February SOTM: Kari Barlan

By Claire Stevenson

A great role model

When Kari Barlan came to The University of Chicago for her post-doctoral work, three things jumped out: she was enthusiastic, had a great sense of humor, and a powerful drive for discovery. She had a post-it on her desk that said “discovery demands risk” and she meant it. She started by taking on a project and techniques that were completely new to the lab. But she wasn’t just a wide-eyed risk taker, she had impressive organizational skills and professionalism that helped ensure her success. All this combined to make her a great researcher and role model for trainees in the lab.

Before coming to The University of Chicago, Kari was no stranger to the Chicago scientific community. After her undergraduate degree at Oberlin College, Kari came to Northwestern University as a technician in Sarah Rice’s lab. She continued there for her doctorate work in Vladimir Gelfand’s lab before joining Sally Horne-Badovinac’s lab at The University of Chicago.


Moving beyond academia

After publishing her post-doctoral work in an exciting paper that advanced the field of collective cell migration, Kari was deciding on her next career move.  Although she started preparing for the academic job market, Kari wasn’t totally sold on academia. She said that she often felt like, “I was alone on my own island,” working on something that few others cared about, and wondered if this was the best way for her to have an impact on the world.

During this time, her work was attracting attention, both in her field and more broadly. Her publication had piqued the interest of the show Tell Me Something I Don’t Know, hosted by Stephen Dubner, best known for the book Freakonomics. This show brings in researchers to share interesting findings with the audience. Kari’s research focused on collective cell migration, which is essential for many processes including embryonic development, wound healing and cancer metastasis. She was interested in what enables collectively migrating cells to coordinate their movement. Her work elucidated a new paradigm for signaling between migrating cells and received much praise in the field.  However, after a few calls with the producer, the show decided her work wasn’t interesting to them. It was discouraging to hear that an audience of people yearning for groundbreaking discoveries wouldn’t find her work meaningful, but this harsh realization came at an opportune time. It reinforced her feeling that she wanted a career where she felt like she could have a larger impact, and she realized that she didn’t want to be alone on her academic island anymore.  She emphasized that she’s not denigrating academic science, but says, I was, “struggling to find my place in the larger world.”

This realization lead Kari to her current position as Senior Scientist in Functional Genomics at Abbvie, a pharmaceutical company in the northern suburbs of Chicago. She is part of a team that develops new CRISPR-based technologies that can be used to identify and develop potential drug targets. She is motivated by the potential that her platform has to help other biologists make discoveries. Every researcher wants to know the mechanism behind their disease of interest, and she feels that if she can develop a platform to help them gain that understanding, it has the potential to have a broad impact. When comparing her current position to academia she says, “in industry I can work with a lot of people and make a lot of progress quickly toward a tangible goal, even if it doesn’t result in a specific drug, you are able to move things along at a good pace with tangible results.”

Being a woman in science

Reflecting on how men and women are treated in the workplace, Kari has noticed some obvious gender differences over the years. One in particular is the different assumptions made about male versus female colleagues, not about one’s scientific ability, but about their interests. For example, she doesn’t get included in the same number of internal meetings as her male colleagues. And if someone wants an answer, she is not necessarily the first person they come to, even if she is qualified to answer and is working on something closely related. To combat this, she finds herself, “constantly trying to advocate, to ask to go to those meetings, or to set them up,” if a team is being formed she’ll stick up for herself to be included on it, she believes it is important to not get passed by. This is part of what makes Kari a great role model for all young scientists and professionals. Sticking up for oneself is not easy, and seeing someone have the guts to do it is inspiring.

Advice for your next career move

Kari has one big piece of advice for young scientists:  Thinking ‘I’m only a fly geneticist’, or ‘only a developmental biologist’, is very limiting. As scientists, “we develop skills that we don’t take credit for,” but which are highly valuable in any workplace, such as “self-motivation, organization, planning, leadership.” A lot of what we do is, “translatable into lots of different jobs, not just academics, you’re more than just a PhD… the key is knowing how to sell your skill set and spin what you’re able to do.” In terms of helping trainees decide on their next step, she said that you never know what’s going to happen, but any path you take will help you develop new ways of thinking and learning, all of which have fundamental value.

Wednesday, February 7th, 2018 Scientist of the Month Comments Off on February SOTM: Kari Barlan

January SOTM: Rebecca Toroney

By Pallavi Sirjoosingh

Dr. Rebecca (Becky) Toroney took to biochemistry during her undergraduate years at Franklin & Marshall College. While working under Prof. Ryan Mehl, she helped develop a novel method to increase protein stability using UV cross-linking by incorporation of photoreactive unnatural amino acids. Following undergraduate studies, she decided to pursue a Ph.D. in chemistry. In addition to her interest in all things scientific, Becky was encouraged to pursue graduate studies by a mentor at home. Her sister, Rachel, who at that time was attending graduate school at Johns Hopkins University, gave Becky the behind-the-scenes on what “graduate school entails”. The state-of-the-art research facilities were great but it was talking to her eventual thesis advisor and mentor, Phil Bevilacqua, that convinced Becky to join Penn State, “He was enthusiastic about his research, and encouraged me to work with him over the summer before I joined graduate school”. Even though her summer research project was focused on studying pKa shifting using NMR, Becky decided she wanted to be closer to molecular biology, and her thesis work was focused on the different structural features of RNAs responsible for regulating protein kinase PKR.

