Scientist of the Month
Written by C. Zoe Hoeppner, PhD
Principal Engineer at Fresenius Kabi (via the recent acquisition of Fenwal Inc), Katherine Radwanski is rising young female star in the apheresis and blood device industry. Despite having only received her Master’s in Biotechnology from Northwestern University in 2008, Katherine has quickly made a name for herself, winning several awards from professional societies, authoring patents, and most recently serving as the technical lead for an exploratory IND (investigational new drug) study at Fenwal (now Fresenius). Traditionally, a company submits IND applications only after a candidate drug has been put through rigorous testing and is in final product form. The study Katherine lead of a new platelet additive solution was one of the first of its kind in the transfusion technology industry, and a major accomplishment for her company.
Though she is a technical whiz when it comes to apheresis, Katherine is not taking anything away but rather giving back through mentoring young women scientists and engineers during their co-op internships at Fresenius Kabi, or through career mentorship. Katherine sees the biggest challenge women facing in her industry are a lack of female mentors in senior technical roles. While she was fortunate, her mother was a great mentor and source of support for her in her education and career; working as a manufacturing engineer for over 30 years where few women can be found; this is often not the case. As Katherine sees it, often time’s female scientists and engineers with excellent communication and management skills are diverted to the project management roles, which leave a gap for mentors to the more junior female scientists. For her part, Katherine is trying to overcome this issue by encouraging women to pursue their technical interests through continuous learning and educating them on how they can advance their careers in a technical path as she has.
When Arabela Grigorescu was a post-doctoral fellow researching DNA repair proteins at the University of Chicago, she found herself a crossroads in her career. Though she was most comfortable in what she considered to be the creative and stimulating environment of academe, Arabela knew teaching courses as a tenure track faculty was not the path she wanted to pursue.
Not having a clear idea of what to do next, Arabela reflected on her graduate school teaching experiences. While she earned her Ph.D. in Molecular Biophysics and Structural Biology from the University of Pittsburgh, Arabela loved teaching labs. She helped design and taught a laboratory course in Molecular Biophysics to familiarize undergraduate students with biophysical techniques to characterize several aspects of protein structure and function. The course was instrumental in teaching undergraduates how to “do” science like it is actually done in the research environment. For Arabela it was a great learning opportunity and a “very rewarding experience,” especially because some of her students were so inspired that they went on to pursue graduate studies in the same area of research.
Today Arabela continues to support researchers as the Managing Director of the Keck Biophysics Facility at Northwestern University. The Keck Facility is a center for molecular biophysical research which provides Northwestern groups with advanced equipment, specialized training, and assistance. The Facility has a set of 22 advanced instruments that allow for integrated analyses of macromolecular structure, interactions, and function. As Director, Arabela manages the daily operations of the Keck laboratory and provides counseling, training and assistance to researchers who need to employ biophysical techniques. She must also constantly evaluate novel technologies and both seek out and supply the Facility with technologies to meet the needs of Northwestern research groups.
Originally from Romania, Arabela studied physics at the University of Bucharest. She turned from physics to biology when Peter Lipke, a biology professor at CUNY, accepted her as non-degree student into his advanced structural biology course. Though she could barely speak English, the course left her spellbound. “After the first couple of lectures I had no doubt this is the area I wanted to specialize in,” Arabela says. She developed her investigatory skills as a graduate student with Linda Jen Jacobson at the University of Pittsburgh and then as a post-doctoral fellow with Phoebe Rice at the University of Chicago – two women who, in Arabela’s words, are “renowned scientists, excellent mentors, and role models.”
At Northwestern, Arabela is a mentor in her own right. Along with her staff, Arabela guides the efforts of over 500 users from various areas of research, all of whom require differing levels of assistance – some are self-sufficient and some need help at every step. However, these challenges do not faze Arabela, “I think it is fantastic to work in this field, in a top-tier research university, in this day and age. I get to see innovative projects, discuss breakthrough ideas, and meet brilliant people every day. It is an honor and a privilege to contribute in a very small way to the extraordinary research currently going on at Northwestern.”
