AWIS-UM Spotlight: Brooke Wolford

DSC_5445_biobank(1)Hi, I’m Brooke! I’m a 4th year graduate student and a PhD Candidate in the Department of Computational Medicine and Bioinformatics. I am also enrolled in the Statistic Department’s Dual Degree program to earn an M.A. in Statistics. I am co-mentored by Dr. Cristen Willer and Dr. Michael Boehnke. In my research I use and develop statistical genetics methods to study complex human diseases such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. I also study Mendelian mutations in clinical cohorts—check out my pre-print on pathogenic mutations in thoracic aortic dissection cases from the UM Cardiovascular Center: https://doi.org/10.1101/497917.

Describe your path in academia so far. How did you find your field? Did you always know you wanted to go into science? What do you want to do next?
I’ve been interested in science for as long as I can remember, and my scientific curiously was heavily fostered by my father. The genetic disease Retinitis Pigmentosa runs in my family, so I have always been intrigued by heredity and DNA mutations. I was given the immense privilege of attending the public, residential high school, North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, for my junior and senior years of high school. This experience provided a heavy science curriculum and my first experience with scientific research (thanks Dr. Naiman!) I continued research in evolutionary genetics during my undergraduate career at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

In 2013, I found myself graduating with a B.S. in Quantitative Biology, but I wasn’t sure brooke_poster(1)what career to pursue. I had long been interested in genetic counseling, but I wasn’t sure it would satisfy my interest in research. My first year of college my undergraduate research advisor suggested the National Institutes of Health Postbaccalaureate Intramural Trainee Research Award, so I took his advice and applied! This program allows students to perform research at the NIH for 1-2 years before heading to graduate or professional school. It was the BEST decision of my science career. My work in the lab of Dr. Francis Collins allowed me to interact with collaborators at the University of Michigan and learn about the field of statistical genetics. In choosing a graduate school and degree program, these experiences brought me to UM — one of the best environments for statistical genetics training in the country. Ideally, I will stay on the academic track with a post-doctoral fellowship after I graduate, but life is full of surprises!

As an NSF fellow, could you share any advice you have for early-career grad students who might be applying; what do you think helped you succeed?
I was privileged to have the help of strong mentors with a long track record of successful NSF GRFP applicants so your mileage may vary, but my advice is as follows:

  • Start early. The deadline is in October/November and you should be thinking about your research proposal in at least February of the same year.
  • Read example proposals and format yours similarly. Explicitly highlight the two main criteria, broader impacts and intellectual merit, in both of your statements.
  • Get information from UM’s Office of National Scholarships and Fellowships. They have annual workshops and Q&A panels and can pair you with a past applicant to review your statement.
  • Broader impacts really matter so start developing your C.V. in a way that shows your authentic commitment to the scientific community and world at large.
  • Have multiple people, scientist and non-scientists, read your statements. Cut down on the scientific jargon as much as possible since you will be scored by a diverse group of reviewers.

In the end, try not to let rejection discourage you*. Instead, use what you learned from the application process to apply for future awards and training opportunities!

*A note from the editor: Amy Poehler has a great chapter about rejection in her book Yes Please. She writes about awards, but it’s 110% applicable to academic fellowships, grants, etc., and I highly recommend reading it!

How do you keep up a good work-life balance (or try to)?
To obtain a work-life balance, it is important to work smart during the work-week so you have time to pursue other interests. This is a skill I am still developing. However, one of my non-science interests (besides Netflix, let’s be honest) is running. Even as a former high-school athlete, I only started running in graduate school because my department sponsored graduate students in the 2017 Dexter Ann Arbor Run (shout out to departments that care about health and wellness of their students!). I found that taking the time to exercise is so good for my mental health, and training for races and accomplishing goals outside of the lab is very refreshing. I have several graduate student colleagues that also run, so we are always cheering each other on and completing races together.

What volunteer/outreach efforts are you passionate about? Are you helping to support/promote women, underrepresented minorities, or other groups in STEM fields?
At my desk, I posted a poem by Rupi Kuar entitled Legacy: “I stand, on the sacrifices, of a million women before me, thinking, what can I do, to make this mountain taller, so the IMG_4652(1)women, after me can see farther.” If you replace “women” with any under-represented group in science, you perfectly describe my philosophy of scientific service through scientific communication and K-12 education. My most rewarding outreach is my work co-founding and leading the Girls Who Code at UM DCMB student organization. You can learn more about our work here. I also like to teach science lessons at schools in my community when I visit my hometown. It’s so important to me that students from rural communities see a scientific career as accessible to them!

I have always enjoyed communicating and I come from a non-scientific family so I’ve had my fair share of explaining my research to a lay audience. Therefore, science communication (colloquially known as scicomm) was a very natural endeavor for me. I have written pieces for MiSciWriters and the trainee newsletter for my scientific society, the American Society of Human Genetics. I think scicomm should be a much bigger part of trainee education, and that scientists owe it to the tax payers funding us to explain what we do in relatable language. I would encourage everyone to find a venue to take your scientific training into the world!

If you have had any negative experiences as a woman in STEM, how have you dealt with this?
Some of my female peers and I say we are “lucky” to have faced so little adversity as women in STEM. Imagine feeling “lucky” if you’ve never been sexually harassed at a scientific conference. These experiences are real to many women in STEM, and I’d like to highlight the work of scientists with #MeTooSTEM trying to make positive change for all of us through their advocacy.

While I can say I am “lucky,” one disheartening experience stands out in my memory. A mentor during my undergraduate degree, aware of my interest in pursuing a Master’s in genetic counseling and desire to one day have a family, discouraged me from pursuing a PhD and a career as an academic scientist. I believe this mentor was genuinely looking out for what he believed to be in my best interest, but I see this as a turning point that could have greatly altered my career path. Luckily, I let his advice inspire me to do exactly what he believed I shouldn’t.

I am also lucky to be surrounded by impressive colleagues and mentors. My PhD research advisor Dr. Cristen Willer is an amazing role model for women in STEM. I hope one day I can follow in her footsteps to serve as an exemplar for young women trainees by demonstrating that a successful academic career is not incompatible with a full life (whether that be family or not).

 

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