"There is so much to learn about stem cells and so many questions to ask. I realized I didn’t have to have a boring desk job. I can go to work and ask questions and discover new things everyday."
Tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from and what do you do?
My name is Katy. I am married and currently live in Norfolk, VA. I grew up just outside of Atlanta, GA, and went to Georgia Tech for both undergraduate and graduate school. I earned a bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering and I have a master’s degree in bioengineering. I am currently a biomedical research lab manager at Old Dominion University.
How would you describe your job?
In my current role, I perform the duties of both a lab manager and a research associate. The role of a research associate is to perform all tasks related to completing experiments at the bench, including the preparation and planning. A lab manager will order equipment and materials, maintain the equipment, manage grant money, manage personnel (undergraduates or graduate students), and other administrative tasks that involve keeping the lab running. They may also do experiments at the bench.
Within the lab, the Principal Investigator,or professor, is at the top. This person will have a PhD and years of experience in research. The PI writes grants and gets money to fund all research.They have ownership of the lab and really drive what experiments are done. This may vary, but most PI’s will give a general idea or setup of experiments and the associate will do the actual experimental design, background research, analysis, and presentation of results. A research associate has been trained to do all of this, so most professors allow you to work independently. They give you the general idea and the end goal that needs to be met. The PI will say, “I want to see if this causes this”, and the associate will make it happen.
What are you investigating in your lab?
I am currently working in a lab that studies telomeres, a section at the very end of your DNA. Telomeres essentially hold your DNA together and prevent it from unwinding. We are studying how telomeres relate to disease and aging. Scientists have known for a long time that telomeres get shorter as you age, but there has been a lack of sensitive techniques for measuring how much shorter they are and how different diseases, like cancer, are affecting it. Specifically, we are studying how the length can vary in different prostate cancer patients. This could be important because it could help us chose better treatments or better predict a patient’s prognosis. There is still a lot that we don’t know about how telomere biology can be affecting disease. We are just now getting to the point where we have the technology available to investigate this more closely.
What does your typical day look like?
My day starts with responding to a few emails in the morning and taking care of any ordering that needs to be done. I like to start my cell culture earlier in the day as well. Everyday is a little different and I plan my day in advance because every experiment has its own time frame. Some experiments last 3 days and some take an hour. I hopefully have prepared the previous day and have solutions made and ready to to begin. For instance, if it needs an overnight incubation, or an experiment has a 10 hour long protocol, it needs to be started on first thing in the morning. It really depends on what assays (investigative procedures) you are running. And yes, I will normally be wearing a lab coat and gloves.
I am on the computer pretty often, whether it is looking up protocols, doing analysis, or making figures to be able to communicate my results. These all make up a significant portion of research. Making figures can take a lot of time, but it is a fun way for a researcher to be creative. We use Adobe Illustrator and draw graphics for presentations. Presenting your results is an important aspect of research. That is an important skill that I have learned over the past 5 years. Going to conferences and presenting doesn’t come naturally, but it is so important. Being able to put your results in a graphic so people can understand quickly what is going on is key. I would say, in general, that the most successful professors are ones that have excellent communication skills and they will stand out at conferences or interviews.
It certainly is the type of job where you need to be mostly self motivated and good at managing your own time. You are responsible for planning experiments and getting them done. In academia, there is typically a flexible schedule for most research positions. I usually work 9-to-5 but doing research in a university setting allows me to have more freedom. I can come in and leave the lab on my own time, and I am more likely able to take time off when needed.
What aspects of your job do you like/dislike?
Industry vs. academia is a big question among researchers. There are pros and cons to both. There is certainly more money in industry, but in academia you have more intellectual freedom and are able to ask whatever questions you want. Whereas in industry, you are not going to be doing an off the cuff experiment with the company's resources. If there is more money from a grant, an academic researcher may be able to do an extra side investigation upon approval.
Applying for grants and winning grants is very competitive. I don’t know the exact number, but there is around a 20% success rate when applying for grants. With each grant cycle, you need on average 10 grant proposals submitted and this can be very time consuming. Even then, there is no guarantee any money will be given. Writing grants is probably not my favorite aspect of research, but it is obviously very important.
What is the work/life balance like?
As a lab manager, I don’t do as much outside of work hours, which was something I was looking for because I have side projects of my own. Having time to work on education outreach and spending time with my family is very important to me. That was appealing with this job - that I could be home and actually be home. A lab manager position carries less stress than a professor would. Work/life balance is important to me and that is something that will change between labs within academia and whatever company you work for in industry. It is specific to each culture, and you need to figure that out in the interview.
When did you know this is what you wanted to do?/Why did you want to pursue this career?
During my junior year of high school, I went to an outreach event at Georgia Tech where they had on display all the different types of research that they do. Multiple labs were presenting, but one lab was showing a video of stem cells pulsing in a dish, similar to a heart. The stem cells had differentiated into cardiac cells and were beating together. That just blew my mind as an eleventh grader. Even though I didn’t understand the biology at the time, I thought it was so cool. I had never seen anything like that, and I didn’t even know being a researcher was an option. They hooked me!
