How would you describe your background? (I.E. Where are you from? How did you first get interested in your area of research? Etc.)
I grew up in Colorado, and then I went to undergrad on the east coast. I really wanted to live somewhere with deciduous trees, having grown up with a bunch of pine trees. When I started college, I had a lot of different interests and I wasn't really that sure what I wanted to do. So definitely not one of those people who knew from day one what they wanted to be when they grew up. I took a range of classes. I was taking some biology classes and something that I think is really tough about intro biology or intro stem, in general, is that you're taking these really broad classes and it's not very specific. Once I got to take some upper-level courses, I found that I'm interested in the brain and behavior. I started taking some classes that were more in that kind of straightened neuroscience, like learning and memory. I also was taking biology classes that were evolution and development based, and I realized that I really loved both those things.
As I was starting to look for graduate programs and re-reading more papers, I realized there's a field that combines these things called neurology, where you're doing the brain research, but you're doing it on animals that are doing natural behaviors. Thinking not only about the behavior and how the brain makes behavior but also how both those things evolve. That was kind of how I ended up here. So in some sense, I was late to the game because what I love was something that I didn't really know existed until after I had graduated from undergraduate and was looking for Ph.D. programs.
What is your favorite part of the research process? (Learning new things you didn’t expect, presenting the information at conferences, the writing process, etc.)
Dreaming up ideas then figuring out what you're going to do is really exciting. I do really enjoy the actual data collection, like watching the animals, also doing things that other people don't enjoy, like sectioning brain tissue. I find it very soothing somehow, which maybe is crazy. The other thing is the writing part, I think we all have a little bit of a love-hate relationship with because it's hard.
I think most of us are constantly working to be better, faster, more natural writers, but it's also really enjoyable because that's when you're bringing all the pieces together and finishing up this project you've just poured your heart and soul into.
Maybe my superpower is that I don't get nervous about public speaking. I really enjoy it. Getting to present my research is also something that I really enjoy. That's a time where I think I get really valuable feedback from other people.
What made the University of Illinois a good place to conduct your research?
There's a couple of main reasons. So one is that, as I mentioned, what I do is kind of unique and there are lots of people here who are actually close to me, science-wise, so it's an amazing community. People like Gene Robinson and Alison Bell are the founders of what's been called sociogenomics. To be able to work with people you know and admire is really great.
Illinois has a ton of really amazing resources, in Beckman, there's a lot here to support research. Something that really attracted me also in terms of resources, is that there's a lot of student support at Illinois. And so there are all sorts of little grants that graduate students can apply for. In my department, there's a graduate group that students are part of.
It’s both financial and, sort of intangible or structural resources. That also to me was a big deal because I don't think that's true everywhere. It's a really valuable thing that happens for all the students, but also for me as a faculty member to know that my students have a peer group of people who are helping them professionally and personally.
If you were not in your current field of research, what would you be doing?
That is a tricky one, honestly, it would be working in women's health. Maybe as a healthcare professional or even counseling. But I think that as a woman, women's health is really important to me. I also think that in terms of social justice we have a lot of room for improvement.
It's something that is important to me for perhaps the obvious reasons, but also because when we think and talk about intersectionality these days, people have challenges for all sorts of reasons. Being a woman in science intersects with many things. Health for women intersects with our jobs. It's just something that I think about a lot in my current position and something that I think I would enjoy having as my main profession if I wasn't doing research.
Can you describe a moment where you failed?
I think the most challenging thing about our jobs is often relationships with other people and negotiating those; learning to work with people who are different from you, who have different ideas, and learning to stand up to somebody who's above you in the hierarchy. Learning to be a better mentor.
That's something that is challenging, learning to negotiate those things is something that I continue to work on. How can I be a stronger communicator? How can I advocate for myself? How can I also advocate for others? I would say that's a big challenge that is recurring. As a graduate student, there was one summer, I did this huge experiment and it just totally did not work at all.
Occasionally I think about that, like, wow, that was so many hours of time that like just didn't really go anywhere. Related to that, another challenge that perhaps is particularly relevant for graduate students to hear is that just last week I got a paper accepted, that was a chapter of my dissertation. It took five years from the first time that I submitted that paper, not from doing the research but from the first time I sent that paper to a journal to actually getting it in there. It was rough. You feel like you're done and you're not done, it takes a long time and it's a lot of hard work, but I persevered and now I'm happy with how it ended up.
What do you do in your spare time?
The biggest thing I love to do in my spare time, which of course has been very hard in COVID especially, is to see the people I love in my life, my friends and my family, and to spend time with them. I'm lucky because that also involves some travel, which is another thing I love to do. I really just like to be outside. I also am a big fan of baking.
What’s a fact about you that people don’t expect to learn?
As a child, I had a rubber duck collection. At my parents' house, there's still a giant tub of rubber ducks. Another thing, which is a strong part of, you know, how I view myself and my own identity is that we moved to the US from Germany when I was a child.
We speak German at home and all of my family is still there. So despite not having an accent and living in the US for a long time, that's where I consider my home to be.
If someone in the program, a student or a colleague, needed to refer to you but did not know your name, how would you prefer for them to refer to you?
I hope that people would refer to me as somebody who is willing to collaborate, willing to help, more of a do-er than a talker. Someone who's also enthusiastic about their science.