Scientist of the Month
by Emma Vander Ende
If you pause and consider your surroundings, you will find that a type of molecule, called a polymer, surrounds you. Polymers are large molecules that are made up of smaller molecules, called monomers. Monomers link together to form a polymer much in the same way that a necklace is made up of beads (discrete, repeating units).
While polymers occur in nature, ranging from natural rubber and silk, to even our DNA, chemists have also synthesized a multitude of synthetic polymers. These include plastics, which pervade our modern world. Polymers are a fascinating class of molecule in part because they offer the potential for a high degree of variety to form functional materials. Chemists can tailor the monomer chemistry to create polymers that have exciting futuristic functions, from conductive molecular wires to “self-healing” polymers that make durable materials.
One such chemist studying polymer chemistry is the most recent hire in the Chemistry Department at Northwestern University: Assistant Professor Julia Kalow. Her research focuses on studying how information about polymer reactivity can be used to tailor the properties of polymers and other soft materials. Research areas that currently interest her include new ways to make conjugated polymers. These polymers contain extended electron networks, and Kalow is interested in how they interact with light inside a magnetic field. She also makes polymers for biomaterials applications – namely, artificial mimics of the extracellular matrix and sophisticated 3D cell culture materials. These materials, she hopes, will help to address complex cell biology problems by advancing biologists’ capabilities to study cells.
Her interest in pursuing an academic career began between her junior and senior years of college at Columbia University, where she started undergraduate research in the Leighton Group after her freshman year. She took a medicinal chemistry internship with Merck Research Laboratories, where her supervisor placed her on a project resembling those in academia. She decided to pursue a PhD in chemistry and the intellectual freedom that academia affords so that she could lead her own projects and follow her own ideas.
As a new assistant professor, she is in the process of establishing her lab and recruiting PhD students to advise and mentor in research. Mentoring students ranks high in Kalow’s list of priorities. She herself earned her PhD (as an NSF GRFP fellow studying asymmetric catalysis) from an assistant professor, Professor Abigail Doyle at Princeton University, and treasures that experience. She and Doyle had a close mentoring relationship, and would frequently talk through her data and results, but Kalow also felt that she had ownership over her research. Towards the end of her PhD, her adviser encouraged her to independently pursue a mechanistic study. “When everything came together on that project, it was very rewarding,” Kalow said of the experience.
Following her PhD, she became a Ruth L. Kirschstein Postdoctoral Fellow at MIT, researching different kinds of polymers with Professor Timothy Swager. She chose the Swager Group in part because of Swager’s success with startup companies. Her experiences researching and collaborating in the challenging intellectual environment of MIT further inspired her to become a professor herself.
Looking to the future, Kalow hopes first to establish her new students in their research and develop reactions and new materials that might change the way that the synthetic polymer community thinks about chemical reactivity. She hopes to form collaborations with other professors at Northwestern, a highly interdisciplinary research institution, to identify particularly useful applications for which her new polymers could fill a need. She is also interested in the possibility of starting a company someday, noting that Northwestern is a great place for innovations and forming startups.
by Brittany M. Wilson
“Perseverance is something that pays back,” Dr. Anna Spagnoli told me a little after noon on a Monday in Chicago. Dr. Spagnoli currently holds the positions of Professor of Pediatrics and Women’s Board Chair of Pediatrics at Rush Children’s Hospital at Rush University Medical Center. Dr. Spagnoli seemed particularly busy as she was preparing for a visiting professorship in China later in the week.
Dr. Spagnoli graduated Cum Laude from the University of Rome Tor Vergata School of Medicine in Italy. After completing residency training in Pediatrics in Rome, she was granted a Fulbright Scholarship to work in the Division of Pediatric Endocrinology at Stanford University in California. She began participating in pediatric research during her residency training in Italy and after her experience at Stanford, moved to the US to practice medicine and continue her research efforts.
In order to transition her medical practice to the US, Dr. Spagnoli needed to complete an additional residency training program here. After completing her second residency training she secured an assistant professorship in the Department of Pediatrics, Division of Pediatric Endocrinology, at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland. While she was still completing her second residency training program, Dr. Spagnoli began to serve as a mentor.
Dr. Spagnoli truly believes in the importance of mentoring as she acknowledges several of her mentors as having a hand in many of her successes. She said, “Mentoring is probably the most important thing for me in my career.” She has mentored nearly 30 students or residents to date, many of whom have been women and many of whom now hold faculty positions both nationally and internationally. Dr. Spagnoli continued, “[Mentoring] is a combination of being inspired and being understood. I think the great mentors are the ones that can work to understand you for who you are and how different you are from them. This is very important.”