Grateful for the work-life balance she has in her current position; Arabela makes it a priority to be home for family dinner and to spend time with her children. In her spare time, she enjoys gardening and says that readers would be surprised to know that she is pursuing a degree in Garden Design. Thinking back on her career path thus far, Arabela is “very content” in her current position and cannot imagine herself somewhere else. She advises scientists who enjoy academia, but do not want to be principal investigators to sample different aspects of the academic experience during their graduate and postdoctoral years. “It is possible to find rewarding positions that combine managerial and administrative skills with knowledge of the academic system and expertise in a particular area of science. “
By Agnella Izzo Matic, PhD
The breast tumor lights up in pink on the computer screen. Algorithms automatically detect the tumor and predict that this tumor is malignant.
This scene may soon play out in medical centers around the nation thanks to Dr. Maryellen Giger’s innovative research in the fight against breast cancer. Dr. Giger (rhymes with “tiger”) is Professor and Vice Chair for basic science research in the Department of Radiology, Chair of the Committee on Medical Physics, and Director of the Imaging Research Institute at the University of Chicago.
Dr. Giger’s research focuses on computer-aided diagnosis of breast cancer from multiple breast imaging modalities, including mammography, ultrasound, and MRI (magnetic resonance imaging). The information from Dr. Giger’s computer algorithms can improve breast cancer diagnosis, prognosis, and patient care. For example, in current medical practice, MRI has several uses related to breast cancer. MRI can be used to screen women with a high risk of developing breast cancer or those with dense breasts. MRI is also used as a secondary exam following a suspicious x-ray mammogram, as well as a monitoring method during cancer treatment. Though it is not the gold standard for all breast cancer screening, breast MRI is gaining prominence in medical practice and Dr. Giger’s research is one reason why.
The quantitative image analysis techniques developed by Dr. Giger and her colleagues automatically segment a breast lesion; extract lesion features such as volume, surface area, and contrast kinetics; and estimate the invasiveness of a lesion and the probability of malignancy. Potentially all of this information can aid a radiologist to diagnose cancer, characterize aggressiveness of the tumor, and predict response to therapy.
Several former University of Chicago students formed the company Quantitative Insights to bring Giger’s research to the clinic (Giger sits on the board as a scientific advisor). The company added an intuitive clinical interface to the algorithms and analysis methods developed in Dr. Giger’s lab. Initial feedback for the clinical interface has been overwhelmingly positive and the interface was recently exhibited at the 2012 annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA). Once Quantitative Insights obtains FDA approval for the clinical workstation, radiologists will be able to analyze patients’ breast MRIs using the methods developed at the University of Chicago. Radiologists who have previewed the workstation estimate that they can reduce the time to interpret a breast MRI scan from 30 minutes (using current technology) to 10 minutes. Additionally, the workstation will deliver more in-depth quantitative information to the radiologist than is currently available.
Many organizations have bestowed honors on Dr. Giger. She is a fellow of the American Institute of Medical and Biological Engineers (AIMBE), fellow of the American Association of Physicists in Medicine (AAPM), and member of the National Academy of Engineering, which is arguably the highest professional honor that can be bestowed on an engineer.
And it’s no wonder why. Dr. Giger’s research output is astounding. She has advised over 100 trainees. She has 37 patents issued. She is the author of 177 peer-reviewed manuscripts, and counting. Though these remarkable descriptors all apply to Dr. Giger, they don’t convey the full picture of her intellect, her wisdom, or her warm personality.
Dr. Maryellen Giger appreciates the support she received from several mentors throughout her career. Dr. Rose Carney, Giger’s math professor at Illinois Benedictine College (now Benedictine University), offered Dr. Giger several summer job opportunities during her undergraduate studies. One of those opportunities was a research position working on temperature controls for neutron therapy and building electronics for beam diagnostics at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. Dr. Franca Kuchnir, Professor Emerita of Radiation and Cellular Oncology, and the late Dr. Charles Metz, Professor of Radiology, were influential colleagues at the University of Chicago, especially during Giger’s early faculty period.
As a mentor herself, Dr. Giger is pleased to return the favor and give advice gained from her own experience. She is particularly attentive to the needs of junior faculty. Giger is a big proponent of tearing down the hierarchy that is present in academia, noting that in her lab “everyone is equal around the scientific table.” Her hope is that former students and junior colleagues act as a supportive mentor for the next generation of scientists when the time comes.
