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STEMinista meets a nobel laureate

Nobel(before we begin, please note this post contains medical content that may make some younger readers uncomfortable)

Now, let’s really begin this post with a quick vocabulary lesson, because Laureate is a tricky word – I had to look up how to spell it myself.

According to Google,

Laureate: a person who is honored with an award for outstanding creative or intellectual achievement

Thus what we’re talking about today is me, a young scientist, meeting Nobel prize winner Dr. Harald zur Hausen. This is like meeting a rock star, seriously. Nobel prizes in science and medicine are given to people who make completely transformative discoveries that change the way the entire research community approaches a problem. This hope to change the world is the reason many people choose to go in to STEM, and it is inspiring to meet someone who has achieved that goal.

At the welcome dinner, there was literally a line of young scientists and clinicians who waited in line to meet Dr. zur Hausen and get a picture with him, and he was so kind to speak with all of us and humor us with taking countless pictures.

me with Dr. zur Hausen, a true science and medical rock star

me with Dr. zur Hausen, a true science and medical rock star

Dr. zur Hausen was one of 3 Nobel prize winners in Physiology/Medicine. Just for context of the importance of the work he did, the other two researchers who won that year discovered HIV. Kind of a big deal. Dr. zur Hausen won the award for discovering that human papilloma virus (HPV) is the source of most cervical cancers in 1984. We now know that it is associated with a host of other cancers as well. I’ll spare you the details.


Think about the implications of that work.

First of all, it led to dramatic improvements in screening for cervical cancer.

More importantly, 22 years later, this led to a vaccine for HPV, which should dramatically reduce the incidence of cervical (and other) cancers.

This man could be responsible for almost completely eradicating cervical cancer.

Remember when we talked about inventors the other day? The discovery made by this man has dramatically impacted the lives of millions of women (and men) worldwide.

He didn’t just stop once he made this revolutionary discovery. His career was pretty much set, but he kept doing incredible research in virus work.

When I went to Dr. zur Hausen’s lecture, I was expecting to hear about cervical cancer. Instead, the title of the talk was something about cow meat and cow milk being pathogenic.


This is completely outside the world of cervical cancer and I was fascinated to see the talk. (spoiler: the talk was fantastic!!) Dr. zur Hausen showed us lots of data about how international colon rates internationally vary based on the amount of red meat consumed. He also showed how as countries have increased their meat consumption, the rates of colon cancer have gone up accordingly, and how rates are also impacted by which species of animal is being consumed, and how it is prepared.

Traditionally, the source of carcinogens in red meat is thought to be hydrocarbon byproducts from cooking. Fish and white meat are prepared the same way and have the same potential carcinogen byproducts in the cooking process – but there isn’t a link to cancer rates like there is with red meat. Therefore, maybe something else is at play besides the known carcinogens.  Perhaps consuming infected meat is a co-factor that acts in connection with some other process to aid in cancer development.

At this point, I was really enjoying the talk – but it got more mind-blowing from there.

The colon cancer story made a lot of sense because meat that you consume goes through the colon during the digestion process. Next, Dr. zur Hausen showed some compelling data which suggested that there might be a link between cow milk consumption and the incidence of both breast and lung cancer. It’s pretty incredible that you could make the leap that there might be a virus playing into the risk factors for those diseases – and hugely significant.

For this work, his lab collected samples of cow milk and serum and did analysis to see what types of viruses were most commonly present. Then, they compared the findings with diseases found in humans. What’s interesting is that so far, the disease they found where the virus DNA was similar between the animal milk and human disease was multiple sclerosis (MS).

Dr. zur Hausen showed a potential theory for the development of MS as a combination of two viruses in early age (including one from cow milk). Later in life, if there is a vitamin D deficiency, the viruses can be re-activated and mutated, causing brain lesions consistent with MS. Wow, just wow.

If that is true, and there is a virus that is part of the MS puzzle, then preventative therapies can be developed. . Instead of treating people, cows can be vaccinated for the identified virus, so the virus never reaches humans. Absolutely incredible, earth-shaking medical research.

I left the lecture inspired, and tempted to pursue a career change to virology. It is incredible the type of impact a single person can make. What kind of impact will you make in your career?


