WIC+ Travel Grant Summary – Alexandra Brown, 2022 ACS Fall National Meeting

I am grateful that the WIC+ Professional Development grant was able to support my travel to the Fall 2022 American Chemical Society National Meeting in Chicago, Illinois. I gave an oral presentation on my research in the Inorganic Young Investigator’s symposium, which was an excellent opportunity to present my graduate work to both students and professors from across the country. In addition, I was able to attend a wide range of oral and poster presentations from other researchers and had a number of insightful conversations with other conference attendees. This was my first time attending an ACS conference as a graduate student and the experience gave me a chance to see a broad range of chemistry research at a single conference and provided me with practice speaking to an audience with diverse research interests. I am thankful to WIC+ for providing students and postdocs with funding to enable these travel opportunities.

WIC+ Travel Grant Summary – Chuchu Guo, 2022 Metals in Medicine Gordon Research Conference

I would like to thank the WIC+ Professional Development Grant for supporting my participation in the Metals in Medicine on Gordon Research Conference in June 2022. With the opportunity of spending five days at Proctor Academy, I learned about the latest research in this field and interacted with many great scientists in the bioinorganic community.

Under the theme of “Metals in Medicine”, the conference focused on improving human health using metal-based drug candidates and consisted of talks and posters spanning from fundamental science to therapeutic application. I learned about the frontiers in this field and got to know about the most recent clinical updates on some promising drug candidates. My abstract for the poster presentation was selected to be a part of the poster preview talks, and I learned how to introduce my work in a three-minute talk to the audience, including my peers at other institutions and some luminaries in this field. During the poster sessions, I had very interesting and insightful discussions, received feedback on my research, and gained inspiration from others. It was very helpful for me to connect with scientists in both academia and industry, who generously shared their experiences in different career paths and gave me much advice on the possibilities of my next steps. I also built friendships with PhD students and postdocs and had a great time talking about our research and life experiences together.

Overall, this conference was a wonderful experience, and I believe that it will be beneficial to my research and life in the future. I am very grateful for the generous support from WIC+ Professional Development Grant that allowed me to participate at this great conference.

WIC+ Travel Grant Summary – Vicky Jun, Chemical Biology and Physiology 21|22 Conference

I am grateful and honored to receive the WIC+ Professional Development Grant. Support from the WIC+ allowed me to attend my first in-person Chemical Biology and Physiology 21|22 Conference held in Oregon, where I was able to build many new networks within chemical biology communities all around the world. As my research interest expands to translational research related to human health, this conference was a perfect opportunity to explore my expertise and interest. I have met and talked with over ten faculty members, including young assistant professors and full professors, from all over the world (e.g., Japan, Canada, Netherlands, and the U.S.). I had a fruitful and meaningful time sharing my current work and getting feedback on proposal ideas for my independent career. I have met many students and postdocs who will be my future academic friends and colleagues. This conference has benefited me professionally and personally by letting me 1) share my work, 2) build a network, and 3) meet mentors whom I can ask for advice when I search for academic jobs in the future. Without the generous support from WIC+, I would not have solely enjoyed the conference without worrying about the cost and other needs.

I would like to thank WIC+committee members for spending their time and effort to review grant applications and provide the best support to every women+ chemist in need. Lastly and most importantly, WIC+ provided me a sense of belonging to this supportive community, which I find to be the best part of getting this support.

WIC+ Travel Grant Summary – Mikaila Hoffman, Molecular Biophysics of Membranes Meeting

The WIC+ Professional Development Grant helped me attend the Molecular Biophysics of Membranes BPS Conference in Lake Tahoe, CA in June 2022. The conference exposed me to a wide range of biophysics research that was fascinating to explore. I was also able to present a poster on my published work exploring the ligand-induced conformational changes observed in bacterial chemoreceptors using single-molecule FRET. This was an excellent opportunity to share my research with the community and get feedback that will strengthen the project moving forward. I was awarded one of three Student Poster Awards sponsored by the Biophysical Journal, and the opportunity to advertise my work in this way was quite valuable. I was also able to network and form connections that will certainly serve my future career aspirations.