Outside the laboratory, Dr. Giger spends her down time reading biographies of great scientists and she recently enjoyed “The Emperor of All Maladies” by Siddhartha Mukherjee. Looking forward, the biggest challenge for Giger and her lab is one that almost all biomedical researchers in the US are facing: obtaining funding. Even after a career spanning 4 decades, she still has many ideas for new projects that she would like to begin.
By Marina Damiano
As a scientist, what do you say when a colleague asks you about your research? Is it different than how you would explain your research to a non-scientist? Perhaps it is easy to deliver a highly technical presentation, but when you have to remove the jargon and package the essence of your research into digestible information for the public, you struggle. Fear not, for you are not alone! Scientists spend years learning theory and perfecting experimental techniques, but we are rarely trained or even given a lesson on the art of communication. However, in order to drive new discoveries, scientists must be able to clearly communicate their research to more than just scientists. There are teachers and students who are eager to learn, organizations and foundations who want to fund, and even ordinary people who want to understand why they have a disease or how a machine works. At the graduate level and beyond, these important outreach and communication skills are often overshadowed by research demands, but Michelle Paulsen is changing the status quo for science communication at Northwestern University.
Michelle is the director of Reach for the Stars, a National Science Foundation sponsored program that provides fellowships for Northwestern PhD students to become “resident researchers” in K-12 classrooms. As director, Michelle recruits graduate students, all of whom are in STEM fields and use computational modeling in their research, and teachers for the program. With her extensive background in science, teaching, and leadership training, Michelle also advises the PhD candidates on how to develop educational materials related to their research and teaches the participating educators how to work with and train new science communicators. One former fellow explains how the skills he learned in Reach for the Stars benefited other aspects of his graduate career, “In preparing a talk for my department, I took an approach different from what I would have done in the past. The talk felt more like a narrative, reaching a goal (the paper I was assigned), rather than a collection of theorems slapped on the whiteboard (which is probably what I would have done pre-Reach for the Stars).”
As a self-proclaimed science and education geek, Michelle is passionate about science education for all. Like most of us in the field, Michelle’s lifelong love of science began with outstanding teachers in elementary school and high school. She went on to earn her Bachelor of Science in Chemistry from the University of Illinois – Urbana-Champaign (U of I) and Master of Science in Environmental Engineering from the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT). Her graduate research took her to the Shedd Aquarium, where she developed a computational model to detect metal ions from eroding pipes in the water distribution systems. Although Michelle enjoyed her research, she felt a call to leave the lab and focus on teaching science to others. Michelle credits two outstanding teachers – Dr. Clifford Singer at U of I and Dr. Paul Anderson at IIT – with the impetus to move in this direction. “Not only were they well respected researchers, but they had a talent for teaching as well. I found that to be a unique combination and they have been sources of inspiration to me.” With this momentum, Michelle earned a Master of Arts in School Leadership from National Louis University.
In her current position at Northwestern, Michelle observes that the public is starting to grasp more firmly the importance of science and science education. New national guidelines, the Next Generation Science Standards, require an overhaul of existing benchmarks for science education. According to Michelle, there is a push for curriculum that encourages science students to explore their own research questions and to design experiments rather than following pre-written procedures. Because of these societal and curriculum changes, practicing scientists are now more frequently asked to participate in both formal and informal science education and communication.
To meet the demands of these new expectations for scientists and researchers, Michelle helped to establish the Ready, Set, Go (RSG) program in summer 2012 to improve the communication skills of STEM graduate students and post-doctoral fellows at Northwestern. Michelle based RSG on a program she attended at the Stony Brook University Center for Communicating Science; this program was designed with input from actor and long-time science fanatic, Alan Alda, who recognized that scientists sometimes need help communicating more “directly and personally.” RSG is a 10-week communication fellowship that brings in experts in the fields of theatre, broadcast journalism, and information visualization to prepare young STEM researchers to be able to share their work more effectively with a broader audience. The fellowship concludes with a symposium called Seven Minutes of Science that features RSG fellows giving TED style talks about their research. Northwestern professor and Dean of the Graduate School, Dwight McBride, attended the symposium and was “impressed by the powerful presentations and the progress” of RSG fellows. Last year was RSG’s inaugural year, but the program has been renewed by Northwestern to run in both the spring and summer 2013 terms
Michelle advises all young scientists, regardless of their desired career path, to find what they are passionate about and study it thoroughly. When scientists who want to transition from academia to non-traditional fields, such as outreach and science communication, ask for advice, Michelle says, “Get your feet wet! Try it, see if you like it, and then continue to grow. Volunteer in classrooms and at museums; try to become more invested in science education at your home institution and in your community.”