When asked about the most frustrating part of her work, Dr. Spagnoli replied, “that there are only 24 hours in the day.” Dr. Spagnoli currently oversees over 100 physicians, staff recruitment and education, and research operations for Rush University Children’s Hospital, in addition to several other roles. When you speak with her it becomes clear that she deeply values the service she can provide to her patients and also her mentees. She has a long track record of aiding in her mentees success as her current doctoral student recently earned a highly competitive Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award through the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Dr. Spagnoli also contributes through service on many NIH and foundation grant review study sections and she served as permanent member of the NIH Skeletal Biology Development and Disease Study Section from 2012 to 2016. She maintains a thriving research laboratory with two currently active R01 grants from the NIH. Her laboratory facilitates interdisciplinary collaboration between PhD scientists and medical doctors in order to advance the field of tissue regeneration. In fact, Dr. Spagnoli and her colleagues have published over 60 peer-reviewed manuscripts in journals such as Developmental Cell, Endocrinology, and the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research. In addition, Dr. Spagnoli delivers many teaching and research seminars to her trainees at Rush University and at academic institutions across the country and throughout the world. She also participates on committees for professional societies including the American Society of Bone and Mineral Research, among others.
“Seeing something that is beyond daily life,” it is these kinds of visions, Dr. Spagnoli says, help keep her on track. She knows that science and medicine are much larger than herself. She continued, “If this is only for me this is never going to work because the difficulties you are going to find they are so many that you lose yourself if you only focus on yourself. So I always think, whenever I need to do something big, I think about who we are serving.”
Dr. Spagnoli was thrilled to offer advice to women who are pursuing or who are interested in pursuing science or medicine. She believes it is important to acknowledge unconscious biases and the fact that our brains are wired to look for similarities. Dr. Spagnoli encourages us not to justify these biases but rather to go beyond them. “Some people do not understand and this can lead to anxiety. Try not to get upset, see the challenge and help them understand. Be patient and make it clear how you can contribute to a particular situation.”
Dr. Anna Spagnoli’s overarching goal to understand people and to serve them in any way possible has without doubt driven her success in science and medicine. She concluded with this, “Service is inspiration. I wake up and say, ‘okay, who are you going to make a difference for today’.” Dr. Spagnoli is proof that perseverance most definitely pays back, especially when your work includes service for others.
by Liz Bajema
If you find Christiane Carney on a typical day, she’s likely to be training medical practitioners, brushing up on scientific literature, or interacting with key opinion leaders in women’s health. Christiane is a medical science liaison (MSL), an increasingly popular profession among PhD scientists. MSLs typically work for pharmaceutical companies, acting as a scientific resource for the medical community. In summary, “You are a scientific expert on your company’s products, answering scientific and clinical questions for doctors and nurses.” This requires in-depth knowledge of a particular therapeutic area, in addition to strong verbal communication skills. As for Christiane, her specialty is women’s health. She has long been passionate about her field, and finds that being an MSL allows her to make a unique and tangible impact on patient lives and outcomes.
Christiane’s career path was strictly academic prior to becoming an MSL. As a chemistry undergraduate at Portland State University, she found excellent mentorship in the lab of Prof. Mark Woods. That experience drove her to pursue a PhD in chemistry at Northwestern University, where she worked to develop MRI contrast agents for cell tracking and labeling. It was toward the end of her graduate career that Christiane first became interested in becoming an MSL. The job was a perfect fit for her, since she was interested in stepping away from lab work, but also had a keen desire to put her PhD to good use.
However, being an MSL requires not only scientific knowledge, but also a strong understanding of clinical work. Since her graduate work leaned toward basic science research, Christiane obtained a postdoctoral position that was more clinical in nature. This postdoctoral role in the University of Chicago’s OB-GYN department was a crucial, transitional step for her. It allowed her to gain insight into clinical research, as well as expertise in women’s health. After six months of working at her postdoc, she began applying to MSL jobs.
The only downside of seeking an MSL job is that the field can be quite challenging to break into. Especially as a PhD, Christiane says, “Getting your first MSL job is always hardest; it’s much easier to switch between MSL roles from there.” Many MSL roles have historically been held by PharmD degree holders. However, Christiane feels that her PhD and postdoctoral experience prepared her exceedingly well for her job. In fact, she was offered her current job at Bayer only 2 months into the job search process. For graduate students considering a career as an MSL, Christiane recommends networking with MSLs at conferences and joining the MSL society. It’s also important to match your PhD skills to a particular area of expertise. Since MSLs specialize in a particular field (oncology, cardiology, or dermatology, for instance), it’s good to leverage your PhD skills into one of those roles.
