Scientist of the Month
By Farida Khan
Janet Elizabeth Richmond is Professor and current Head of the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Unlike many of us, she had no problems in deciding her major in college. From a very young age, she excelled in the STEM fields and continued on a scientific career path. She completed her Bachelor of Science degree in Neurobiology from the University of Sussex in England, at a time when the Neurobiology field was just starting to get popular. Even before graduating, Dr. Richmond started getting calls from researchers looking for PhD students to join their labs. She decided to pursue her PhD in Neurophysiology at the University of Calgary in Canada. She then conducted post-doctoral work at the University of Hawaii and Iowa State University before taking on Assistant Research Professor roles at Utah State University and University of Utah. Since 2002, Dr. Richmond has been at the University of Illinois at Chicago in the Assistant Professor, Professor, and now, Head of the Department roles.
As Dr. Richmond puts it, her journey in science has been an “around-the-world in 20 years kind of an experience!” But at the end of the day, she is still passionate about her experiments and can still be found at the lab bench doing C. elegans dissections. In addition, she still gets excited about new research findings in the field, funding, grants, and teaching. She’s constantly amazed at the students she interacts with, many of whom are first generation college students, and the amazing stories that they have. One of the most gratifying things for her is watching her graduate students grow and become the independent scientists of tomorrow. “Watching my graduate students becoming my colleagues is really rewarding.”
Dr. Richmond does not feel that she faced any particular roadblocks in her career due to her gender. She feels lucky in that sense because being the lead facilitator of WISEST (Women in Science and Engineering System Transformation), she heard numerous stories of gender inequality and discrimination. From her experience, she feels women tend to be more hesitant or as she calls it “steeped in reality” when it comes to facing challenges. “You have to be tenacious, strong, roll with the punches…” in order to succeed. On a personal level, Dr. Richmond feels that she did not get to spend as much time with her son as she would have liked. He was very young when her career really took off and she missed out on many of his milestones. “Someone else got to see his first tooth come in and his first steps….and that was hard.”
In regards to having a good work/life balance, Dr. Richmond’s advice is “some things have to give!” One needs a strong support system in place, which in her case is her husband Dave, her son, family and friends. She also added that having friends outside of work is very important. Additionally, Dr. Richmond is a runner and admits running is what keeps her sane. “It helps clear my mind and keeps me healthy.” Lastly, she advises that in order to have a good work/life balance, sometimes you just need to “take some time off!”
Finally, Dr. Richmond advises young women who are deciding on a career in science to “seek out good mentors, talk to faculty, talk to peers, and talk to people you admire…get to know them. Let go of disappointments and concentrate on your successes. But most of all, enjoy what you do.”
By Kelan Hlavaty
The medical path came naturally to Andrea Dunaif, as both of her parents were physicians. But it was during medical school that she discovered a love and aptitude for research, specifically Endocrinology. Immersed in both the science and medical fields (and spending many hours in the lab, which was unusual for a medical student), she was inspired by the link between patient syndromes and scientific discoveries. This led her to faculty positions at a host of nationally known, reputable institutions, including Mount Sinai School of Medicine, Pennsylvania State University College of Medicine, and Harvard Medical School. Currently, Andrea is the Charles F. Kettering Professor of Endocrinology and Metabolism and Vice Chair for Research in the Department of Medicine at Feinberg at Northwestern, where she was previously the Chief of the Division of Endocrinology, Metabolism, and Molecular Medicine.
Andrea’s research has always been patient-oriented and translational in nature; her work explores the mechanisms linking metabolism and reproduction and the genetics of polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). “Science is continuously exciting,” she believes, and it’s rewarding to follow the overarching theme of a research question throughout one’s career, which constantly raises new questions, often enabled by cutting-edge technologies. Recently, her projects have led into the field of genetics and next generation sequencing to search for genetic mutations in PCOS. Andrea perceives science as a puzzle, requiring creative ways to answer questions, including exciting interdisciplinary collaborations. Perhaps most importantly for a physician-scientist, Andrea’s research has had a major impact on the care of patients with PCOS.
One of the most gratifying aspects of her career is “finding engaged, excited younger people who want to be involved in science” and helping her mentees establish their own career. Unfortunately, science has its frustrating aspects (as we all know), one of which is acquiring funding. Andrea tackles this by having a strategic plan and keeping her calendar organized around grant deadlines.
Acquiring senior leadership positions, especially in academic internal medicine, is certainly another challenge, the reasons for which are multifactorial. Andrea recommends that women seek out advice early in their career and listen to the counsel of those who are senior. Being open to this advice is instrumental in choosing mentors, picking a project, and writing grants. And importantly, “knowing when to drop a project is just as important as knowing when a project is worth pursuing.” Andrea’s words of advice are broadly applicable to most of us, regardless of where we are in our career.