So the next time you are at Thanksgiving dinner and your fourth cousin asks you what you do, do not sigh and say, “It’s complicated.” Rather, think about what you read in this article and the importance of the skillset of communicating science to non-scientists. Then, take a deep breath and enlighten them.
Article by Eun Ji Chung, Ph.D.
I met Christine McCary during graduate school. Although our research circles had never overlapped, we both applied to and were accepted to the Management for Scientists and Engineers summer program held by the Graduate School and Kellogg School of Business at Northwestern University. In sum, this certificate program aimed to “equip promising doctoral students with the necessary business and leadership skills,” in order to address the gap between the challenges faced when managing and leading teams associated with the commercialization of research and the extremely focused doctoral experience. Attendants of the program can be generalized as open-minded, acutely interested in the application of science, well-versed, and on a personal note, up for a challenge. Christine epitomizes these traits.
Christine McCary, Ph.D., received a Bachelor of Science in Cellular/Molecular Biology from the University of Maryland. During college, she was pre-med and was determined to be a part of science through medicine. While preparing to take the MCATs, Christine had an epiphany. She knew she would love the academic and intellectual experience of medical school, but the unforgiving working hours of a physician would not grant the time she wanted to devote to her family and friends. She decided then that her value system and priorities would be the ultimate arbitrator of her career choices. After this time of introspection, Christine decided that she would need to choose a career in which her curiosity for learning, her passion to mentor and teach, and her desire for work-life balance would be satisfied.
Christine attended Northwestern for graduate school where she looked forward to “taking the academic challenge and overdosing on science.” Her thesis aimed to investigate the effect of Vitamin E on the migration of leukocytes within the lung. Christine enjoyed exploring unchartered territory through novel research, but she also started to investigate post-doctorate options beyond the traditional academic track; while she loved benchwork and teaching, these parts of the job were often minimized by the grants-driven reality of the profession. After graduate school, Christine did a postdoc at the University of Chicago’s Office of Biosafety before joining the Career Advancement team as an Assistant Director for Graduate Services (https://careeradvancement.uchicago.edu/). Specifically in her current position, Christine works with students and postdocs from the Biological and Physical Sciences Divisions, helping them make informative choices on their career paths through various seminars, CV/application review, and one-on-one sessions. The focus is equally split for the academic track and the nonacademic track. The mission she says is to “help you do what you want to do.”
Article by Eun Ji Chung, Ph.D.
In March, we introduced Dr. Chinonye (Chi-Chi) Nnakwe who is the Director of Graduate Diversity Recruitment at the University of Chicago (http://www.awis-chicago.org/community/march-2012-scientist-of-the-month-chinonye-chi-chi-nnakwe). We wanted to follow-up with her and this newly-created position that aims to increase the population of traditionally underrepresented groups in the graduate population.
After we do quick introductions, Chi-Chi is on the white board and gets right to the point. She explains that name recognition of the University of Chicago among academic circles of underrepresented minorities needs to be improved. Often times, only students that have undergraduate faculty mentors and advisors are presented with the U of C as a top choice and are provided the encouragement to apply. In addition, while careers such as doctors and lawyers are prevalent enough where there is a general understanding of their roles and contributions to society, explaining what someone does with a Ph.D. degree is not as obvious. Therefore, Chi-Chi’s main objectives are to make the Ph.D. degree tangible to students as early as high school and to increase name recognition, recruitment, and retention.
Chi-Chi lists out 5 initiatives that she has been implemented to achieve these goals:
- UC Weekend (March): This event was started in 2012 and includes the entire campus with activities such as Scientific Diversity Symposium, alumni/career panels, and faculty presentations in order to welcome prospective minority students. Mark your calendars: This year’s event is April 4-6, 2013.
