The gap between the science classroom and a real-life career in the sciences can seem distant for some students. The 5 Questions for a Scientist interview series was created to bridge this gap! We aim to inspire students to pursue careers in the sciences by showcasing the incredible diversity of STEM careers by talking to scientists themselves. See all of the interviews here.
Get to Know Kayla
Occupation: Research Technician B
Institution: Columbia University Medical Center
Field: Genetics and Development
Focus: Still figuring it out!
Kayla Carpenter is an "early-career-stage" scientist, and is still trying to figure out where she'll be the most useful. She graduated from the University of California, San Diego, in 2013 majoring in Environmental Systems–Ecology, Behavior, and Evolution with an emphasis in microbiology. She then worked at the J. Craig Venter Institute for four years, running lab-scale wastewater treatment microbial fuel cell reactors in a collaborative project with NASA. Kayla moved to the Big Apple last year and is now studying yeast genetics to gain insight into genetic treatments for human diseases. Long-term, she wants to be involved with some sort of intersection of public health and public utilities. She has a dynamic love/hate relationship with cultivating anaerobic organisms (you can see her inside an anaerobic chamber—a big bag filled with nitrogen and with all oxygen removed, used to grow bacteria that die if they're exposed to oxygen—in her photo), and spends her time outside of work cultivating baked goods and cats and riding her motorcycle off into the sunset. To learn more about Kayla or ask her questions, you can connect with her at LinkedIn.
1. Explain what you do in your work in one sentence (or two!).
Basically, I reverse-engineer yeast to insert or remove different genes one at a time, giving the yeast different properties or abilities, test how they respond, and then put all of that together to study which genes are necessary for different aspects of their life cycles.
2. When did you first become interested in your field?
I took a long, winding road to get where I am today. I've always been curious and enjoyed learning, which is the only thing necessary to enjoy doing science; however, I started on a medicine/nursing track and ended up finding research worked out better for me. I'm still working on where that will take me next, because I haven't "made it" or figured it out yet!
3. What is your favorite part of being a scientist or of science in general?
You're always working towards something new. Much of science and lab work involves repetition, because getting the data to explain something that exists or how it happens is a lot of work. But once you learn a new thing or reach a certain goal, it's only to set you up for the next thing to learn so it stays exciting!
4. What is a typical day like for you as a scientist?
As a Research Technician in a relatively new position in a brand new lab, I'm still finding a routine and establishing autonomy in my position, so I don't have a "typical" day yet. But typically, for my type of position/experience level/education, I would spend almost all of my time working in a laboratory at a bench doing hands-on work. This includes making "media" or food for the yeast to grow in, growing them up to run experiments, extracting DNA to look at yeast genes, looking at them in a microscope, and looking at how they make different proteins. At this level in my career, I don't yet make up my own experiments or decide what I'm trying to figure out, I'm working on a small piece of a much larger puzzle to learn something new.
The earlier you can get involved and learn about the culture of research, the better. All of the scientists I've worked with are very interesting, smart, and curious people that are passionate about their fields and enjoy helping others to experience that passion—and that part of science is really great and makes day-to-day life inspiring. However, science is also complicated (from a technical standpoint) and difficult (from a practical standpoint). There is so much to know about even a specific field, and it takes a lot of work to really understand the work you're doing, but, importantly, research is funded mostly by grant money. Funding is extremely competitive and can be difficult to get, even if your ideas are good and your past research has worked. This can be difficult because to be an independent scientist, you need to be able to do all of the benchwork science, professionally write/talk about it, and convince others that you deserve money for it—which involves a lot of skills. That said, it's much more rewarding than your standard desk job, and you never have to wonder if what you're doing makes a difference!
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