For Christiane, being an MSL includes all of her favorite things about PhD work: analyzing data, looking for trends, and talking with key opinion leaders about science. Thus, she travels 2-3 days each week to meet with doctors in other states and go to relevant conferences. When she’s not traveling, she’s working from home to prepare for presentations and meetings, as well as keep up with relevant scientific literature. For this reason, she emphasizes that a successful MSL must be very self-motivated. Although it’s a busy job, Christiane loves it first and foremost because it’s a job that has an impact. Although MSLs never give clinical advice, they have the “big picture” view to identify and address important trends. Because they work so closely with doctors and nurses, they can teach and inform them on how to improve outcomes. Christiane remembers a time early in her MSL career when she trained practitioners who had no formal training on IUD insertion on how to do the procedure. This directly led to their patients having more contraceptive choices. That’s the sort of thing that makes her job rewarding.
By Katarina Kotnik Halavaty, PhD
For more than a decade Kelly Fahrbach successfully paved her biomedical research career in academic settings – all went well, but something was missing. At the time, Kelly was a young research assistant professor and admitted that she needed more variety, more dynamic in her everyday schedule, which pushed her to switch her professional path. She now enjoys working as a medical writer at Stem Scientific that is part of Ashfield Healthcare Communications.
“My whole life I was interested in biology,” she says. In her first year of undergraduate school she didn’t know which direction in biology she wanted to go. Kelly was on her search to find the right professional path, and she therefore applied for a summer internship at Loyola University in Maywood, Illinois. As a laboratory technician she, for the first time, was exposed to virology research. “I really liked virology but I also became interested in cancer research.” She wanted to learn more about cancer virology, and so she decided to go to graduate school. She joined Professor Kathleen Rundell’s laboratory at Northwestern University where she had an opportunity to mesh cancer research with virology. Kelly was enjoying science, but at the same time she was also thinking about her future plans. “At first I thought I wanted to become a teacher for undergraduate students, and I therefore looked into gaining some teaching experience.” During her last year of graduate training she began part-time lecturing at National-Louis University in Chicago. In 2004 Kelly graduated and obtained her Ph.D. At the time she wasn’t certain whether to proceed with teaching or not. “I felt I was still more interested in hands-on science than in teaching, and I therefore decided to do a short postdoctoral training.” After having several interviews for a postdoctoral position, she chose to join Professor Thomas Hope’s laboratory at Northwestern University to learn about HIV. “This was the only lab that didn’t do any cancer biology among all I applied for; however it offered a clinically relevant research which I found more interesting than a basic science lab.” During her postdoctoral training in the Hope lab Kelly continued to teach as a part time adjunct biology instructor. After three years of lecturing she realized that she wasn’t ready to go into teaching full time. She liked science, but she did not want to become a principal investigator. Kelly, again, was on her search what to do next. Around that time her mentor, Professor Thomas Hope approached her and suggested that she become a junior faculty member. “This was a chance that I did not want to miss! It opened up new opportunities for me to apply for several grants and take on a leadership role.”
Kelly was promoted to a research assistant professor. “It gave me some time to enjoy research and being comfortable with having a family. Tom was very supportive and I was able to succeed as a working mom in an encouraging environment with a highest quality of research being performed”, she explains. Kelly applied for several grants, gained a lot of new research experiences and became an expert in microscopy. In her new role she also took on additional responsibilities such as mentoring graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, co-implementing the lab website, and promoting methods to improve safety, internal communication, and data reporting in the laboratory. She joined the Young Investigator Editorial Review Board of AIDS Research and Human Retroviruses Journal to peer review manuscripts in the HIV/AIDS research field. Professionally Kelly was in full bloom! She published three first-author articles and co-authored a publication in peer reviewed journals. Despite her fruitful career in an academic environment four years later Kelly was reconsidering what she wanted to do in her future. She felt that she was working hard but she didn’t have as much to show as she would like to have. “I wanted to see more results at the end of my day; the outcome of my daily experimental work did not satisfy me any longer,” she says.
Kelly began planning to leave the bench: “I started exploring alternative Ph.D. careers.” Listening to her inner voice she knew that she loved working in a team and managing projects. While networking with people from different backgrounds she came across the medical communications field. “This was a breakthrough!” she says. “I always enjoyed analyzing data, writing grants, articles, abstracts, safety protocols… but not planning or carrying out the same experiments day after day” she further explains. Kelly applied for numerous positions including writing, safety and project management, and communication jobs. In the end, she landed an associate medical writer position at Ashfield Healthcare Communications. “I am very happy that I made this change!” In her new role Kelly writes manuscripts and reviews for peer review. She develops abstracts, posters, and slide presentations for international congresses along with developing strategic documents for pharmaceutical companies. “I love the variety! I no longer need to repeat same things again and again as I had to do at the bench. Now, the pace is faster than before, and I am learning new things every day! This gives a lot of dynamic to my everyday work.”