- School Visits (year round): Chi-Chi’s travel schedule includes college and high school visits as well as conferences to attract students to the U of C. Chi-Chi also follows-up with students that want to experience it for themselves through the campus visitation program, continuing the conversation and relationship started through her initial visit. In addition to campus tours, prospective students are introduced to graduate students from their relative departments.
- Student Advisory Board: This is a new initiative that includes a board of current students who will partner with Chi-Chi to speak to issues of recruitment and retention.
- Pipeline Programs: Chi-Chi collaborates with the directors of pipeline programs to provide students with a more intimate experience than campus visitations through internships that may serve as a pipeline to attract prospective students to UChicago. Social media avenues such as Facebook and Linkedin have been implemented to continue to foster these relationships.
- Evaluations: Chi-Chi takes part in evaluating various past programs, like UC Weekend, to gain strategic insight for grants development and future recruitment initiatives.
While Chi-Chi’s research experience as a graduate student and her time as a consultant provided great technical and managerial experience, Chi-Chi recognizes her interaction with students and the ability to mentor in her role as the Director of Graduate Recruitment Diversity to be incredibly rewarding. She also recognizes the great enthusiasm and the support from faculty, administrators and students from all parts of campus.
Article by Agnella Izzo Matic
“It’s naïve to think science could be a neutral topic.” That is the headline promoting ETOPiA’s most recent theater production, “The How and The Why,” which examines conflicting theories about female evolutionary biology from the perspectives of a female professor and a female graduate student. Dr. Matthew Grayson founded ETOPiA (Engineering Transdiciplinary Outreach Project in the Arts) at Northwestern University in 2008 and has produced, and sometimes starred in, the autumn productions. For Grayson, the ETOPiA plays serve to start a conversation about the purpose and relevance of science in our lives. Previous plays have delved into the life of Marie Curie, human cloning, and the atomic bomb during WW II.
When he is not on stage, Dr. Matthew Grayson can be found in his role as Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at Northwestern University. After receiving his PhD from
Princeton University, he followed with a post-doctoral fellowship at the Technical University of Munich. Dr. Grayson has been awarded a CAREER fellowship from the NSF and is also a Humboldt fellow.
Currently, his research group studies the electronic properties of materials and engineers them to have a novel function. One major area that they focus on is thermoelectrics, where waste heat can be converted into electricity or, alternatively, electricity can generate a temperature differential (refrigerate or heat). For instance, rub your hands together. Grayson plans to turn that small amount of heat generated in your hands into a kilovolt (that’s 1,000 Volts) of electricity using his thermoelectrical materials. Among other things, this might be useful to generate low-intensity X-rays, which need very large voltages to accelerate the electrons but don’t require a lot of current.
To see this research in action is to better understand it. The semiconductor-based electronics being tested are so fine that they need to be viewed under a microscope for the proper connections to be soldered. For testing, these electronics are placed in a super-cooled magnet, which has been mounted in the floor of one lab and extends downward into Grayson’s second laboratory one floor below. From the top, the magnet appears like a Medusa of wires, hoses, and connections protruding in all directions.
It is not often that you encounter individuals who combine such unique interests: theater and electrical engineering. Dr. Grayson credits his involvement in theater with a positive influence on his teaching, both in the classroom and in seminars. He has received two teaching awards while at Northwestern University and warm reception for his conference lectures. Students are at ease talking with him during office hours and he keeps an encouraging eye out for talented young minds.
To him, one of the most important roles he fills as a mentor is making sure that people, especially female students, are aware of opportunities that they might have otherwise missed. For instance, Grayson and his lab members invite middle and high school girls from the Chicago area into their lab every spring as part of the Society of Women Engineer’s Career Day for Girls. His first two PhD students were women and he has mentored 3 other female undergraduate students in the last 2 years. In addition, he perceives the ETOPiA plays as an unconventional experience that can ignite an interest in science for a younger generation that comes from multiple perspectives, ethnicities, and genders.
