Elizabeth Engler-Chiurazzi

Research Assistant Professor, West Virginia University

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Be flexible, adaptable, open to change and persistent as you work towards your goals.

What do you do?

I work as an academic neuroscientist leading a laboratory at a university. The research my dedicated team and I conduct contributes to the collective understanding of how people respond to stress; with persistence and luck, this knowledge gained will identify solutions for mental health disorders that negatively affect millions of people. Using molecular, cellular, and behavioral approaches, my group studies how the immune system, and specifically the B lymphocyte, influences how we respond to stress. A key part of my role as a scientist is guiding the next generation of scientists. As a mentor, I am privileged to support trainees as they achieve their goals and as a community-engager I get to both educate members of the public and inspire them to pursue STEM careers. All of these factors add up to a significant contribution to science, for which I am proud.

Why did you choose this field?

As a child, I wanted to be a doctor, caring for the sick, one patient at a time. However, during a medical outreach trip to Nicaragua in my undergraduate studies, I gained a valuable experience that solidified my desire to aid the sick, but not in the way I had thought. I recall one patient’s moving story. This teenage patient was a shooting victim; the right side of his face had collapsed leaving a hole where his features once were and he could no longer walk, talk, or even hold a spoon to eat. As I listened to his mother desperately relay his ailments, I felt helpless knowing that current medicine could do nothing for this boy and I found that unacceptable; the gaps in our knowledge of the brain were impossibly wide in the face of his dire needs and I knew I could not stand by and do nothing for this boy. From that point on, I knew it would be through research in neuroscience that I could truly make an impact, helping many at once.

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

When I was in secondary school, I struggled to love learning in school because many STEM subjects did not come easily to me and though I worked hard to earn good marks in my classes, learning was a joyless chore. When I finally encountered neuroscience as a college student and learned of how neurons communicate, after that all I wanted to do was know more about the wonders of the brain.

Still, as fortunate as I was to have substantial support and encouragement, as the first member of my very large extended family to pursue and earn a Ph.D. the path to a career in science was challenging and there was a paucity of strong female STEM role models to guide me until I reached graduate school. This is something I am actively working to change for the next generation of scientists. Inspiring a lifetime love of learning in others is a key career goal of mine and as an AAAS IF/THEN Ambassador, I am privileged to empower girls to choose STEM and change the world.

Why do you love working in STEM?

Everyone always talks about the eureka! lightbulb idea moments in science but for me, the single best, and sometimes the scariest, part of my job, comes long after the initial conception of a great idea, long after I have formulated my hypothesis and designed the study, long after the hard work has been done to collect the data. For me the part of science that I love, and sometimes fear, is the final moment of uncertainty before discovery. I always try to savor the last seconds just before I click ‘analyze’ on my statistics software because after that, there is no going back; once you know, you can’t unknow. Importantly, no matter what I think might happen, no matter how much I hope for a particular outcome, the data are what the data are and sometimes the knowledge gained from that experiment adds more confusion than clarity. On tough days, controls can fail, data might not replicate, and I can be proven utterly wrong in my understanding of a phenomenon. It can leave a person demoralized and beaten for long stretches. But for all the failures that happen nearly every day in science, there are also datasets that reveal the most amazing findings with important implications for our understanding of the function of the brain and for human health. Moments of absolute elation that make me want jump from my chair and run screaming through the halls. So as my computer mouse hovers over the button, I take a deep and close my eyes because on the other side of that moment is the truth that I seek, no matter what it reveals itself to be.

Best advice for next generation?

The amazing thing about STEM careers is that there is an incredible diversity of things you can do. There is no one path to a STEM career and no one right way or timetable to achieve that goal. Even if you are on a particular career track, the path is often winding and the work you do will likely change over time as advances are made in the field. So my best advice would be to be flexible, adaptable, open to change and persistent as you work towards your goals.

Inspo quote / fun fact / role model

"The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.”

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