In addition to her medical and research roles, Andrea also oversees two NIH-supported training programs, has authored over 100 original scientific publications, edited four books, and is the Director of the National Institutes of Health-supported Northwestern University Specialized Center of Research on Sex Differences, among other involvements. She would welcome future leadership positions and would like to play a role in ensuring that the scholarly side of medicine is sustained with healthcare reform. In her free time, Andrea enjoys ballroom dancing and opera.
Andrea sums up her love for research as simply: “Bottom line, science is a wonderful life, creative, and interesting. The core of it is fantastic.”
Even if it has been a while since your organic chemistry lab course in college, you probably remember the time you synthesized isopentyl acetate, better known as banana oil. Besides being a mouth-watering experience, the realization that a molecule that smelled like bananas could be constructed from two molecules that smelled nothing like bananas may have sparked an interest in synthetic chemistry and scientific research. After all, laboratory courses are often a science student’s first experience in the lab and it is through those experiences that many decide to pursue research careers.
However, lab courses alone do not paint an accurate picture of a research career, says Dr. Quinetta Shelby.
“It is important for students to learn early on what life is like in the lab. Most do not realize that original research is very different from the rehearsed and verified experiments performed in lab classes,” says Quinetta. “The objective of research is not to follow someone else’s recipe, but to improve upon and tweak it by trying different ingredients and combining them in new ways.”
Quinetta Shelby is an Associate Professor of Chemistry and Director of the Chemistry Graduate Program at DePaul University. At DePaul, Quinetta teaches undergraduate and graduate level courses in organic, inorganic, and general chemistry, as well as spectroscopy, to prepare students for careers in science. As another aspect of that preparation, she mentors undergraduates in her research lab, focused on the synthesis of catalytic palladium diphosphine complexes, to give them an “opportunity to experience the research discovery process.”
For those students that love the lab and want to go on to academic careers, she recommends getting into research and teaching or tutoring as quickly as possible, in order to demonstrate seriousness and dedication.
Although Quinetta originally wanted to be a high school math teacher, a “wonderful chemistry professor who made chemistry understandable, interesting, and fun” caused her to switch her major to chemistry during her first year in college at the University of Chicago. A few years later, another professor encouraged her to attend a graduate school fair, “planting the idea that I had the ability to earn a Ph.D. and become a college professor.”
Following that path, Quinetta earned her Ph.D. in Inorganic Chemistry from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana and was then awarded an NIH Research Supplement for Minority Individuals in Postdoctoral Training to conduct post-doctoral research at Yale University on the effect of phosphine ligand substituents on the formation of diaryl ethers. She began her academic career at Chicago State University, but has been part of the chemistry faculty at DePaul since 2004. As a professor, she finds it most rewarding when she can help a struggling student finally “get” a concept and understand the reasoning behind a particular synthetic methodology or reaction mechanism.
Quinetta is also a champion for women in STEM, having served on several committees at DePaul that showcase the accomplishments of women, including a selection committee that awards full tuition scholarships and research stipends to female STEM undergraduates, as well as one that selects accomplished Chicagoland women in STEM to speak DePaul’s annual Jeanne LaDuke Women in Mathematics, Science, and Technology Lecture Series.
To encourage women to enter STEM fields and also to empower women already in those fields to increase their visibility, Quinetta believes that those in positions of authority, i.e., teachers, employers, and parents, “need to clearly and effectively communicate that we can be confident in our abilities, trust ourselves, and blaze our own trails.”
When she is not teaching or in the lab, Quinetta loves to cook. Her favorite dish is peach cobbler. “I like working with my hands, so if I were not a chemistry professor, I would own my own restaurant.”
Sitting on a discussion panel addressing 300 8th grade girls, Dr. Rabiah Mayas first realized her own importance in the impression of who a scientist is. “I have the privilege of being one model of scientist that looks different for our kids; beyond Einstein, beyond a lab coat, it’s all these other things,” Dr. Mayas noted. The “Futures Unlimited” panel, held at Oakton Community College, featured women scientists from many disciplines discussing their careers and lives. Girls in attendance, as well as adults, said that they had never seen so many female scientists gathered together at one event.
Rabiah Mayas is currently the Director of Science and Integrated Strategies at the Museum of Science and Industry (MSI) in Chicago. Her team evaluates the learning and experience outcomes of the museum’s programs. They develop programs that connect audiences to practicing science professionals in the Chicago area. The museum is a lead partner on an NSF grant exploring whether arts-based practices help spark creativity in innovation and science education; Dr. Mayas also manages the project for the museum.
