Who is ready for another scientist’s story? And the final one of 2018! I seriously can’t believe that there is only 2 weeks left of this year! But anyway back to the Scientist in the Spotlight…
What is the first picture that comes into your minds when you picture a scientist? Male? Lab coat? White hair? Glasses? That sort of thing? Well, one of the missions of my blog and social media scicomm is to break those stereotypes and it is also the mission of this month’s scientist, Andrea H. Andrea is a postdoctoral scholar at a Biotech company in Boston, MA after completing her PhD in sunny LA at UCLA. Her current work uses high throughput methods to identify holes in pathways and discover compounds that are involved in helping to alleviate rare lysosomal diseases which impact neurological diseases like Parkinson’s. But she is also a passionate scicommer and blogger. She has been blogging since 2012 but a major focus of her content is fashion, fitness, beauty and just a pure and honest account of her life as a scientist which has helped her to come out of her shell as an introvert and explore something different.
This passion and authenticity of Andrea’s account is what I love about following her and I hope after getting to know her a little more in this interview that you will too. So, allow me to introduce to you the final Scientist in the Spotlight of 2018, Andrea H.
Welcome Andrea and thank you for answering some questions for me and Soph talks science. Let’s start off my talking about your science journey.
Andrea: I did my undergraduate studies in biochemistry and molecular biology at the university of Massachusetts Amherst with a minor in psychology. I actually started uni undecided because I also had a passion for writing. In high school, I was interested in journalism and was the editor in chief of the school newspaper. But I also loved advanced chemistry classes. Upon getting to uni, I realised i was more interested in the science courses, and found that biochemistry was a good blend of biology and chemistry. I started working in a chemistry lab for a semester when I first started, which got me exposed to research, and then by my third year I got a position doing research in a biochemistry lab doing research on plant metabolism! I also had the chance to do a summer internship at a biotech company in Boston during my third year, which really was the best thing I could have done. It really solidified my choice to go to grad school, because I knew that was what I wanted to do. I knew in order to move up and keep asking questions that I would need an advanced degree.
I went to grad school at UCLA for my PhD in the Biochemistry and Molecular Biology program starting in 2011, where I focused on characterisation of protein arginine methyltransferases. I biochemically characterised the enzymes, identified their activity type and substrates, and even characterised their orthologs in the worm C. elegans, where I actually got to rename previously unknown/uncharacterised genes! Grad school was probably the hardest but best experience for me – both academically and personally. I grew as not only a scientist but as a person. I learned to stand up for and believe in myself, as I was bullied in grad school by other women – very unfortunate. It also trained me to think critically and constantly ask questions.
After my PhD I really didn’t want to do a postdoc, but it seemed like every job I wanted to apply to required it. I found the perfect opportunity as a postdoc in industry – I get the best of both worlds, and I’m really happy with where I’m at right now and the preparation for the next step.
What have you been up to in the lab most recently then?
Andrea: I have been learning a LOT of new things these last few months – new techniques that just amaze me – lately I’ve been doing CRISPR and FACS which is all new to me and when each step works, I just get so excited! It’s the little things.
What was it that made you choose to move into industry after your PhD?
Andrea: I knew that I didn’t want to stay in academia afterwards. I saw the trajectory of other students who had aspirations to be professors and I wasn’t about that life. I didn’t want to do a 7 year postdoc after doing a 6 year PhD, and it’s gotten increasingly harder and harder to get a grant to fund your research. I didn’t want my research to define and become my life day and night. I am able to make an impact, get invested in my project, and more efficiently have the resources in industry. Things move a lot slower in academia and you can find yourself going down a rabbit hole sometimes. Industry is so much more focused and efficient I’ve found. It’s exactly what I wanted.
You mentioned how you every job you wanted required postdoc experience, but how did you know what career path was best for you after your PhD?
Andrea: I honestly didn’t know what career path was best. I was really stressed because I didn’t know what I wanted to do. There are lots of options for PhDs post-grad school that is not academia, but I knew that now having my degree, I could do whatever I wanted and no option was really out of reach. Some people warn against leaving the bench because it’s harder to come back, but in my opinion it’s never too late to come back.
So let’s leave the lab life behind and talk about your other passions. You were named the most stylish scientist again this year. Congratulations! What does this campaign mean to you?
Andrea: Thank you very much! I love the campaign as it shows that scientists can be fashionable too. Scientists are portrayed in the media constantly as nerds, as being awkward and socially inept. I’m not any of that – at least, that’s what I think 🙂 – and we need to constantly break those stereotypes. I honestly really don’t like when people use the word nerds to describe scientists, because to me it has a negative connotation, even though I know that isn’t people’s intentions. Scientists can have various interests that aren’t just science. We can have a life, we can like clubbing and getting dressed up and do our makeup like the YouTubers! I’m glad there’s a yearly list of the most fashionable scientists. I just wish it got more attention and sites like Buzzfeed would pick it up and amplify it!
So what would make a good capsule wardrobe in your eyes?
Andrea: Simple pieces that you can mix and match – black, white and gray pieces that you can mix, and also accessorise to give pops of colour!
Your dedication to health and fitness throughout your PhD and now as a postdoc is amazing. How do you manage to stay so dedicated?
