Creating Familiarity in a field that feels foreign
Hey FemNeuro readers, I'm Lauren! My pronouns are she/her and I am a 27-year-old neuroscience PhD student. I am currently studying how brain cells (or neurons) communicate with each other using electrical signals and how that communication may be different in a neurodevelopmental disorder called Fragile-X Syndrome. My work focuses on the learning and memory center of the brain, the hippocampus. I absolutely love what I do! I will never forget when I first recorded electrical activity from a neuron as a rotating graduate student in 2016. It was so incredible to see a neuron fire real action potential! I have always been very curious about how the world works, and I feel very fortunate to have an awesome support system that has always been really encouraging of that curiosity.
What were some obstacles or difficulties you encountered on your path towards a career in Neuroscience?
I am a first-generation college student and graduate student. Many struggles I went through to get to where I am now revolved around trying to find resources and information about how to become a scientist. I originally had no idea you could pursue a PhD until I came to college and began working in a lab. I also had no idea you could participate in a lab as an undergraduate student. In my interview for my first lab position I remember telling the graduate student I would gladly get the lab coffee if they needed it (thinking this was a canonical internship shown on TV...). He told me “no, you’d be doing real science in the lab, not running errands for people”; I was honestly surprised. From that point on, I tried to be very proactive and ask as many questions as I could about everyone’s journey through academia. I also really struggled with certain classes, and treated lab work as a serious part time job. Not to mention, I was already working another part time job while doing school full time. Since I was so passionate about research I prioritized lab work over class work at points in my career. These were some of my main struggles as an undergraduate student. Graduate school has been different. Now, a lot of what I have dealt with revolves around fighting that pesky imposter syndrome and getting people to take me seriously as a scientist.
What role does gender bias play in your career?
Gender bias is rampant in academia. Neuroscience is a relatively male dominated career path. There is also a lot of stigma against women who pursue computational disciplines as opposed to psychology based ones, which is ridiculous.
When was a specific moment you realized you were viewed differently in the scientific world because of your gender?
Oh yes! I was at the the Society for Neuroscience conference, which is a pretty big deal within this field. I was probably about 20 years old and was talking to a professor about my work in the lab and how I was about to be on my first paper. He told me I’d eventually leave science after I found a more well-off man to marry. I still laugh about this one. I would also say this is the first instance where I actually realized something was wrong. I have no doubt other things had happened before this, but I was just too excited about doing real science and unfortunately, to naive to tell.
Have you ever been asked, expected, or made to decide between a family and your career?
I have been asked if I will make structural changes to my career if I decide to have a family. I think many women deal with an immense societal pressure to have children. But I don’t think you have to make a choice. I’ve seen many incredible female scientists be amazing parents and publish incredible work.
How many women do you are familiar with in your line of work? In other words, is the gender disparity between men and women in science visible to you?
I do feel like the disparity is clear, especially on social media. In order to circumvent this, I purposefully take the time to curate who I follow and intake information from. It's important for me to try and surround myself with an amazing community of women and non-binary scientists. I also love being a part of communities like The STEM Squad (which was started by the amazing Christine Liu) where women and non-binary scientists are actively supporting and advocating for each other.
Was your family supportive in your career choice? Did you ever feel doubted by family members because of your gender?
My family once doubted I would go back for my PhD! I took time off to be a lab tech for 2 years after I graduated from undergraduate (to make sure I REALLY wanted to pursue a PhD) and they were convinced I would stay in that position forever. It is difficult to explain the trajectory of a PhD student. Sometimes, there is also that familial pressure to have children and stop working in order to be a care giver. But I knew I couldn’t stop doing science.
What advice do you have for girls who feel discourage from pursuing a career in neuroscience because of their gender? How do you think girls in stem should defend themselves against gender-bias in their school and college careers?
You are the change we need! So many women are working tirelessly to rebuild academia, and I am confident in my lifetime we will see systematic changes that will make the retention of women much better. I wouldn’t be where I am without role models and mentors, so look for the people who inspire you and will stand up for you, and befriend them! I have met so many amazing humans on social media that are now my dear friends and advocates. These friends will help you change the world. Your support system can carry you through when you need
encouragement, don’t be afraid to look around for them whether it’s online or irl.
What is your favorite thing to research or study about Neuroscience?
I’ve thought this for so long, “I can’t believe I get paid to do this”. There are major structural changes that need to take place with how we treat graduate students, post docs, and especially marginalized communities. I do feel very fortunate that I will always be challenged and pushing the boundaries of what we know. It is so exciting to me that for the rest of my life I will be learning. And that’s honestly what I’ve always wanted for myself.