Caitlin Burke

PhD student, Tulane University School of Medicine


Don't underestimate yourself. And never be too proud to find ways to constantly improve yourself.

What do you do?

I study molecular mechanisms of mammary gland and breast cancer development using transgenic mouse models.

Why did you choose this field?

I was interested in medicine and science from a young age. I attended undergrad with the intention of going to veterinary or medical school while working full-time as a vet tech. Ultimately, I graduated with a STEM degree and entered industry post-graduation, but saw the need for a higher degree to pursue the projects in industry that spoke to me. Four years post-grad, I interviewed at Tulane's interdisciplinary Biomedical Sciences PhD program expecting to complete the program with a focus in Immunology. Instead, I selected a breast cancer research group in the Molecular Biology department to complete my thesis work... I remember asking my (now) boss - a local New Orleanian, a mother, a Tulane Biomedical Sciences PhD grad herself, and an accomplished tenured scientist - during my interview to join her lab how she managed to "have it all." I recognized that she, too, didn't have the typical pedigree of Tulane professionals, having gone to a local public university and working as a technician in the department in which she ultimately obtained her PhD. Feeling comforted and inspired by a local "underdog" story, I realized she had obtained success in every aspect that I could measure. I decided then that I made the correct decision to join her lab and learn everything that I could from her - professionally, personally, and emotionally. Even if I end up outside of academia, I've had the privilege to study under a phenomenal mentor who, I think, has prepared me for so much more than just a science career.

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

I was accepted to this PhD program. Even when I applied, I suffered immensely from imposter syndrome. I felt like a nepotism interview since I applied for my program after hearing about it from a family friend associated with Tulane BMS PhD program. Even then, I was waitlisted. I knew I didn't have the GPA from undergrad that most candidates did. I felt out of the loop having spent four years in industry... However, I interviewed well, had a good GRE score, and focused on my time as a professional in industry as an asset to the program and to my work ethic, and was ultimately accepted. I often talked myself out of so many opportunities when I was younger because I was so afraid of "no." I'm learning now that each "no" serves a purpose, and that the dedicated and hard-working end up exactly where they're supposed to be.

Why do you love working in STEM?

I use this metaphor often when talking about why I love my job. In research, you stand shoulder-to-shoulder with all the knowledge that's ever been put into a textbook or published in the literature. In front of you is the vast unknown. No maps. No hints to what's in front of you. Your job is to arm yourself with that logic and that knowledge, and use them as tools to test and characterize unknown, which ultimately creates knowledge. It's a strange feeling probing the unknown.

Best advice for next generation?

Don't underestimate yourself. Let someone else like a hiring committee or an admissions board determine whether or not you're qualified for their position. Even if it's a no, be persistent. And never be too proud to find ways to constantly improve yourself.

Inspo quote / fun fact / role model

"To all the little girls watching...never doubt that you are valuable and powerful & deserving of every chance & opportunity in the world." - Hillary Clinton

NOMINATE a woman in STEM

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