It was in Phil’s lab that I met Becky. Her persistent attention to detail, a quality that also makes her a great scientist, was evident in her meticulous lab notebooks, well-organized lab bench, and a desk that would be the envy of Martha Stewart. One of my earliest memories of Becky is asking her for a plasmid, and watching her retrieve a 10X10 excel spreadsheet map of her sample box to pinpoint the exact location of the tube – I still aspire to this level of organization. In graduate school, I watched and learned from Becky mentor a fellow graduate student, and benefitted greatly from her advice during group meetings and random lunchroom conversations.

After finishing graduate school Becky decided to continue academic research. While attending the ASBMB conference in California, Becky saw a talk by Prof. John Staley at the University of Chicago. Becky wanted to pursue her postdoctoral research on a topic different from her graduate research work, and “splicing was an interesting and established field, and John’s research was unique from Phil’s”. After speaking with Prof. Staley, Becky realized that the research project may entail more genetics but it helped that Prof. Staley “was trained as a chemist”, and that she would still have a “foot planted in chemistry”.

During her tenure at the Staley lab, Becky earned the prestigious NIH Ruth L. Kirschtein NRSA Postdoctoral fellowship, and a postdoctoral research grant by the Chicago Biomedical Consortium, for her research on the U6 snRNA’s role in the spliceosome disassembly. Early on in her scientific career, Becky had watched her graduate school mentor tackle the pressure of obtaining scientific funding. She decided that the responsibility of having “multiple people’s careers and livelihoods depend upon my ability to obtain tricky research funding” was a source of stress that she wanted to avoid in her professional career. Following the completion of her postdoctoral research work, Becky decided to join Abbott Molecular as a Senior Scientist taking on a completely new challenge.

Early on at Abbott, Becky became part of the research team involved in validating a real-time qPCR based assay that helps detect specific mutations in the IDH2 gene in patients with acute myeloid leukemia (AML). The diagnostic assay is a companion to the drug Idhifa (enasidenib, Celgene) that is used for the treatment of adult patients that have relapsed or refractory AML, and both the drug and the assay received FDA-approval recently. Even though she thoroughly enjoyed the intellectual vigor of her academic research work, being a part of the developmental team for this diagnostic assay with direct consequence to the lives of patients, was an extremely gratifying experience for Becky.

When not in the lab, you can find Becky running along the lakefront path on warmer days (she recently completed a half marathon), watching opera at the Lyric, playing the Game of Thrones theme-song on her cello, listening to live music at the Millennium Park, or surprising an unaware friend by her in-depth knowledge of Star Trek.

Fortunately, Becky says, she has not suffered from any obstacles in her research career because of her gender, but she has observed female scientists struggle trying to “maintain a work-life balance” more so than their male counterparts. Her advice to graduate students – “don’t get pushed into working on a project you’re not that interested in- it might make for some uncomfortable conversations with your PI but it’s worth taking ownership over your work”, and “select an advisor who is interested in helping you become the best scientist you can be, not just one who churns out a lot of great papers but only thinks of the people in his/her lab as data collectors.” Becky’s love for science has guided her to different research areas and settings, and she says that loving science doesn’t mean “you have to pursue a traditional academic career path”. She says a large number of trained scientists follow a “non-traditional” path. Becky is not just a scientist but a proponent of science too, and believes that “we need more scientists who want to interact with the public and, especially policymakers, or who want to craft that policy themselves.”

Monday, January 1st, 2018 Scientist of the Month Comments Off on January SOTM: Rebecca Toroney

December SOTM: Erin Adams

By Aurelie Desgardin

There are good scientific mentors. There are good professional life mentors. But good scientific mentors are not necessarily good career mentors. Those who are great at both deserve recognition. Dr. Erin Adams is quite the perfect example of someone who can offer great scientific advice and personal guidance. She is definitely someone I wish I had met earlier in my career. Dr. Adams is a fantastic mentor beyond the bench, the Joseph Regenstein Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, serves on the Committees on Immunology and, Cancer Biology at the University of Chicago. She is also a Principal Investigator of the myCHOICE program.

Mentoring at its BEST.

Remembering her own journey, Dr. Adams recalls moments of frustration and introspection: “What to do next?” It’s a question that is in anyone’s mind in moments of transition. A Northern California native, she went on to discover the culture of research as a lab technician after getting her undergraduate degree at UCSD. She received her Ph.D. in population genetics and molecular biology from the University of California, Berkeley. As a postdoc at Stanford, she thought long and hard about what she likes to do and decided to stay in academia because “I enjoy asking questions”. She adds that: “It’s not easy to make decisions that will determine your future and scientists receive no training in the matter”.

It is specifically because Erin Adams knows this that she is so successful as a BEST (Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training) principal investigator. The NIH BEST award funds the myCHOICE initiative which has been a massive success ever since its launch, attracting trainees from outside institutions and new graduate students to the University. myCHOICE exposes graduate students and postdocs from STEM fields to various career paths, in addition to academic research. myCHOICE seminars and skills-focused workshops are eye-opening. From policy to science communication, from technology transfer to clinical research, SCIENCE in truth, is everywhere! It’s in every aspect of our communities and our culture.

The grateful mentor.

Gratitude is always at the forefront of Dr. Erin Adams’ mind. It is what keeps her going strong despite life’s many challenges. When asked about how she manages the many hats that she wears so well, Erin does not hesitate to share that passion is a driver: “Passion for the future of my people, passion for science, passion for time”. She admits that on hard days “it’s the small things that keep the wheel turning and you need a good night sleep”.