Arguably the coolest part of Rabiah’s work is running MSI’s digital fabrication laboratory, or Fab Lab. She organizes programs for participants to design anything from a vinyl sticker for a water bottle to a 3D model of their own head. In one session, lasting from 20 minutes to 1 hour, the participants design their object of choice, program the fabrication machine, and receive the output.
Though Dr. Mayas loves scientific research, she characterizes her move to the Museum of Science and Industry as “an opportunity that presented itself that just didn’t have that component.” Rabiah and her team think scientifically and identify a solution to the question at hand, even if they’re not always involved in scientific research. Along with thinking scientifically, Rabiah is not afraid to fail in her work. She sees failure, learning, and iteration as natural and necessary. “I fail often and publically and loudly because I think that’s the only way to do it and the best way to learn from it,” Rabiah said.
One notable failure was an event that Dr. Mayas organized during her term as Science Director with Science Chicago, a year-long initiative promoting science in the community. The kick-off event for Science Chicago, featuring an internationally known scientist, drew a crowd of only 120 to an auditorium that sat more than 800. What did Rabiah learn from that failure? That the content can be splashy and cutting-edge, but it also needs to be accessible and appropriately targeted to participants. This lesson carries over into Rabiah’s current work, from naming the MSI programs to providing transportation to featuring a relatable speaker.
Rabiah has always been heavily involved in science-related community outreach and volunteer opportunities. Through a program during graduate school at the University of Chicago, she partnered with a Chicago Public School biology teacher to enhance the programming in the teacher’s classes. They ended up working together for a year, which included a visit to the laboratory by the CPS students. Dr. Mayas also “borrowed equipment from the lab to take to the class, which I’m pretty sure I didn’t ask permission for.”
Medicine was Rabiah’s first love of science because she was fascinated by the complexity of the human body. Currently, she follows stories about space exploration closely, especially regarding astronauts or Mars rovers. The @SarcasticRover Twitter feed is a personal favorite.
“I aspire to be balanced in a way that is very natural and it doesn’t feel like I’m fighting for balance,” Dr. Mayas says. To that end, she’s an active runner, with a plan to participate in a marathon next year at Mt. Kilimanjaro. Rabiah loves to dance and dreams of being a contender on a “Dancing with the Scientists” reality show. She’s also recently taken up photography.
At work, Rabiah is challenged to prioritize the projects that her team works on. “Our team comes up with great ideas every day and there isn’t the time or resources to do all of them. I think in [Chicago] where there is need and demand for really great science opportunities, having to say no to things is really hard.” Rabiah’s personal challenge is to incorporate an active science practice back into her career in the future. She jokes with friends and former colleagues that she’ll show up in the lab unannounced one day, wielding a pipette.
By Eun Ji Chung
Dr. Sharon Feng is the Executive Director of the Institute for Molecular Engineering (IME), the first and new engineering program at the University of Chicago which was established in 2011 (ime.uchicago.edu). In her current position, Dr. Feng serves a key leadership role in directing financial, operational, and management functions as well as acting as a liaison between the Institute and its partners in industry. Dr. Feng received her B.S./M.S. from Nanjing University in coordination chemistry, an M.S. from the University of California, Davis in organometallic chemistry, and her Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry from MIT. Dr. Feng completed her postdoctoral training at the Medical University of South Carolina and joined Bayer in 1992. During her 20-year tenure, she held various positions in Asia and North America in areas regarding R&D, marketing, and operations, and prior to joining IME, Dr. Feng was the Vice President of Business Development and Innovation for Bayer Material Science LLC. Dr. Feng’s research expertise lies in developing novel materials for coatings and adhesives applications.
In addition to her scientific and career accomplishments, Dr. Feng is a native of China and grew up during the Cultural Revolution. After high school, during a time when colleges were closed by the government, Dr. Feng was transplanted to the farmlands to work as a watermelon farmer. When the Cultural Revolution ended two years later, Dr. Feng, together with tens of thousands of high school graduates that had accumulated over the ten year period of the Cultural Revolution, took the college entrance exams. Dr. Feng was selected to major in chemistry which started her scientific trajectory. During college, Dr. Feng met her husband, who is currently a professor in paleontology at the University of Chicago, and they are parents to two daughters. Dr. Feng continues to draw motivation and inspiration from her experiences in her teens, and her story is one of perseverance and adaptability.
EJC: Were you interested in science before getting assigned a major in chemistry by the government?
