Adriana Bankston, Policy Activist
Future of Research
Life Inside the Lab
What is your research topic? My bench research mainly focused on understanding how skeletal muscle functions, and what happens when it breaks down. Understanding normal muscle function can help us design better cures for muscular diseases. Skeletal muscle breakdown can lead to muscular dystrophy, which significantly impairs a person’s quality of life to the point where they may have to be in a wheelchair for the rest of their lives. Specifically, my PhD studies showed the N-BAR domain protein, Bin3, is a novel regulator of skeletal muscle growth and repair. My postdoctoral work was focused on TWEAK-mediated myogenesis. I left academia about 5 months ago, and I am now volunteering as a policy activist with the non-profit organization Future of Research (FoR). My project here is focused on how academic institutions planned to change postdoctoral salaries in accordance with the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) at different timepoints including one month before the ruling was meant to go into effect and one month after the injunction.
Dr. Adriana Bankston is a Policy Activist at the Future of Research nonprofit. Follow her work on Science Policy at @AdrianaBankston
What was your best day in science? The research I am doing now is focused on tracking postdoctoral salaries. The best day I’ve had while doing this work has been when the paper which Gary McDowell and I wrote on the compliance of academic institutions with the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) was published in F1000 Research in November 2016. This was a great day for me as I felt that I was finally making a contribution towards something important for the scientific community, and became very passionate about this topic.
What was your worst day in science? I can’t think of a bad day in particular. The worst feeling I’ve had at FoR, was wondering whether the scientific community would regard our efforts as an important body of work. I’ve never been involved in this type of work before and didn’t know how it would be received. I really wanted this work to make a difference to other scientists, even more than I ever did in my academic work! Luckily, and I think somewhat to our surprise, the FLSA project really took off. The momentum especially grew after the injunction was granted in the same month we published our paper. At that point people really started paying attention to our findings and wanted to keep more informed about the topic of postdoc salaries at a national level.
Adriana presenting a Future of Research poster at the 2017 AAAS meeting.
What does your average day look like? Right now my day is mostly filled with working on several projects related to Future of Research. I am still collecting data for the FLSA project, writing blog posts (like this one!), working on posters or workshop sessions (if we have one coming up), participating in virtual meetings or calls, and sending or answering lots of emails. I have a very different type of life now than I did when I was in academia, but I love it. I know that I finally found what I am supposed to be doing with my life.
What is your favorite piece of technology or equipment you get to use in your job? I guess I would say my laptop, since I use it all the time now. Having lots of projects to do on the computer has taught me how to best organize my folders and documents, and keep track of everything I am working on.
Life Outside of Lab
Where did you grow up? I was born in a medium-sized city in Romania, which was not terribly exciting. I always wanted to live in a bigger city and experience all the ‘hustle and bustle,’ I think partly because of where I grew up. I found that I love being in the middle of the action – if it was up to me I would live in an apartment in the heart of New York City! But I digress. So from Romania, I moved to the U.S. in 2001 to attend college. That was a good move for me since I was interested in pursing an academic career in science. Opportunities for these jobs were limited in Eastern Europe at the time. Since moving to the U.S., I’ve enjoyed all of the opportunities I was given. I know that a lot of the good things I’ve experienced can only happen in America and I am grateful for that.
What profession did you think you would be when you were a kid? I wanted to be a doctor for as long as I can remember, which is in large part because I like helping people. I wanted to feel useful and make a difference in someone’s life, and medicine seemed like a very noble profession. Also growing up in Romania didn’t give you a lot of career options, and being a doctor was one of the options out there. I studied for the medical school admissions test in Romania, and at the same time for the SAT so that I may be able to attend college in the U.S. if that was ever a possibility. At the last minute, I had to pick one of the two tests to take, and decided on the SAT. This has worked out well for me. During college I took the MCAT and applied for medical school. In the meantime I also started liking research, so I decided to go to graduate school and pursue postdoctoral training. Of course if I hadn’t gone the research route I would have never developed this passion for working on the scientific system. And my desire to help people will be a motivating factor in this field too.