As with most other academic researchers, Dr. Grayson sees challenges ahead in publishing the next manuscript, getting the next grant, and graduating the next student. However, he views these as part of the reason he chose this profession, because he enjoys taking on those challenges. Grayson says, “In the end, you have to know your field and you have to know yourself. When you think something is interesting, you have to be confident enough that, when no one else even understands why you’re doing that, you “That’s ok, I’m sure it will become clear eventually”.”
Dr. Grayson was nominated for the 2012 AWIS-Chicago Motivator Award by Ms. Sunanda Prabhu-Gaunkar, a PhD candidate in Grayson’s laboratory.
Article by Marina Pazin
For the past year, I have been fortunate enough to be working as a regulatory writer at Randstad Pharma. Regulatory writers support the progress of drug development to the market by drafting appropriate, highly-technical documents to be submitted to drug-regulating agencies, such as the FDA, and to the countries in which the clinical trials in humans and/or marketing approval is sought. I enjoy my job and enjoy daily interaction with my colleagues. On a daily basis, I am surrounded by warm and very intelligent females with whom I frequently talk about not just work-specific issues, but of issues affecting women in the workforce. Dr. Angela Kwiatek, PhD is one of my colleagues who is not only great at what she does but is very optimistic. I recently took some time to learn more about how she reached this chapter in her professional life.
Angela has long been interested in science. “As a child, I was always asking “Why?”. My mother encouraged my curiosity by taking me to the library whenever she didn’t have the answer. Therefore, it was an easy decision to pick one of the majors that tackle the world’s mysteries.” As such, between 1997 and 2001, Angela went through a rigorous undergraduate training leading to a degree in biochemistry from Bradley University in Peoria, IL. Fueled by motivation and a strong desire to better herself, Angela’s quest for education did not stop with her B.S. degree. Instead, she immediately enrolled in the Department of Pharmacology of University of Illinois as a graduate student. Angela explained her thesis project in a net shell: “Thrombin is a pro-inflammatory mediator that increases vascular permeability in endothelial cells by activating store-operated calcium entry (SOCE). SOCE is activated by thrombin stimulation of cell surface protease-activated receptor-1, which causes a rapid and transient increase in intracellular calcium due to the release of calcium stored in the endoplasmic reticulum. Subsequently, calcium enters through a plasma membrane cation channel called transient receptor potential channel 1 (TRPC1). TRPC1 is localized within cholesterol-rich invaginations of the cell membrane known as caveolae that are coated with a 22 kDa protein, caveolin-1 (Cav-1). The Cav-1 scaffolding domain binds many signaling molecules and regulates their function. My studies showed that Cav-1 regulates SOCE and the resulting changes in endothelial permeability by binding TRPC1’s C-terminus with its scaffolding domain.” Ultimately, her hard work paid off as she received doctoral recognition in 2006. Already a co-author of several peer-author papers and conference abstracts, Angela still persisted on, completing two rounds of post-doctoral training at Northwestern University, studying proteins involved in pathogenesis of angiogenesis in cancer in the lab of Dr. Olga Volpert and cardiac hypertrophy/heart failure under the guidance of Drs. Rishi Arora and Gary Aistrup. All throughout, she enjoyed progressing in her career as a scientist while having the freedom to choose and to direct the research projects with which she was involved.
While in school, Angela discovered another passion: writing. “All through school, I always got A’s in English with minimal effort. Writing comes naturally to me. I was shocked to discover how little good writing is regarded in research. After my second post-doctoral position, I decided I wanted to switch career paths and go into Medical Writing, a career that combines my love of writing with my love of science.” Angela enrolled in additional coursework at the University of Philadelphia, receiving certificates in Regulatory Writing and Marketing Writing to reach her ultimate career goal. Now, as a regulatory writer at Randstad Pharma, Angela does what she loves to do. “I enjoy writing documents for drugs that are about to be approved and marketed to the public. It’s exciting to know that the documents you are writing will help bring a drug that many people need to the market.”
Always an optimist, Angela offered a simple explanation when asked about why she continued to push herself so much: “Learning never ends.”
Trust your data. Laura Marie Letellier learned this critical lesson early as a young engineer for the Navy and it has influenced her entire career.