SF: Yes, science in general. It’s not like I wasn’t interested in chemistry, but very little chemistry and physics were taught in school during the Cultural Revolution. I was exposed to a lot of math so I thought I would like a major in computer science. My parents were chemical engineers however, which may be why I did so well on the entrance exams. My original passion was actually in writing and journalism, but during the time I applied to college, the writers were pressured to conform to propaganda so my parents told me that “if you want to be a writer, you would either have to lie or go to jail”. So I chose science because it was “safe” and it wouldn’t go against my conscience. It isn’t an inspiring story, but I chose science out of necessity and through process of elimination. But I’ve grown to love it and I believe you can develop and cultivate passions.
EJC: How has the Cultural Revolution helped you throughout your career (as a student, young scientist in training, and later a corporate VP)?
SF: I gained resilience and the flexibility to adapt according to circumstances. Although I didn’t get to proactively choose my major, I learned survival skill sets. When someone’s path is very smooth, with no resistance, they do not know how to deal with difficulties. Having to figure out my own way gave me the confidence to find the solution to the problem I have. I always think on the bright side of things because those times (during the Cultural Revolution) were hard and I had gone through much worse and there aren’t many circumstances that are worse than that. It helps me quite a bit to take risks because I’m much bolder and I think to myself, “what’s the worst thing that can happen?”
Advice to parents: do not prevent your children from making mistakes. Rather, help your kids develop that resilience and let them pick their own decisions. They will make mistakes, but they will come out of it with more resilience and more survival skills. I do that with my own kids, let them travel all over the world on their own from a very young age. For instance, the day my daughter arrived in Peru for a month and a half to study the Amazon River, she lost her passport. But she was totally cool. She was used to dealing with the unexpected. I would encourage parents not to create an artificial vacuum where they can’t make mistakes.
To young scientists: don’t be afraid of risks, you could fail, but you can gain a lot of lessons from that failure that can be beneficial for your career later on. I had a lot of hardships during my career. The very first boss I worked for was extremely difficult. He was a superb scientist, but a bad manager – micromanager, didn’t trust his people, took all of the credit, tried to promote himself only. But I learned from him what kind of boss I shouldn’t be. In a way, he was helpful in shaping who I am today. Interestingly enough, everyone already knew who did the work even though he took the credit, so when I transferred to another office within Bayer, I had already established a reputation. These things go around. I would say, even if you are in a difficult situation, things still work out if you stay positive and resilient and deliver results.
A good lesson to scientists in industry: try to broaden your skill sets early on. If you establish yourself as an expert, you limit your options when you get to the top. I was on this R&D track because I had a Ph.D., but I was interested in the commercial space. However, I realized you can’t go high in a company without commercial P&L (profit and loss) responsibilities, but I realized this when I was already a VP. So at the manager and director level, I should have managed the business side of things more, but instead I was labeled an R&D expert. I had ambivalent feelings at the time so I didn’t express it clearly to the management early on. It was a gap in my experience however, and looking back, I would have broadened my base as early as possible.
EJC: Were there any professional or personal obstacles you encountered while pursuing your career as a woman in science? How did you get through it?
SF: That first boss. Third year in the company, I was pregnant so I couldn’t work in the lab and instead, worked on ISO9000 certification for a plant. It encompassed a huge work load and was a significant accomplishment. When the annual performance reviews came around, however, I was told that “since you are pregnant you get an average rating rather than an exceptional one”. It blew my mind, but the company lacked the support system at the time. In addition, I didn’t know going straight from grad school to industry that I could negotiate for myself or ask for raises, and didn’t get a raise for 5 years. In fact, I was identified as the underpaid female employee when I transferred to a different unit, and was promoted immediately. Moreover, since Bayer is a German company with a male-centric culture, women were called “doctor” only when their husband was a doctor. Therefore, my name was always written “Mrs. Sharon Feng,” not “Dr. Feng.” In China, gender equality is well-established and I never viewed myself as unequal until I noticed these differences in the US. There were pockets of ignorant people unlike today’s managers that are more educated. And I stopped caring at one point however and ultimately decided not to let it impact my morals.
EJC: Tell me about your role at the new Institute for Molecular Engineering at the University of Chicago. What are similarities and differences? What are the goals?
SF: It’s like an academic start up; Matt (Tirrell, the Director of IME) is like the CEO and I am the COO. I don’t do research like before, but instead I am a part of strategic planning, resource allocation, and operations of R&D. I ensure the funding, infrastructure, policies and procedures, and people are in place to support the research. i.e. compliances are completed, operations are smooth, and adequately staffed so that faculty can do research. It is very similar to managing R&D actually, except for not taking orders from customers. I guess the “customers” here are the students, but the tasks are not that different. The skill set I honed in industry is equally valuable for the academic setting.