Andrea: It has become a way for me to manage my mental health. It helps me relieve tension and stress. I joined a gym near my work, so I have no excuses since it’s close by. I also physically feel good and feel healthy. I haven’t gotten sick with a cold in almost a year, so I do it as a part of my daily routine. It’s a meeting with myself that I don’t cancel. Fitness is also something I can control when everything else in my life feels out of control – like when experiments aren’t working or other things aren’t going well! It’s been an amazing thing for me.
What tips do you have for any grad student, or anyone else in fact, that is not balancing their fitness goals with their career? How can they start improving on that?
Andrea: Make fitness a meeting with yourself that you can’t cancel. You wouldn’t bail on a meeting with your boss, right? Schedule it in with the rest of your daily things, and get it done before your body has time to make excuses. Getting it done in the morning before the day/work starts is one of my ways – you just do it even if you aren’t feeling it at first, and after five minutes you’ll find yourself feeling great. And then you’re done with it for the day and don’t have to be guilty about being too tired after work!
Having an accountability buddy also has done wonders for me, especially on days when I feel down/depressed or even lazy. Definitely recommend having a person or group of people you text and keep accountable with!
As someone who has lived on both the East and West coasts of the US, what are your travel highlights for anyone wanting to explore the US?
Andrea: Southern California is beautiful – definitely recommend visiting – Los Angeles, San Diego, Laguna beach, Orange County coast, Santa Barbara – all beautiful! So much good food, beaches, and more! Doing a road trip along the California coast to San Francisco has amazing views! There’s also a lot of nature to see within national parks – Joshua tree, Sequoia national park, Lake Tahoe, ah so much to do and see in California! Also the pacific north west – I visited Portland, Oregon and it was a different feel than California but definitely recommend it ! I want to go visit Seattle and Vancouver next!
East coast is also great, Boston, New York City, Maine, I’ve been to Florida – even though I grew up on East coast I never explored it in depth until now that I’m back and I’m doing more weekend trips! I recently went to Montreal, Canada and Vermont, and it was great! So much more to see.
One reason I love following you on social media is your continuous encouragement to just be yourself. Why is that a message you want to spread?
Andrea: With social media it’s really easy to compare yourself to others – a lot of the time it’s people’s highlight reel, or they put on a front to make their lives seem different than it is – I’m very honest about my feelings and how my life is – and I wish more people would do that too so they don’t compare to others! Also being honest about my feelings let’s others know that they aren’t alone. If I can help someone else realise what they’re feeling isn’t abnormal – then great!
Let’s talk about your blog PhD Fashionista. What made you start it and what sort of things can we find there?
Andrea: I started my blog in 2012 to break the stigma that being a scientist means you are boring, awkward, or nerdy. I initially started the blog as a way to keep track of my practical outfits to wear to lab while still looking fashionable and obeying the strict lab safety rules at UCLA. I hope that my blog turns into a resource and inspiration for women to turn to for fashion and conferences, every day work and weekend fashion, and also life style inspiration and advice for grad school.
I have a lot of ideas for what I want to do to expand my blog and collaborations, but I just haven’t had the time recently. I hope to be able to put more time into it and start writing and creating outfits again, as it’s such an enjoyable thing for me. My blog has a lot of potential to grow and I hope to see it grow more in 2019!
I hope to see it grow too because I love it and your blog message too. So, looking towards the future, where do you see yourself in 10 years time?
Andrea: I hope to be a group leader at a company, doing impactful research and managing others to grow as scientists 🙂 and also still doing it in the most fashionable clothes!
And finally, where in the world should I be travelling to next?
Andrea: Cyprus – my homeland! It’s so beautiful and full of culture, good food, amazing beaches and beautiful nightlife. And also Jordan – my fiance’s family is from there and it’s just such an amazing place. The food is AMAZING! The people are so nice and welcoming. Plus there is so much culture and history. The Dead Sea. Petra. Camping in the desert under the stars. Enough said.
Huge thank you to Andrea for answering all of my questions especially at this time of year when everyone is so busy. It has been great to get to know you a little better and share your science story with more people.
If you have any questions about life as a postdoc in industry, fashionable scientist attire, blogging or anything else then ask your questions in the comments and I will get them to Andrea. Or head to her Twitter, Instagram or blog to learn more, and make sure you follow for a genuine and honest account of life as a scientist.
As it is the last Scientist in the Spotlight of 2018, I want to thank all the other scientists I have interviewed this year for sharing your stories, your passions and your personalities and helping us break down those STEM stereotypes. So thank you to Rachel, Stanley, Ivana, Helena, Connor, Martijn, Georgia, Meriame, Daniel T, Gabriel, Mafalda, Daniel K, Vanessa, Charlie and Andrea. Go check out their stories again, plus you can find many, many more in the Scientist in the Spotlight feature of blog.
Soph talks science is in the running for Best Education blog in the UK Blog Awards 2019 and voting is open now! I would really love it if you could help me take the next step in my attempt to retain my crown by clicking here to vote for Soph talks science. All you need to do is scroll to the bottom of the page and click on the heart next to my blog name! It would be the best end to 2018 if you helped me get through to the next round. Thanks in advance everyone! xx
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