Scientist of the Month
By Sarayu Ratnam
Dr. Ursula Storb, MD, is a Professor at the University of Chicago in the Department of Molecular Genetics and Cell Biology. She is also a faculty member of the Committees on Immunology, Cancer Biology and Developmental Biology.
As a young girl Ursula wanted to study languages (she is proficient in German and English and familiar with French, Italian, Japanese, Swedish, Latin and Greek) but decided to pursue a medical degree instead, encouraged by her physician father who hoped she would meet a fellow student that she could marry and who in turn would take over his clinic! She went through an intense period of medical training at the Universitaet Tubingen, Germany, then Universities of Vienna, Austria and Freiburg, Germany to obtain her medical degree. A chance article in the journal Deutsche Medizinische Wochenschrift about how antibodies were made stoked her interest in immunology and she decided to pursue research at the Institut Pasteur, Paris on a NATO fellowship. This was followed by a year-long stint at the Institut d’Immuno-Biologie, Paris, France and the Institut fuer Haematologie, Freiburg, Germany on a EURATOM fellowship where she studied delayed hypersensitivity (now called T-cell immunity).
After her post graduate training in Europe Ursula turned down a job offer in pediatrics to experience the American system of research and continue her by now strong interest in immunology. She came to the USA on a fellowship from the German Government and joined the University of Washington, Department of Microbiology where she pioneered the “Rosette assay” to identify lymphocytes that carried antibodies on their cell membrane. Her lab, in collaboration with Ralph Brinster at the University of Pennsylvania, was also the first to show that mouse transgenes can function normally without the inclusion of viral enhancers. She progressed to being a Professor and Head of the division of Immunology, Department of Microbiology and Immunology, a position she held till 1986. She then joined the University of Chicago as Professor in the Department of Molecular Genetics and Cell Biology where she still continues.
At the University of Chicago, Ursula’s research has focused on the regulation of immunoglobulin gene rearrangement and hypermutation, and development of B-lymphocytes. Her lab was one of the first to identify the importance of transcription initiation to somatic hypermutation of immunoglobulin genes. Her lab also studies the role of DNA methylation and chromatin in development and Ig gene expression and recently identified a novel murine gene that causes specific methylation of a transgene during early development. She has more than 160 publications from her lab in various top-tier journals including Science and Cell. In addition, Ursula has extensive teaching experience where she has taught graduate and undergraduate courses in Immunology, Molecular Biology, Vertebrate Developmental Genetics, and Cell Biology
Ursula has won many professional honors including being elected Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1992 and Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2007. She has also been an active member of various professional organizations including the Association of Women in Science since 1971. In fact, Ursula was present at the annual meeting of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) when AWIS was founded.
As a female scientist during the past 50-odd years Ursula has seen her share of female prejudice in the scientific community. While applying for a faculty position she was told by her advisor that “she didn’t really need an independent position since she had a successful husband”! Ursula stuck to her guns and convinced him that she indeed deserved the faculty position with respect to her achievements in the academic field. She was also advised by another successful female scientist that “as a woman she may have to be many times better than a man to succeed”.
Recognizing the need to support women in science Ursula, during her long tenure as a scientist and teacher, has always been a strong mentor to the women students and researchers in her lab, and outside, irrespective of which stage in their career they are at. In 1993, she founded a faculty committee to support graduate students from under-represented ethnic minorities in science. She has had many female undergraduate students work in her lab and has introduced them to various different scientific projects which enable these young women to experience scientific “bench work” before they actually have to decide on a career. In most cases, the experiences in her lab have led these women to pick science as a career choice. To the graduate students and post-docs in her lab she has always been supportive and accessible and exposed them to various different aspects of science including planning basic science experiments, science writing and scientific presentations and thus preparing them for an independent scientific career. In addition, research has shown that the main reason why women are so under-represented in the STEM fields is because women are still responsible for the majority of housework and childcare activities even when working full time outside the house. Ursula understood the demands placed on a young mother at home, especially during the early years and has helped her post-docs remain in science by encouraging flexible work hours in her lab.
A workaholic by nature, Ursula spends most of her day at the lab focusing on research and teaching. Outside of the lab she enjoys discussing and appreciating science, art and music with her partner Dr. Terence Martin with whom she has also had a long and productive research collaboration and who has been one of the most influential persons in her life. Given that her career encompassed her greatest interest in life, science, Ursula has been one of the few to truly follow her passion and become one of the most successful female scientists today.