Tailoring her professional path according to her needs and wishes was a long term process. Kelly admits that transitioning from academia to industry was not easy: “Getting my foot in the door was the hardest.” Working with clients, learning new terminology associated with the field, and becoming familiar with new protocols could sometimes be a bit challenging. “The Hope lab prepared me well for my next step – even for my new professional adventure,” she says. “Tom gave me several opportunities to play different roles inside the lab and gain a wealth of knowledge.” Kelly presented at conference calls, communicated with IRB safety and ethics approval committees and mentored graduate students, postdoctoral candidates, and technicians. Looking back, she is proud of all her accomplishments and academic achievements!
As a successful career woman, Kelly established a great balance between her work and her family life. She has two daughters who keep her busy, but also motivated. Kelly strives to spend time with her family and loves going camping and fishing with her daughters and her husband, enjoys baking, running, and has recently taken up painting and trying to learn the violin. It gives her new energy to work hard in her profession. Kelly notes, “I am incredibly fortunate! Having a supportive network at home and all of my past experiences, many of those in the Hope lab, were a major help in getting me where I am today. Now at my new job, the team I work with is fantastic! My co-workers are also very supportive.” With all her positive experience Kelly would like to share her encouraging thoughts with others: “If you are not happy with what you are doing, don’t ever think it is too late to make changes in your life in order to be successful and happy!”
Psychologist helps NASA build teams for mission to Mars
By Kristin Claes Mathews
Sometimes, coworkers just seem to click. They get along, are productive and help each other out of tight spots. That might seem like serendipity, but DePaul University’s Suzanne Bell knows there is a science to building a team that thrives. An industrial organizational psychologist, Suzanne’s research will help NASA build the right team of astronauts to send to Mars.
Suzanne is an associate professor in DePaul’s College of Science and Health and specializes in team composition. Since January 2016, she and her collaborators have been have been collecting data on teams in the Human Exploration Research Analog environment at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. She analyzes how factors like team members’ personality, demographics, values and background can predict the success of a team. Their research on crews in this simulation environment will help NASA predict how a team might function in isolation for long durations in space.
“I develop the science behind identifying the right mix of people for a situation,” said Suzanne. “Future space travel is a really exciting application of this science.”
Applying research for deep-space travel
Psychology first stood out to Suzanne when she was an undergraduate. “I liked the idea of using the scientific method to translate the way people think and behave, turning it into data and analyzing it.” Business and finance were also early education interests, and she said they layered together naturally into her chosen field, which examines how people think and behave in the workplace.
“Industrial organizational psychologists are applied scientists. We balance science and practice, so everything I do needs to have a practical application to it.”
Her work with NASA will help them “get the right people in the right place.” She explained that her specialty, team composition, is an important consideration for optimal performance in almost any team context. Its importance is certainly heightened for deep-space travel.
“On Mars you will have the crew, mission control on a communication delay, and whatever technology support that’s been created. The crew will need to live and work well together. They’ll need to adapt to whatever challenges come their way” she explained.
In her previous research, Suzanne has studied how teams interact in extreme conditions like those deployed to Afghanistan, as well as in more traditional office environments.
Suzanne earned her master’s and Ph.D. in Industrial & Organizational Psychology from Texas A&M University and her bachelor’s degrees in history and psychology from Olivet Nazarene University.
An advisor in graduate school, Dr. Winfred Arthur, Jr., was a strong mentor to Suzanne. “One of the things I really appreciated was that he not only mentored me to build my expertise in areas he researched, but he also supported me when I wanted to explore areas that were a little bit different from what he studied, or when I wanted to bring in new types of statistical analyses.”
She draws on that experience when mentoring students. “I am always mindful when students are coming from different backgrounds and making sure that I get them in touch with the resources they need.”
Involving girls and young women in the sciences is important to Suzanne. “The NASA project is really great because it’s something tangible and very specific that little girls can hook onto and dream about. It’s really a pleasure to do research like that, inspiring little girls to be astronauts or the scientists who study astronauts.”
Looking forward, Suzanne plans to take a “deeper dive” into team composition and to leave a legacy with her research.
“When I look back on my career, I want to think that I’ve changed the way people think about a topic,” she said. “I want to create theory and research that really helps shift people to think in more team-based ways when they organize work.”
Focus in the lab and on the playground
Outside of the classroom and her lab, Suzanne enjoys being with her two young sons, playing outdoors and exploring the city. “I enjoy gardening and working in the yard. I sit at my desk for way too many hours, so I like to be physical when I’m outside of work.”
Finding work-life balance is all about focus for Suzanne, and she shared a bit of what she has learned:
“Particularly as a woman, there’s so much on our minds all the time: all the things that need to be done to run the lab, or all the things required for kids, if you have them. So my advice would be to focus on whatever you are doing, and do it fully. Don’t worry about the other things until it’s time to worry about them.”
