10/15/2017: Siobhan Pattwell is a postdoctoral research fellow and recipient of an early career research fellowship by the Jacobs Foundation for Youth Development. Check out her interview for our expe(e)rtise section below to read more about Siobhan’s story on how she got into science, the motivational lines that keep her going and the challenges and exciting rewards science has brought.
How did you get here?
I never had even the most remote dreams or plans to be a scientist. In fact, I never really enjoyed science labs in school – probably because they felt like busy work, took forever, and the teacher always knew the results beforehand. After switching my major several times in college (where I actually entered as a pre-law major), I finally settled on a combination of Spanish and Neuroscience with a pre-med track. I was fully geared up to spend a semester abroad in Spain. That specific semester unfortunately coincided with a peak in the ETA terrorist attacks in Spain, including the Madrid train bombings, and after some deliberation with my parents, it was decided that I would skip the trip.
With the spring semester well underway, I was incredibly fortunate to find a spot on London summer abroad program focusing on healthcare systems between the US and UK, organized by two amazing Lafayette College professors, Drs. Childs and Lammers. To say this trip was an eye-opener for me would be the understatement of my college career. As part of the program, we were given internships 4 days a week. Mine was at Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital with one of the most incredible physician-scientists I have ever met, Dr. Penelope “Peppy” Brock. Peppy is a consultant (senior physician) pediatric oncologist specializing in neuroblastoma at one of the most esteemed children’s hospitals in Europe. Needless to say, my world in the hallways at GOSH, as an aspiring medical student, was flipped upside-down. In awe of the dedicated staff of nurses, physicians, assistants, and therapists, I myself became increasingly frustrated at the lack of research and limited treatment options for some of the extremely rare cancer variants claiming the lives of the adorable British-accented children I played puzzle games with between exams. At one point, after asking Peppy (probably too many) questions about has “X” ever been tried, has “Y” ever been looked at, etc., she turned her head and with an enthusiastic smile said, “Oh, darling, you’re a scientist.” Peppy was right. I realized that summer that I needed to be the person who would try to understand some of these rare genetic events, to seek targets for better drugs, to search for novel treatment options. So, instead of taking the MCAT that summer like I had planned, I registered for the GRE a few weeks after the internship and the rest – is history.
What is your focus?
With a background in neuroscience, I have long been interested in the brain’s capacity for change – both in normal and abnormal plasticity. By exploring the role of growth factors – certain chemicals important for brain development – I hope to gain a better understanding of what makes certain pediatric conditions – ranging from brain tumors to psychiatric illnesses – difficult to treat and often subsequently treatment resistant. With a general fascination in neuroplasticity, I am particularly interested in how various factors can influence the development, survival, and behavior of various cell types within and outside the brain, both in normal development and in disease states ranging from psychiatric and neurological illness to cancer.
What is it that fascinates you about science?
The most exciting thing about science, in my opinion, is the possibility for discovering something new and seeing it for the very first time. Such novel discoveries may have been overlooked for decades and can often bring hope for further advancing science, medicine, policy, and ultimately lead to the development of new treatments for various illnesses or diseases.
What are the biggest challenges?
The biggest challenges go hand in hand with the most fascinating aspects. When seeking something new, you can’t just ‘google’ the right experiments to do or ask somebody if you found the right answer, since what you’re doing often has never been tried before. It’s a whole new way of thinking compared to the memorization of science classes or textbook learning in primary or secondary school. Often, there are many late nights and endless weekends in lab going through failed experiment after failed experiment, until maybe on the 100th try, something works!
Looking back at your experiences, what’s your most important recommendation for….
…a student deciding upon her/his field
My advice – this sounds like a joke, haha, it’s not – would be to invest in copies of Finding Nemo and Frozen. My friends and I often quoted Dory from Finding Nemo and would say “Just Keep Swimming” or even better, when experiments failed routinely, we were known to blast some Elsa in lab while singing along to “Let it go…” There will be a lot of times when you think things will never work and while some experiments may not, others may take 99 failures before the 100th time is a success.
Do you feel that you had to sacrifice a lot to get to the position you are in today?
While working long lab hours during graduate school is almost a given, the biggest sacrifice for me came after my PhD was completed. I was planning to start a postdoctoral project in NYC, where I had my apartment, my friends, family, etc. Just as I was joining the lab, it was announced that the group was moving 3,000 miles away to Seattle, Washington. I was really invested in the project and wanted to see my ideas through, so with the encouragement of my family, friends, and significant other, I made the move, which has meant A LOT of red-eye flights back and forth across the country. I always try to make as many weddings, showers, holidays, birthdays, as I can, while also not sacrificing experiments, so I guess the biggest sacrifice I’ve made is sleep….which, as a neuroscientist, I know is an important one!
What are the challenges you are facing in your everyday life (i.e. in keeping a healthy work-life balance)? Can you give some advice for the upcoming generation of researchers?
As mentioned above, I could certainly do with a little more sleep. I’m also somebody who goes crazy if I don’t have physical exercise built into my day, so I try to make it a priority to get up earlier than I’d probably like and go to the gym, go for a run, or take a spinning or barre class. It’s also important to schedule in some fun time, whether it’s drinks with friends after work, a hike, or brunch on the weekends, doing things outside of lab is important for maintaining sanity in the lab!
If you could change 3 things about the way the academic system works right now (publication, funding, hierarchy etc..) what would they be?
- The publication process is exceedingly slow. By the time most things have gone through peer review and are published, the projects have often been completed almost a year prior. This pace can be detrimental to novel avenues of research, can take up extra funding, and slow down the forward trajectory of a graduate or postdoctoral project.
- Funding – it’s pretty depressing to get a grant application back and see things like “Weaknesses: none,” or “Outstanding application,” only to find that it missed the funding level by less than one percent. Funding opportunities, especially at the government level, are becoming less and less and it’s often very difficult for younger researchers to access funds when their applications are up against those of more senior investigators for review.
- Salary – scientists work such long hours that often the pay grade does not match the effort, especially when compared to other careers. It can be frustrating to calculate the $/hour when one has worked an 80 hour week compared to what that would equate to in a non-academic job.
Is there anything else you always wanted to tell a fellow scientist (younger or older) or any person interested in science?
I would say it’s an absolutely fantastic and rewarding career – but it requires a lot of self-discipline and perseverance. There will be A LOT of failed experiments, project setbacks, grant or journal rejections before there will be success. The hours worked will also not remotely match the pay. If science and discovery is something you are truly interested in, I’d encourage you to go for it at 1,000mph, but if you’re looking for a 9-5 job with weekends off and a big paycheck to match, you might be happier to try something else first.
What did you want to be as a kid?
I flipped back and forth between wanting to be a veterinarian or an architect as a kid – at one point, I even used a bright colored ruler and colored pencils to draft the blueprints for my own veterinary office. I think my parents still have the blueprints at their house.
Cat or a dog person?
Dog person! If I had the time or space, I’d absolutely be the crazy dog lady with hundreds of them.
To know more about Siobhan visit her research gate profile. Dr. Siobhan Pattwell is also an early career research fellow by the Jacobs Foundation for Youth Development.