What do you do to relax outside of lab? So I’ll answer this question to the point of relaxing outside of my desk, since this is what I am doing now. I like to bake, I like arts and crafts but rarely have time for them, and shopping is always fun. I used to do scrapbooking regularly too, but it’s gotten out of hand now. I’ve also been a fan of photography for many years, and wish I had a really good camera for it. I like watching movies (a good chick-flick can be very relaxing every now and then) but I don’t get to the movie theatre very often these days.
Adriana’s two dogs, Louie (left) and Rocky (right) enjoying a relaxing evening on the couch.
Do you have any pets? I have two rescue dogs, Louie and Rocky. We adopted Louie during graduate school, and he was only a few months old at the time. He is the first pet I ever had (apart from fish growing up) and is quite the spoiled little mutt. He was such a tiny and cute puppy that I couldn’t help it! Louie is a very spirited and high energy dog, he loves to run around and loves treats, but when he curls up in my lap at the end of the day he is my little baby again. During my postdoc, we adopted another dog, Rocky, so that Louie wouldn’t be at home by himself all day long. Rocky is also a mutt who is the complete opposite of Louie. He is patient and wise, and always thinks twice before making a decision. He loves toys, keeps Louie calm and creates a good balance at home. The two of them are best friends now.
What is your family life, and how did it develop along with your career? I live with my husband, and our beautiful daughter in Louisville, KY. We’ve been married 10 years this May, which is hard to believe. We were definitely just a couple of kids when we got married. We went through grad school and postdoc together at the same time. My husband is still a postdoc, and he works in the Kentucky Spinal Cord Injury Research Center at the University of Louisville. Our daughter is 17 months old, and she is the sweetest, silliest and most compassionate person I know.
What was your biggest motivation to obtain your PhD? Coming from a family of scientists, I felt pressure to do well in research. I’ve also always prided myself in doing well in school, and I also get a lot of satisfaction out of finishing a task, so there was also a personal motivation for it. I also wanted to contribute something to the lab that I was working in, so that my PI felt like I had made a significant contribution. I respected her and wanted her to get something out of training me too. And to an extent, I did want to make a difference in science and report new findings that would move the field forward.
Is there any one event or person who/that made you want to be a scientist? My story is actually a little bit backwards. I grew up in a family of scientists, so I was always going to visit my parents’ lab. I’ve always been more interested in helping people, so being in their lab amongst all the equipment seemed cold to me. So, I didn’t actually want to be a scientist growing up. I didn’t know what it really meant to be a scientist until I started doing research myself.
Why were you drawn to science? Did you ever consider another career path? How close was your schooling related to your current job? I was fairly certain that I wanted to be a doctor, but was also curious to see what research was like and if I would enjoy it. In college, I participated in a summer research experience, partly to beef up my pre-med CV at the time. During this time, my summer mentor taught us about what her lab was doing to try and uncover some of the mechanisms of Type II diabetes. At the end of this experience, I was so proud of my very first research poster ever that I actually put my own picture on it! This experience made me curious about science, and about the relevance of my discoveries to a particular disease. After that, I started thinking of research as a potential career option for me. During my last year of college, I did more research at the bench (on biomechanics and on DNA repair). I started falling in love with research, but was still on the fence about whether to take the plunge and do it full-time. After college graduation, I worked as a lab tech for a year so that I could get this experience. During that time I was fascinated by how my discoveries at the bench were unfolding into an interesting project, and how they might affect science in general. Then, during graduate school, I began to observe or personally experience many issues that trainees deal with today. These issues motivated me to try and improve the system for graduate students and postdocs. My goal is now to promote science policy and advocacy for junior scientists, and to gather and present data on various issues in the scientific system. My hope is that these actions will improve the scientific enterprise for future generations of scientists.
Why do you think it is important to have more women in STEM? I think we need more women in STEM to create positive role models for future generations of young girls who are interested in pursuing science. Also I think women generally make very good leaders, and are organized and dependable, and therefore could advance science very quickly if they are in a leadership role.