Laura has been able to make significant contributions to engineering with the U.S. Navy and with Baxter by trusting her data. Although, she initially wanted to go to law school, she began her path to engineering before college while working for her family’s steel fabricating business. Her work with the family business enabled her to earn a scholarship through the U.S. Navy to attend Purdue University and earn a degree in Aeronautical Engineering. While in college, Laura realized that she had a gift to see the world differently and provide unique solutions, and this cemented her desire to be an engineer.
After college, Laura entered the Navy as an active duty officer and engineer. During her first assignment, she was fortunate to work with Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, the “Father of the Nuclear Navy” and inventor of nuclear power, nuclear, submarines, and designer of the first civilian nuclear power plant. From his guidance, Laura learned the power of trusting her data and scientific tools. She says, “Admiral Rickover believed that there was no problem that we could not solve using science and engineering.” He also believed that “no matter the situation there was always 30 seconds to think about your decisions and try to do no harm with your actions”. Admiral Rickover’s lessons instilled a powerful sense of confidence in Laura and the mantra that problems can indeed be solved no matter how challenging. Following her work with nuclear power and designing nuclear ships, Laura switched to the Naval Reserve and also held a civilian engineering job. Although, her Naval Reserve work was not continuous she was able to become Executive Officer of an amphibious warfare unit. While Executive Officer, she designed and maintained the watercraft that transported marines from the main ship to shore for amphibious operations. Amphibious warfare challenged Laura differently because she had to make immediate decisions in the field. While Laura enjoyed the intellectual challenges of being an engineer for the Navy, even non-continuous Naval Reserve assignments did not mesh well with her family life; and she asked to be reassigned to a non-deploying desk job. Laura says that getting the reassignment so that her family could benefit was “extremely difficult”. Despite the challenges she encountered designing nuclear powered ships and operating amphibious warfare craft, she says that balancing work and family was her hardest assignment.
Laura claims that her largest professional achievements were the contributions she made as an engineer at Baxter. She says her switch from a military centered profession to an area that is designed to sustain life was a conscious decision. She remembers walking through a warehouse filled with components for nuclear weapons and thinking, “this is not what I went to school to do.” Indeed, at Baxter, she became a Product Design Owner and Lead Systems Designer for infusion pumps for intravenous medication, thus helping to better countless lives. She states that her technology is “responsible for about 30 million infusions each year”. Her team also developed the technology for the first FDA-approved remote sensing in medical infusion systems. The technology was aimed at helping to alleviate the understaffing of hospital floors by delivering infusions remotely and detecting medication errors. Laura also helped write the claims for nine published patent applications relating to that system for which she is a co-inventor. Laura states, “This was the work that woke me up at 2 and 3 am because of the amount of harm that could come to millions” if she made a mistake. However, the lessons that Admiral Rickover taught her enabled Laura to trust her data and create extraordinary products. This remarkable trust in her data and understanding of science enables Laura to brand herself as a scientist engineer. According to Laura, “There is nothing more gratifying than seeing something that came out of your head translated into a usable product that helps people.”
During Laura’s time at Baxter, she mentored a junior engineer named Megan Bosley through Baxter’s mentoring program. Although, Laura was ostensibly Megan’s mentor, Laura says that both women learned from each other. Laura passed along her confidence for her data to Ms. Bosley while Ms. Bosley, a biomedical engineer by training, taught Laura Organic Chemistry, and how to be comfortable using the metric system. Laura says that it feels wonderful to see Megan have the confidence to solve problems and be formally recognized by Baxter with professional promotions. Ms. Bosley has been so positively impacted by Laura that she nominated Laura for the AWIS Innovator of the Year of the Chicago chapter.
Laura retired from Baxter this year but plans to continue her collaboration with Ms. Bosley and Baxter through a contract position developing nanotechnology. Along with her planned contract position Laura is a partner with another family member in a court reporting business, Lake-Cook Reporting Ltd. Laura is responsible for organizing the technical aspects of the business, such as video conferencing and recording.
Thinking back, Laura is extremely happy that she decided to be an engineer. She firmly believes that her ability to see solutions is a gift and that her abilities serve the greater good. Her advice for young women is that “science and engineering are for you” and that women should not be receptive to the “subtle messages that science and engineering are only for men”. In my short conservation with Laura, was just as interested in my research as I was in learning about her life. She and I agreed to keep in touch and she requested to write the Scientist of the Month article about me when my time comes.
