Laura Szkolar-Sienkiewicz, POSTDOCTORAL RESEARCH ASSOCIATE
Dept of Radiology, Michigan State University
LIFE INSIDE THE LAB
What is your work/research topic? My research is focused on novel biomaterials for MRI imaging. I develop new imaging agents for cancer, immunology and cellular therapy, that allow us to visualize biological events non-invasively. We create these materials from a range of biopolymers, proteins and peptides, which allow for biological compatibility and triggered biological activity.
The ability to image non-invasively in this way not only allows us to better understand disease models, but also enables new avenues for diagnosis and treatment.
Laura Szkolar-Sienkiewicz is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Michigan State University. Follow Laura on Twitter @dr_doodles.
What is it like working in an academic lab? Academic research can be both incredible fun and really tough. You’re responsible for yourself a lot of the time and you’re trusted to get the work done, so you have to be very self-motivated. There’s also a lot of pressure to produce good work, suitable for publication and to secure funding, which can be a lot of pressure in itself. I count myself lucky that I’ve worked in some really great, diverse labs, which has made working in academia more fun than stress.
What was your best day of science? I’m not sure I could select a single best day of science. There are many days I can think of that really shaped my career; my first summer research placement, the first time an experiment I planned worked as expected, my first research trip overseas, my first publication (there are many more!). One of the reasons I love my work is that no two days are ever the same, but that can make it difficult to select a best day! I think the day that was the most rewarding for me though was the day I submitted my finalized PhD manuscript. During your PhD, your entire life is shaped by your research. Knowing that the one task I had committed myself to, for many years, was now final was the most overwhelming feeling.
What was your worst day in science? Now my worst day in science is easy. After my PhD I moved from the UK to the USA and started working in MRI research, which was completely new for me. Having to learn lots of new techniques and equipment can be a daunting task, and my first solo overnight experiment was the perfect setting for things to go wrong! Many MRI experiments take days to prepare for and hours to set up. After starting my experimental procedure at 8pm, I was finally ready to start my MRI scan at 3am. Everything that could have gone wrong went wrong; a piece of equipment failed, part of the experiment didn’t work as expected and I had forgotten a piece of equipment entirely. It was a tough night, and having invested so much time into something that didn’t work was pretty disheartening. After getting some sleep, grumping about the equipment and re-evaluating what went wrong though, the experiment was re-run and this time worked! I think that’s the hardest thing about science for me though; learning from failing is an integral part of the scientific process!
What is your favorite piece of technology or equipment you get to use in your job? My favorite piece of equipment I get to use is the MRI magnet itself. In my work, the MRI is the last stage of the process, the final check that all that research and work has been worthwhile. Getting to image samples that you have worked on for many months, and seeing the results you expected (or sometimes not) is awesome. Along with the beautiful images the magnet creates, the MRI also allows us to analyse the materials and quantify their magnetic properties. It’s incredibly satisfying to have both the image to show and the data that allows you to measure and compare successes.
LIFE OUTSIDE OF LAB
Where did you grow up? I grew up in the UK. We lived in a small village in the Cheshire countryside, about 20 miles outside of the city of Manchester.
What profession did you think you would be when you were a kid? Honestly I had no idea. As a child I loved animals, we always had dogs and rabbits, so I thought that maybe I would be a vet? I was also thoroughly obsessed with all things musical, and thought about a career on the west end. Later on in my teens I was pretty taken by the idea of being either a lawyer or a doctor but the more I learnt about both of them as a career path the more I realized they weren’t for me. I think not knowing what you want to do when you grow up is perfectly normal though. I’m years into my scientific career and, honestly, I still have no idea what I really want to do. There is no path that you have to follow, so I think the most important thing is study the things you enjoy, try new things and to do the things that make you happy.
What do you do to relax outside of lab? Probably one of the most important thing to me is relaxing. Science can be a stressful career path to follow and there is a real danger of burning out from overworking. I choose to relax by doing yoga, teaching the dog new tricks, taking some time out to travel or just watching far too much Netflix. Anything that gives me some time to myself, to just switch-off.
Do you have any pets? I have a 14-year-old Border Collie called Mini. I got him when he was 10 as a rescue in the UK, then he moved with me to the US (He barked for the whole flight). His main tasks include; being my alarm clock, keeping me on a somewhat regular life schedule, and making sure I get enough exercise! Having a pet, especially a rescue animal, and a full-time job can be a big commitment but the benefits are reward enough for the hard work.
Do you have any fun hobbies? I have lots of hobbies. I think it’s important to have lots of other things in your life other than just work. For me, my hobbies allow me to express more of my creative side. I love music and play many instruments, enjoy photography and design and like learning new languages.
If you want to talk about your family, what is your family life? How did your family develop alongside your career? Family life and career can be hard. I know many people who struggle with family commitments and relationships because of their career. When I got my job at Michigan State and moved to the US, I left behind my parents and siblings, as well as many friends. My family life here can be complex at times too. My husband lives 80% of the time in Seattle, as his job is based there, which means we both have to do a lot of travelling and/or working remote. He’s incredibly supportive of my career and my research, and I can’t thank him enough for it. Living apart is really difficult but I consider us very lucky because we both have managers who understand the importance of work-life balance and allow us time and flexibility. I know for many though, the lack of available work sees couples and families moving large distances from each other, with little time or flexibility for trips to see one another.