From the faculty’s point of view, IME’s goal is to set the bar for a new type of engineering research by breaking down traditional boundaries of departments to solve real problems. The administrative team’s goal is to support this goal so that the Institute can operate in this fashion. In the same way, even at the administrative level, we share the attitude of having no departments (i.e. HR department, etc) and we cross-functionally work together on projects. This reflects the culture and spirit of IME which is to be flexible, nimble, and open.
EJC: How do you balance your personal life and career? What do you do to relax? What do you do on the weekends? Do you have hobbies?
SF: I’ve always tried to not be sucked into my work 24/7. I have a wide range of interests including food, cooking, sewing, knitting, gardening, and dancing. I also volunteer at church and in my community. I get interested in and attracted to many things, and try to be efficient on the job site and practice discipline.
EJC: In the next ten years, what do you envision for yourself? What do you want to achieve?
SF: Making IME a vibrant institute. After that, I’ve always wanted to be involved in humanitarian efforts in Haiti. Possibly even open up a bed and breakfast. I don’t feel the need to stay in one place forever, and I plan to continue to pursue my other interests for the next chapter.
By Kelan Hlavaty
“Know thyself” and “don’t overcommit.” These maxims have empowered Jacqueline (Jackie) Jeruss to serve as both a breast cancer surgeon at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and a basic science researcher running a lab at the Robert Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center.
Jackie knew at a young age that she would become a doctor, and upon her first experience in the OR, she knew she would devote her life to surgery. Her interest in research evolved along with her clinical training, affording her a unique position poised at the intersection of medicine and research.
Jackie completed medical school at the University of Vermont College of Medicine with a concentration in surgery. While at Northwestern Memorial Hospital for residency, she realized that she wanted to focus on breast surgical oncology and also make a contribution toward the discovery of new therapies and improvements in care for patients with cancer. This spurred her to go back to graduate school, where she obtained a Ph.D. from Northwestern examining the role of specific growth factors in breast cancer progression. A doctoral degree provided her career with balance and a more comprehensive understanding of the patients under her care. Jackie explains that “removing tumors is gratifying, but thinking about prevention and treatment gives me a renewed sense of energy about the clinical problems I face daily.” The two pursuits enhance one another, and Jackie believes that it is essential for scientists and clinicians to work closely — often her clinical practice will inspire a new direction in her research, while the research seeks to bring out improvements in the clinic.
In addition to a rigorous schedule of alternating days between clinic and the lab — Monday and Thursday for clinic, Wednesday in the OR, and Tuesday and Friday in the lab — Jackie makes family a priority. Her husband, Lonnie Shea, Ph.D., is a Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering at Northwestern University whose lab focuses on translational research at the interface of regenerative medicine and biomaterials. Jackie asserts that it is important to have a supportive person in your life who is interested in your work and helps take your work in new directions. In fact, Jackie and Lonnie collaborate on multiple projects, such as the development of a cell-based transcription factor array to understand the molecular staging of breast cancer by assessing cancer gene activity.
On balancing both a successful career and quality time with her husband and three daughters, all under the age of eight, Jackie says that “choosing a career that allows some autonomy and control over your schedule is critical for having a family.” Accordingly, she is home for dinner as often as possible and limits work-related travel. For the times when a surgery or conference does encroach on family time, it helps to encourage her girls to have dynamic lives in line with their parent’s, such as involvement in gymnastics, ballet, swimming, learning a foreign language, and music lessons. Ultimately, family commitments are a top priority.
Many of us, whether a scientist or not, strive for a career we feel passionate toward. Jackie stresses that it is important to allow yourself self-discovery and to approach decisions in a way that make the most sense for you personally. Successfully (and happily) balancing two jobs and a family is inspirational, yet Jackie acknowledges that it did not always come naturally. “I learned what my limits were and what responsibilities I could reasonably accept to manage time for family.” Hence, she is mindful of the size of her lab, the number of ongoing projects, and whom she mentors and accepts into the lab.
In her free time, Jackie loves to read, especially at night before bedtime with her girls. She also enjoys cooking, swimming, and traveling with her husband and three girls Sydney (8), Skyla (6), and Saroya (3).
From Soil Science to Science Outreach: January 2014 SOTM – Krisztina Eleki
By Marina Damiano
Krisztina Eleki is the Director of Programming at the Chicago Council on Science and Technology (C2ST), a non-profit organization founded in 2006 that is dedicated to promoting science and technology through discussions, programs, and leadership dialogue among scientists, institutions, and the public.
The path to Krisztina’s current position in science outreach at C2ST was indirect, however; and it all started with a passion for being outdoors. “Nature inspired me to study plant and soil science and then environmental science,” says Krisztina. But while in graduate school, she realized how large the gap is between science and the general public and decided to dedicate her career to bridging this gap. To support her decision, Krisztina earned a Masters of Public Administration and Policy concurrently with her PhD in Environmental Science.
