December SOTM: Erin Adams

By Aurelie Desgardin

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

Mentoring at its BEST.

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

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

The grateful mentor.

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

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

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

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

Mentoring laterally!

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

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

2017 AWIS-Chicago Innovator:
Ramille Shah, Ph.D
Northwestern University

2017 AWIS-Chicago Motivator:
Jini Ramprakash, MBA, M.Sc.
Argonne National Laboratory