As a single mother of a toddler and a few four-legged family members, mentor of many on top of her involvement in commendable initiatives, Erin confesses that willful gratitude is what keeps her going. She goes on to explain that pre-tenure, she had a tough time. The uncertainty and lack of control over her own trajectory made her life uneasy. Erin explains that everything changed when she adopted Xena, then an 8 weeks old puppy. She has been extremely grateful for Xena. Somehow, being grateful triggered a chain reaction of events and everything fell into place, including the tenure. She admits “I am very lucky! I am grateful for my son, my position, the numerous opportunities to make important contributions to how the world moves forward.” She believes that gratitude is what keeps life flowing the right way, keeps one open to opportunities and, keeps one finding one’s happy place.

When it comes to the day to day of research, Dr. Adams does not believe in micro-managerial approaches to mentorship. She believes that letting her mentees be independent helps them develop critical troubleshooting and social skills. After all, one needs “to know how to ask for help and interact with others” to bloom. She also remembers the days when science not going well meant that nothing was good. Recognizing this unhealthy mindset, she encourages work/life balance and leads by example.

Dr. Adams personifies hard work and dedication mixed in with calm and devotion. One step in her office and you are transported into her world. There is color, texture, intimate furniture that create a very warm and lively yet uncluttered workspace. It feels like home! Xena most certainly helps with that. Erin is bringing her in everyday It’s like having therapy at work for Erin and her lab members and the rest of the department.

Mentoring laterally!

Bringing awareness to male colleagues about the under-representation of women in higher positions within STEM fields is something that Dr. Adams has no problem voicing up. Dr. Adams is not going to simply let male counterparts repeat her statements and get the credit she is due. She speaks out about implicit bias, the lack of diversity in applicant pools and gets men to start thinking differently. Her take on the issue if that “we need to speak more about the issue, we need to advocate, be supportive and mentor the women who are already in STEM fields”.

I believe that Dr. Erin Adams’ capacity to make anyone feel comfortable enough to be genuine is her greatest gift. It allows for those important conversations to take place and be constructive. It allows for growth and impact. Dr. Erin Adams certainly had an impact at the University of Chicago and we look forward to more!

Thursday, November 30th, 2017 Scientist of the Month Comments Off on December SOTM: Erin Adams

October SOTM: Yulia Dzhashiashvili

by Huan Xu

The first time I met Yulia was in 2015 when I visited Dr. Brian Popko’s laboratory to finalize my rotation. She smiled at me and said: “Whenever you have a question, you can come to me.” I thought her words were probably just a hint of her being a nice and polite senior postdoc in Dr. Popko’s laboratory. However, it turned out she really meant it. Since 2015, Yulia has become my role model, my best lab mate, and best friend. She is one of the few people I met who refresh my mind to look and experience the world differently.

A doctor found her real passion.

I was surprised to learn that Yulia had a rather unconventional career path. She completed her Ph.D. training at New York University School of Medicine, in the laboratory of Dr. James Salzer, where she studied mechanisms of node of Ranvier formation. Throughout her academic training, she has maintained a broad interest in the medical sciences, fascinated by cellular and molecular processes underlying various pathologies. In pursuit of clinical science knowledge, after receiving her Ph.D. in Neuroscience and Physiology, she obtained an M.D. from the University of Rochester School of Medicine and completed a year of internship training. It was at this point that she decided to exit medicine and focus on a research career. When I asked Yulia what inspired her to change her career path from a medical doctor to a scientist, she said: “Being a doctor was a wonderful opportunity to learn about various disease processes and to use this knowledge in a clinical setting. However, I missed working in a research laboratory and the creative process of scientific discovery. Although I embarked on this journey thinking of a career that combines clinical practice and research, over the years of medical training my interests evolved to focus on investigating biological questions that have clinical relevance.”

A scientist wants to understand neurodegenerative diseases.

Following her passion, Yulia started her postdoctoral fellowship training in Dr. Brian Popko’s laboratory at the University of Chicago, where she received NIH NINDS F32 postdoctoral fellowship. Yulia’s postdoctoral research is focused on investigating the roles of an innate protective mechanism, called the integrated stress response, in mouse models of multiple sclerosis (MS) and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

I asked Yulia about some of the new trends happening in her research areas of interest. She said: “Identification of novel therapies to protect oligodendrocytes against the inflammatory CNS environment will be a significant accomplishment for alleviating MS. To this end, our research group (led by Dr. Brian Popko) has demonstrated that pharmaceutical enhancement of the integrated stress response alleviates clinical symptoms and increases oligodendrocyte survival in mouse models of MS, thus providing support for exploring this pathway as a novel treatment strategy.” While there are many new research avenues to facilitate ALS drug development, she is especially excited about ‘designer DNA drug’ therapy (antisense oligonucleotides) developed by Dr. Don Cleveland’s team at the University of San Diego. This therapy involves the infusion of antisense DNA oligonucleotides for targeted gene silencing in the nervous system. The initial clinical trial in ALS demonstrated the safety of this therapeutic approach, and follow-up trials are underway.

A mentor passes her experience to young students.

As an MD/Ph.D., Yulia has a broad knowledge base in medicine and sciences, and she is very generous to share her experience and advice with people around her. She suggests students identify a mentor (or mentors) early in their career. “Both science and medicine are very much hands-on specialties, and nuances of either profession cannot be learned from books alone. Thus, good mentorship cannot be underestimated,” Yulia said. She fondly recalls her own postdoc mentors at New York University School of Medicine (where she was a graduate student), as they taught her everything she needed to know about molecular neurobiology. Now having completed her own training, she strives to follow in the footsteps of her mentors. “I enjoy mentoring undergraduate students in our laboratory. I teach my students both the technical aspects of research, such as how to run immunohistochemistry or quantitative PCR experiments, as well as experimental design and critical data analysis. This experience has been very rewarding.”