Dream Beyond STEM (really!)

dream beyond stemHold on, hold on friends, before you send me hate mail – I know that this sounds totally counterintuitive, but follow my logic on this before you judge me.

Remember last week, we talked about the stereotypical ‘scientist’, ‘engineer’, and ‘mathematician’? I told you that you could succeed even if you don’t meet that stereotype. But – when I was younger, I didn’t necessarily want to fight my way into a ‘geeky’ profession, either. I admit – I’m pretty high on the ‘nerd’ scale, but I didn’t want to confine myself to a (real or perceived) life of pocket protectors, safety glasses, and social awkwardness either.

Because that was basically my perception of technical careers. Maybe you have the same worries when you think about pursuing science and math? You like that material, but you don’t want everyone to label you as a ‘nerd’ or ‘geek’ or ‘bookworm’.

What I didn’t know then, but what I know now is that there are really, really neat career options in STEM, and some of the most interesting people you’ll ever meet are in STEM careers. Scientists, mathematicians, and engineers as a whole are far more interesting than society gives us credit for.

STEM isn’t necessarily your single defining feature – it is just one part of you as a whole. If you want to build your life around science or math, you can. But you can also have a highly technical career, and be a ‘real’ or ‘normal’ person outside of – and within your career.

Let me tell you about my ‘a-ha!’ moment:

One day in graduate school, my dear and brilliant friend (she has a master’s degree in math!) told me a great story about her seven year old daughter. She asked her daughter what she wanted to be when she grows up. And her daughter – always an original – said, “I want to be a doctor-scientist-princess”.

‘OF COURSE!!!’ I thought (yes – really, yelling at myself in all caps, like in Charlie Brown)

‘THAT’S EXACTLY WHAT I WANT TO BE WHEN I GROW UP TOO!!!’ Why pigeon-hole yourself into just fitting into one role? Isn’t that holding yourself back?

This is me - the day I defended my PhD dissertation - tiara and all!

This is me – the day I defended my PhD dissertation – tiara and all!

Instead, pursue what makes you YOU, and what makes you happy. Even if it’s unexpected. Even if other people don’t quite understand it. Think about what will make you happy going to work every day for the rest of your career, and go for it.

Let’s say you love science and engineering and the environment and golf? Why not go for all of those things? What’s holding you back?  You could go into golf course design (my grandparents had a friend who did this), or you could be an engineer for a few years, save up some money, and then put your career on hold to try out a career in professional golf (Mr. SciGuy has a friend actually doing this – right now).

What if you like videogames, and coding, and you also love fashion and design? I bet you could figure out a really cool way to integrate all those things into a career. Or why not pursue a career in game development, and look adorable doing it? Who’s going to tell you no?

Let’s say you like math and you love cars, but you also love the outdoors. The auto industry is dyyying to hire you. Now. They literally can’t hire enough qualified professionals right now. And guess what – many automotive jobs start with 4-6 weeks of paid vacation time a year, on top of flexible hours that would allow you to get out and enjoy nature early in the morning or in the afternoon on a regular basis.  You CAN have more than just a STEM job.

Don’t let other people’s stereotypes of science and engineering make you feel forced to choose between your interest in schoolwork versus the rest of your other interests. You can still maintain your personality while also being a smart (brilliant!) cookie.

Ask anybody who works with me – they’ll all agree that I fit the “doctor-scientist-princess” mold pretty well. It’s perfect – for me.  That little 7 year old’s insight has stuck with me for years, and I’ve added onto it. I’m a doctor-scientist-princess-runner-swimmer-foodie-traveler-wife-mother-sister-daughter-friend-mentor and so much more.

How is it that a 7 year old had the insight to see that you can be more than ‘just’ STEM, when I couldn’t come up with that myself in 26 years?  It was so freeing to me to be able to look at my career as just a part of the person I am instead of defining who I am.

Now, when people get to know me, and ask about my job, I’m proud to tell them what I do (I do love it, after all). If it happens that they’re surprised (more often than not, people are), I smile a little on the inside, happy that I’m doing my part to break people’s stereotypes of what exactly a STEM ‘geek’ is.

So – what about you – what do you aspire to become?  in STEM and outside of STEM?



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