High school (secondary school): American School of the Hague 2000-2004, University: Rice University 2004-2008, Graduate school: Massachusetts Institute of Technology 2008-2015
BS in biochemistry, PhD in biology
Undergraduate researcher at Rice University 2006-2008, PhD researcher at MIT 2008-2015, postdoctoral researcher at University of Oxford 2015-present
I’m a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oxford in the Department of Biochemistry.
I work in the lab group of Ilan Davis.
Favourite thing to do in research: The constant cycle of learning new skills and ways of thinking
I’m a molecular biologist studying how genes are turned off and on while the brain develops.
I moved to the UK from the US almost two years ago after finishing my PhD. I’m a postdoc in a group in the Department of Biochemistry at Oxford. A postdoc (short for postdoctoral researcher) is a researcher who has finished their PhD, but has moved to a new lab to acquire additional training. After a postdoc, the researcher might start their own lab or go on to another science-related career.
I live with my boyfriend in Oxford in a very small but cute apartment above a fancy French restaurant. We moved here together from Boston where we met when we were both doing our PhD’s. Outside the lab I enjoy rock climbing, running, drinking hoppy beer, and watching just a little too much Netflix.
Previous to living in Oxford, I have lived in Houston (US), Abu Dhabi (UAE), New Orleans (US), The Hague (Netherlands), and Boston (US). Travelling and moving to new places has always been part of my life and I still love it. One of the great things about being a scientist is that the community is so international. You can travel the world going to conferences or you can even join a lab in a new country to experience a new place and culture.
I’m studying how young fruit fly brains grow into adult brains and how they know when to stop growing.
Your brain produces most of your neurons before you are born. A small family of cells known as stem cells creates neurons over a short period of time. How do the stem cells make the right number of neurons so that the brain becomes the correct size? I want to know which genes are involved in these decisions and how they are turned on and off at the right time. I use fruit flies for these studies because they have simpler brains than humans and are easy to work with in the lab.
In order to study the brains, I dissect them out of tiny fly larvae and grow them in small tubes. The brains can survive this way for a long time—up to 24 hours! I purify biological macromolecules from the brains (usually RNA, which is similar to DNA, but represents the ‘active’ form of the gene). I measure the levels of RNA for each gene in the brain to see which RNAs are being produced and in which types of brain cells.
I can test theories about brain development by creating flies with mutations in specific genes and then looking at what happens to the brain in flies with the altered version of the gene. I use a high-powered microscope to watch the brains grow and divide.
My Typical Day
Planning experiments at my computer and pipetting (i.e. just moving tiny volumes of liquid around, but it’s more exciting than it sounds!), often whilst joking around with my labmates.
I roll in to lab around 10 am (I’m an anti-morning person), make myself a cup of coffee, check my email, and look at my lab notebook to review the experiments I have planned for the day. Depending on the day, I may be in the lab at my bench the whole time, busy processing samples, or I may be at my computer, thinking and scribbling out notes. That’s the cycle– plan experiments, do experiments, analyze data, discuss with others, repeat… I usually leave lab around 7 pm, and then I’ll make dinner with my boyfriend and maybe go for some exercise.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
Adventurous, persistent, detail-oriented
What's the best thing you've done as a researcher?
Finished my PhD! Getting a PhD in the US can take forever (mine was seven years, around the national average) and at times you feel like it is never going to be over. I often felt that I just didn’t have what it took to finish it and that maybe I should drop out and do something else. Now that it’s done, I have an incredible sense of pride about it and better understanding of the deep inner resolve I now know I have.
What or who inspired you to become a researcher?
Many people in my life encouraged my interest in science and the natural world from an early age. I can remember doing ‘experiments’ with our plants in the garden when I was about 6. But if I had to trace it to a specific moment, I would say that it was reading “Genome” by Matt Ridley, which was published in 1999 when I was 13. This book, which is now dated but still a great read, is about how the insights we are gaining from the human genome are reshaping the way we think about our health and what it means to be human. I was so fascinated by this newly unfolding world of genes that was often at the forefront of science news in the late 90s when the human genome was being completely sequenced for the first time.
What was your favourite subject at school?
Biology, but English literature was a close second.
What did you want to be after you left school?
I didn’t know. When I started university I wanted to take every course; it all sounded interesting to me! At American universities, you don’t have to decide right away. I thought that I should become some kind of engineer because that’s what my parents wanted. In the end I became biologist, so they didn’t quite get what they wanted.
Were you ever in trouble at school?
When I was in primary school, I did get into trouble a few times because I was a bit rebellious. One time I got in trouble for inciting the girls in the class to attack the boys. I just thought the boys needed to be put in their place, obviously.
If you weren't a researcher, what would you be?
I really love TV and writing. I think it would be really fun to try my hand at scriptwriting, though I don’t know if I’d be any good at it! More realistically, I’d probably want to train as some type of engineer or data analyst, because I enjoy practical problem solving.
Who is your favourite singer or band?
Often but not always too much techno (e.g. Daft Punk, Deadmau5, Moderat, etc.)
What's your favourite food?
Cheese. All types of cheese; I don’t discriminate.
What is the most fun thing you've done?
After a scientific conference in Japan, my labmate and I went on a trip to Thailand. One day we got on a dive boat that took us a long way off the coast and we got in the water to go snorkeling. We were looking at the fish for about 20 minutes before we looked up and saw the boat we came on was nowhere in sight. I had to grab my labmate to keep him from drowning out of panic, he was so afraid of the (potential) sharks. The boat came back about half an hour later. It turns out they were just dropping some people off somewhere else but had forgotten to tell us. It was very funny in retrospect.
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
(1) I wish that I had an android like C3PO working for me in the lab, because then we could get twice as much done. (Actually, let’s be honest, we’d get more than twice as much done because C3PO is way smarter than me.) (2) I wish I had enough wrist strength to open the liquid nitrogen tank when it gets stuck—I’m working on it! (3) I wish the Concorde jet still existed AND that it was affordable on a postdoc salary. I really enjoy living in the UK, but sometimes I just want to flit over the US for a weekend to go to a friend’s party.
Tell us a joke.
I am addicted to stealing kitchen utensils. I am afraid of getting caught, but that’s a whisk I’m willing to take….