Emily Lescak, Postdoctoral Fellow
University of Alaska Anchorage
Life Inside the Lab
What is your research topic? Host-microbe interactions using threespine stickleback fish as a model organism. I study how disruptions to the gut microbiome caused by germ-free environments and exposure to antibiotics or environmental contaminants influence the behavioral and morphological development of the host.
What was your best day of science? My best days in science involved doing remote field work in beautiful parts of Alaska, successfully defending my dissertation (and having it accepted by the graduate school), and finding out that I had received a NSF postdoctoral fellowship.
What was your worst day in science? My tipping point while finishing my dissertation came when I was trying to format my dissertation while solo-parenting a newborn.
Dr. Emily Lescak is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Alaska, Anchorage. You can follow along with her science on Twitter at @elescak.
What are you studying at university? My PhD work focused on evolutionary rates in wild populations of Alaskan threespine stickleback fish. We found that freshwater populations that formed after a colossal earthquake in 1964 were nearly as phenotypically and genetically diverged from oceanic ancestors as populations founded thousands of years ago, suggesting that much freshwater evolution takes place in the first few decades post-colonization.
What are some of the highlights of your career so far?
- Nailing my talk at the Evolution Meeting
- Publishing part of my dissertation work in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
- Receiving a National Science Foundation (NSF) postdoctoral fellowship
What does your average day look like? I mentor undergraduate and graduate students as they pursue independent projects, analyze morphological and behavioral differences between fish with disrupted and normal, diverse gut microbial communities, and am active in organizing professional development opportunities with our university’s postdoctoral association. I’m also learning how to analyze 16S microbial community data and spend time writing and reviewing papers and grant proposals.
Life Outside of Lab
Where did you grow up? Albany, NY
What profession did you think you would be when you were a kid? I don’t really remember – probably a teacher?
What do you do to relax outside of lab? I spend time with family, run, yoga, and bake.
In her free time, Emily enjoys skiing with her dog. Here they are at Portage Glacier, Alaska.
What is your family life, and how did it develop along with your career? I have a husband, a 2 year old, and another baby on the way. I had my first child during the final year of my PhD and was able to spend a lot of time at home with her as I finished data analysis and writing, for which I am incredibly grateful. My second child will be born during the second year of my postdoc.
What was your biggest motivation to obtain your PhD? I knew that the project would provide me with a lot of valuable skills and give me the opportunity to learn from really talented people. I was also motivated to pursue an academic career because I enjoy teaching, researching, and mentoring, and appreciate the ability to have a flexible schedule.
What is your best advice for girls interested in science? Science careers are great because you’re always learning new things, you gain greater insight and appreciation for the world around you, and you have plenty of opportunities to share your knowledge with your community. It’s rewarding to make new discoveries and watch students learn and fun to design and carry out experiments that no one has done before.
Why do you think it is important to have more women in STEM? All fields benefit from having members with diverse backgrounds and life experiences. Women are currently underrepresented in STEM fields – I think it’s important for us to spend time fostering mentoring and networking communities to help with retention.
Is there any one event or person who/that made you want to be a scientist? I think a defining moment for me was having the opportunity as a high school student to co-host a radio segment for 51%, a NPR show focused on women’s issues. I interviewed 52 female scientists in traditionally male-dominated careers, such as astronomy, physics, and ichthyology, and learned about their career paths and successes. It was the first opportunity I had to meet female scientists and it opened my eyes to a wide range of STEM careers I didn’t know existed.
Here Emily is carrying a huge stack of minnow traps used to catch stickleback fish, her model organism.
Why were you drawn to science? Did you ever consider another career path? How close was your schooling related to your current job? As a child, I was curious about the world around me and spent a lot of time reading and writing. In college, I narrowed my interests down to behavior and evolution. I considered becoming a counselor and a high school biology teacher – I went so far as to earn a Masters in Teaching in secondary biology education. I am able to apply my interests in behavior and evolution in my current research, which focuses on associations between gut microbiota and behavior, and I spend time teaching and mentoring high school students.
What was your biggest struggle during your degree? Struggles with institutional support and intellectual isolation.
Are there any women in STEM who are inspiring you right now? I am inspired and motivated by the other female postdocs at my institution who are not only phenomenal researchers, but dedicate a great deal of time to outreach and giving back to our community.
What is your favorite book? The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah. It’s the most intense book I’ve ever read. I finished it four months ago and have thought about it nearly every day since.
What is your favorite desk snack? Yogurt.
What is your favorite cartoon? Peanuts
What would you listen to while writing? Silence.
What was your favorite subject in high school? Biology
What is the strangest thing on your desk right now? A picture of my friend’s dog.
Organization nut, or curated chaos? Organization nut.
What color socks are you wearing? Red.
Any other fun fact about you… For my dissertation work, I helicoptered to Danger Island to collect fish samples.