Shannon J Sirk

Assistant Professor of Bioengineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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We need diversity in STEM because diversity equals strength.

What do you do?

When people ask what I do and I tell them I'm a professor, most ask me, "What do you teach?" Of course teaching is a very important part of my job, but I also run a research lab and perform "service" for my department, my campus, and my community. I can elaborate on each of those three areas. I teach two classes per year, one per semester. One course is a large, core course taught to second-year Bioengineering students. The other course is a graduate-level course that I developed based on my research interests. Nobody tells me what to teach - I have to decide what the important content is and then figure out how to get the students to learn it through lectures, activities, homework, exams, etc. The service that I perform just means that I am part of committees and groups that take care of tasks, set up programs, and make important decisions to support various goals. Some examples of my service include being a member of a graduate student's qualifying exam committee, where my job is to question the student to assess if they are ready to advance to the next stage of their graduate training; another example is being a member of a faculty search committee in which I evaluate and interview candidates who have applied for a job in our department. There are many other kinds of service at many levels, all the way up to serving on committees to organize international conferences (I have personally not done this yet). Finally, but perhaps most importantly, I run a research group. It's like running a small biotech company - I have to secure capital in the form of externally-funded grants; I have to post ads, interview, and hire students and postdocs to do the actual hands-on experiments since I no longer have time to work in the lab; along with my lab members, I have to conceive of new ideas for projects using my own knowledge and also keeping up to date with what other people in my field are working on by reading peer-reviewed literature and attending conferences. In addition to all of this, I am also a mentor to each of my lab members as well as all of the students who come to me for advice and guidance on career paths, experimental design, or any of a number of other areas in which I can offer my expertise.

Why did you choose this field?

I have been fascinated by molecular biology since I learned about DNA and proteins in high school, but from there my path was not straight and narrow to where I am now. The current focus of my research group is a product of my circuitous route through various labs across a wide range of fields. So although I have known for decades that I wanted to pursue research in the broad area of molecular biology, it was only after a long journey of diverse training that my personal intellectual toolbox was full enough for me to establish my own unique research focus.

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

Younger me always saw faculty at large research institutes as being fundamentally different than I am - not necessarily smarter, but I never understood how people who run labs come up with ideas. I would read scientific papers as an undergrad and even as a graduate student and struggle to come up with "the next experiment," while my professors and many of my classmates were proposing years of interesting work. So for a long time I saw myself as a very good scientist, but not "faculty material." What I wish someone had told me, and what I try to tell as many students as possible, is that it just takes time and training. Learning to be creative in science (which is fundamental to success) is like learning a language. You must first become fluent in the language before you can be expected to write poetry in it. I know now that my inability to write "scientific poetry" was simply because I had not yet put the time and effort into becoming fluent in the language. Now when I read papers or think about experiments, I have too many ideas; ask my lab - they want me to stop proposing new experiments for them to try! It took years of training to achieve this, but so does becoming a top-level professional in any field.

Why do you love working in STEM?

I love running my lab. I am responsible for managing a team of researchers in our collective effort to positively impact human health with our bioengineering innovations. I am also responsible for training these people in every aspect of their career development - experimental design, data analysis, problem solving, literature review, written and oral communication, etc. - since someday they will all leave my lab and go on to pursue their own career and life paths. I really enjoy two-way relationship with my lab members. They are essentially my employees, working in my lab and producing results. But they are also my trainees, so in return I provide the support and guidance to help them grow as scientists and prepare for the next stage in their careers.

Best advice for next generation?

We need you. We need diversity in STEM not just because we need to make things "fair" or "equal." We need diversity in STEM because diversity equals strength. Your approach to problem solving is different than anyone else's. Your perspective is unique. Your life experience is powerful and important, even if it doesn't precisely conform to expectations. Consider a hypothetical job ad that is seeking a person to change light bulbs, and this ad says, "Only tall people should apply, since you need to reach light bulbs in the ceiling." If you are short, you may not apply. But what if you apply and you bring your ladder to the interview? And your use of a ladder then inspires further innovative solutions to reach the tall ceiling?

Inspo quote / fun fact / role model

“Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge.” -Carl Sagan

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