When she is at work, Suzanne becomes fully engrossed in teaching and research, but as soon as she arrives at home, she switches her attention completely to “the home life.” “It’s not always possible to compartmentalize with that, but whenever I can, I do. It helps me feel, at the end of the day, that I am able to do both well.”
To learn more about Suzanne’s research, visit http://depaulne.ws/BellMars.
By Carol Hughes, MLSt
Neuroscientist Dorothy Kozlowski has been interested in brains since her high school days on the South Side of Chicago. For a science fair project, she used a “primitive EEG machine” to record and analyze readings from friends as they listened to music. The project showed that music her friends preferred resulted in more relaxed EEG patterns than music they didn’t like. The project made it to the Illinois State Science Fair, but more importantly, sparked Dorothy’s interest in neuroscience.
But it was as an undergraduate at Knox College that Dorothy caught the research bug. Initially, a biology major with plans to go into medicine, she had an opportunity to do undergraduate research examining neural development with Professor Heather Hoffman, now Chair of Psychology at Knox. That experience inspired Dorothy to enter the field of psychology and ultimately attend graduate school instead of medical school.
Curiosity about brain plasticity
A turning point in her studies came in grad school when she and others began to explore if the adult brain could change and be plastic, and if so, how. That curiosity and a genuine desire to make her research clinically relevant, directed Dorothy’s research focus to traumatic brain injuries (TBI).
She specifically looked at rats and whether an overuse of their front paw, which was dysfunctional due to an injury to the brain, could make the brain injury worse. Her early findings showed such overuse could indeed adversely impact the brain injury. This influenced the idea that perhaps early rehabilitation after a brain injury or stroke would not be the best approach in patients; instead it could actually result in a worse outcome.
“I always wanted to influence the clinical field, and this research shook up the rehab field and caught the eye of neurologists and physical therapists,” she said.
Research with students at DePaul University
In her lab at DePaul University, where Dorothy is a Vincent de Paul Professor of Biological Sciences, she expanded her TBI research in 2009 with funding from the Department of Defense. Her focus was on examining plasticity and rehabilitation following TBI. At the time, protocols used for TBI rehabilitation were the same as stroke and degenerative diseases, and assumed that the brain following TBI could reorganize just the same as following other insults. Her study examined the plasticity following TBI and attempted to define optimal rehab strategies by testing the efficacy of three commonly used rehabilitation techniques — reaching, exercise and constraints — in rats with controlled, induced TBI.
Testing was complex and time-consuming, including 10 treatment groups, each following different rehabilitation protocols. Eight students — six undergrads and two grads — worked on the project. The results of her research, published recently, showed that a brain with a traumatic injury was different; that the plasticity of brains suffering traumatic injury is decreased compared to what is seen following stroke. Her work also suggested that individuals with TBI might require more intense and varied rehab strategies than individuals with stroke. This has been well received by the clinical rehabilitation community.
Inspiring young researchers
“The way I look at research now has changed,” said Dorothy. “I am viewing research as a teaching tool; to inspire other students to get the research bug.”
Rather than focus on a research finding or to find “drug x,” Dorothy is looking at how her research inspires students to be inquisitive, to ask questions.
When asked for advice for young women entering STEM fields, Dorothy offers three points. ”Work hard, be creative with your ideas, and be good communicators,” she said. “A lot of times when I see people struggle, it is because of gaps in communication, either written or oral.”
As an undergrad, Dorothy didn’t know at the time that there would be bias against women in science. And, as a grad student, her entire lab was women. She hasn’t personally felt the sexism that others report in science, but her counsel for young women entering the field is “to remain confident and be a strong advocate for yourself. Over time you become the expert in your field. Don’t be afraid to own that expertise.”
For the record
Dorothy, a first-generation college student, has a B.A. in psychology from Knox, and an M.A. and Ph.D in psychology from the University of Texas at Austin. She also has completed postdoctoral fellowships in neurosurgery at UCLA and neurobiology at Northwestern University.
She is president of the Chicago Society for Neuroscience. Dorothy also works with the Concussion Legacy Foundation and with her students, provides concussion education programs to middle and high school students in the Chicago area.
Dorothy lives in Willow Springs with her husband and 14-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter. She enjoys spending time with family and friends, cooking and entertaining when her busy schedule permits.
In 2013, Dorothy wrote an op-ed published in the Chicago Tribune titled “Should I let my son play football?” To find out the answer and information about concussions in contact sports, you’ll have to read the op-ed at http://bit.ly/Kozlowski_sonplayingfootball.
By Marina Damiano, PhD
What’s the secret to achieving happiness and success as a woman in STEM?
“Find and do what makes you sing inside and out,” says 3-D printing CEO, entrepreneur, mentor, and scientist, Dima Elissa.