Reflecting on her journey in medicine and biological sciences, Yulia said: “I really enjoy what I am doing and I would choose the same path if I were given another chance.” Seeking and courageously following her professional interests, Yulia is on her way to achieving her long-term career goal as a principal investigator to advance the understanding of neurodegenerative diseases. Having seen Yulia’s passion for science, and how she passes her knowledge and hands-on experience to her students, I genuinely feel it’s such a blessing for the people around her to work with her, learn from her, and be inspired by her.

Thursday, October 5th, 2017 Scientist of the Month Comments Off on October SOTM: Yulia Dzhashiashvili

September SOTM: Melody Swartz

by Shi En Kim

I confess that writing about Melody Swartz is a somewhat intimidating task. The world sees her as an Arnold and Mabel Beckman Young Investigator Award recipient, a winner of the National Science Foundation Early Career Award, and one of the Brilliant 10 named by Popular Science in 2006. There have already been numerous articles written about her; I was concerned that I would be rehashing another one of these articles that herald her many accomplishments. Nevertheless, I have the desire to do her achievements and even more so, the personal side of her story justice.

If you are a student in immunology or cancer biology, then you may have already heard of Melody Swartz. She is a chaired Professor of Molecular Engineering at the University of Chicago, a distinguished bioengineering scientist who has authored over 130 publications to date. Her work on the lymphatic system in cancer immunotherapy is legendary; the MacArthur Fellowship which she garnered in 2012 is a direct testament to her creativity. Yet, many would be as surprised as I was at learning this snippet of Melody’s background: she confessed that once upon a time not too long ago, she actually almost detested biology.

‘I was once a pre-med student at John Hopkins University, but I changed my mind halfway,’ Melody explains. During her undergraduate studies, she found the cutthroat environment of the pre-med track to be a poor fit to her interests. Biology, in particular, required a reductionist way of thinking that her mind rebelled against. She switched to chemical engineering, where she reveled in the problem-solving nature that has ultimately become the bedrock of her research interests later on.

After college, she was awarded the prestigious Watson Fellowship to study the crossroads of engineering and social development in Micronesia. Driven by the desire to improve the standards of living in undeveloped communities, she thus embarked on a mission to improve the water resource systems in the local communities. Melody playfully slips that back then the technological disparity compared to back home was enormous: she may have been living in conditions equivalent to ‘having rudimentary toilets consisting of mere holes in the ground’ and ‘wearing clothes made from leaves’ à la Robinson Crusoe. Amidst all the adventure, she was frustrated with the cultural barriers that often hindered her efforts to improve lives, and although her cause did not waver, she realized that the challenge she craved was more of an intellectual rather than a social one.

On her journey of self-exploration, she recognized that what she truly enjoyed the most was research. Her appreciation for science simply for what it is is palpable, but she prefers the broader scope of applying scientific principles to real-world applications. In the implementation of engineering solutions to solve various global problems, she prefers to be at the helm in making the groundbreaking discoveries that revolutionize technology and the way we think. Naturally, research was a fitting choice for a career path. After working as a research technician for a year at Northwestern University, she was accepted into MIT as a PhD student to pursue research that applied chemical engineering principles to—ironically—biology. Back in the 1980s, Melody clarifies, bioengineering was still nascent, straddling biology and traditional chemical engineering but not a separate field in its own right. Furthermore, fluid mechanics, which is so integral to chemical engineering, had hardly been used to investigate solute and fluid transport through tissues and in lymphatics. But the human body is largely made of water, so—in her words— ‘tissue fluid mechanics is essentially the same as solute transport for waste [water] management,’ as any chemical engineer is familiar with. A full circle had been drawn back to her undergraduate years. She, in fact, had never truly resented biology, on the contrary, she found that problems in biology were (and are even till this day) largely unexplored and thus a gold mine waiting to be unearthed using the tools of her trade: fluid mechanics and transport modeling. That the world needed more solutions to solve various issues in health also appealed to her inner engineer to seek to improve lives.

Since graduate school, Melody’s research migrated from studying biomechanics in the lung and lymphatic system to the integrative biology of the lymphatic system she is now most well-known for. In particular, she focuses on the role of lymphatics in immune regulation, especially for cancer detection and elimination. I am drawn into her infectious enthusiasm as she elucidates what intrigued her to the field in the first place. She believes that not only the molecules carried by the lymphatic fluid but also how the lymphatic fluid flows have a profound effect on the body’s immune response. When one truly delves into how the immune system works, one cannot help but marvel at the complexities it has to deal with in sensing foreign antigens and self-produced harmful agents as it proceeds to eradicate them without killing the human host in the process. What is the line between this self-non-self distinction, and how does the immune system decide what to eliminate? The ‘self’—cancerous cells, for instance—is not always as innocuous as we would normally expect, whereas ‘non-self’ interlopers such as gut bacteria play a vital role in supporting various bodily functions. Melody’s goal is to explore this selectivity of the immune system from the perspective of lymphatics. What makes her research stand out is her willingness to be unconventional. I am especially in awe of how she is drawn to open questions in biology but is also willing to take the extra step of expanding her toolset to include computer modeling as needed. Her integrative, problem-solving approach makes her a tour-de-force in the fields of physiology and immunology.