My senior year of high school, I applied to Georgia Tech, and my freshman year I started doing research in that same lab. There is so much to learn about stem cells and so many questions to ask. Seeing the lab presentation sparked that curiosity in me. I realized I didn’t have to have a boring desk job. I can go to work and ask questions and discover new things everyday.
Tell us more about your graduate school experience. Any advice for students interested in graduate school?
Whether a PhD or Master’s program is in your future, the process of applying starts your senior year. Your priority should be finding the right research lab and program when deciding on which school you will attend. Look at what the school and the program focuses on, be it bioeletric, neuro, etc. Each school has a different concentration and making sure it matches your research interest is important. You will visit for a weekend and meet with the professors, interview each other, and see how well it matches your interest. Most master’s programs are setup where students take courses the first year and the second year is a mixture of classes and lab work.
Some schools are starting to do rotations where you will go through 3 different labs and you will choose your lab at the end. If you are spending the next 4-5 years there for a PhD program, it is a great way to learn about a lot of different types of research and a great way to see if you fit in well with the lab. You also will be able to get to know the advisor and their personality. By the end of your second year, you have chosen the lab and are now doing research full time and may have an obligation to be a teacher’s assistant for an undergraduate level course as well.
My Master's thesis was delivering a small molecule that increased the potential of stem cells to produce more blood vessels. Our lab focused on 3D models of stem cell engineering and development, and our techniques focused on ways to efficiently deliver drugs to the stem cells. We looked at ways in which we could engineer the environment that the stem cells are in to have them do what we want them to do.
How many years of schooling is needed? What program did you go to?
During my first semester at Georgia Tech, I approached a professor to work in his lab and was eager to participate in research. It was the only stem cell research lab at Georgia Tech, and I was willing to work for free because I just wanted to be around it. I ended up working in that lab for 6 years. A lot of my past research was with stem cells, so I have had a lot of lab experience that prepared me for this position. A lab manager position will require a bachelor’s degree and a research associate role will typically require a master’s and at least 3 years of lab experience. A candidate for an associate position needs to be fairly independent doing lab work.
I graduated from Georgia Tech with a bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering, I did a year-long research fellowship in London, England. I returned to Georgia Tech for the bioengineering masters program. During that 2 years, I also did an internship with Halyard Health, a biomedical company, where I was exposed to research in industry.
There is a greater focus on Science, Technology, engineering, and MAth(STEM) in schools now. Tell us about your educational outreach and side project.
Experiments are so fun to do and it would get a lot more students interested in STEM. However, it is time consuming, expensive, and there are many safety concerns. I understand why teachers don't do experiments as often and why they don't do them at all in lower grades. If a child is interested in science in general, there are a lot of summer programs that a student can be involved in to get their feet wet. Most universities will have some sort of research experience for undergraduates or even high school students.
In my spare time I run a nonprofit called BioIgnite. We run camps, both day and week long, for middle school students to expose them to biomedical sciences. We offer both full cost and free scholarship classes so that we can reach students who may not typically have these opportunities.
What would you tell someone who wanted to pursue your career?
Doing undergraduate research is something I am a huge proponent of. Even if you aren’t sure if you want to go to graduate school or have a career in research, it allows you to build important professional skills including time management, leadership, problem solving, managing budgets, and project management. These are all very important skills that translate into different careers and having volunteer hours in a lab will give you an idea of whether you want to do this later.
If you are an undergraduate student trying to get into a specific lab, I would recommend emailing the professor. Professors will get emails like this often. Let them know you are interested and be specific. You may not be at the point where you can read their research papers, but get a general idea by reading a news article about them or go to their lab website and get an understanding of what they focus on. Mention in the email that you are interested in something specific that they are doing. Show some effort, and do not be afraid to send a follow up email. Professors are very busy and it doesn’t mean that they didn’t respond because they thought you were horrible, they just lost your email. Don’t be discouraged by that. If that professor happens to teach one of the courses you are taking then that can be a great way to connect because you already have a relationship with them. Just make sure you don’t sleep in their class.
What are your long term goals with your career/job/practice?
I am still not exactly sure where I will land in research, whether it be a professor or a research associate in industry, but I know I will always want to be involved in biomedical research because it is just a lot of fun. It challenges your mind, and you get to work with great people. There are a lot of options with research. When someone is seeking a research career it can vary from being a professor at a university to being a senior researcher in industry. The biotech industry is blowing up right now.
At the same time, I would like to grow my company, BioIgnite. I have really enjoyed being an entrepreneur and starting this company. Education research has been so enjoyable, and a couple years ago I would never have imagined that I would be a lab manager and also head a nonprofit. We will see if that turns into a career down the road.