leading Women in Science. And do join us in two weeks, when we dive back into the vaults for the story of Nobel Prize winner Gerty Radnitz Cori and the discovery of how our body breaks down and stores glycogen!

Previous post

Mad Art Cast and Espresso

Next post

New Horizons - A Painting about a Spacecraft



No Comment

Leave a reply