Debbie Yee, Graduate Student
Washington University in St. Louis
Life Inside the Lab:
What is your research topic? I am a cognitive neuroscientist by training, which is a relatively new (~25 years) and exciting field! Broadly speaking, I investigate how various types of motivational incentives are integrated and impact executive function and decision-making in humans. I use functional neuroimaging and computational approaches, and aim to combine these interdisciplinary approaches to better understand the mechanisms that give rise to how we value different options and actions (which is fairly subjective), and how those value judgments impact our decision-making behaviors. I am also interested in neuro-modulatory effects of dopamine, and its critical role in influencing the relationship between motivational and cognitive processes.
Debbie Yee is a PhD Student at Washington University in St. Louis in Psychological and Brain sciences. Follow her science @debyee29.
What was your best day of science? I have many great days of science, but I am optimistic that my best day is yet to come! However, a recent salient “best day” was when I found out that I had been awarded an NRSA training grant, which I had spend a year working on. It was an incredible confidence boost to realize that others thought my research was worthwhile enough to be funded, and fueled my motivation to continue to do good science relevant for the community.
What was your worst day in science? A few years ago, I had worked with other academics on this study that had taken two years to create the experiments and collect all of the data. After we had analyzed all of the data and written up all of the results and submitted to a journal and it was under review, we had discovered a bug that affected our entire interpretation of the paper. We knew it would be wrong to publish the result as is, and made the executive decision to retract the paper. I remember that day so vividly – it was absolutely devastating. However, despite the depressed mood I experienced for the subsequent week, I realized that I was grateful for important lesson I learned about scientific integrity from my mentor. Although it could have been easy to blow ahead and ignore the warning signs, my mentor taught me the importance of having integrity in our science, despite how challenging it may be at times. Because of this experience, my faith in science and integrity of academic research has grown exponentially and has remained a prominent issue my work and training of other students. Furthermore, I am confident that when I’ll publish again in the future, I will be proud of the science I will be able to share with the scientific community.
What are you studying at university? In my undergrad, I studied brain and cognitive sciences, but also took some courses in electrical engineering and computer science as well. I have always been interested in the intersection of computer science and neuroscience, and even in graduate school, I have continued take classes in both disciplines in order to enhance my research and scientific thinking.
What does your average day look like? I split my time between data collection and analyses. On my data collection days, I spend about 6 hours at the MRI scanners collecting really brain scan data from human subjects. On my data analysis days, I spend almost all of the day in front of a large monitor, scripting or writing. While programming does have its frustrations, sometimes I get into a great rhythm and can work for hours on end, trying various analysis approaches. When I go home, I usually enjoy whipping something up in the kitchen – think like chopped – of whatever is in my fridge.
What are some of the highlights of your career? I have the privilege of working at a large institution, which means I have the fantastic opportunity to mentor undergraduate students. I’ve mentored about half a dozen students, many of whom have never stepped foot into research lab before. Yet, after working with me for about a year, I’ve seen many of my female students develop confidence in their abilities to do science, to program, and see themselves growing to love the research with that they are engaged. Some of these students have continued to pursue academic positions after graduation, with the hope of pursuing Ph.D.’s in the long run! It was incredibly rewarding to not only nurture them, but to hear from them directly that I played a large role (as a mentor) in helping them grow a love for neuroscience. I hope that I have the opportunity to continue to mentor students in the future, wherever this path takes me.
What is your favorite piece of technology or equipment you get to use in your job? R (the statistical programming language) is the best thing ever since sliced bread. Seriously. Alternatively, if R doesn’t couldn’t as one of those categories, then I would say my enormous 27 inch
Life Outside of Lab
Where did you grow up? Great Neck, New York (According to the Great Gatsby, I am technically from the West Egg).
What profession did you think you would be when you were a kid? When I was in first grade, I wrote down in our yearbook that I wanted to be a lawyer. However, I’m only convinced I wrote down that career because I didn’t know what a “scientist” was.