Dima believes that we must use our personal passion, not others’ expectations, as a guidepost to lay the foundation for self-determined success. As the daughter of a cardiovascular surgeon, Dima fully expected to follow in his footsteps, but instead chose another path with a different kind of “heart.” She studied Chemistry at Hanover College, then used her science background and an interest in international business to land her first job at NutraSweet…during a hiring freeze.
Convincing a company that was not hiring to bring her on was Dima’s first deliberate foray in entrepreneurialism, sales, and networking. Armed with nothing but a borrowed car and sheer excitement, she drove to NutraSweet’s suburban Chicago location and, in a time before LinkedIn, hobnobbed with the receptionist to find out who ran the international division and how she could get in touch.
A type-written letter sent directly to the President landed her an interview and the rest is history, according to Dima. She was part of the company’s new venture arm, one of the first corporate technology incubators/accelerators of its time, where she identified, evaluated, and commercialized viable new product and business ideas.
Fast forward to the present — with a brief stop to earn an MBA at Texas A&M — Dima still uses those same skills she first cultivated at NutraSweet. She is now the CEO of VisMed-3D, a company that designs and prints 3D body parts. As CEO, she develops VisMed-3D’s strategy, raises funds for its growth, and advocates for the value of 3D technology within the medical community. She credits her science education for giving her a unique platform for critical thinking, non-traditional problem-solving, and innovation. Her advice to aspiring entrepreneurs is to “make sure you have the internal fortitude, as well as the emotional and financial resilience to walk a rocky road filled and fraught with ups and downs, sometimes in rapid fire succession like a roller coaster.”
Dima also devotes a significant amount of time to mentoring and advising female STEM entrepreneurs and fledgling companies within the technology sector. She is Vice Chairwoman for Women in Bio, an executive council member for Ms. Tech, and a Chicago Innovation Exchange Mentor. Dima is particularly passionate about leveling the playing field for girls and women in STEM. She believes that making changes to K-12 STEM education is key to achieving that goal.
“At an early age, teachers, parents, and peers shape our viewpoints and values. They also shape our self-doubts and limitations. This is especially true in the case of girls who think that STEM is not for them,” says Dima. It is possible to redirect these thought patterns, she says, by introducing teaching practices and tools that enable girls to see and seek their own abilities in a STEM field. Pursuant to this belief, Dima became a member of the STEM Steering Committee for the Apareció Foundation, a group that focuses on empowering and educating young women in underserved communities. She is also an advisor to Galvanize Labs, a Chicago company that has built a game-based platform to teach technology fundamentals to K-12 students.
With the many hats she wears, it’s hard to imagine how Dima finds time for it all. She credits daily exercise with giving her the energy to seize each day, but admits that balance is tricky because she finds it difficult to refuse invitations that involve mentoring.
“When and where possible, I want to serve my community and provide access to knowledge that has come through many years, many experiences, and many connections throughout the world,” she says. That desire to serve has inspired Dima to write LifeCrafting, a book in which she shares her life story and offers practical advice on how to “dance within the rules of life” to craft one’s own path.
Dr. Virginie Buggia-Prévot is a research scientist at the Institute for Applied Cancer Science at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. She serves as head of neuroscience target discovery and validation at the Neurodegeneration Consortium, a collaboration of MD Anderson, Baylor College of Medicine and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Her role is to act as a liaison between consortium members at MD Anderson and top scientists in the field at MIT and Baylor College of Medicine to find new targets for therapies to stop, slow or reverse Alzheimer’s disease. Her work involves interacting with many of the researchers and postdocs as well as keep up with the changing trends in literature. Virginie finds the experience both enriching and fun.
To arrive at her current position in Houston, Texas, Virginie faced many trials and tribulations. Through perseverance and a great support network, she gained many experiences, accumulated great wisdom and succeeded at finding a career about which she is passionate.
Virginie was born in Grenoble, France. In France, she discovered her love for the sciences and as an undergraduate, working in a lab that focused on Parkinson’s disease. Continuing her focus on neurodegenerative diseases, she completed her Ph.D. at Le Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique in Nice Sophia-Antipolis, France. There she studied amyloid-beta and found a novel pathway in which it associated with neuroinflammation in Alzheimer’s disease. It was at this point Virginie decided to take a chance, leave France and pursue Alzheimer’s disease as a postdoc at the University of Chicago. While transitioning from France to the United States was a challenge, she found that the transition from postdoc to her current position more demanding.
At this point of her life, Virginie knew she had a crucial decision to make.
“At the same time you have to try to find opportunities,” she says.
As a postdoc, Virginie published eight articles in peer-reviewed journals, including work on the transport of the Alzheimer’s disease-associated protein BACE1, obtained $180,000 in grant funding for her research and provided the critical data to help fund a project with collaborators at Northwestern University for $400,000. However, obtaining data and becoming published were not the only keys to her success. She had to learn how to effectively network.
