Phone: 732-932-8165, ext. 316
Ph.D., Yale University, 2006
Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Natural Resources, School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, New Brunswick; Rutgers
Areas of Interest: Microbial evolution, Viral host-shifts
I am the least likely person to end up in science. There are no scientists in my family. My parents tried to give me the Christmas chemistry sets but they didn't take. It was only when I worked in a laboratory that I learned what it meant to be a scientist, as opposed to sitting in lab courses. I was never good at my lab courses; if I was supposed to end up with two grams of something, I would only end up with one. In lab courses you have to do something once, on the spot, without thinking it through. Research is completely different because you are designing the process yourself and are able to stop and start over when something goes wrong until you are satisfied.
Consequently, I'm a poster child for programs that bring people who don't know they want to be scientists into science. My high school had a cooperative program where you could work twenty hours a week at Hoffmann-La Roche, a pharmaceutical company. I went out for it not based on any pre-existing scientific experience, but so I didn't have to sit in class as I had for many years already. My mom is a Vo-Tech educator and she always stressed the importance of hands-on, apprentice style education. The only opportunity I had to do that at my high school was in science. I ended up working with a fantastic, patient molecular biologist. Many believe that those who work in industry do not want to teach but he loved interacting with students. He gave me my own projects and I managed to get a paper out of one of the studies. Work I started when I was sixteen was published a couple of years later. I know one hundred percent that without that program I would not be a scientist today.
That being said, it was early exposure to the lack of freedom that comes with being in industry. A scientist in industry can do incredible things but can't necessarily talk about them. I saw a discovery my group had worked on a few years earlier have to be redone in a public lab with public funds because it had never been published and therefore it was like it didn't exist. That was a downside to me because it seemed wasteful; the company wasn't developing a drug from the discovery and they weren't publishing it so no one else could do anything with it. I saw how it frustrated the senior scientists. The other problem when working for a company is that you have little control over what you research. You can be almost done with a project but if the goals of the company change then that project has to stop. I decided then that a career in academia or government might be more to my liking.
I knew I wanted to do my undergraduate major in science, even if that wasn't what I ended up doing for my career. I felt that it would be easier for me to transition to graduate school in the Humanities with a science degree than vice versa. I ended up at Rutgers as a Molecular Biology and Biochemistry major. It didn't leave a lot of room for free electives but it gave me the background to connect chemistry and the inner workings of the cell to the ecological and evolutionary problems I work on now. I'm glad I experimented in many areas of science so that I was able to find what I truly loved and didn't just get stuck working in my first field of research for the rest of my life.
I had a friend whose father worked in the Food Science Department, and he connected me with Don Schaffner, a Food Safety Extension Specialist. On Cook there is a mission to not just do research and teach students at Rutgers but also to educate and address the problems of the people of the state of New Jersey. An Extension Specialist has to both conduct research and answer the public's inquiries into areas of science. Don Schaffner put me on a computer modeling project to predicting pathogen presence in different food products. I read the literature and development a risk assessment for E. coli O157:H7 in unpasteurized juice products. The importance of the project was driven home to me when I spoke to the New Jersey cider producers, who asked me when I was publishing my results because they wanted the FDA to get this information as soon as possible. I hadn't previously been exposed to the direct applications of science and that people needed science to be done well and somewhat quickly in order to continue their way of life. That sold me on staying in public health research. I was never going to be a medical doctor since I couldn't handle the sight of blood but I could still better peoples' lives with a different type of science.
Recently, another female scientist asked me what I thought a mentor was and I told her "it's someone you meet through work who takes a genuine interest in your well being". Don Schaffner mentored me so well as an undergraduate that I was extremely prepared for my time as a PhD and post-doctoral student. He gave me such a sense of how to be a scientist and how to balance your scientific life with your personal life. Later on, when I was in positions that weren't as good for me, I had the confidence to get out of them. A lot of my friends had bad experiences in their PhD programs but would not leave their labs or switch projects. It may be that some advisers believe that an adversarial relationship with their mentor made them stronger scientists, so they continue that tradition with their trainees. However, I believe labmates spend so much time working with one another that everyone needs to get along. I'm trying to build a lab group where everyone respects each other but where people do not fear the possibility of being wrong. I want them to throw ideas out and be able to constructively criticize each other. My happiest moments are when people in my group share new ideas with me that I never thought of.
Working in science involves so many different skills. One of the things I love is writing. Research gives me the confidence and a reason to write because we generate results that must be related to the scientific community. We also have to communicate to the taxpayers who pay for our research and explain to people why what we do is important. The detective work of science also appeals to me. When you are working on a project, it's rare that you are the first person to ever think of these ideas, and you have to dig through the literature to find those who presaged your work. Sometimes you have to track down papers that aren't in English, or researchers who might have submitted DNA sequences to a database but never published a paper about them, and it is satisfying to find that information or reference. I think science involves much more than just quantitative skills and having a good set of hands in the lab, and it's a great career for people who like a varied work day.
Finishing my PhD was surprisingly satisfying because it develops over five years and goes so slowly until suddenly you realize that it was actually a lot of work. It's five years of constant focus and devoted energy under your own control so when you finally get to the end of it, it's hard not to give yourself credit for it. The biggest challenge for me so far has been becoming an Assistant Professor. It's a great job, but there are days where I wonder how anyone got a research group going, managed multiple projects at once, and got funding for all the projects. I know that everyone in every building, campus, and all throughout Rutgers had to do this, but it can be overwhelming. It's not just my research and my goals I need to take care of anymore, and managing everyone's expectations and looking out for all my trainees has been my greatest challenge.
My position at Rutgers is in many ways my dream job. Twenty-five percent of my appointment is funded by the NJ Agricultural Experiment Station. I have a responsibility to the citizens, industries, and natural resources of NJ as part of my job, and it's nice to have my evolution research grounded with this mission. It's one of the reasons I love being on Cook Campus, which contains a working farm. We are the most urban Ag school in the country; there are no tall buildings on Cook, but the city of New Brunswick is there, right next door. It's nice to be in this pastoral setting when I need to think through a problem or take a breather because I can take a walk on the farm. I feel I have the right job in the right department on the right campus.
One of the things that kept me in science has been the travel. My family took few vacations when I was growing up, and almost all of the traveling I have done is because of science. I've been to conferences in the Galapagos Islands-- which every evolutionary biologist should go to at least once-- New Zealand, Belgium, etc. It is difficult for hard science undergraduates to organize a science major and go abroad even for a semester. So what I did was apply for a Fulbright Fellowship to work in a lab in Germany the year after I graduated Rutgers. America has become dominant in many aspects of science but evolution has remained a more international discipline. As plant viruses are more of a problem in the developing world than in places that don't rely on a single cash crop or subsistence agriculture, plant virus evolution is especially international. I was recently at a conference where some of the speakers were from Nigeria, Tanzania, and Uganda, and some of the best plant virus evolution research centers are in southern France and eastern Spain.
My path has been fairly smooth because of the people I have worked with and the many opportunities available to someone looking for a career in science. The grants and fellowships I learned about in Rutgers classes and from Rutgers faculty allowed me to subsidize my education and my research. I've been lucky to have had a lot of control over my research since I was an undergraduate, to have gained contacts all over the world, and to have been able to start my own lab group here on Cook Campus.
Transcribed from an interview and edited by Lauren Miller