Besides her tenacity in her research as well as her adventurous spirit that has charted her self-exploration and taken her all around the world in to establish new collaborations, I admire her the most for her honesty. She admits that being a woman in science has not always been easy as her male colleagues have it. Occasional off-the-hand remarks from students and the subtle undermining of her authority by members of the scientific community from time to time are experiences that many female science students like me can relate to. Nonetheless, Melody’s research has always been accompanied by her mentorship to rebalance gender roles and nurture the next generation of scientists. In joining UChicago’s first ever engineering program at the Institute of Molecular Engineering (IME), she has been and remains an active participant in faculty recruitment to develop the bioengineering branch and in shaping the curriculum to cultivate a new generation of molecular engineers. The advent of the molecular engineering program also gave rise to engineering student societies such as the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), to which Melody acts as an advisor. Additionally, her very own group members adore her, describing her as personable, humble, and genuinely excitable when it comes to research. Interviewing her, I can see that her formula to her success is apparent: be adaptable and not forget one’s roots. Her diverse background, from her pre-med years to her immersion in sociology and finally to hard core research, along with the willingness to experiment has brought her to where she is today. She has remained true to herself to reject the inherent inefficiencies in regarding traditional disciplines, thereby reinventing the way the scientific community considers engineering and biology, and perhaps, herself along with it.

Tuesday, September 5th, 2017 Scientist of the Month Comments Off on September SOTM: Melody Swartz

August SOTM: Nancy Schwartz

by Aurelie Desgardin

Dr. Nancy Schwartz often sits quietly, listening to scientists of all levels as though she is no different from the others in the room. Humility, a characteristic often attributed to womanhood, is partially why she is so successful. She listens, processes information, thinks about what to say so no word is left unweighted. She does not need to command respect with a loud voice and broad shoulders, she does it naturally and with a dash of class.

Growing up 70 miles from Pittsburgh Pennsylvania in a household that valued education, Nancy has always been attracted to science but did not wish to follow in the footsteps of her older sister and go to medical school. Nancy had a thing for Mathematics. She loved it and was great at it. Wanting more than high school math, she sought out college summer classes which led to a full scholarship, an early college graduation, and a great yet undetermined future.

Nancy did not waste time pursuing Math after graduation. She was told bluntly that pursuing graduate studies in Mathematics as a woman was pointless – there would be few job prospects. So, she turned towards chemistry, also not a very popular subject of study among women at the time and then, biochemistry. As she puts it lightly “it has chemistry in the name, it must be interesting”.

A lot has changed since the days Dr. Schwartz joined academia. However, some things have not changed much. At the time, moving up the ranks was considered the default pathway. While this model is still vibrant in the minds of new graduate students and young postdocs, it no longer holds true. Women are still not drawn to chemistry and other STEM fields; and, while women are no longer a minority in biological sciences they are underrepresented in leadership positions. Somehow Dr. Schwartz found her place. She came with her husband to Chicago and joined the University of Chicago as a postdoctoral fellow because she thought this was the best place for her to be. Her choice was undeniably the right one. She has climbed the ladder to become the professor of Pediatrics and Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in addition to being the director of the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center. With each new position, she took on more responsibilities, applying her efforts to bridging the gap of inequalities.

A Lifetime of Achievements

Dr. Schwartz’ accomplishments as a scientist and a mentor would make quite a list. She is a successful investigator with a lengthy track record of mentoring and efforts towards the development and support of scientists as well as diversity within the sciences.

Looking at Dr. Schwartz today, one would not picture an activist beneath the veneer of a poised professor. Dr. Schwartz says “growing up in the late 60s and 70s, in a time of change, was exciting”. She marched for equal rights, for women, voting rights, and against the war in Vietnam. She developed a taste for large group efforts with a purpose for progress. Could it be because there is chemistry in group chemistry?

In regards to building her career, she confesses that it was about “putting together areas that I like to do. I have interests in big group efforts and training”. This led to her development of multiple projects such as a PostBac and Initiative for Maximizing Student Development programs (IMSD), in the National Research Mentoring Network Committee on Institutional Cooperation Academic Network and much more. Some of her more impressive endeavors include directing for 35 years a multi-investigator, P01 Program Project and a P30 center grant for the Developmental Disabilities Research Center at UChicago. Dr. Schwartz is the director of this center and her lab researches skeletal and brain development. She also has directed a T32 MD/Ph.D. training development program that has been continually funded for 35 years.

Dr. Schwartz stands for all scientists. She joined the GRE board where she advocated for the GRE to be more appropriate for scientists. She emphasizes the importance of outreach efforts and helped to start and chaired a Graduate Deans group and Postdoc Leaders group through the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). Dr. Schwartz feels strongly about diversity in the Sciences. She recognizes that private institutions are not compelled to participate in such efforts but that demonstrating efforts and affecting cultural change is beneficial to the University. While Dean of the Biological Sciences Division Graduate School, Dr. Schwartz established the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs where she serves as Dean and Director.

In 2016, Dr. Schwartz received one of her most moving recognitions, the NPA Distinguished Service Award. The National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) was created by a group of 7 postdoctoral scholars who, with the support of an advisory board including Dr. Schwartz, succeeded in establishing what is today an invaluable resource for postdoctoral trainees across the nation. She is proud that this nascent project grew to be sustainable despite the transient nature of the postdoc population. Dr. Schwartz is a proponent of institutional involvement and shares that “Universities do not take responsibility for their postdocs in the same way they do with their graduate students because they want to see them walk away with a degree.”

Dr. Nancy Schwartz is a role model and mentor to many women in science – to follow what naturally feels right to oneself, unapologetically embrace femininity and succeed by combining things one cares about with the things one loves to do that benefits many. She admits that her humble perspective may be a characteristic classically associated with women but nevertheless “I don’t portray myself as a leader but I like to think that I enhance”. I happen to think that maybe her training as a chemist organically transformed Dr. Nancy Schwartz into the catalyst of the many groups and the range of successes she has achieved.