Virginie has learned that postdocs are not always aware of how to network efficiently, with many experiencing “failures and bad experiences.” To combat this issue, Virginie openly sought out sources to network and communicate. She became the co-chair for the seminar and social media committees at the University of Chicago’s Biological Science Division Postdoctoral Association. There were plenty of opportunities to interact with people within the university. She also enjoyed communicating outside the university through social media channels such as Twitter. Aside from gaining access to a community of academics and biotech groups outside of the University of Chicago, she also received followers from peer-reviewed journals and foundations.
“It’s always nice to be able to do something and also to promote the foundations,” says Virginie.
Meeting some of those followers in person was a great way to connect with others personally and professionally. So many postdocs do great work but their exposure may be limited, she says.
“It’s essential to have a good LinkedIn page and to promote your work. Everybody Googles you now,” says Virginie.
She fully used these tools and, as a result of the contacts she gained, successfully transitioned from postdoc to her position at MD Anderson.
Life is not meant to be all work and no play. MD Anderson encourages its employees to maintain a work-life balance. For Virginie, that notion can be a little difficult at times.
“I have a very hard time turning off my brain at night,” she says. “I’m the type of person who will wake up in the middle of the night and draw schematics and write down experiments.”
She has a true passion for science and recognizes that when you love what you do, it can be hard to walk away. Luckily for Virginie, she has found that balance with her husband, a non-scientist. They both value the arts and enjoy visiting museums and traveling in their spare time. She attributes her love for all things culinary to her French roots and takes joy in cooking at home. Virginie has found that great balance between working in an environment that she loves and living her life to the fullest extent.
For people trying to find their way through STEM careers, she offers some wise advice.
“If you are passionate about something, it will be transparent and people will definitely give you opportunities,” says Virginie. “Find people who inspire you and surround yourself with people who believe in you. Share your passions with the world and your friends because you never know where you are going to find your next opportunity. By verbalizing the things you like, the more it would be clear in your head what you are looking for.”
Virginie’s perseverance through adversity and challenges is inspiring to women in STEM everywhere.
By Rashika Rangaraj
Dr. Eileen Dolan, Professor of Medicine at the University of Chicago, is dedicated to transforming patient care and health through her research by combining laboratory discoveries with patient needs. Her motto has always been to improve the patient’s quality of life, which she has successfully pursued using different approaches that range from pharmacological modifications of a single protein to identifying gene variants, with the ultimate goal of making chemotherapy more efficient and less toxic. In addition to training several scientists and inspiring many more, many of whom are independent scientists, she has also initiated two programs that introduce cancer research to enthusiastic high schoolers to help them gain a better understanding of current developments in research and inspire them to pursue a career in research.
Dr. Dolan, by training, is a chemist, having completed her bachelors at the University of Dayton and her doctoral degree in Medicinal Chemistry from Purdue University. With her strong background in analytical chemistry, she transitioned into drug development and obtained her training in biochemical pharmacology in Dr. Anthony Peggs’ lab at Pennsylvania State University. During her postdoctoral study she focused on developing compounds to inhibit a specific DNA repair protein that would later passage into clinical trials against cancer. Following this she obtained her first position at the University of Chicago as a translational oncologist. Through her newly founded lab in the department of Medicine, she applied her strong chemistry and pharmacology background to address clinically relevant questions to meet the needs of cancer patients.
Then came one of the biggest turning points of her career, where she made a dramatic switch to venture into what was then an exciting, emerging field, now continues to be one with lots of promise- Pharmacogenomics. This field combines the powers of genomics and pharmacology to identify genetic variations that affect drug response and drug toxicity. She strongly believes this would eventually lead to evaluating patients for genetic variants upon which their course of therapy could be decided such that effective outcomes with lowered toxicity could be achieved, also popularly termed as “personalized medicine”. It promises to greatly improve lives of several patients suffering from toxic side-effects of chemotherapy like hearing loss and neuropathy. She has pioneered in developing novel cell-based models to study why different patients respond differently to the same chemotherapy regiment. She notes that the answer lies in their genetic make-up. She placed emphasis on taking an unbiased approach to research by “stepping back and allowing the data to dictate”. She notes that the field of genomics has been revolutionized by unbiased analysis of genomic data, where intronic (non-coding) regions in the DNA could also play a vital role in complex diseases such as cancer.
Improving patient lives is not the only gratifying part of her work; she also enjoys being an educator and mentor. Besides mentoring many graduate students, medical students and post-docs, she has initiated two notable projects to inspire young minds to pursue science. The first is the Continuing Umbrella of Research Experience (CURE) program which is designed for the most promising high school and undergraduate students from underrepresented populations interested in pursuing careers in cancer research. This allows students to immerse themselves in hands-on research and complete small achievable projects under established mentors at the University of Chicago. The second program is called researcHStart, an 8-week cancer-focused research and career development experience for the most promising high school students from the Chicago and Champaign-Urbana areas.
