In today’s See It & Be It post, I want to introduce you to Dr. Sarah Lee, a biochemist who studies cellular transcription. I love talking with Sarah because while she is super smart, she’s also fun, enthusiastic, and social. This woman loves learning, teaching, and sharing her knowledge with those who are interested, be it elementary school kids, college students, or professional colleagues. I asked her to share a bit with us about what she does in her field and to talk about her own experiences as a woman scientist and a girl who loved science.
Sarah and other scientists are great resources for showing your children that science can be exciting and varied. For example, Sarah studies transcription, which is the generation of RNA from DNA. She explains that cells in all living organisms have DNA, but it has to be made into RNA for normal processes in the cell to occur. Transcription occurs through the work of a large enzyme called RNAPII, which Sarah describes as “basically a big copy machine- it looks at the sequence of DNA in your cells and makes a copy of specific regions (called genes) using a slightly different chemical, RNA. These pieces of RNA are then translated into proteins. It’s very important that this process occurs properly. If transcription were not working properly, our cells would not be able to make proteins, and would not function.” Sarah works with undergraduate students in her lab to identify proteins that control the activity of RNAPII after it arrives on the DNA, but before it starts making RNA.
A copy machine in our body? That copies our DNA? How cool is that? When I asked Sarah what it was about science and her specialty field that she found particularly interesting, she said,
“ I love the pursuit of understanding how living organisms work. I love thinking about how the cellular machinery arranges itself and works together to sustain life. I love that part of my job is thinking about how things work, and designing experiments to understand it.”
In the course of growing up, Sarah says that her dream jobs went like this: cartoonist (I like to draw), geologist (I love rocks!), astronaut (self-explanatory, who doesn’t want to be an astronaut?), biologist (dissections are awesome), and biochemist (to me, this field explains why dissections are awesome).
Sarah says she didn’t always want to be a scientist, “but I was hooked on science pretty early. I started reading about science outside of school regularly. My parents were extremely supportive of my interests, and both enjoy reading; so I spent a lot of time in libraries and bookstores reading science books and magazines.
One memory that I have about my childhood is that the library had a stack of old magazines by the circulation desk. You could take these without checking them out, and bring them back if you wanted to. I was constantly taking home National Geographic, Science, Nature, and other scientific publications. I didn’t always understand what I was reading, but I kept doing it. That experience really cultivated my interest in science. I don’t remember the exact moment when I decided I wanted to be a scientist. With my early childhood interest in science, deciding to major in a science field in college was not that big of a decision, it was very natural. I think I really decided that I wanted to be a scientist (instead of doing something else in a science-related field) after doing research as an undergraduate and enjoying the experience.”
I asked Sarah if anyone ever discouraged her from becoming a scientist. She said, “I only remember one person ever directly discouraging me to continue my education. That experience made me angry, and served as a motivator for me to push forward and get my PhD. I think indirect discouragement is more difficult to deal with, because it shows up in ways that you can’t really put a face or a name to. This was harder to deal with, but I dealt with it by staying focused on my end goal.”
Sarah argues that one of the major benefits of having female science teachers in the earlier grades and professors in universities is that they help to dispel stereotypes that threaten student performance, and influence student decisions. She believes that students are not attracted to fields that they think they cannot be successful in, and that’s why having a diverse educational experience is important; students need to be able to identify with role models. She explains, “In my experience, I have at least half a dozen female scientists who are excellent role models. Knowing that they have been through similar experiences encourages me.” But she also believes that female science professors and teachers at all levels benefit both male and female students through allowing them to experience diversity in the classroom.
For children and adolescents who are interested in considering science as a career, Sarah provides some great tips for both parents and kids:
- Girls, if you are interested in science, stick with it! Read all that you can; there are lots of great websites, books, magazines, blogs, etc, out there. Don’t focus on learning facts, but look at the types of questions that science seeks to answer. Then, ask questions yourself, to start thinking like a scientist.”
- Be proactive in finding opportunities to learn. For instance, if you live near a university, email the science faculty and ask about research opportunities. There are many opportunities for things like this, even for someone in high school.
- Don’t listen to the voices saying that girls are not as good at the hard sciences as boys. Don’t let the perception that you’re not good at something stand in your way. We often do a horrible job at rating our abilities; in fact, women tend to traditionally under-value themselves (Why So Few? Catherine Hill, Christianne Corbett, Andresse St. Rose, AAUW publication, 2010). This means that you are probably better at science and math than you think, and if you are really interested in it, then stick with it!
- Parents, encourage your kids to explore their interests, even if they are different from yours. Remember that they pick up on stereotypes, and may not feel comfortable pursuing their real interests because they think it’s not “for them”. Encourage them to pursue what they really desire, and break free of these limitations.
- Parents, if you are interested in reading about some of the issues surrounding women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), read this report from the American Association of University Women, entitled “Why So Few?” (http://www.aauw.org/learn/research/whysofew.cfm). It is an eye-opening assessment on the status of women in the STEM fields, and offers great advice on how to combat some of the deterrents that have kept women under-represented in STEM.