With her new inspiration in mind, Krisztina took her first outreach position as a life science curator at the California Science Center, a major informal learning institution in the South Land area of Los Angeles. After 2 years her husband received a research assistant professor position at Northwestern University. Still interested in outreach, Krisztina saw an open position at C2ST and knew it would be the perfect fit.
Krisztina’s primary responsibility as the Director of Programming at C2ST is to identify, organize, and implement program content and activities to support C2ST’s mission and future goals. She establishes and maintains working partnerships with institutions in Chicagoland area, such as Argonne National Lab. and the Art Institute. “More R&D funded research occurs within a 300-mile radius of Chicago than the East and West costs combined. It is essential to give visibility to, and raise public awareness of, science and technology in the Chicagoland community. C2ST is the catalyst for generating awareness of Chicago as a center for innovation,” says Krisztina.
In addition to promoting science in Chicago, another one of Krisztina’s goals is to use C2ST’s educational programs to introduce science to Chicago area students and encourage them to pursue careers in science. “There are several turning points in furthering science education” says Krisztina, “One of the major ones is in middle school and the other in college. Generally, these drop offs are steeper for women and minorities.” Encouragingly, however, Krisztina sees her educational partners focusing more on inspiring girls to become engineers. To advance future generations to the next level of scientific education and training, Krisztina advises current scientists and teachers to be mentors and involve their volunteers, interns, students, and technicians in projects and decision-making processes. “On a professional level, network with and promote women. Increase their visibility so they can inspire others.” Krisztina invites readers to pencil into their calendars C2ST’s Women in STEM conference to be held in Fall 2014. There will be opportunities to learn from and network with colleagues across all STEM fields.
When she is not reaching out the public, Krisztina is reaching out to her family, encouraging her 3-year-old daughter to build structures and fix toys. In her spare time, she still maintains her connection to the outdoors and enjoys going on walks with her husband, two kids, and two dogs.
By Agnella Izzo Matic, PhD
Take a sip of a beer. It’s cool, bubbly. You smell citrusy, floral hops. There’s some sweetness that balances the beer’s flavor. A lingering bitterness remains after you swallow. You probably want another sip.
That’s how a trained sensory analyst drinks a beer. Just ask Mary Pellettieri, Business Operations Manager at MillerCoors. She is a veteran of the brewing industry who specializes in quality control and sensory analysis. At MillerCoors, Ms. Pellettieri has worked in quality control and she now manages craft and specialty operations in their Tenth & Blake division.
After obtaining her BS in Botany and MS in Public Health, Mary worked as a quality manager for Goose Island Beer Company in Chicago. While at Goose Island, she was quantifying and regulating beer measures such as alcohol percentage, bitterness levels, sulfite presence, and color. One quirk of working at a Chicago-based brewery was that Mary had to analyze the water chemistry and recommend brewing adjustments depending on the seasons. Chicago sources it’s drinking water from Lake Michigan, which undergoes drastic changes during the spring and fall as the surface and deep waters mix.
One other challenge about brewing beer is that the product must taste the same year after year. Contrast this with making wine, in which it is acceptable and even expected that a 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon doesn’t taste exactly like a 2009 vintage. Mary’s analytic techniques help a brewer adjust to changes in hops and barley (where malt originates) that occur with different growing conditions each year.
Ms. Pellettieri teaches about numerous brewing subjects. At the Siebel Institute in Chicago, America’s oldest brewing school, she leads a sensory analysis course that entails how humans perceive food and drink. Teaching this course requires knowledge of physiology, psychology, and human biases. Since Ms. Pellettieri is a highly regarded sensory analyst, she is recruited to judge many beer competitions. She has judged the Great American Beer Festival, the World Cup of Beer, and the Festival of Wood and Barrel Aged Beer, which is being held next in Chicago on November 16, 2013.
At MillerCoors, Mary teaches new hires about the raw materials that go into beer. All beers start with the same basic ingredients: water, malt, hops, and yeast. At the beginning of the class, most employees think water has the biggest impact on the beer’s flavor. However, by the end of class, almost everyone agrees that yeast is the most important factor. “Yeast takes all of the [raw] materials, chews down all the nutrients, makes carbonation and alcohol, and leaves some residual sugar for body and sweetness,” Ms. Pellettieri notes. “You can take one wort, put three different yeast [strains] in it, and make three totally different beers.” This occurs because each strain of yeast produces a unique combination of compounds, in addition to the alcohol and carbonation, that create different flavors.
