Sydney Sunna: The Women Who Inspired Me
Updated: Sep 28, 2019
"They valued me as a scientist and challenged me to think of myself as one."
Read Part 1 of the doubleheader here.
My growth depended on the myriad of women who mentored me, inspired me, and invested years into my development as a critical thinker.
They valued me as a scientist and challenged me to think of myself as one. They made room for me in the pipeline. Although I don’t have time or space to acknowledge each scientist who made an impact on me, this piece focuses on three of the most inspiring women, their contributions, and the ways their mentorship impacted me:
Lauren Wugalter gave me my first impression of science as I know and love it today. Lauren is a faculty member at Highline College where she teaches general chemistry for science and engineering majors. She was recently awarded the Distinguished Community Engagement Award in 2018 by the University of Washington, Tacoma, where she was formerly an instructor.
Lauren is probably the best person to give you an introduction into the wonderful world of science.
Lauren is passionate about engaging women and minorities in STEM fields, and she kindles science-enthusiasm within everyone she meets. Since her undergraduate career, Lauren dedicated herself to engaging the community in celebration of science. She served as the executive outreach coordinator for the Student Members of the American Chemical Society (SMACS) and her research contributions earned her two publications for her work in designing novel opioids for the treatment of chronic pain. Her exemplary performance in academics, research and outreach earned her many awards including the American Chemical Society POLYED Undergraduate Award for Achievement in Organic Chemistry, the University of Arizona Galileo Circle Scholar, and the University of Arizona Chemistry and Biochemistry Outstanding Senior Award. She went on to pursue a Chemistry Graduate Fellowship at the University of Washington, where she earned her master’s degree.
Lauren is probably the best person to give you an introduction to the wonderful world of science. I met Lauren in my freshman year of college. I knew nothing about professional science and was a pre-med student because I didn’t know what other stable job opportunities existed for a biology nerd. After Lauren presented her research in the chemistry club, I was hooked. She promptly whisked me off to give me a lab-tour where I saw round bottom flasks with balloons secured to their necks, and intricate, alien-looking apparatuses. I had no idea what I was looking at. I was only halfway through my first semester of general chemistry and I was feeling overwhelmed. Despite this, Lauren believed that I could learn everything I needed to know in order to do multistep organic synthesis. If it weren’t for Lauren’s encouraging presence, my bewilderment may have dissuaded me from returning. I stayed in the summer to teach myself enough organic chemistry to appreciate the science I was doing in the lab.
Beyond her warmth, Lauren’s agency in the lab impressed me. Through years of research experience, she built a vast amount of knowledge cultivated a formidable scientific acumen. She was someone I could count on and aspire to. I soon became a fixture in the lab and realized my own love of science over the years. I changed my career prospects from medical school to research science because I was having so much fun in the lab. I credit Lauren with helping me realize a love of the laboratory, a gift I cherish every day.
Rebekah Keating is a Neuroscience Ph.D. candidate at the University of Arizona. Her research investigates the pathways and neural traits underlying decision-making in insects. She seeks to understand how complex group-level patterns of behavior emerge from the distribution of individual traits. As an undergraduate she studied biology at the University of Vermont where she earned the Vermont Scholars Award and the George Perkins Marsh Award in Ecology and Evolution. She continues to excel in her doctoral training earning the Galileo Circle Scholarship in 2017 and 2018. As the recipient of the DAAD Research Fellowship, she currently studies in Göttingen, Germany where she uses electrophysiology to study how the brains of honeybees and carpenter ants respond to odors, including those encoding social cues.
Inside the lab and out in the field, Rebekah invests her expertise into cultivating the next generation of naturalists. She’s spent years mentoring undergraduate students and high school students in research projects, including my own senior thesis project. Spanning a little over one and a half years, Keating guided my project from the preliminary phases until the final poster presentation. Her vast working knowledge of evolutionary biology, neuroscience, and statistics enriched the quality of my research. She helped me design prototypes for my experimental set-ups and gave me a lab notebook and a workplace within her office. After I collected data, she spent hours teaching me how to code using R studio and I consulted her in my selection of a statistical model that would best analyze my data. She took the time to teach me the concepts underlying the statistical models we were considering, and for the first time I felt like I had a solid understanding of statistics.
I feel strongly that these one-on-one sessions with Rebekah did more to develop me as an independent scientist than any other academic pursuit. She gave me tools that empowered me to think critically about the questions I wanted to ask, the experiments that could answer them, and the veracity of the data collected. Looking back, I feel immense gratitude for Rebekah's mentorship and the skills she taught me. Beyond learning a bit of code, neuroethology, and a lot of statistics, she inspired me to be a more thoughtful scientist and an avid naturalist.
After obtaining my B.Sc., I spent a year working as a research technician in May Khanna’s lab. Dr. Khanna is a tenure-track assistant professor at the University of Arizona. Her research incorporates biochemical and biophysical techniques to assess protein-protein and protein-RNA interactions and their implications in neurodegenerative disease. The goal of her research is to develop effective therapeutics based on a refined understanding of these interactions. In addition to her role as a Principal Investigator, she is also a co-founder of Regulonix, a biotechnology company which aims to develop non-opioid treatments for chronic pain.
Because many of us don’t have family members in academia to look up to, mentors are often the first to model higher-order professional skills such as collaboration, scholarship, and communication.
May leads an industrious laboratory bustling with a diversity of cutting-edge techniques and exciting collaborations. My favorite part of working in this lab was the diversity of projects and the collaborative efforts that spanned labs, universities, and companies. Each week, each student gave a presentation on the progress and obstacles in their research. The audience consisted of members from each of the collaborating labs, skilled in various fields. This brilliant design allowed for an interdisciplinary approach to problem-solving and served as a breeding ground for new ideas. These meetings made me value science as an interdisciplinary social enterprise. May’s mentorship helped me gain confidence in myself as a professional scientist because she challenged me to make decisions regarding my project. When experiment after experiment failed, I would start to feel burnt-out. During these trying times, she reminded me of the good things she saw in me and encouraged me to talk to her and others in the lab to find solutions. This process helped me realize the value of resilience in scientific pursuits.
With the dearth of women and minorities in academic science, mentors provide an invaluable service to under-represented demographics. Because many of us don’t have family members in academia to look up to, mentors are often the first to model higher-order professional skills such as collaboration, scholarship, and communication. Mentors provide direction and set standards on the quality of work done in the field. They can be the first to provide encouragement to build our own skills and confidence as we begin to transition from a student to a scientist. They serve as a gateway to departmental and disciplinary communities and help mentees form a network to establish connections. Where traditional coursework fails to teach us how to create new knowledge from the unknown, mentors must step in.
In addition to investing time into my development, my mentors gave me a chance to succeed in science by being exemplary scientists themselves. Many of us will become mentors in our careers. To help bridge the gender and ethnicity gaps in professional science, we should make sure that we are investing in mentees who come from a different background than our own.
All titles are accurate as of April 2019.