WIC+ Travel Grant Summary – Natalie Golota, Experimental Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Conference

The WIC+ Professional Development grant helped me attend the Experimental Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Conference (ENC) in Orlando, Florida in April 2022. I was selected to give an oral presentation which was an extremely valuable experience. This was my first conference talk and the funding from WIC+ helped promote the progress made on the fabrication of single crystal diamond rotors and their use in magnetic resonance experiments. The work is currently unpublished and being able to share it allowed me to receive constructive feedback prior to journal submission. Furthermore, this experience helped me gain experience in preparing and presenting my research and I gained further confidence in my own work through this process. Finally, I was able to network and make personal connections that will no doubt be important for my career in the future.

WIC+ Travel Grant Summary – Vyshnavi Vennelakanti, 2022 WE Local Conference

I am extremely thankful to WIC+ Professional Development Grant for providing me the
opportunity to attend the 2022 WE Local Conference in Buffalo. This was my first time attending a leadership conference. While I did not present at this conference, I attended the talks and participated in the activities held at the conference. There were sessions on a wide variety of topics, ranging from understanding the ideas of perception and reality in the workplace, exploring our unconscious gender bias, to improving presentation skills, responding to bad behavior in the workplace, and how to lead an energetic career. Most of the sessions had a presentation component followed by active discussion among the participants. This helped me understand the different perspectives of other attendees, and also to think in unconventional ways. There were sessions that talked about how to strike the work-life balance, and how family and friends can act as pillars of support through stressful times. There were discussions related to the importance of mental health, and how to openly talk about these issues, and learn to face them. I felt that all of the sessions I attended were extremely helpful, and I took something valuable from them, which I can apply in my personal and professional life. I also had the chance to network with fellow women in STEM, and connected with them. The process of networking helped me identify not only opportunities for internships in industry but also potential next steps for a career in academia.

I thank the WIC+ Professional Development committee for their generous support that allowed me to attend this brilliant conference which has been a wonderful learning experience for me.

WIC+ Travel Grant Summary – JoLynn B. Giancola, ACS Spring 2022 National Meeting

Support from the WIC+ Professional Development Grant enabled my ability to attend the ACS Spring 2022 National Meeting in San Diego, California.

Prior to this meeting, I had not attended an ACS Meeting before, and it was truly incredible. I found the energy at the meeting to be full of excitement, with hundreds of talks occurring simultaneously across many scientific disciplines. It was so refreshing to be able to attend talks and symposia in person. I attended countless talks and poster sessions, and I was able to make important connections with others in the chemical biology community. It was extremely rewarding to be able to engage with scientists whose work I admire. While at the meeting, I attended the Biological Chemistry in Industry networking lunch and was able to network while exploring if a career in industry is right for me. Additionally, I attended a workshop aimed at improving interview skills, which has provided me with invaluable insights as I being to prepare for my next career stage.

I was selected to give an oral presentation in the ACS Biological Chemistry Division’s graduate student symposium. I was thrilled to have been given this opportunity, especially since this was the first time I have been able to externally present my work during my graduate career. I received valuable feedback after my presentation, both in the Q&A session and in informal discussion with colleagues afterwards. I am excited to implement some of the suggestions I received and believe that this will strengthen my work.

I would like to extend my sincerest thanks for this award. This conference was truly an unforgettable experience, and I feel very fortunate to be supported by WIC+.

2021 WIC+ Newsletter

The 2021 WIC+ Newsletter is out! A big thank you to our presidents, Kayla Storme and Stephanie Smelyansky, as well as Dr. Jill Alty, Alison Biester, Dr. Adele Gabba, Azin Saebi, and Katherine Taylor for their contributions to the newsletter.

You can view the newsletter here.

If you would like to support the efforts of WIC+ with a donation, use the following form here and search for the “Women in Chemistry” fund.

Get to know Deena Al Mahbuba

Deena Al Mahbuba is a senior graduate student in Professor Laura Kiessling’s group. Deena began her PhD at the University of Wisconsin Madison and switched groups in her second year to move with Professor Laura Kiessling to MIT in 2017. At MIT, Deena conducts stem cell research aimed at understanding the role of heparan sulfate in human neural development. During her graduate studies, Deena gave birth to her daughter, Aara, at 24 weeks in December 2019. She has since been balancing thesis research, parenthood, and the pandemic. We sat down with Deena to hear more about her scientific and personal journey.

