So You Wanna Be A … Neuroscientist

I’m not the only auntie who wants to share some hard-won experience with you. Meet my friend (and personal hero), Nicole D., a Postdoctoral Scholar doing research on traumatic brain injuries at the University of California San Francisco. She studied Neuroscience at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and has great advice for any young woman interested in a STEM career. I love her passion for science, her curiosity, humor and sense of adventure. Prepare to be inspired!

AV: You’ve had a pretty circuitous career path. Can you tell us about it?

Nicole: Haha, yes, “circuitous” is a great word to describe it! When I
was in high school, I was a member of the Thespian Society and three choirs, so I was always involved in plays and concerts. When I headed off to college at University of Kansas, I honestly didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. I really had no clue. So, I chose to continue performing and I pursued a degree in Theatre & Film. I did have doubts though, so I changed my major two times—to Journalism, to English. I also flirted with the idea of going pre-med (I had a roommate who was studying nursing and it fascinated me. But I never followed up on that direction and stuck with Theatre & Film). I wasn’t the most talented actress or the best singer, but I did love it at the time, which is how I ended up with a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts.

Nicole QuoteAV: Who were your role models when you were considering a career in science?

Nicole: Actually, two role models I had were two people not involved in science at all: my mother and my sister! Both of them had gone back to school (my sister, in her late twenties, and my mother, in her fifties) to pursue Master’s degrees in very different fields. This was so inspiring to me, to see people close to me making the decision to go back to school and advance their educations in order to fulfill their intellectual curiosity and open their employment options. In terms of science, I had always had this fascination with Marie Curie and the work she did on radioactive isotopes at a time when women weren’t welcomed or taken seriously in science. I also very much respect the contribution and the sacrifice of Rosalind Franklin, “The Dark Lady of DNA”, who discovered the crystal structure of DNA but whose findings were appropriated (or “stolen”) by Watson and Crick, who then won the Nobel Prize for reports written on the data she generated. She received no credit for her discovery before her death, due to radiation exposure she endured over the course of her experiments.

Nicole Quote 2AV: Can you tell us about your research?

Nicole: For the past seven and a half years, I’ve been looking for and testing novel drugs to treat traumatic brain injury (TBI). We know that TBI can happen to anyone, anytime, and in the blink of an eye, a person’s life may be changed forever. Millions of people every year in the United States sustain brain trauma (the most common cause is car accidents.) TBI can lead to problems with psychological, mental, and physical functioning that in many cases last a lifetime. And right now we don’t have any drugs or treatments to prevent that from happening. So there is an urgent need to find drugs or combinations of drugs that could be given to a person in the hours following brain trauma that could tackle some of the most critical injury processes unfolding in the brain, with the idea that their recovery would improve and their long-term outcome would be much, much better. Recently I’ve been testing a drug to find out if it improves learning and memory following TBI, and it’s working so well that the drug’s creator wants to fast-track it into human clinical trials! It’s a very exciting time in the field of neurotrauma.

AV: Is there something you wish someone had told you before you went into this field?

Nicole: Maybe just that human nature is human nature, and what Imean by that is that you may be exposed to or experience scientific betrayal. I went into biomedical graduate school with rose-colored glasses, believing that everyone had pure intentions because science is all about discovery and advancing knowledge, and we should support each other. Science is just as full of politics, backstabbing, gossip, idea theft, and sabotage as any other field. You just have to accept that science is done by people, and as such, is subject to the effects of human personality and human faults.

AV: Can you estimate the male-to-female ratio in your classes and labs?

Nicole: In the biomedical sciences, I would say at this point that it’s Nicole Quote 3approximately 50/50. The higher you go up in science, the more that ratio shifts toward the male sex. Most of the top positions are held by men. That shouldn’t discourage you, though.

AV: What’s the best thing about your job?

Nicole: Hands-down, it’s the unexpected successes. It’s when you’ve developed a hypothesis and you have no idea what’s going to happen next, and then you see a robust effect of the drug or something in the cell is fundamentally altered. Then you go home walking on air. It feels amazing. Oh, also, if you get a grant funded, that’s time to break out the champagne. Funding in science is so tight right now.

AV: What’s the suckiest part of your job?

