This week we sat down with Michelle Dookwah, a graduate research assistant, at the University of Georgia’s Complex Carbohydrate Research Center. Michelle is also in the process of earning a Ph.D. in biochemistry and microbiology and has a passion for scicomm. We were really excited to talk to Michelle about her interests and experiences in many areas of the scientific discipline.
Michelle was introduced to the world of science at a young age because her father teaches veterinary sciences and ran a research lab for many years of her childhood. At the lab, she would often spend quality time with her dad and this is also where she learned to use a microscope for the first time. After this, she was fascinated! Later, in high school, Michelle spent a summer working in a lab at the University of Georgia. It was during this summer that she truly realized she wanted to be a scientist.
After high school, Michelle went on to earn an undergraduate degree in molecular, cellular, and developmental biology. While working on this degree, Michelle was very interested in cancer research and worked in a lab at the Yale Cancer Center. As a result, Michelle originally thought that she would continue with cancer research for her graduate studies. However, after doing additional research, she took a different direction to focus on rare diseases. She is very grateful that she kept an open mind during this period because it brought her into an area she is really passionate about.
For her Ph.D. project, Michelle uses patient stem cells to study rare disorders. Specifically, she is working on a rare disorder called Salt and Pepper Syndrome, which causes skin pigment problems as well as severe neurological symptoms. Using stem cells for this type of work is important because as Michelle explained, “Stem cells are a special type of cell that can turn into any other type of cell in the human body! This is great for studying rare disorders and neurological disorders because obtaining patient brain cells is challenging, especially when there are very few patients with the disorder.” During the project, as with most Ph.D. studies, Michelle has experienced a few setbacks, but this has allowed her to learn and grow more than she would have otherwise. These experiences have taught her to maintain perspective and to realize that mistakes are never the end of the world. Ultimately, her goal is for the technology and information developed from this project to be used to study other diseases, including more common disorders like Alzheimer's. Overall, Michelle says that her thesis has opened her eyes to the importance of rare diseases and has made her passionate about raising awareness for these conditions.
In addition to her research and academic work, Michelle is also very active in another area, science communication. Michelle loves any opportunity to talk about science and to share information with others. In 2016, she attended an American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology meeting where she learned more about careers that combine science and communication, including those in the areas of writing, policy, and outreach. After this experience sparked her curiosity, Michelle took to the internet to learn more about these types of jobs and became an active member of the online scicomm community. Becoming involved with scicomm and pivoting her career goals in this direction, has reignited her passion for science.
For Michelle, jumping into the world of scicomm has brought along challenges and triumphs. She started her own blog, PhDing the Balance, where she shares stories, thoughts, and studies about many areas of science. The biggest challenges Michelle has faced are finding the time and confidence to write. Sometimes, she has to put writing on the back burner and dedicate her time to the lab, but the great thing is that scicomm is always waiting for her when she returns. Additionally, it can be nerve-wracking to post writing publicly, but Michelle has worked to feel confident in her abilities. As she adds more posts to her blog, she feels continually more excited about its future and to be following this passion. We will surely be reading along as she continues to write!
Michelle’s plans for when she finishes her Ph.D. are still somewhat up in the air. She sees many roles that could combine her interests and passions though, so she is not panicking about finding something that is a good fit. Right now, she sees the possibility of a position in engagement and outreach or in something that focuses more on writing.
To end our conversation, Michelle shared one of her favorite quotes by Henry David Thoreau, “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you’ve imagined.” This a fantastic piece of advice for anyone working in science or research and it’s especially relevant for students working toward degrees in these areas. We are so excited to see what direction Michelle’s dreams will take her. At Conseris, we love supporting scientists and researchers as their careers progress and change. Learn how you can start making your own data collection more efficient on our website.