Currently pursuing a PhD at Caltech, Alex Phillips grew up in science and is the founder of Women Doing Science.
By Ka-Yun Lau
Can you share a bit about yourself and your background in science?
My mother is a medical doctor and a scientist, so I had early exposure to the life of a scientist. I attended University of California, Santa Barbara, studying marine science. At UCSB I realized how much I enjoyed organic chemistry. Now I am a 4th year PhD student at Caltech in organic geochemistry. My thesis focuses on measuring sulfur in organic compounds like amino acids and studying sulfur cycling in environments like lakes and oceans.
When did your interest in marine science begin?
I participated in the National Ocean Science Bowl (NOSB), a buzzer Q and A competition where high school students answer marine science questions. My team was this amazing all-girls team. We studied together by reading textbooks and watching the Blue Planet series after school. The competition was a fun and unique introduction to marine science. I did a summer internship at Birch Aquarium where the competition was held! I still volunteer there when I visit San Diego, and I am grateful for NOSB and Birch Aquarium for sparking my interest in marine science.
That’s great! These programs and competitions can expose students to different fields outside of their usual interests. Can you share more about your thesis project?
I work in the Geology and Planetary Science division (GPS) with my advisor, Dr. Alex Sessions. He is an incredible geochemist who uses tools like mass spectrometers to look at the structure of molecules. His lab has a major focus on developing new methods to look at compounds that have not been analyzed yet. These new analyses can answer questions in all sorts of fields, including marine science. One of my thesis projects is making the first measurements of cysteine and methionine for sulfur isotope composition. I hope that this method can eventually improve our understanding of how amino acids and other organic carbon compounds cycle in the oceans.
What is your goal when you complete your PhD program?
I think I will pursue a career in science policy after a post-doc. Science policy is appealing because I would act as a sort of translator between policy makers and scientists, working for a congressional office or a scientific agency. I really enjoy scientific communication, and I want to use my PhD to make a difference in the world.
I know you also manage Women Doing Science on social media platforms. What led to this and what do you hope to come from this?
This was a personal project that just blew up, pretty unexpectedly. A geologist in my department had these great photos of herself out in the field. She would be covered in mud or holding up a cool rock. It was so awesome to see those photos. They showed me that there’s an option to do that, to go out in field and not just work in a lab.
I wanted more exposure to these types of action photos, not just headshots and stock photos of scientists. I started the Instagram page with a photo of myself in the field, explaining my research. From there, my friends and other scientists submitted photos and stories.
As it grew, I realized that I wanted to showcase the international nature of science. Only 30% of our followers are from the USA, so there is clear international interest in the page. We started posting in multiple languages, showing the post in English and in the scientist’s native language. Now 25% of our posts are bilingual and we have an amazing team of translators. I like the idea of fostering connections among international scientists by including more than just English in science communication.
It’s amazing when the community gets together and even more so when it’s on international level. Do you have a favorite post or a story from this experience?
Too many! Recently, we had a post by an American scientist whose parents are Chinese. She could speak Chinese but not write the characters. Luckily, I have a friend, Guannan, who is on the Women Doing Science team as our Chinese translator. She was able to provide a translation. Apparently, this was the first time the scientist’s parents were able to read about her work and research in their native language. The scientist said that they finally understood what she was doing — she thanked Guannan for providing this powerful and emotional connection for her family.
Another story comes from a Vietnamese post. The scientist mentioned her Vietnamese background. After I asked for a translation, there was a bit of a delay. She sent the text a few weeks later explaining that she had to work with her parents to translate, but that was the first time they all talked about her science in Vietnamese. I love to hear these stories of communication — they make running the account so worthwhile.
Communication is powerful. While English is the standard language for science, it’s not universal. I think that having different languages in posts improves access for young people in their own languages all over the world. I really enjoy seeing comments on international posts in native languages.
Five years from now, what do you think or hope will have changed in science field?
There are two things here. One, I hope science will be more inclusive and diverse with more women, people of color, people with disabilities, etc. How do we teach or expose geology to someone who is blind, for example? How do we make computer science and engineering more accessible to men and women of disadvantaged economic backgrounds?
I think these changes are happening from the bottom up already, with graduate and undergraduate students advocating, but we really need more top down approaches from universities. I’m looking forward to seeing science move to this more inclusive place.
Secondly, I want to see smarter climate change policies from the American government. We have a lot of promising research happening on carbon sequestration, but very little political action. We need legislation in place for wildfire prevention, ocean acidification mitigation, carbon emission reductions, clean energy increases, and many other topics.
It will take a wave of effective new federal and state policy to tackle this changing climate, but I think we are ready.
Ka-Yun Lau is currently the Marketing Coordinator for Innovate Pasadena. She believes in storytelling through social media, creating visual graphics, and establishing relationships for cross-promotions.
> This article, published in cooperation with Innovate Pasadena, was edited for space and clarity. Read the full article here.
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