By: Natalia Sanchez
Dr. Kirsten Moisio literally sees dead people, every single day. As the instructor of human anatomy in the department of Physical Therapy (PT) and Human Movement Sciences, Dr. Moisio spends most of her time in the dark basements of Northwestern University’s medical school campus dissecting cadavers. However, she is quite the opposite from what one would expect a typical anatomist to be. In fact, if you ask her students for an adjective to describe her, the unanimous response would be: “awesome”. Despite the fact that anatomy may be the hardest class students take as part of their PT training, Kirsten makes sure they enjoy every second of it.
Kirsten was born in Waukegan, IL. Her dad, a chemical engineer, used to run experiments with her and her older brother all the time, which got them both interested in science. When Kirsten was in high school, she had jaw surgery and then she had physical therapy, which shaped her future career. Kirsten majored in Kinesiology at the University of Illinois while also working as a short order cook, waitress, and delivering newspapers to help pay for college. During her junior year at U of I, she decided to pursue her doctoral degree in physical therapy. However, she still had to take anatomy as a pre-requisite for physical therapy school. On her first day of anatomy class, Kirsten found out that her lab-mate, the person she would be sharing a cadaver with for the next six months, would be absent for a month due to illness. She took it to heart to learn all her materials so that she could teach him when he returned. Kirsten was so evidently talented at teaching anatomy that she was asked to be a teacher’s assistant for the class. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity not only because all TAs were graduate students while she was an undergraduate, but also because U of I offered to pay for her tuition for that semester. Kirsten has great memories from that time, and she still talks to her advisor from U of I at least once a month.
After graduation, Kirsten enrolled at Washington University for her physical therapy doctorate degree, where she also helped as an anatomy TA. After graduating, Kirsten came back to Chicago to work at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. She really missed teaching, however, and contacted Dr. Randy Perkins, an anatomy professor at Northwestern, but at that time there were no openings for an anatomy teacher. Wishing to go back to her beloved anatomy, Kirsten decided to obtain an Anatomy PhD at Rush University. Interestingly, she was the only woman in the program. After completing her PhD, she also did a postdoc at Rush looking at the stress of total knee replacements. During this time, Kirsten got married and became a mom.
One day in 2005, Dr. Randy Perkins contacted Kirsten. He was planning on retiring and she had come to mind when thinking about who to replace one of Northwestern’s most recognized professors. At the time, she was the mother of a one year-old baby boy when her dream job came knocking on her door. She accepted the position. In order to maintain her work-life balance, Kirsten did have to sacrifice some of her research goals. She would like to continue the knee osteoarthritis research she began after grad-school, but understands that in order to have it all, she can’t have research be a part of her career. She has chosen her two priorities. Kristen is now a full time mom of 3 kids ranging in age from 10 to 4, as well as a full time professor. Every morning Kirsten wakes up and makes lunch for her three kids and then drives them to school. After a full day of lecturing and teaching anatomy lab, she picks her kids up from school and her and her husband help them with homework. Kirsten cooks dinner every night and as a family rule, the family always has dinner together.
She absolutely loves teaching, enjoys interacting with hundreds of students every day, and wishes more people understood the importance of instructing students and preparing a future generation of professionals in the classroom. She hopes people can see that being a professor is not only about getting grants and doing research, but also about inspiring students. She attributes her success in a field full of men to her assertiveness, her energy, her personality and her overall passion for anatomy.
Kirsten would love for her kids to follow in her footsteps and dreams of the day when she can teach her kids how to dissect a cadaver, learning the anatomy that makes humans work as a perfectly synchronized machine. However, in the end, her true goal is for her kids (and students) to do something they love, because if you love what you do, then you no longer have a job but a passion you get paid for.
By: Mrinal Y. Shah
Lucy A. Godley, MD, PhD, unlike many of us, knew early on what she wanted to do in life. Her first research experience came in high school, when she worked in a hematology lab at Yale University. That experience imprinted an interest in science and medicine at a young age, and she has stayed close to that field ever since. From there, she went on to Harvard and Radcliffe Colleges, where she received a B.A. in Biochemical Sciences. She then entered the Medical Scientist Training Program at the University of California, San Francisco, where she earned her PhD in the laboratory of Harold Varmus, MD. Lucy then received her MD from Northwestern University, and she has remained in Chicago ever since. She did her postdoctoral research and fellowship training in Hematology/Oncology at The University of Chicago, where she is now a Professor in the Section of Hematology/Oncology.
