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.”

Get to know Yasmeen Alfaraj

Yasmeen was born and raised in Saudi Arabia, transitioned to California to receive her B.S. in Chemistry from UC Berkeley, and braved New England’s winters to pursue her PhD in Chemistry at MIT. When we asked Yasmeen about her motivation to pursue science, she recalled an early experiment from her childhood: collecting and organizing ants into different jars and feeding them various things. While her parents weren’t very happy about having jars of ants around the house, Yasmeen found an interest in observing how her actions affected the world around her.

Ants weren’t the only thing that influenced Yasmeen to pursue a STEM education. Her mom, an ophthalmologist who began her specialization during Yasmeen’s formative years, and her dad, a computer engineer, always emphasized the importance of education. Saudi Arabia also has many great programs that foster involvement in STEM, such as foundations like Mawhiba, which Yasmeen is very proud to have been a part of. Mawhiba connects students to educational programs, competitions, and research experiences in STEM. Through Mawhiba, Yasmeen’s first lab experience was in the KAUST Catalysis Center working with a great advisor and mentor, who trained her on how to work in a lab and how to communicate her work in front of her peers. Her experience in Mawhiba proved to be life-changing, heavily influencing her views on academia and her home country of Saudi Arabia. 

Yasmeen found herself applying and eventually choosing MIT Chemistry because of the great mentors she had on her journey, which complemented her desire to work on fundamental research while also exploring application-based research. After six months at home in Saudi Arabia due to the pandemic, Yasmeen is now entering her third year in graduate school as a PhD candidate in Professor Jeremiah Johnson’s lab investigating data-driven methods for accelerated materials design. Yasmeen recently joined ChemREFS, where she most enjoys events aimed at building a sense of community in the department, as well as conversations with the other student groups, including WIC+. She also finds support in multiple communities she identifies with, such as those in her Chemistry and PPSM cohort, friends from Saudi Arabia who also live in the Boston area, colleagues from Berkeley who ended up coming to Boston, and the newest member of her family: her cat Namla.

When asked about advice for incoming students, Yasmeen says to treat every day as a learning experience—including lab work and interpersonal interactions—and to lean on the people around you when you are experiencing hard moments. She emphasizes that we are not alone here.

Get to know Professor Xiao Wang

Xiao Wang is a Thomas D. and Virginia W. Cabot Professor of Chemistry at MIT in the Department of Chemistry. In 2019, Professor Wang joined MIT and the Broad, where she became the first Core Member of the Broad Institute with an academic appointment in the Department of Chemistry. Professor Wang’s group works to develop and apply new chemical, biophysical, and genomic tools to better understand brain function and dysfunction at the molecular level. 

How it began: from math to chemistry

Professor Wang’s impressive scientific achievements began in grade school as a competitor in national math competitions in China. “I liked mathematics,” says Wang, “because all you need to do is think. It’s kind of like your own game without worrying about instruments.” Her thinking skills led her to excel in competition, ultimately resulting in her admission to a math and science high school. 

It was in high school where her interests first began to pivot from mathematics to chemistry. In her middle school chemistry classes, Wang was left unsatisfied by lackluster answers and explanations of chemical processes, saying, “In middle school and high school you just need to memorize, so all you need to memorize is the symbol of elements. They may show some interesting reactions to make you interested, but the explanation is not satisfactory.” At her high school, however, things were different: Wang was able to take chemistry classes with college professors and perform research in university chemistry labs.  Once she got to dive deeper into the details of chemical reactions in high school, she was totally hooked. “We learned about molecular orbitals, crystal structures,” says Wang, “it was totally a game changer.” 

With a growing interest in chemistry, Wang went on to compete in national chemistry competitions. Her gold-medal win at a nationwide chemistry competition in China granted her early admission to the prestigious Peking University. At Peking University, Wang worked in the lab of Professor Jian Pei, who was integral to her early development as a scientist. Even though Wang was still an undergrad, Professor Jian Pei treated Wang like a graduate student, giving Wang her own project and complete control over its design. 