Monday, July 31st, 2017 Scientist of the Month Comments Off on August SOTM: Nancy Schwartz

July SOTM: Sui Huang

by Danielle Fanslow

Dr. Sui Huang’s role model is Barbara McClintock, the Nobel Laureate who discovered transposable elements. In many ways, the two scientists are alike. Sui, like McClintock, has a fierce love and curiosity for science. She will often run into my lab with a grin on her face exclaiming about the latest piece of data that excites her. Sui is also an innovative scientist. Her ideas spark the imagination and push the limits of how we look at biology. Like McClintock, she is also persistent. Through the climate of tight funding, Sui continues to stay true to her honest pursuit of knowledge. As Sui serves in her current position as Associate Professor in the Cell and Molecular Biology Department at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, she continues her joyful search for nuclear structures and functions in cancer cells and beyond.

Before Sui began her career in cancer biology research, she was trained to become physician at Fudan Medical School in China. As a medical doctor, Sui felt that she could not help the patients who most needed treatment because of the deficit of biological understanding of many diseases, including cancer. After medical school, Sui decided to change careers and become a cancer researcher. There she could contribute to the biological understanding of cancer and develop treatments that would potentially help more people than she could as a physician. She moved to the United States and got her PhD from Rutgers University. Subsequently, she did a postdoctoral fellowship at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratories, where she focused on studying cancer cells. There she took an innovative approach of searching for unique structural markers of cancer cells, rather than single mutated genes. That’s when she discovered the perinucleolar compartment (PNC), a nuclear body that lies at the periphery of the nucleolus, forming uniquely in metastatic cancer cells.

Sui continues her work to understand the biology of the PNC at Northwestern University. She understands that cancer is a complex disease that requires a complex solution, and that thinking outside of the box can lead to some of the most important and impactful biological discoveries. She and her colleagues found that the PNC could be used as a marker for the metastatic behavior, the major cause of death for cancer. Her team developed a screen for compounds that selectively remove the marker, thus removing or changing the metastatic capable cancer cells with minimal impact on normal cells. Sui is encouraged about the promising anti-metastatic efficacy of her compounds and she hopes to advance them into clinical trials.

Sui is also passionate about giving back to the community. She does quite a bit volunteer work for primary and secondary school science fairs. She also visits classrooms to demonstrate microscopy to children by having them look at their own cheek cells. Additionally, Sui teaches graduate level courses in cell biology and her enthusiasm for science is most evident in her lectures and discussions.

Sui loves science, yet she often feels discouraged by the current system of funding for research. She feels that the most creative and innovative ideas often get overlooked for conventional projects and trendy hypotheses. “I think that people like Barbara McClintock would not be able to survive in today’s system.” She feels that tight funding sometimes favors “people who play the game right, people who follow the rules, rather than follow their science.” She worries that there is little consideration that novel ideas may take longer to develop than the expectation of the funding mechanisms. Gender plays a role in some of the struggles she has faced. She feels women like her, who take low-key ways of explaining their research in meetings and proposals, are sometimes disregarded over male counterparts who present with more showmanship and salesmanship. However, she believes that if scientists of all genders are honest to themselves and committed to their work, over time they could push through the system and achieve their goals.

Throughout her career, Sui’s family motivates her to work harder. Everyday she strives to set an example for her daughter, ensuring her that she can do anything she wants to in life. She will often work alongside her daughter as she does her homework, encouraging hard work by example. Sui’s abundant excitement for her work is contagious to her family, friends and colleagues. She continues to inspire those around her to stay excited and stay positive, even if the science they are pursuing is unconventional and challenging.

Wednesday, July 5th, 2017 Scientist of the Month Comments Off on July SOTM: Sui Huang

June SOTM: Jian Cao

by Puikei Cheng

If you’re reading this article, whether on a screen or in print, you are using a product of manufacturing. Manufacturing converts raw materials into consumer goods—and due to mass production, more consumer goods are manufactured than ever before.

While mass production is cheap, there is growing demand for products that are complex, one-of-a-kind, or require special processing. These products include specialized equipment such as turbines, aircraft parts, and patient-specific implants. With the proliferation of interconnected electronic devices, manufacturing research has grown extremely sophisticated, multidisciplinary, and collaborative. At the forefront of this research is Professor Jian Cao.

Dr. Jian Cao is the Cardiss Collins Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. She co-directs the Advanced Manufacturing Processes Laboratory and is the founding director of the Northwestern Initiative for Manufacturing Science and Innovation. Moreover, she has been recognized through numerous awards, published over a hundred journal articles, and holds over a dozen patents. She was first woman president of the North American Manufacturing Research Institute since its founding over 30 years ago. Last year, she became the first woman to win the prestigious SME Frederick W. Taylor Research Medal for her contributions to the field of manufacturing.


Manufacturing as integration of knowledge

Dr. Cao first became interested in manufacturing as a student at Shanghai JiaoTong University (SJTU). She was drawn to the idea of manufacturing as the “integration of many different fields.” As she explains, “A process by itself is not going to fly until it’s in the system domain.” She graduated from SJTU with a double major in controls and materials science/engineering, then went on to earn a PhD at MIT in solid mechanics.

More than 20 years later, her research contributions cover topics as wide-ranging as 3D printing, carbon fiber composites processing, sheet metal forming, and surface texturing. Dr. Cao’s research pushes the boundaries of these advanced manufacturing techniques to reduce cost and waste, increase efficiency, improve process flexibility, and boost product quality.

Dr. Cao advocates for breadth and perspective in research. She has worked in all three sectors of the “Triple Helix”: academia, industry, and government agency. Speaking about her time as a program director at the National Science Foundation, she says, “You’re taking yourself away from being fully embedded in your own lab and looking over a much broader landscape. I visited many different labs, domestic and international, sat on many different panels and workshops, and worked with people to come up with something new—new ideas and new directions for the manufacturing community.”

