By Janet Pinto, Chief Academic Officer, Curriki
If you’re a student studying the sciences, you may not know what you want to be “when you grow up.” Behind the Scientist provides an engaging, personal look at several working scientists and reveals “how real scientists looked when they were kids.” Recently, I had the honor of interviewing Dr. Becky Carlyle on what it’s like to be a scientist, as well as learning more about her passion for running, orienteering racing and adventure!
Describe your current job.
I am a Post Doctoral Researcher in Molecular Psychiatry at Yale University. There are lots of different levels that you can study the brain – mine involves looking at how conditions inside the body (such as getting old) and outside the body (drug taking and stress) affect the molecules that are produced by your major brain cells – the neurons. I study how the brain adapts to these conditions, and what might happen when these changes don’t go according to plan.
What would you be doing if you weren’t in your current job?
Probably teaching of some kind, while spending the summers orienteering racing throughout Europe. Orienteering is a kind of crazy sport where you race a route through the forest with the help of a map and compass, I’ve done it since I was born, pretty much!
What is your greatest accomplishment to date?
Running an almost elite marathon (3:15:26) and qualifying for an A Final at the orienteering World Cup. I feel like the accomplishments of my career are yet to come, they don’t yet match up to that unique sporting high!
What is the single most important issue in the world of science today?
This is a really difficult question. Can I have two answers? The biggest global issue for me is not just acceptance of Climate Change, but getting everyone to realize that unless we voluntarily change the way we live and run our societies now, then Climate Change will do that for us. The first option is likely to be the better one for the human race.
If I’m talking as a scientist wanting a career in science, then government investment in research is the most important issue. Millions have been spent on training people exactly like me, but there are very few places that now have the money to support bright new ideas and people into the next stage of their careers. At the end of the day, this all comes down to education – if you can convince people that what you do is vital, interesting and beneficial, then you’re halfway there. I don’t think scientists as a whole do this particularly well at the moment, although awareness of our responsibility to the public is growing.
Only about 1/4 of STEM jobs in the U.S. are filled by women. Why don’t more girls pursue STEM careers?
If we’re talking biology, which is the only field I really know about, then it’s not a case of lack of interest. Even at my level of career, women outnumber men in my field. But once you get to the next stage, that’s where the attrition starts. It’s a combination of many things – lack of job security, lack of alternative options outside the traditional tenure track, balancing a family with work. I’m lucky that right here in our department we have some excellent female role models – highly accomplished scientists with a rich family life and a wonderful sense of humor. There is no doubt that walking past these women in the corridor and sharing small snippets of information with them about your life inspires you to keep working hard to get to the next stage. If you’re interested in who they are, you can look for Marina Picciotto, Jane Taylor and Amy Arnsten.
What can we do to encourage students to pursue STEM?
Make our teaching as accessible and interesting as possible. Lots of real-world applications, problems to solve, and group work to make people realize that it takes a whole bunch of people with different skills to tackle a scientific problem. We need positive role models, but most of all, we need to really value STEM careers within our society by improving working conditions, academic pay in the early years, and job opportunities.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in a city called Bradford in the North of England. In the Victorian Era it was a bustling town at the center of the wool trade; these days it has a lot of poverty and some deep racial tensions.
Favorite subject in high school and why?
Probably chemistry. I loved the mechanisms and the processes we learned about, and how apparently complex systems could be broken down into really neat, simple concepts. I also had two incredible teachers, which helped a lot!
When you were growing up, when did you realize you wanted to be a scientist? What inspired you?
It took me a long time to realize I wanted to be a scientist. As a strong student with plenty of good grades and not too many definite ideas, my school pushed me down the Medical Doctor route. After three years of Medical School at Oxford, with plenty of exposure to the basic science behind many of our medical principles, I realized that I liked the science and the molecules more than being a clinician. Luckily the structure in the U.K. is flexible enough that I graduated with a B.A. in Medical Sciences, not too much debt, and then moved on to a PhD program. It was quite a shock at first, but definitely where I wanted to be!
If you could have any superpower, what would you choose?
The old chestnut – flying would be super cool.
Too many to mention! The National and Death Cab for Cutie are long standing favorites, but I am hooked on Wild Beasts and Mum right now. I’m a bit of a music snob when it comes down to it, and I miss the U.K. Music scene.
What’s the first website you check every day?
Attackpoint – a social network for orienteers and adventure racers. It helps me keep in touch with my sporty friends from around the world.
What one piece of advice would you give to young, aspiring scientists?
Make plenty of friends. Unlike the common perception of scientists as geeky loners, scientists are interesting people with lots of opinions. You’ll meet people from every culture, and from most countries in the world. And the best science is almost always done by collaboration. It’s amazing how something you mention in an offhand way, that your friend comments on during a lunch break can turn out to be something really important.