These skills later led Wang to thrive in her PhD working with Professor Chuan He at the University of Chicago, and then later on in her post-doc supported by Life Science Research Foundation and Moore Foundation with Professor Karl Deisseroth at Stanford. In particular, Wang’s independence allowed her to chart new territories in the Deisseroth lab, setting up her own “mini nucleic acids biochemistry lab within the big [Deisseroth] lab.” In her post-doc, Wang developed new methods to analyze both RNA localization and sequence in intact brain tissue. In addition, she collaborated with an interdisciplinary team of people to work on the neuroscience and computational aspects of the project while pioneering the biochemistry work herself. Working with this interdisciplinary team of scientists later helped her build her own team and lab in Boston.

Building communities: exploring the diversity of life in the U.S.

When Professor Wang first moved to the US, she found a great community of fellow international students in Chicago. Serendipitously, Wang ended up in a cohort with seven of her undergraduate classmates, saying about her experience, “I feel lucky that I actually had a lot of Chinese friends from college… seven people from Peking University came to the same department. That’s never happened before or after.”  However, Wang’s friends weren’t just those from college; the large international student body allowed her to meet people from all over the world, saying, “I have friends who came from Korea, Japan, Europe. I feel like I just met people from everywhere.” This large international community helped Wang adjust to life in the States, providing her with a sense of belonging in a country that was not her own. 

Upon transitioning to her postdoc at Stanford, Wang took the opportunity to more thoroughly explore American culture. Wang said “The majority of the [Deisseroth] lab was U.S. students and postdocs and staff scientists. I had a really great cultural experience there. Lab events helped introduce Wang to elements of California culture that might otherwise seem mundane. “For lab events we went to Napa Valley and other wineries. That’s when I discovered [Americans] like wine so much,” says Wang. “And also, we played poker games.”

Independent career

Like many of us in graduate school, Professor Wang was not always certain she wanted to pursue a career in academia. She considered various options, such as becoming a patent lawyer, working in the pharmaceutical industry, or even becoming a science writer. Her decision to do a post-doc and continue on in academia was heavily influenced by her experience at a Gordon Research Conference that she attended as a graduate student. Gordon Research Conferences typically have research seminars in the morning, but the afternoons are left totally free to encourage socializing and networking between trainees and faculty. The sense of community she felt at the conference motivated her to become a professor. “[At] every scientific conference you are gathering and reuniting with old friends. I think that’s rare for other types of jobs,” says Wang.  Like her experience in graduate school, Wang realized that a career in academia would enable her to establish friendships and make connections with people all over the world. “You can have old friends all over the world, you see them several times a year… that’s the life I want to have. You have some long-lasting friendships and you are doing the things you want to do.”

By the end of graduate school, Wang had a good idea of what she wanted to do in her independent career. In choosing her post-doc lab, Wang looked for a lab where she would glean the missing skills she needed to pursue her own independent projects, saying, “I wanted to study the diversity of RNA in tissues and then I felt like imaging is something that I really wanted to do. So, it’s kind of like I already a little bit imagined what I wanted to do with my own lab, and what was the missing piece, and you fill that missing piece during your postdoc.” 

The skills she learned in her postdoc and the techniques she developed ultimately became the foundation of her current lab, where her group uses dual nucleic acid imaging and sequencing techniques to study how gene regulation affects the brain structure and function.  But just a few short months after Wang opened her lab at MIT and the Broad, the world–and the lab–shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Wang was frustrated to say the least; she could no longer work hands on with her students while trying to get her lab up and running. “I thought that for the first half of the year I could teach students in the lab how to do experiments,” says Wang, “But later on, for several months the lab was closed, and there were also several months where you could be there, but you had to be several feet away. How do you teach people how to do experiments that way?” Despite these challenges, Professor Wang and her students kept forging a path forward, gaining new members and putting out new papers even in these trying times. 

Finally, Professor Wang offers some advice for young scientists who are interested in academia. “Cherish your own passions and don’t live by other people’s opinions,” says Wang. Curiosity, creativity, and a passion for science can easily be lost when trying to live up to other people’s expectations. Afterall, “It’s always more fun and fulfilling to try your own ideas,” says Wang.