Through the Siebel Institute, Ms. Pellettieri has taught many small brewery managers about quality control. These topics are especially helpful to brewers who may not have a scientific background. “Too many times people set [specifications] tighter than process or even tighter than measurement variation and they run around trying to fix stuff that they can never fix.” Students walk away knowing how well they can control the brewing process, what the expected variations should be, where interference can occur, and how well their instruments can measure.
This month, Mary becomes the new president of the Master Brewers Association of America, a professional organization celebrating 125 years of technical leadership for the brewing industry. She credits former colleagues, Ilse Shelton of the Siebel Institute and Kathy Kinton Williams of MillerCoors, with her involvement in professional associations. Both Ms. Shelton and Ms. Kinton Williams occupied leadership positions at national brewing organizations and encouraged Ms. Pellettieri to do the same. Mary believes she’s become a better leader with a broader outlook after being involved in professional organizations. And now, she tries to pay it forward as much as possible and encourage her younger colleagues to get involved, network, and participate in professional associations.
After 4 years with MillerCoors, Mary is leveraging her expertise in brewing science and launching her own consulting business, La Pavia. She will be helping new breweries establish sensory analysis programs and quality control processes. “I’m pretty excited that I’ll be able to help people with some of the things that I really love doing. I love problem solving, [but] I don’t want to just come in and solve the problem and leave. I want to help them learn how to do it themselves.” And, along the way, she will get to taste a lot of great beer.
I have recently come home from a motivational and inspirational evening with Bridgette Heller, an Executive Vice President and President of Consumer Care at Merck & Co. Inc. During her presentation, Bridgette carried her audience through the timeline of her life: from a little girl in a segregated community in Florida to a strong, motivational and inspirational leader. Listening to her talk, I realized once more that it doesn’t matter where one comes from, so long as he/she has the drive and the desire to succeed. I am certain that Dr. Marla Issac, PhD agrees with me. Despite the many challenges which sprung up during Marla’s graduate training, she has persevered and succeeded, showing to herself and to everyone around her that anything is possible. Thus, I have nominated Marla, whom I have the privilege of knowing since grad school days at Northwestern University, as our October Scientist of the Month.
Out of high school, scientific endeavors for Marla started at Xavier University in Louisiana where she has spent her first year as an undergraduate. The following year, Marla transferred closer to home (she was born in Chicago, IL) to the University of Illinois in Chicago (UIC) to complete her bachelors of arts degree in biology. “I chose biology because I loved my biology classes in high school. I took general biology and then anatomy and physiology. The anatomy class is what really sparked my interest in pursuing biology as a major in college. I was absolutely fascinated by all the inner workings of the body.”
Marla was intrigued by biology so much that, during her junior year at UIC, Marla made a decision to pursue a PhD degree in this field, rather than attending medical school. “During my junior year at UIC , I came across information about a program called the McNair Scholars Program. It is program that introduced minority and first generation college students to the world of research by having them conduct research in a lab on campus during the academic school year. Before finding out about that program, I had no clue what graduate school was, I didn’t know that there was a way to become a Doctor without going to medical school. So this program intrigued me and I applied. The first time I applied I was denied because the director of the program said that although I was extremely bright, my personal statement indicated that I wanted to attend medical school, not graduate school. This was the truth, I had always wanted to go to medical school, but that was because I had never heard of graduate school. I didn’t take that rejection to heart. I tweaked my personal statement, this time emphasizing my interest in graduate education, and was successful. I got into the McNair Program. Following that experience I then conducted research in the summers in the SROP and CURE programs. Biology was now ‘my thing’ and I was hooked.”
Although Marla expected for her PhD training to present some challenges, at some point the challenges both in and out of the laboratory seemed insurmountable. A few years into starting her thesis work in the lab of Drs. Tamas Jilling and Michael Caplan, Marla was confronted with some devastating news. Her mother was unexpectedly killed in a hit-and-run by a bus driver during her visit to Jamaica. As a result, Marla found herself not only dealing with complexities of research, but trying to hold herself together while becoming the matriarch of her siblings. At times, the stresses from all of these events just seemed too much. “There were many days where I felt discouraged and didn’t know if I could make it through…But every time I saw my family they were so proud of me and so excited that I was in grad school and would be the first in our family to obtain a PhD, so I couldn’t give up. I felt like I did not have to option to fail. I wanted to show all of my younger siblings, nieces and nephews that if I could do it, then so could they. So I persevered, and made it through. Hopefully my success has encouraged the ones that are coming after me to do the same.”
Marla has accomplished her dream. She was hooded with a PhD in Biology in July 2013 and is now spending her professional life inspiring others. Marla currently holds 3 professional positions. “My primary role is Coordinator of Multicultural Affairs for The Graduate School at Northwestern, a job I began just two days after graduation. In this role I directed the very same summer research program that I had once participated in as an undergraduate student, SROP. Now, I head all of the recruitment initiatives for the graduate school, I travel around the US to local and national conferences, as well as other universities to encourage minority students to apply to Northwestern for graduate education.