Drawing from her own experiences, her one advice was, “ taking risks is a big part of succeeding in life”. She stressed that as a woman one needs to cultivate a courageous, willing to take risks type of personality at the same time remember that things will not always work out as planned and be open to failure.
Dr. Dolan is an avid runner, loves to perform yoga and enjoys cooking for her family. Additionally, she spends time over the weekends with elderly citizens. She notes that their unique perspective on life is enchanting.
by Katarina Kotnik Halavaty, PhD
Guylaine Haché is a technical advisor at Rakoczy Molino Mazzochi Siwik LLP, a litigation and intellectual property law firm in Chicago, IL. She is pursuing her J.D. (Juris Doctor) degree at the Chicago-Kent College of Law, Illinois Institute of Technology. Prior to starting her law career, Guylaine obtained her Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Minnesota Twin Cities.
“I love science. In fact, I consider myself a scientist first and a patent practitioner second.” For her doctoral thesis, Guylaine studied the molecular mechanism by which a family of proteins called APOBEC can mutate the HIV genome. Her work was recognized as an outstanding research by graduate students in the basic biomedical sciences, and she was awarded the Beatrice Z. Milne and Theodore Brandenburg Award. While in graduate school, she held doctoral studentships from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and Canadian Institutes of Health Research. After successfully completing her doctoral research Guylaine moved to Chicago to begin postdoctoral training at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. There, she studied the life cycle of HPV. In total, she authored six and co-authored three scientific articles in recognized peer reviewed journals during her short research career at the bench.
During her postdoctoral training, Guylaine began questioning whether laboratory research was the right career for her. She desired more scientific diversity rather than focusing on the narrow area of research in which she had specialized. It was a discussion with a postdoctoral colleague, Marta New, PhD, MBA, that led her to explore a career in patent law. At the time Marta was transitioning from her postdoctoral position to Entrepreneur in Residence at Northwestern University’s Innovation and New Ventures Office. “Marta brought technology transfer and patent law to my attention,” says Guylaine. After doing some research she realized that with her scientific background she would fit well in law firms specializing in patent law to protect clients’ inventions. “I was especially excited about the prospect of working at the cutting-edge of research and being exposed to a wide range of technologies,” she explains. After conducting a few informational interviews with patent attorneys, Guylaine decided to turn her research expertise and her desire to learn about a wide range of scientific issues into her new profession.
Guylaine left academia. “I was very motivated to make the switch to patent law, so I applied to numerous law firms across the country.” In the end, Guylaine landed a job as a technical advisor with Ropes & Gray LLP in Boston, MA. In her new position at Ropes & Gray, Guylaine assisted drafted and prosecuted patent applications for the firm’s clients in the United States and abroad. “Basically, this includes talking to clients about their potentially patentable inventions, conducting searches in various databases to identify what has already been invented and published, drafting and ﬁling patent applications, and taking patent applications through the patent examination process.” While at Ropes & Gray, Guylaine prosecuted patents in a wide range of technologies including molecular biology, immunology, photodynamic therapy, medical devices and diagnostics. She says that one of the most satisfying aspects of patent law is that, “It offers the opportunity to work on a wide variety of topics where one can learn about cutting-edge research before it’s published.”
Guylaine has since left Boston and is now back in Chicago. She now works as a technical advisor for Rakoczy Molino Mazzochi Siwik LLP, a mid-sized litigation and intellectual property law firm devoted exclusively to the pharmaceutical industry. In her current position, Guylaine provides technical litigation support to attorneys, works with experts to develop theories for use in patent litigation, as well as assists with patent counseling and due diligence analyses. She emphasizes that paying attention to details and having good analytical as well as communication skills are critical in her profession. A small mistake can have a serious consequence for a client. “I did not have to think about how a mistake might impact a client while performing bench research in academia,” she admits. Another situation that she encounters in her non-academic role at times is, “It’s a service industry, and clients always come first.” Now these challenges are part of her every day work.
Guylaine is attending Chicago-Kent College of Law in the evening. She is on track to graduate law school in December 2016 and looks forward to taking on more responsibilities as an attorney with Rakoczy Molino Mazzochi Siwik. She is excited to have “a more active role on cases, including taking and defending depositions, participating in negotiations and mediations, and attending court hearings.” While Guylaine enjoys applying her scientific background in a legal and business setting, she finds working and going to law school quite challenging at times. “It’s not for everyone,” she says. She recalls that at one point, she was working 8-5, attending law school by night, and getting home to study until midnight, only to get up in the morning to do it all over again. Speaking from her experiences in pursuing her goals, she believes that hard work and perseverance are the secrets to success. In the process of achieving goals she advises the following: “Just work hard and good things will happen!”