As a child, Deena was a voracious reader, a pastime encourage by her family. Her mother in particular was a large inspiration in Deena’s life. Deena remembers her mother as a woman with an insatiable appetite for learning, always interested in studying something new. In fact, she returned to university for a masters’ degree when her own children were in college! Deena’s  older brother also played a pivotal role. He passed along his personal library of over 2000 volumes to Deena when he left for medical school, and encouraged her to read widely.

This family environment where learning and exploring were central tenets encouraged Deena’s interest in science. An early pivotal step on this path was Deena’s decision to pursue a masters in immunology after finishing her bachelor’s. This was her first research experience, as undergraduate research is less accessible in Bangladesh–where Deena is from–than it is in the US, and Deena was hooked. Afterwards, she applied for a Commonwealth Scholarship and completed a second masters degree at University College London in the United Kingdom. It was there that she came to two important conclusions: firstly, she didn’t enjoy the animal studies requisite for her immunology research and secondly, she wanted to continue research and pursue a PhD. 

Towards those goals, Deena moved to Wisconsin where her husband Murshid was already working towards his doctorate. She joined the Senes lab, a structural biology lab, where she relished her return to basic, fundamental biology research. It was a relatively small lab, and she spent two years there, her work culminating in a first author paper. During her time in the group, her interests began to drift towards developmental biology. It was then that her husband’s advisor decided to move to MIT, giving Deena the opportunity to finish her PhD in the Kiessling group and pursue a developmental biology glycoscience project.  While at first it was difficult to join a new lab and start a new project, Deena persevered. “I must say, I made some really good friends in the Kiessling lab,” says Deena, “I’m very thankful for that. At the end of the day, it was a good decision.”

Deena describes MIT as a dynamic campus, both in terms of science and the people. “It’s very cosmopolitan, so it’s very welcoming to an international student like me,” she notes. Outside of the lab, Deena has been active in the MIT Bangladesh Student Organization. She also enjoys participating in the MIT Glycobio Literature Club, a reading and discussion group across several labs. Still a lover of reading, she also participates in a book club with several friends and loves to spend time collecting books, especially when she travels home to Bangladesh.

While her husband and daughter are here with her in Boston, the majority of Deena’s family live in Bangladesh. Thinking about the last two years, Deena reflected on the challenges of living so far from family during such a turbulent time. While her father came to visit when she was pregnant, he was the last member of her and her husband’s families who visited before their daughter Aara was born. In hindsight, Deena muses now, “A PhD, a premature baby, and a pandemic—that’s an abnormal experience! At every point I thought this is the worst that can happen to me, but after the next challenge, it’s like that was easy.”

Being a mother of a preemie in the best circumstances is difficult, but being both a graduate student and living through a pandemic far from family makes the experience almost unimaginable. Deena credits her friends from lab with keeping her sane and lifting her up during her early months as a mother of a NICU baby and during the pandemic. Laura Kiessling, Deena’s advisor, was also incredibly supportive, suggesting that Deena read about the fetal development happening inside her. “I learned so much about how the embryo grows; I knew so little even though I [am] a stem cell biologist,” recalls Deena, whose project explores glycan structure and function during neuronal differentiation. “I learned that more than 100,000 neurons can grow every minute, compared to 21 days for me to run a differentiation experiment in lab… and sometimes [the cells] just die!” 

Having a child also changed Deena’s perspective on life, something that Laura had discussed with her during her pregnancy. Deena recalls Laura telling her not to worry, and that everything would be okay, her priorities would just shift. As one of several mothers in the Kiessling group, Deena relied on their guidance and support, as well as the small community of other graduate student and postdoctoral mothers in the department. She describes the community as particularly supportive, a group that will try to help even if they don’t know much about you.