Nicole: When you repeat an experiment over and over, and it just isn’t working, that’s very frustrating. You do a lot of troubleshooting. I actually really enjoy troubleshooting, but there are so many things that can go awry during an experiment that it can be challenging. Also, there will be lots of times as a junior scientist where you will stay late (very late) in lab to work on experiments, and there are times when you’ll have to bow out of social engagements because of work or miss out on holidays because you’ve got a deadline. You have to love the process and you have to have a really strong sense of perseverance to keep on keeping on.

AV: What stresses you out about your job and how do you deal with it?

Nicole: The pressure to get positive results on a deadline can be very Nicole Quote 4stressful—this is where those late nights come in. Also, when you have to walk into your boss’ office and explain why you don’t have anything to show her yet—that’s tough. That’s a high-stress experience for some people, like myself. The PIs (Principal Investigators) depend on your work to write their grants and papers in order to keep the lab funded. There’s a lot riding on the work. Also, giving presentations is stressful (talks on your data) because you never know what questions the audience is going to throw at you. This teaches you to keep your cool and admit when you don’t know something. How do I deal with the stress? Friends and family—you need a support system. A HUGE sense of humor about things, and the ability to see the big picture. Some kind of exercise, whether that’s running, walking, yoga, hiking, or going to the gym. And you need a life outside of lab: hobbies, friends, time off, good food, and I also highly suggest quality TV (I like The Walking Dead, Inside Amy Schumer, Game of Thrones, and food competition shows).

AV: You’ve moved around a lot. Is that common in this career, and for you is that a perk or a necessary evil?

Nicole: I’ve moved a lot for personal reasons, but yes, if you want to pursue a career in science, you have to go where your interests are, and the work that you want to do may be across the country. Keeping an open, adventurous mind about starting over is critical!

AV: What’s the likelihood you’ll become rich and famous in the field of neuroscience and is that important to you?

Nicole: I can’t lie—it would great to be rich, but that’s not why I do what I do. I do it because I love science. I really, truly do. The likelihood of becoming rich and famous is pretty slim in science. Again, a lot of that is political. You need to have a huge, well-funded lab, and you need to be brilliant AND lucky. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but you need to have deeper motivation than just the hope of riches and fame. That’s the only thing that’s going to keep you going when the going gets tough (and the going will always get tough—it’s the nature of the business).

AV: Tattoos – I know you’ve got lots. Is that accepted, encouraged, tolerated or frowned upon?

Nicole: I think I have 18 so far? I think tattoos at this point are tolerated, although I do cover mine up when I’m dealing with scientists I’m just meeting or if I’m giving a talk. No point in having people make snap judgments about you. On the other hand, many, many people have at least one tattoo, so it’s not such a big deal. My tattoos tell stories about my life. They’re a part of me and I’m not embarrassed by them. In fact, I want more!

AV: When Nobel Prize-winning British scientist Tim Hunt said that the “trouble with girls” working in science labs is that it leads to romantic entanglements and they cry when criticized, it ignited a huge backlash from STEM scientists. Is that sort of gender bias common, getting better or not a big deal?  

Nicole: I think it’s being acknowledged more, and more people (both female and male) are beginning to discuss it in a public forum. Yes, it’s very much a real thing. I don’t think it’s getting better yet, but awareness is a huge part of instigating change. You have to speak out about these things when you see them. It’s not right. Women are every bit as intelligent, hard-working, and savvy as men when it comes to a successful scientific career, and they should never be made to feel uncomfortable, marginalized, or sexualized in the workplace. It’s unacceptable and completely unnecessary.

AV: Any advice for young women interested in a STEM career?

Nicole: Don’t ever listen to people who say, “Science isn’t for girls”. Science is a NATURAL career for women, and we can thrive in that environment. Follow your interests, your passions. Chase what makes you curious, what lights you up from the inside, and you’ll never go wrong. Most of all, ignore the naysayers. There will always be naysayers, and they’re just people who either don’t understand the reality of women scientists, or they are speaking from their own personal fear which has nothing to do with you. Science will test you like no other career, but the rewards are more than worth the struggles. You will be tested but you will become a stronger person, more capable, more confident, more resilient, more understanding. This spills over into all other parts of your life. There’s a quote I love from the movie “A League of Their Own”, with Tom Hanks and Geena Davis. She wants to quit the all-female baseball team and tells her coach, Tom Hanks, that “it just got too hard”. And he gives her a steely look and says, “It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The ‘hard’ is what makes it great.” Now go out there and kick some butt!

From Auntie Venom’s Eighties Audio Files:

Have any questions or comments for Nicole? Any plans to pursue a STEM career? Sound off below. 

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