Nomination by AWIS member Megan Bosley and article written by AWIS Chicago Staff Writer Beth Sefton. Ms. Sefton is a PhD candidate at Northwestern University.
Know a scientist you think should be featured in an upcoming “Scientist of the Month” article? Send nominations to firstname.lastname@example.org. Your nominee does not need to be an AWIS member or a woman, but should promote the advancement of women in science, technology, mathematics and engineering.
Want to keep yourself up-to-date on AWIS Chicago activities? You can request to be added to our listserve by clicking here, and join the AWIS Chicago group on LinkedIn and Facebook by clicking the icons on the bottom right of this page.
by Joanna Rowell
If you ask any scientist why they chose to pursue research as a career, they will often point to an inspirational mentor or teacher. It could be a high school biology teacher showing a student how to dissect a worm, or an undergraduate professor demonstrating how our ancient hominid ancestors made stone tools out of flint. These crucial moments can generate in us a sense of wonder about how our world works, which can provide the foundation for a successful career in science.
Perhaps the very best teachers are able to change our perception of what we think we are capable of doing with our lives. Ami LeFevre, a high school biology and chemistry teacher at Niles West High School in Skokie, Illinois and recipient of the 2012 AWIS Chicago Motivator Award, is one such teacher. Although she started out studying marine biology, and then had aspirations to become a medical doctor, she said that, “eventually I found my way into education.” This turned into a lasting and fulfilling career as a science educator.
LeFevre loves teaching high school students. One challenge she faces as a teacher is to get students to think critically, and, in her words, “to understand that it’s not just about straight memorization, but what you do with that information.” LeFevre also enjoys that she is always learning new things as a science teacher. Part of her job is “keeping up to date with the science and bringing that information to the kids,” which is a part of teaching she finds very intellectually challenging. One of her favorite aspects of her job, however, is helping her students figure out what they want to do after high school, and exposing them to the world of science beyond the classroom.
To do this, LeFevre organizes several career development programs, such as the Girls Empowered by Math and Science (GEMS) conference. This program brings together women from various points in their scientific education, including girls in grades 4 through 6, high school students, university students, and women with established careers in science. Past sessions have included a Motorola engineer who guided the girls in the dissection of old cell phones, and an anthropology major from Indiana University who discussed her research on non-human primates. One of LeFevre’s colleagues, Margaret Donnelly, mentioned that at the GEMS conference “the energy and enthusiasm was contagious.” She went on to state that her daughter “began to see how exciting and fun science can be.”
LeFevre is also the main faculty sponsor of the Niles West Chemistry Club. This club allows students to have fun with science by, for example, making ice cream with liquid nitrogen. LeFevre also provides her students with opportunities for science outreach. For example, this year they performed a forensic chemistry demonstration for the younger students at Edison Elementary School. “If you see their faces, you see just how much fun they’ve had,” LeFevre said. “They feel like they’ve done something really special for the younger kids.” The students also reach out to the international community, organizing relief efforts after the earthquake in Haiti and tsunami in Japan. They also shadowed graduate research assistants at Chicago universities such as Loyola and Columbia, and attended the Argonne National Laboratory Women in Science Day.
During our interview, LeFevre told me a striking story that really emphasized the importance of programs such as GEMS. After having performed a chemistry demonstration at her son’s elementary school, LeFevre ran into the mother of a girl in the second grade. This woman told LeFevre that after the chemistry demonstration her daughter said that she “didn’t know that women could be scientists.” The mother thanked LeFevre for changing her daughter’s perception of what women are capable of doing with their lives.
LeFevre is very much aware of these gender stereotypes. “It’s amazing to me that a lot of the girls still believe that boys are better at math than they are,” she said. “Even though they’re great at math, often times they don’t have that self confidence.” By showing girls that women can excel at math and science through programs like GEMS, LeFevre is making a big difference their lives. These programs show conclusively that women can excel at science and that science matters. LeFevre is a true motivator, and we could not be more thrilled that she is this year’s recipient of the AWIS Chicago Motivator Award.