What is your best advice for girls interested in science? Nothing is off limits to you. If you enjoy something, then pursue it. It doesn’t matter if you’re a female in a male dominated science, if you get the best grades in your class or if you don’t know something. The only benchmark for your success and happiness is you. And remember, whilst there will be some who try to deter you from what you want to do, there are also many excellent women and men who will encourage and support you!
Is there any one event or person who/that made you want to be a scientist? It was a combination of many factors that pointed me to a career in science. Having considered a career in medicine, I worked at the local hospital for 2 years. It was during this time that I heard over and over “if only we had better medicines/ equipment/ etc, then we could treat patients more successfully”. I realized that I wanted to enable medics in better treating patients, although I still had no idea how at that point. I also had a family friend who worked at the local pharmaceuticals company. Seeing how their research directly translated to new medicines that changed lives really inspired me too. Finally, in high school I had a really great biology teacher, Mrs. Howells, who devoted so much enthusiasm to teaching the subject she loved. The encouragement she gave all her students and the passion she had for biology, not just in the classroom, but in everyday life made me realize, I think more so than anyone else, that I wanted to be a scientist.
Why were you drawn to science? I have a very methodical and analytical personality. Science seemed a really good fit for that. I picked my particular subject though because it combines all the sciences. Biomaterials science is a really nice fusion of biology, chemistry and physics and I liked that I could apply all the sciences I loved to a medical field.
Did you ever consider another career path? I have and still do consider many other career paths. The skills you learn from being trained as a scientist are really cross-applicable to a whole range of roles, from management to design. I think it’s important to remember that just because this is what you’re doing right now, it doesn’t mean it’s what you have to do forever. It’s not failing by choosing to follow a new path and it’s not mundane if you love what you do and what to stay doing it for a lifetime.
What was your biggest challenge during your degree? I found the biggest challenge for me, during both my undergraduate and my PhD, was work-life balance. Studying of any kind can be immensely stressful, and it takes up a lot of your time. Trying to find some time to spend with friends and family, or to just relax was something that I personally found really difficult. I also worked a job during my undergraduate to pay for my tuition, which made things doubly stressful! There were many times that I found myself feeling incredibly isolated, but having a really great support network can help with that! I think it’s important that you remember there are a lot of people around you who you can lean on when you’re feeling stressed out, even if it’s just to have a cup of tea with!
What was your biggest motivation to obtain your PhD? Honestly my biggest motivation was to prove to myself that I could do it. I really loved the idea of being an expert in one particular field and dedicating many years to completing one piece of work. Many people discouraged me from pursuing a PhD because of the time, the workload and the stress. It’s true, all those things do come with a PhD, but if it’s something you want to do, then do it. After all the hard work, the late nights and the inevitable tears and/or rage that an experiment didn’t work, it’s all worth it.
If you left academia, what do you think the biggest hurdle would be moving into industry/other? I actually think that my academic training has set me up particularly well for a move into many different industries. As an academic your taught not just technical skills but also how to present and negotiate, how to critically analyse and to be an expert at communication. Many of the scientists I have trained with over the years have moved on from academia to a wide array of roles, from scientific communication to business analysis. I myself took a short time-out from academia to work with a biotech spin-out company. The biggest challenge that I personally experienced was the difference in ideas generation. That might sound odd but in academia your job, really, is to think, and the experimental is just the evidence behind that thinking. Industrial research is much more about completing a set of tasks on time, and I found that really difficult to begin with.
Why do you think it is important to have more women in STEM? First and foremost, let me say that STEM should be open to everyone, regardless of background, race, sexual orientation or gender. None of those things make you any more or less capable of pursuing a career in STEM, and we should all be doing more to support underrepresented groups. Now, on a purely scientific basis, STEM is a subject based upon the generation of ideas. The more diverse the pool of people, the more diverse the ideas. We all think differently and have different views of the world. By having, not just more women, but more diversity within STEM fields, we can increase our scientific output, generate better technologies and understand more of the world around us.
What is your favorite book? The Eye Affair (or any of the other 6 Thursday Next books) by Jasper Fforde. Any book based on parallel universes, terrible puns and bizarre plot holes is right up my street!
What is your favorite desk snack? Any snack is my favorite desk snack. I think I would snack instead of eating meals if that was acceptable. If I had to pick one though it would be yoghurt covered raisins. I could probably eat my weight in them (this is not advised).
What’s the strangest thing on your desk right now? An origami dinosaur (Velociraptor mongoliensis). A couple of other postdocs in the lab helped me make 122 origami dinosaurs for my wedding reception, so it would only be right to display our handy-work.
What would you listen to while writing? My musical taste is pretty eclectic, so it depends what kind of mood I’m in. I find that Dan Deacon always does the trick though if I really need to get my hustle on.
Organizational nut or curate chaos? Organise everything! The more folders the better!
What color socks are you wearing? Black and white cow print with pink contrast heel.