I am also an adjunct lecturer for the School of Continuing Studies, teaching a 3hr Genetics and Evolutionary Biology lecture course. In addition I work as a Teaching Assistant for a biology lab run through the Masters of Biotechnology program.” She does this all with a smile and while continuing to take care of the family who is amazed by all that she has accomplished. When she does have time to unwind (though I honestly don’t understand when she finds this time), Marla enjoys spending time with her family and friends relaxing, though sometimes she just enjoys the precious time of being alone.
When asked about the one lesson she would pass on to graduate students pursuing advanced degrees in the sciences, the message that Marla passed on resonated well with the lessons discussed by Bridgette Heller. “Live a balanced life, work hard but also take time to enjoy life. Don’t let your work be the only thing in your life that makes you happy because it will surely fail to do so at some point.”
By: Stephanie Levi, PhD
Victoria Prince, Ph.D. is no stranger to a bustling research career. As a developmental biologist in the University of Chicago’s Department of Organismal Biology and Anatomy, Dr. Prince leads a team of researchers in exciting research that focuses on the developmental biology of the pancreas and brain stem. In recent years, leadership has taken a new shape for her in the form of university administration. Dr. Prince assumed the role of Associate Dean and Director of the Biological Sciences Division’s (BSD) Office of Graduate Affairs in 2010. In this role, Dr. Prince has expanded her reach as a mentor to graduate students and early-career researchers, catalyzing a new kind of career development for the next generation of scientists.
Dr. Prince began her research career at North London’s National Institute for Medical Research, where she studied genes that establish specific parts of the body along the body’s axis. A short course in embryology with two soon-to-be Nobel laureates introduced her to a new model system that had not yet gained popularity but has proven extremely useful in a variety of fields—zebrafish. Using this model system, Dr. Prince and her lab have developed techniques and pioneered discoveries that have illuminated the development of the pancreas and brain stem, garnering global interest. Their work seeks to illuminate the establishment of neural circuitry, and understand how the pancreas is built during embryo development to ultimately generate transplantable pancreatic islets from stem cells to cure diabetes.
Such ambitious goals in research have paralleled Dr. Prince’s role as the Associate Dean and Director of the BSD’s Office of graduate affairs. Dr. Prince has worked with the University’s Career Advancement office to introduce an innovative set of programs to support students who are considering a wide variety of post-graduate careers, including alumni visits and workshops for students and post-docs that go outside traditional careers and explore a more diverse selection of career options. “Sometimes scientists are resistant to taking on what they see as service roles, but service and leadership turn out to be two sides of the same coin,” Dr. Prince says. Exposing students and post-doctoral scholars to diverse career options helps them explore interests that leverage their experience as researchers, while cultivating ways to be of service through their myriad experiences. Dr. Prince is an excellent example for other scientists of all levels, not only for what it has enabled her to do for her community, but also for how it has been of service to her. “My administrative role has benefitted me by giving me a much greater understanding of the intricacies of how a university runs, and allowing me to meet a fantastic new cadre of colleagues from outside of the biological sciences.”
Dr. Prince emphasizes that administrative roles are a great choice for female scientists, and female scientists are a great choice for these roles, particularly timely in light of online buzz about the dearth of women in administration roles in research environments. “Taking on such roles allows women to have a broader, or at least a different, impact than can be achieved solely through developing a strong research program. Another excellent reason for women to take on such leadership roles is to provide strong role models for the next generation.” University administrators need to be mindful of issues that may be unique to women in science, she cautions. “Searches need to be much more proactive if women candidates are to be convinced to apply for and (even more challenging) accept upper level leadership jobs. Strategies that work well enough to attract male candidates will not necessarily work for female candidates, so search committees, and particularly the senior leadership behind them, need to do their homework and be willing to go the extra mile if they are serious about placing excellent women scientists into leadership positions.”
So, what is the secret to her success? Dr. Prince dispenses excellent advice: Just say no. “[Being] empowered to do so when appropriate can save new assistant professors from too much busy work and allow them to focus on the most critical task of establishing their research program.” She has advice for students as well: “…Focus on the questions they are passionate about and that will get them up in the morning, rather than worrying too much about whether a particular area of research will be trendy, and where the funding will lie ten years down the road. I suppose this is a form of living in the moment, but I really think research is too hard to do if you aren’t excited about the daily experiments, and none of us have a crystal ball.” A final bit of wisdom is good for all of us: “’Everything in moderation, including moderation.’ Sometimes you really should just go for it.”