Lucy’s main research interest lies in the field of epigenetics. She has always been intrigued by the idea that the properties of DNA can be changed without changing the base sequence, and this area has proved fertile ground for her to merge basic research and clinical medicine. Lucy never wanted to be a private physician, deeming it “too routine,” and opted instead for the life of an academic researcher, which she finds more flexible and creative. As she says, “I get to ask a question that no one has asked before and then I get to know the answer first!”
In addition to her study of epigenetics, Lucy’s research has expanded in the past few years to include the study of germline predisposition to bone marrow-derived cancers, a project that developed from one of her clinic patients. In the past, the literature has described inherited leukemias as quite rare, but Lucy now has a cohort of more than 200 families that appear to have inherited forms of disease. Some of these families have contributed to the recent description of two new inherited syndromes, and she anticipates that there are many more to be discovered. This is a perfect example of what excites Lucy most about her work: not only interacting with patients to make a difference in their daily lives, but also being able to discover something new and move between the worlds of medicine and science.
Lucy has always been very supportive of and a great mentor to students and scientists who are in all different phases of their studies and careers. She herself has had many mentors along the way, starting back when she was that high school student working in the lab for the first time. These mentors “have stayed with (her) for decades…they are connections that have come back around and are now friends and colleagues.” She refers to her mentors and students as “one big family” that keeps expanding as time goes on.
Speaking of connections, Lucy’s own husband, Alfonso Mondragon, is someone whom she met in the lab next to hers while she was an undergraduate. Alfonso is also a successful scientist and a Professor at Northwestern University. They have two children and a busy family life, on top of their separate careers. Lucy attributes her work/life balance to the mutual respect and communication that she and Alfonso maintain in order for both to be successful.
Lucy fully admits that being a woman in science can present its own set of issues. “I feel the statistics…it’s subtle and it’s there,” she says ruefully, referring to the inequalities that still exist for women in STEM. However, she has never been one to let it get her down. When asked what advice she has for a successful career, she declares, “Find your passion, because when you are exploring your passion, you’re not working. Every day when I come to work, I have fun. Every day, the details of getting everything done work out, and I always enjoy the day.”
By Yujin Shin
Teri W. Odom is Board of Lady Managers of the Columbian Exposition Professor of Chemistry and also Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at Northwestern University.
She completed her Bachelor of Science degree in chemistry at Stanford University. While at Stanford, her interest in quantum mechanics lead her to pursue a PhD in Chemical Physics at Harvard University under Dr. Charles Lieber, one of the world’s leading scientists in nanoscience. She recalls that her graduate school days were some of the best in her life. She was able to singularly focus on science with few other serious obligations and was exposed to diverse topics in the group. These experiences made her look deeper into problems in nanoscience. She was offered an Assistant Professor position at Northwestern University while still a graduate student. She loves her work here.
Prof. Odom has won numerous awards including the Materials Research Society (MRS) Outstanding Young Investigator Award and she was selected as “one of the world’s top young innovators” from the MIT Technology Review. Recently, she has been named as Executive Editor at American Chemistry Society (ACS) Photonics, which is a new journal focusing on photonic and plasmonic materials. Prof. Odom humbly mentioned that she has been fortunate to be on a fast-track in her career and is thrilled to take new leadership roles since there is always something to learn. Also it is clear she loves training graduate students and contributing to society by doing good science.
Fortunately, she has not perceived challenges because of gender. However, she has known some female researchers who have had issues. Dr. Odom was the first assistant professor hired who was promoted to full professor in the department, despite the long history of strength in inorganic chemistry. She is pleased to see improvements these days. Rather than the gender, one challenge has been how people perceive her because of size. She has recalled many times where people thought she was a student prior to giving her talk until she actually started speaking. In such ways, all kinds of biases such as gender and physical appearance may be built in.
Besides working as a scientist, Prof. Odom enjoys spending her time investing in spiritual growth, reading fiction, and spending time with her two-year old son. During the interview, an inevitable question came to mind: “how she can manage work and family and whatever else (e.g. faith) which is important in her life?” Her answer was clear: it was challenging but doable, and certainly made easier when her life was in balance. Her definition of being balanced and healthy includes the full integration of physical, emotional, and spiritual states. And she strongly believes that healthier people will do a better job in their work.
Along with the balanced life, Prof. Odom also emphasizes importance of community as the key to success. She is certain that nobody does anything by themselves, and everybody needs people who support them with opportunities and recognition.
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).