Do you have any pets? I have two cats, Nemo and Domino.
Do you have any fun hobbies? What do you do to relax outside of lab? I enjoy running and training for half marathons (my lifetime goal is run a half marathon in each of the 50 states). Recently, I’ve also started rock climbing, which I’ve really enjoyed. The best thing about climbing is that it is both a mental any physical sport, and keeps you on your toes, figuratively and literally.
Is there any one event or person who/that made you want to be a scientist? When I was in kindergarten, each of us was assigned to make a life-size portrait of a role model we had. Most of my classmates had put up portraits of famous presidents like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, but I had created a life-size portrait of Sally Ride, the first woman in space. Apparently I gravitated towards women in STEM without realizing how much I valued innovation, science, and being a pioneer in both.
Why were your drawn to science? Did you ever consider another career path? How close was your schooling related to your current job? I was always drawn to science research, although I had no idea what a PhD was until I entered college. Neither of my parents are scientists, so they most of exposure to research was through the beneficence of math and science teachers who believed in me and encouraged me to apply to various summer programs during high school. I eventually found myself spending all of my summers doing science research, and decided at some point that I wanted to spend the rest of my life in a laboratory because I thought it was exciting to be pioneering new scientific discoveries.
What was your biggest challenge during your degree? Academic research is a long and sometimes lonely path, and requires us to make many sacrifices. The biggest one has been establishing a stable community, since my friends are constantly moving from one institution to the next, sometimes across the country and across the world. That being said, internet has been great at helping me stay connected with many of my friends, even if I don’t always get to see them.
What was your biggest motivation to obtain your PhD? I love the science, and want to spend the rest of my life having the freedom to ask and strive towards answering interesting questions about the brain.
What is your best advice for girls interested in science? You must be passionate about science if that is what you want to do. You will inadvertently faces hurdles that many of your male peers will never personally experiences, but instead of focusing on the disparities, you should focus on figuring out whether the goal is “worth it.” If you think the end goal of being a scientist is worth it, then develop the grit to pursue your passions. Most importantly, trust yourself, because at the end of the day it is the consequences of your decisions that you have to live with, and you alone are responsible for them.
Are there any women in STEM who are inspiring you right now, and why? Hope Jahren is a phenomenal scientist, and I highly recommend that every scientist read her autobiography “Lab Girl,” which she published last year.
Why do you think it is important to have more women in STEM? I will respond to this question with another question. To you (the reader) – try to think of the first answer that comes to mind. Who is the first famous female scientist you can think of? I would bet that it was probably challenging to come up with a name immediately, since society’s prototypical schema is male. The challenge with not having enough women in STEM is that we lack sufficient role models for young girls, and it is much harder for girls see themselves in STEM careers without having encountered female professionals in STEM fields. In addition to inspiring girls, I think the science (and broader) community would also benefit from equal representation from inclusion of diverse perspectives, including women, people of color, etc.
- What is your favorite book? Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne
- What is your favorite desk snack? Crunchy Cheetos.
- What is your favorite cartoon? Finding Nemo
- What would you listen to while writing? I prefer to write in silence, since music distracts me easily. I was classically trained during my childhood, and grew up attending youth orchestras and bands. So instead of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky being relaxing, I find those pieces too be quite stimulating and engaging! However, when I do programming, I enjoy movie soundtracks by Hans Zimmer.
- What was your favorite subject in high school? Science Research.
- What is the strangest thing on your desk right now? I have a custom mug that says “Bayesians R Smug,” featuring our renowned statistician Thomas Bayes.
- Organization nut, or curated chaos? Those two descriptive are certainty not mutually exclusive. Is it impossible to conceive of a woman who loves Google docs and spreadsheets, but also have a desk that looks destroyed by a hurricane?
- Any other fun fact about you… I am tri-lingual.
- What color socks are you wearing? Socks are against my religion (just kidding… mostly). But when I am required to wear them, the colors don’t matter so as long as they match.