Deena is enjoying watching her baby grow up around science. She describes Aara picking up a paper about growth factor binding at the dining room table and pretending to read it, like she sees Deena doing as she works at home. Deena thinks that her identity as a scientist is central to her parenting philosophy. When making decisions about Aara, Deena and Murshid approach the decision as scientists, really preferring to make an evidence-based, data-driven decision.  “Both my husband and I are in science so it really affects the way we raise Aara, but Aara can be anything she wants. She can be a scientist or a singer!” says Deena. 

Now wrapping up her graduate studies, Deena spends her days writing or running experiments, and her evenings with her baby. While Deena is not sure yet what comes after graduate school, she is excitedly looking forward to starting her professional career working at the interface between stem cell biology and neurological diseases. Deena is excited to finish her thesis and finally share her accomplishments with her family and friends, in person.

Get to know Dr. Megan Hill

Megan Hill is a postdoctoral researcher in the Johnson lab at MIT. Prior to MIT, Megan did her undergraduate work at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, and then received her PhD from the University of Florida. Throughout her scientific career, Megan has been intrigued by novel chemical materials, and in particular how minute changes in chemical bonds or interactions can induce drastic changes in material properties. In her current research, Megan is taking advantage of the high Lewis acidity of boron to make boron-based polymers to 1) form dynamic supramolecular networks and 2) develop polymer-based electrolytes for lithium ion batteries.

Megan’s journey to becoming a chemist started in late high school when applying to colleges. Her reasoning for becoming a chemist at the time might have been a little silly, saying, “When I was applying to college, I honestly just thought that I could get into more colleges if I picked a major like chemistry.” However, in her first year of college, a magnificent general chemistry professor got her hooked on the subject. He even made Megan enjoy exams by framing them as “experiences,” using them as a way to challenge his students rather than testing them. Chemistry is indeed challenging, but the attitude Megan learned in this class has stuck with her throughout her career.  “Every step along the way, I assumed I would quit,” says Megan, “But something about [chemistry] just keeps pulling me in. I keep having fun and despite there being a lot of stuff I don’t fully understand, the moment you figure something out is really rewarding.”

During undergraduate, a slew of formative research experiences set her on the path to graduate school. When looking for a research adviser, Megan says, “I really just walked down the hall of professors’ offices and knocked on their doors until I finally found a professor willing to offer me an opportunity.” She ended up in the lab of Philip Costanzo, a polymer synthesis lab. Professor Costanzo was able to leverage his research connections to help Megan find research opportunities around the globe, first in Uppsala,  Sweden with Jöns Hilborn and then with Brent Sumerlin, who was then at Southern Methodist University. Speaking of her experience in the Sumerlin lab, Megan says, “I loved that experience so much that in that moment I made the decision to go to grad school and I just decided to join his group, which was moving to University of Florida.”

After undergraduate, Megan never stopped travelling: during her PhD she worked in France for six months and then did a short post-doc in Japan at University of Tokyo. Of her many research experiences, Megan’s time in Japan helped her identify what she values not just as a scientist but as a person, saying, “During my time in Tokyo I realized how much I value a genuine work-life balance and how much the culture of where you live influences your happiness.” The hierarchical and often sexist culture she experienced as a female scientist in Tokyo had largely jaded her against continuing in science; however, the positivity and collegiality she sensed during her interview with the Johnson group convinced her to give her post-doc a second shot. 

At MIT, Megan has been an active and engaged member of both the Johnson lab and the chemistry department at large. WIC+ in particular has helped her settle into her role as a leader in her lab, giving her the tools to build a positive and inclusive work environment. “The WIC+ community is a safe space to have meaningful and honest conversations about rarely spoken topics,” says Megan. “Being a part of these conversations has given me the confidence to speak up and as a PostDoc I feel more responsibility to do so and to define the culture.” 

Looking towards the future, Megan is currently applying to faculty jobs. Just like Megan values inclusivity, work-life balance, and collegiality in her own life, she’s looking for a department that shares those same values, saying, “I would love to find a department that will really cheer for the success of their faculty.” 

But before she leaves us here at MIT for greener pastures, she has some sage words of advice for younger trainees: “The most important thing to me was finding mentors who were very supportive and encouraging. Second, find a mentor who wants to help you identify what your goals are and help you achieve those goals. Third, look for a mentor that values mentoring and focuses on your development as a human being, not only as a scientist.”