PhD Student, University of Illinois
You don't have to come from a family of STEM professionals to become one yourself.
What do you do?
I study how environmental factors, like chemical exposure or light, affect our hormones, brain function, and behavior. I use both animal models for my research, as well as study similar questions using small, local populations of women.
Why did you choose this field?
If you would have told 18 year old me that I would become a scientist, I wouldn't have believed you. Although I was always curious and enjoyed my math and physics courses in high school, I didn't realize I enjoyed science until I was a freshman in college. I was taking a biology for non-biology majors course, and became fascinated with the inner workings of the human body. I decided my second semester to switch over to a biological sciences major.
Flash forward to my junior year when I wanted to join a lab to do undergrad research in order to "boost my resume" for medical school applications. Little did I know, I would get sucked into the curious world of neuroscience. I worked in that lab year round for 2 years, enjoying every opportunity I had to learn more about the brain and behavior. I made the decision midway through my junior year to apply to graduate schools in biology or neuroscience for after graduation.
Of course, nothing goes as planned. I didn't get into grad school. So I decided to move onto a career in teaching high school science instead. Although I thoroughly enjoyed teaching for two years, I missed being in the lab. So after two years of teaching, I went to complete my masters in Neurobiology to make myself more competitive for PhD applications. I applied to 4 PhD programs the same year I was completing my masters. I got into 2! I biology program, and one neuroscience program at my dream school.
I joined Dr. Megan Mahoney's lab excited to pursue research on circadian rhythms and behavior. My undergraduate research happened to be in circadian rhythms, and I fell in love with this field (and homeostasis in general). However, I got roped into collaborations studying the impact of endocrine disrupting chemicals on behavior and the brain. And the rest is history! All of my doctoral research has followed this path.
During this time, I learned so much about how the brain and subsequent behavior is influenced by our body's hormones. I became fascinated even more with this field, and the potential connect with other biological systems like circadian rhythms and reproduction. I hope to continue to pursue similar questions about the endocrine system and the brain throughout my future career.
What do you look at and think, "I wish younger me would have known this was possible"?
Teenage Katherine had no clue that she would become a scientist, let alone become an expert in a scientific field. A little more than a decade ago I didn't even know what a PhD was. Now, I am close to finishing my PhD.
Why do you love working in STEM?
I love working in STEM for two major reasons. The first is that I love how I can be curious every day that I come into work. I can pursue questions that excite me, and discover something that we didn't know before.
The second reason is the people. There are amazing scientists out there from all walks of life. I love working with different folks and I feel like a career in STEM brings together so many different backgrounds. The people in STEM are amazing!
Best advice for next generation?
You don't have to come from a family of STEM professionals to become one yourself. No one in my family (besides a few very distant relatives) did anything related to science besides my brother and I. Once I realized I wanted to pursue a career in STEM, I found the mentors I needed each step along the way. For some folks these mentors are within their family. For other folks like us first generation STEM professionals, our mentors are our research advisors, our bosses, through mentoring programs--those mentors are out there, you just have to find them and advocate for yourself!
Inspo quote / fun fact / role model
"A good dissertation is a done dissertation. A great dissertation is a published dissertation. A perfect dissertation is neither."
This quote resonates with me and applies to all walks of our STEM career, not just a thesis or dissertation. It basically means - get your stuff done, but don't strive for perfect. Nothing will EVER be perfect, and if you wait for perfect, you won't finish nor will you get your work out there to be recognized.
So do your stuff. Work hard. Get it done. But push all thoughts of perfection out of your mind!