Now in her fifth year as Associate Vice President for Research at Northwestern, Dr. Cao uses her perspective to influence university operations. “As a researcher, you know what you need—and the office of research wants to know how to support researchers.” She oversees university-wide research initiatives regarding Northwestern’s core facilities, including machine shops and software licenses.

Dr. Cao is also an entrepreneur. Her start-up, Scimplicity LLC, aims to bring rapid, low-volume sheet metal forming to the market via an advanced manufacturing process known as incremental forming. Compared to traditional sheet metal forming processes, incremental forming is flexible, cheap, and fast for low volume production—perfect for specialized equipment.

According to Dr. Cao, Scimplicity is a combination of the “sci” in science and the idea of “simplicity” as a design objective. “Development usually moves from the simple to the complex. But for everyone to be able to use it, you have to simplify the complex knowledge.” Scimplicity does this by condensing cutting-edge, multidisciplinary manufacturing technology into a more user-friendly interface. “The whole concept is to make it into a simple system that people can use.”


Manufacturing as a collaborative effort

Around the lab, Dr. Cao is known for her ability to multitask. On airplanes and car rides you may find her editing manuscripts, writing proposals, and calling into teleconferences—sometimes all at once. Outside the lab, she is a proud mother of two Northwestern engineering undergraduates, a junior and an incoming freshman. With her busy schedule, she still manages to mentor her diverse crew of twenty-plus post-docs, graduate students, and undergrads.

Cooperation is key in Dr. Cao’s group. Her students often work together on multidisciplinary teams assembled for each project. For example, about a quarter of her students have spent time in the last two years either designing, building, or testing their latest metal 3D printer system. Such a project demands a variety of skills and fields of knowledge.

Dr. Cao takes a similar approach with her collaborators, who span the globe. Her strong ties to the academia-industry-government “Triple Helix” aligns her with experts in experimental design, machine design, controls, simulations, materials science, imaging, and more. She has worked with companies both big and small, including Ford, Boeing, Baxter, General Electric, and Siemens. With her academic and industrial partners, she has secured millions of dollars in grants to spur innovative research.

At the core, Dr. Cao believes her achievements came about because she does what she enjoys. “I think you really have to find your own passion. You have probably heard a lot of people say that you have to find your own passion. But it is true. If you don’t like what you do, then don’t do it. Life is short, find something interesting—and work on it.”

To learn more about Professor Jian Cao’s research, visit

Monday, June 19th, 2017 Scientist of the Month Comments Off on June SOTM: Jian Cao

March SOTM: Jocelyn Malamy

by Ittai Eres

I still remember the first time I encountered Dr. Jocelyn Malamy, Associate Professor in the Department of Molecular Genetics and Cell Biology at the University of Chicago. She was giving the final set of lectures in one of the toughest classes I took my first year of graduate school. Immediately, I was struck by her enthusiasm and vigor, not only for plant biology, but also for the task at hand—teaching. Jocelyn is a past recipient of the Llewellyn John and Harriet Manchester Quantrell Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching, which is no surprise for anyone who’s ever taken one of her classes. She feels that University of Chicago students are a “really gratifying group to work with, because you provide them good exciting things, and then they become excited.” This attitude was definitely reflected in her lectures for that course, which consistently engaged the audience in a way that many educators strive for their whole careers.

Small wonder, then, that she was recently promoted to become the Master of the Biological Sciences Collegiate Division (BSCD). In this new administrative role, Jocelyn has been coming up with ways to introduce new opportunities, new curricula, and new courses to students interested in the life sciences. As a result, a new set of research intensive courses will be offered for undergraduates at the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) at Wood’s Hole this year in the three weeks preceding the fall quarter.

You might expect that taking on such a large leadership role would cause one to put other professional goals on hold for a period of time, but that isn’t the case here. Jocelyn still runs her research lab, as well, and has big goals to expand into and publish in an exciting new direction: jellyfish. Like plants, jellyfish have a tremendous regenerative capacity—take a piece of either one, and it’s capable of growing into a whole new organism. As Jocelyn herself describes, “you cut them into four pieces, and you get four jellyfish!” Identifying the common elements between such creatures that allow them to regenerate could be a tremendous boon for human health.

Of course, expanding the scope and size of a research lab isn’t easy, especially in today’s funding climate. One thing Jocelyn laments is the constant fight for funding. The need to constantly sell your projects, and to market them to those who lack some interest in basic science questions, can be incredibly frustrating. Not to be deterred, she still searches zealously for those “a-ha” moments when results come through and things finally click. Unlike many other professors, Jocelyn is not content to stay in the office and hear about results from her students. For her, the best way to process a scientific result is to be present for the process that yields it, and hence she can frequently be found working at the bench, physically doing the research. There was certainly a time in her career when a variety of factors conspired to prevent this from being a possibility. Faculty members’ offices are placed outside of the lab, and administrative and teaching demands make it difficult to find the time to do actual science. In her own words: “7 years, I didn’t pick up a pipette, what was I thinking? It was so, so, so wrong, and maybe it works for some people, but it didn’t work for me.”

Jocelyn has also faced more gender-specific challenges during the course of her career, though she did not ever feel she was discriminated against as a woman. “Women,” she says, “are very well-represented in the biological sciences, and almost particularly in plant biology.” However, there is also typically a difference in how men and women approach professional situations, especially ones where you need to fight for yourself or for a certain goal. According to her, often a “typical female ‘softer’ approach leads to less success,” and that, if a woman wants to be more assertive, she often must worry about “trying to hit that right tone…constantly monitoring yourself.” Of course, professional women often have the added challenge of being a scientist while also being a mom. The mother of a young child herself, Jocelyn notes that “having children is a big hit on your productivity, that often affects women much more than it does men.”

