Alexandra Lai

Postdoctoral Researcher, Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot

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Try some of everything!

What do you do?

I study air pollution, specifically small particles in the atmosphere called PM2.5. I research what these particles are made of, chemically, and how that can tell us about their sources and human health effects.

I completed my PhD in Environmental Chemistry and Technology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2019. My dissertation research was about personal PM2.5 exposures and household air pollution among people using solid fuels (coal and/or biomass) at home for cooking and heating. I also worked on source apportionment of air pollution - using chemical analysis to model contributions from different sources - in projects on three different continents!

Currently I am a postdoctoral researcher at the Weizmann Institute of Science. In my research here, I am looking at how lung cells respond to PM2.5 from different cities and seasons, and whether this can be linked to specific sources and/or chemical components. PM2.5 is currently regulated on the basis of mass, but a major question right now is whether limiting specific sources or components would be a better way to protect public health. I am excited to be doing research that is both scientifically interesting and policy-relevant!

Why did you choose this field?

I didn't think about being a scientist until I took chemistry in high school. I had always liked art and writing - I liked making the posters for science fair projects better than the experiments themselves! I ended up loving chemistry, though, and eventually decided to major in chemistry at university. I was at a small liberal arts school where the learning environment was supportive rather than competitive, and classes were small enough that professors knew and cared about their students. This was a huge part of why I kept taking chemistry classes despite not really think of myself as a "science person." I think what clinched the decision for me was taking two terms of the infamous organic chemistry and loving it!

I did summer research in organic chemistry during undergrad and realized that although I liked research and working in the lab, I wanted to do more applied topics. I was also interested in environmental issues and sustainability, and asked an environmental chemistry professor about career options. She encouraged me to apply for master's programs even if I wasn't sure about doing a PhD, and after starting my MS, I decided to stay for a PhD as well. Environmental chemistry was a great choice - I got to continue doing chemistry and also see clearly how my work could impact the world.

What do you look at and think, "I wish younger me would have known this was possible"?

Presenting my research at conferences. Also just getting a PhD at all. It's still surreal!

Why do you love working in STEM?

Creativity is a huge asset in science, more than I think most people realize. Everything from designing experiments to graphing data to writing journal articles benefits from (and, arguably, requires) a creative perspective.

In addition to being creative, I love that my job has variety. Some days I will be on the computer all day writing or analyzing data, and other days I'll be working with my hands in lab.

Best advice for next generation?

Try some of everything! There are so, so many paths to/in STEM and it's hard to know what you like until you try it. Maybe you will secretly love fieldwork, or working with cells, or running computer modeling, or any number of things you might not even have known of.

Also, talk to people who have jobs that you think sound cool! They can tell you what they like and don't like about their jobs and what they actually do every day - things that classes won't teach you. I also think it's valuable to get to know the imperfect human behind any perfect-looking life or career path.

Inspo quote / fun fact / role model

Wherever you go, there you are. Whatever you wind up doing, that's what you've wound up doing. Whatever you are thinking right now, that's what's on your mind. Whatever has happened to you, it has already happened. The important question is, "How are you doing to handle it?"

NOMINATE a woman in STEM

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