PhD Candidate, Graduate Research Assistant
Don't underestimate yourself. STEM isn't a special gift that some have and some don't.
Heather M Forsythe
What do you do?
I study protein structure and protein dynamics using biophysical methods, primarily nuclear magnetic resonance, to answer biochemical questions. This involves lab bench work, computational analysis, graphic design, and writing. Because all biochemical pathways are driven by protein-protein interactions, dependent on protein structure and how proteins move around, I can ask questions about diverse systems including cataracts, viral diseases, cancer, and much more.
Why did you choose this field?
I started off studying biology during my undergraduate degree because I thought I wanted to go to medical school. I volunteered to help with a research project at a hospital while shadowing a doctor and started to realize I was much more excited about the research than working with patients. After this, I studied abroad in Rwanda to find out if environmental research was something I would like, and it wasn't quite right. Then I started working in a molecular biology lab and fell in love. I had really strong and supportive women advisors at my university and the hospital I volunteered at and they pushed me to apply for graduate school to pursue research further. When I started graduate school, I didn't really know what Biophysics was and thought I'd stay in a Biochemistry, but after taking Biophysics courses I became really excited about protein structures. They were beautiful and so important. A tiny brick-like protein may stack and make a wall, but a protein like a string can move around and grab things in the cell, and we're still discovering these structures! I love the research process of asking questions and finding things no one else has. Sometimes there's a moment where you're the only person in the world who knows something and no matter how small that something is, it's so cool!
What do you look at and think, "I wish younger me would have known this was possible"?
I moved out of my small Arkansas town, across the country to Oregon to a fully-funded graduate school, essentially all by myself. I have studied and learned things I used to think were "too hard" or "boring", published a paper, presented at conferences, won awards, and so much more. I wish I had known how exciting and interdisciplinary Biology, Chemistry, and Physics are sooner.
Why do you love working in STEM?
I love the flexibility and diversity of every day. Sometimes I read papers, sometimes I'm in the lab listening to music, other days I'm traveling to a conference and meeting amazing researchers, and some days I'm teaching or working on outreach projects. It's never the same, experiments build off of each other, and science is ever-changing.
Best advice for next generation?
Don't underestimate yourself. STEM isn't a special gift that some have and some don't. If you can learn and work hard, you can be a scientist, and if you don't look like everyone else in your classes, it means you have a unique perspective to bring to science.
Inspo quote / fun fact / role model
"We’re all pretending to be normal when we could be insanely interesting instead.” – Atlas