What is your best advice for girls interested in science? I would tell girls interested in science: never think that you are not as good as boys (which sadly still happens)! Don’t let anything stand in the way of pursuing your passion, and don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something! Only you know what you are capable of and if you really want something and take the right steps towards it, you can achieve it! And if you don’t, it’s probably not meant to be, and something better is waiting out there for you. Also try to find women scientists and ask them about how they got their job – I think having a female role model to look up to in science is very important for motivating young girls who want to go this route.
Why do you think it is important to have more women in STEM? Women have a lot to bring to the table (or lab bench, in this case), and provide critical and innovative perspectives to research fields that have been, and continue to be, largely dominated by men. The over reliance on the male perspective does a disservice to the integrity of the research being conducted, and this is especially apparent in the gender bias often observed in much of the published research today. Additionally, there need to be more women in STEM to serve as role models and pioneers for future generations of women scientists to show that it is possible for a woman to be a leader in innovative research.
Are there any women in STEM who are inspiring you right now? I don’t have a particular person right now, but want to make one point related to this. I feel like people always answer this question with someone who is very established in STEM, has been doing research for a long time and always seems to have it all together. I would like to make a plug for finding someone from our generation to inspire us, a junior female scientist who is still trying to figure things out but who is forging forward in doing something that she is passionate about. I think female graduate students and postdocs today may best relate to someone the same age as them who is doing something unique or original which they developed on their own. We need to bring junior female scientists to light as role models for trainees, and more of them are emerging now, which is inspiring to see.
What was the biggest hurdle you had moving out of academia? Right now I am in the midst of trying to transition out of academia into policy, with a particular focus on junior scientists. I think the biggest hurdle has been trying to figure out how to carve out this path on my own. I feel that to some extent in academia there is an infrastructure to help you progress and eventually reach your goal of graduating with your PhD for example. Working in the lab also provides you with a network of colleagues and peers who can be useful to you and with whom you probably interact on a daily basis. But once I left the lab, I felt very much on my own in trying to figure out what I was actually passionate about – since I knew that it was not academic research – and how to then follow this passion to achieve my goals.
How did you make this transition out of academia? I did a lot of informational interviews first to figure out what I was interested in. At first these interests were very broad, but the more I talked to people about them, both my interests and goals became more specific. I did have a lot of back and forth thoughts about leaving academia, and it took a few months to admit that I am ok with moving on and starting over in a field where I would have a lot to learn. Going to conferences has been very helpful in terms of building my new network and starting to make a name for myself in the science policy field. I also learned to take advantage of opportunities as they arise, and then just wait and see where they might lead. I am very grateful to the members of the Future of Research organization, who gave me a chance to discover what I loved doing, the opportunity to actually do it, and at the same time provide me with a sense of belonging. Having a community of junior scientists who cared about the same things I did was a great place for me to start. Working with them on a volunteer basis has definitely helped me figure out what my real passion is. In a way, I think volunteering teaches you what you really like to do. I would like to also share this advice with other trainees – always follow your gut and do what you are passionate about, and that passion could lead to an eventual career path for you. And if you are willing to put in the hours towards that something you like doing just because you are having fun with it (which is true in my case!), then I think you can truly say that you have found your passion. So follow your passion and don’t be afraid to take risks along the way.
What is your favorite book? Probably Inferno by Dan Brown – it has a lot of very vivid details and is not predictable!
What is your favorite desk snack? Usually popcorn, cheeze-its or some kind of nuts.
What is your favorite cartoon? Growing up I liked the Smurfs, and now I watch Elmo all the time with my daughter.
What would you listen to while writing? Usually Bon Jovi music works best for me, because it’s pretty calming and not very distracting when working on something on the computer. Plus I’m a big fan of the band!
What was your favorite subject in high school? Definitely biology.
Organization nut, or curated chaos? I try to be very organized, which works for short-term, but somehow turns to chaos after a while!
What color socks are you wearing? Grey with purple and pink