Women of STEM

A profile series highlighting women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math

Lauren E. Blake, PhD candidate in Human Genetics, Department of Human Genetics, University of Chicago

Lauren E. Blake, PhD candidate in Human Genetics, Department of Human Genetics, University of Chicago

Lauren E. Blake, PhD candidate in Human Genetics (funded by the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship), Department of Human Genetics, University of Chicago

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What do you do?

I am a scientific researcher, and my job is to study DNA. DNA is pretty cool because it contains the instructions for growth, development, functioning, and reproduction of all known living organisms, including humans! I am studying DNA to figure out how it ultimately influences human traits and diseases, such as cardiovascular disease.

While the DNA sequence usually remain the same, sometimes a region of DNA is expressed and sometimes it isn’t. Studying when, how, and why particular DNA sequences called genes are expressed is important for understanding how DNA can influence disease. Most of my time is spent trying to answer questions like, “How does our genetic information (including DNA and its downstream products) contribute to human health?”

What does a day in the life look like for you?

I am motivated by the big question, “How does our genetic information contribute to our health?”, so every day, I try to make one small step towards answering that question. In my current position, I am a “dry lab” scientist, which means that I often analyze data that other people have generated in order to answer this question. This means that I spend a lot of time on the computer, doing things like writing code to compare genetic information between multiple individuals or even multiple species. I write and also read papers from other people about how our genetic information influences human health and disease. In order to complete my PhD, I need to complete 3 major projects (that each take 1-2 years).

A stereotype of scientists is that we work alone, but that isn’t true at all! We are asking (and trying to answer) really big, complications questions, which means that we have to work together. Usually, this means working with people with different skill sets than us, or more experience working on a particular topic. For each of my projects, I work closely with usually 3-5 other researchers, plus my boss, who oversees the projects. It is extremely important that we communicate with our teammates fairly often about the project. Additionally, I really like everyone that I am working with, so we will also talk about stuff other than science! We eat lunch together everyday, which helps build a good sense of community.

What kinds of challenges did you face to get to where you are now?

For a long time, I was hesitant to call myself a scientist because I don’t fit the stereotype of a scientist-- I am a young woman, I didn't get the best

grades in my high school STEM classes, and have a chronic illness. In fact, during my first two years of college, I dealt with a severe, undiagnosed disease and had to take a long leave of absence in between my sophomore and junior years of college. This time off tested whether I wanted to continue to pursue science or do to something else. Ultimately, my love of discovering new things pulled me back to undergraduate research and also to graduate school.

What advice would you give a high school student looking to go into your field?

If your school or district has a high school science fair, consider getting involved, particularly if there are topics or questions that you want to dive into deeply. I’ve seen some amazing projects about all sorts of topics, including the resiliency of swimsuit fabrics (researched by a student who was a swimmer), the physiological impact of video games, and the optimal design of pet products.

Even if your school doesn’t have a high school science fair, you can still build up skills that are useful for research. For example, one of the most in-demand skills right now, even for biological research, is coding skills. There are lots of online tutorials and classes for you to teach yourself a coding language. One way to demonstrate the coding skills that you have learned is to put your scripts or projects up on github.com.

During college, you can get involved with research in a laboratory (it is possible to do this during high school like I did, but more difficult). To do so, I recommend looking at the research pages of different professors, including the professors that you are taking classes with. From there, you can narrow down which research programs interest you. For example, you might be interested in professors that do research on cancer. You can also look at their recent publications, either on their lab websites or through sites like pubmed.gov. After you have selected a handful of professors, I would recommend emailing the professor with information about why you are interested in doing research in their lab and your previous research. Be sure to attach a resume. Hopefully they will email you back asking for an interview!

Do you have any "asks" for the reader? Things they should check out or think about?

Much of the research currently being done in university biology or biomedical departments has important implications for human development, evolution, and health but is too preliminary to be funded by pharmaceutical or healthcare companies. Instead, these companies will build on early findings from universities to make their products. Consequently, a lot of university research (and researchers like me) is funded by tax revenue.

If you think the scientific research that my colleagues and I do is important, please call your Senators and House of Representatives annually and urge them to increase the budget for scientific research and development. This can include increasing the budget for the National Science Foundation (NSF) and National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Sabriya Stukes, PhD Assistant Director of The Master’s in Translational Medicine program at The City College of New York

Sabriya Stukes, PhD Assistant Director of The Master’s in Translational Medicine program at The City College of New York