Although these different challenges make it harder for women to succeed professionally, they certainly haven’t stopped Jocelyn. She began to do research in her undergrad years at Tufts University, where she fell in love with plant biology before moving on to Rutgers for her Ph.D. and then to New York University for a post-doc. Nowadays, we’re lucky to have her here at the University of Chicago, making new inroads into regeneration with jellyfish in her lab and creating engaging educational content as Master of the BSCD. Her advice for students hoping to be as successful? “Go with something you’re excited about, but also factor practicality into it a little bit.”

Wednesday, March 1st, 2017 Scientist of the Month Comments Off on March SOTM: Jocelyn Malamy

February SOTM: Laura Thorp

by Brittany M. Wilson

Dr. Laura Thorp, Physical Therapist turned Anatomist and now mom of four boys under the age of 5, is highly regarded as an educator by her students. In fact, she has been awarded on several occasions for Excellence in Teaching and having been one of her students, I can personally endorse her merit for these awards. I first met Dr. Thorp at Rush University Medical Center when she was an Assistant Professor of Anatomy and Cell Biology. As an aspiring professor of anatomy myself, I have always viewed Dr. Thorp as an important mentor and role model.

“Make it make sense,” I remember her saying this many times as she delivered various gross anatomy or neuroanatomy lectures. I believe the phrase originated from her undergraduate anatomy professor at the University of Scranton, Dr. Gary Mattingly, who Thorp regards as an influential mentor in her pursuit to teach anatomy herself. I often find myself repeating this phrase back to students I am teaching or even to myself as I study or read scientific literature. Mentorships often seem to work this way, with idioms and ideas being passed on to mentees like genes are passed on through a family tree.

Dr. Thorp’s excellence in teaching is likely related to her passion for the subject of human anatomy and openness to evolve and grow in each new experience. As of July 2015, Dr. Thorp assumed a new position as Clinical Associate Professor in the Department of Physical Therapy at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). Given her initial training as a physical therapist, teaching anatomy at a physical therapy school was always a goal of hers. It took about 13 years to finally make that goal a reality but Thorp says, “I wouldn’t change anything about how I went through it because I learned so much.”

To say in hindsight that she’s learned so much is an understatement. Dr. Thorp found out she was pregnant with triplets shortly after accepting her new position at UIC. With another little one at home already, balancing family life with work became an exciting new challenge for Thorp and her husband who is a physician in the Chicagoland area. “I find balance by knowing what’s important to me,” Dr. Thorp mentioned when discussing her daily schedule. She also acknowledged the importance of asking for what you need and utilizing the people and resources around you. She continued, “It’s a lot. There’s days where I’m very overwhelmed but I’m excited that I have four boys who will get to see a mom that loves her job.”

While she was teaching at Rush University, Dr. Thorp participated in and chaired many advisory and curriculum and evaluation committees, primarily within the medical college. Her experience with implementing curriculum changes at Rush University is now invaluable as she sits on similar curriculum committees at UIC and is able to offer pragmatic insight to guide the process. Thorp is also currently participating in a teaching scholars mentoring program through UIC’s Center for the Advancement of Teaching-Learning Communities where she hopes to learn how to better the courses she teaches and how to improve the assessment of teaching outcomes.

The success of her students is something Thorp highlights as one of the most rewarding aspects of teaching. She said, “Anatomy is challenging and it’s not for everyone and seeing students who are working really hard who ultimately get it is really gratifying.” She also acknowledges her students’ respect and appreciation for cadaver dissection. While new technology seems to be complementing traditional cadaveric dissection well, empirical evidence has suggested that the experience of learning human anatomy through cadaver dissection is indispensable. In fact, bad press about body donation is a real concern for anatomists like Thorp who rely on donors to supply cadavers for the medical and professional schools in the area.

As a woman in science and now a mom of four boys, Dr. Thorp has learned to know when to ask for help. She said, “There’s no way I can do this all on my own. You have a lot of people around you in science and in life who want to help and you need to seize the opportunities to take help where they present themselves or find them if they’re not presenting themselves.”

Before Dr. Thorp left Rush University for UIC, her doctoral advisor, Dr. Rick Sumner, who happens to be my adviser and also Chairman of the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology at Rush, gave her a framed notebook sheet. Written on it were notes about her goals from their first meeting when she started as a student at Rush, “Teach at a physical therapy school.” That was in 2002. Over a decade later that goal has come to fruition for Thorp. She said, “I was lucky, but it’s not just about luck. You have to ask for what you need and you can ask for what you need without apologizing for it.”

Creating the career you want for yourself will always take time, but the time will pass anyway. Passion for what you want to do, clear communication with those around you, and an openness to learn in each new experience are all part of a recipe for success that has definitely paid off for Dr. Laura Thorp.

Thursday, February 9th, 2017 Scientist of the Month Comments Off on February SOTM: Laura Thorp

WHEN: May 31st, 2018
(Stay tuned for more information!!)

CPS Annual Science Fair
Help AWIS Chicago give a Special Award at the CPS Annual Science Fair!
See "Home" and "Community" pages for more more details and registration.

Chicago Women in STEM and Academia event at Northwestern.
This event is for everyone, students, postdocs, staff and faculty from Northwestern and other institutions whatever your gender identity is!
See "Home" and "Events" pages for more more details and registration.