Interview with Chloe, a Scientist Studying at University!
This is Chloe, a first-year Ph.D. Graduate Student at the University of Miami in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. She loves all things science and being in the lab, but when she's not in the lab you can find her hiking, reading, or playing the piano. Her passion is science communication, which is why she started her blogchloeckirk.com and Instagram @chloe.the.scientist to give a glimpse into life as a scientist and show that anyone can become a scientist!
Let’s do an introduction! What is your name, age and interests? Plus a fun fact about yourself if you’d like!
Hi I’m Chloe, a first year Ph.D. Graduate student at the University of Miami in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. Beyond being in the lab, I love to work on my science communication skills, explore new places, read and play piano! My fun fact is that I’m a dual citizen of the USA and the United Kingdom. My parents and all my family are from England, but I was born and raised in America.
When did you first realize you were interested in science?
Good question! My parents are both scientists so I joke that I was born into it, but I actually struggled in science class. When I was younger I really enjoyed always testing things and running mini experiments both at home and science class, to the point that my science teacher in high school actually got me an internship in a cancer laboratory at the University of Minnesota so I could experiment more. I’d say it was that internship that really pushed me through the door into the science realm. It showed me that science is more than just listening to long lectures and reading dry textbooks, it’s actually about creativity and exploring the unknown.
Wow, science really has been with you your whole life! What’s it like studying science in university, opposed to an elementary or high school environment?
It’s a whole different game! Even just acclimating to college as a whole (completely unrelated to science) is quite a process. It’s fun and exhilarating to have this newfound freedom to do anything whenever you want, but it also brings about challenges, forcing you to work on self discipline and organizing/scheduling a routine for yourself. You get to pick from an infinite amount of classes and really focus on what YOU want to learn.
More specifically to the science part of university, science classes get so much more specific than the general topics you learn about in elementary/high school. And you also have to learn a lot more without direct teacher supervision. The science classes can often seem quite long, dense and boring because of all the complex information that’s thrown your way in such a small time frame. But this is where self discipline and organizational skills come in to learn the material! I’d also strongly recommend sprinkling in other classes that aren’t just science, even if you are a science major, to give yourself a break from how dense science classes seem. It seems overwhelming at first; science classes just take off at lightning speed in university compared to high school, but you’ll become used to it quickly and if you also take time to learn some self discipline and organizational habits you will be on the road for success in university science class. It isn’t easy, but at the end of the day as long as you are motivated to learn and study nothing can stop you.
How has your experience been with balancing school and work with your free time and social life?
In undergrad, it comes down to your scheduling and organization habits. I was able to have friends to hang out with on the weekend and get all my homework done, while still having room for a part time job. It’s doable, but be open with your friends early on and set boundaries for yourself, so you don't feel pressured to go hang out on a weeknight if you have a big exam the next day and need to study. Everyone is in the same boat and true friends should understand and respect your choices.
In graduate school, I’m actually surprised how well I’m able to balance school and social life. It depends on what lab you end up at, and sometimes what school. Some schools and labs have atmospheres that pressure graduate students to work 12 hour days 7 days a week. I made sure to do my research early on, at school interviews to ask about how they balanced work and free time; the same when reaching out to potential labs. In my case, the University of Miami believes strongly in work life balance, but being in Miami, Florida makes it easy to unwind after a long day or week! My boss at the lab also makes sure we don’t overwork ourselves. Sometimes coming in on the weekend or staying late is inevitable, but I make this an exception— not a rule.
Tell me more about your lab! What’s a typical day there like?
My lab research focuses on Amyloid bodies. Not many people know what these are (honestly, I didn’t before I joined the lab) but essentially they are clumps of misfolded proteins that appear in our bodies when they are stressed. They are linked with a whole bunch of diseases including cancers and some neurodegenerative diseases. Most notably, Amyloid bodies are implicated to cause Alzheimer’s disease by clumping in the brain. My work specifically focuses on how to revert Amyloid bodies, uncovering specific proteins that can disassemble these clumped proteins. The end goal would be using certain proteins shown to disassemble Amyloid bodies in drug treatments for diseases like Alzheimer’s to get rid of the clumped proteins in their brains.
A typical day starts with me getting into the lab around 8AM. Even though the rest of my lab doesn’t get in until around 9:30AM, I like getting in early and having the lab to myself. I write out my day in my planner, typically breaking down what experiments I’m doing when, then writing the protocols for each experiment in my laboratory notebook. After that, the day varies a lot depending on experiments! It will usually consist of running gels, cell culture work, microscopy, And PCR. Between my experiments, I catch up on some scientific paper reading and come onto my social media page too.
Wow, that's really impressive and impactful work! Now that you mention your social media, what's it like running your blog and Instagram page?
Honestly it’s super fun! Something I hear from a lot of graduate students is about the phase during grad school when you burn out. No matter how cool you think your project is, you hit a wall you can’t seem to get over. But by having my social media page and my blog it’s a great way to connect with other scientists to see I’m not alone when experiments don’t work out, and connect with future scientists, which seriously is one of the major highlights to being a scientist in my mind. I find it really satisfying being able to give back to a community that has taught me so much over the years, and I just hope I can show other future scientists how cool science is the same way my mentors showed me.
What do you love about the field of science?
I love how much creativity there is in the scientific process, but at the same time, also the organized process in discovering new ideas. When I first learned about DNA and other concepts in high school, I remember thinking ‘Oh that’s cool but you’d have to be a genius to figure out these experiments or test the hypothesis’. But as you learn more about how scientists actually find discoveries and make techniques, so much of it is completely random or lucky guesswork! What always drives me is thinking of the people who discovered something new in science and they didn’t necessarily know they were onto something novel when they did the experiments, but they went about trying it anyway! Because what is science if not trying new things and seeing what happens.
Are there any developments or changes you hope to see in the industry during the coming years?
I think the biggest thing I hope to see is more diverse young scientists breaking into the field. As a white woman I felt odd applying to science labs in undergrad and then onto grad school, thinking back to all the white men you see in lab coats in textbooks. And then I have to remind myself it’s even harder for people of colour too. But that’s all changing and the more we have strong people from all backgrounds willing to follow their passions to science or STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) careers, then the notion of science will change. I want the world of science to be brought into the rest of the world, less of an attitude of scientists VS nonscientists as I see the media often portray it as. Facts and new theories, which are at the heart of science, have a place in the normal everyday world and I hope we are able to bridge that gap.
For people who want to learn more about science/STEM, what are your tips for finding mentors and learning opportunities?
For those in high school: reach out to your science teachers or school guidance counselors and ask for where you could get involved more in science. This could either be through getting a volunteer position at a university lab over the summer or perhaps volunteering with some after school science club or even at local organizations like science museums!
For those in college: the biggest piece of advice I’d have is try to join a lab!! Working in a lab is a great place to learn the fundamentals of science, and figure out whether lab science is for you. If you want to look for a lab but don’t know where to start, talk to your major advisor who will let you know if there are any programs at your university that help pair undergrads with a lab. Sometimes labs post paid positions for undergrads so you can check the listings on a job board. Talking with a professor for a science class you find interesting they may have leads on professors in the same line of research looking for new hands! Otherwise simply finding some professors’ email and emailing them to ask if they have any space also can work.
The biggest advice I could give to someone worried their lab will take over their life is to set boundaries early on. And join a bunch of student organizations, because that’s how I met some of my closest friends!
Amazing! Lastly, as is CTJ's tradition, do you have any general advice to teens all over the world about life?
Always push yourself towards what will make you happiest! If I had given up after my first bad grade or failed university science exam, I would never have made it to where I am today. You are what you motivate yourself to become!