STEM Up (S2): Barbara Del Castello

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I am a 5th year PhD Candidate in Genetics at the University of Georgia. I study developmental biology, specifically of the parathyroid and thymus, two vital organs that actually derive from the same tissue in development. I am passionate about science policy and spend my spare time advocating for diversity in STEM.

1. How would you describe your job/role?

A PhD candidate is somewhere between a student and full-flung researcher. I no longer attend courses, but I am still very much learning. As a graduate student, it is less about memorization and more about problem solving, planning, and applying your knowledge in new ways. I still have a professor who helps in my growth and a committee I update on my progress towards my degree. I have a lot of independence to dive into projects and examine what interests me, with the support of my mentors.
A vast majority of my project involves examining thin slices of tissue under a microscope looking for proteins. These proteins glow under florescent light due to a process I put them through, making these beautiful technicolored images. The reason I do this is because I am interested in discovering if certain genes are present in the tissue and are making these proteins. These genes could unlock how the parathyroid and thymus are created!

2. What are some challenges you have faced in this research?

My biggest challenge is that the process to make the proteins “glow” (called immunohistochemistry) is easy to mess up. It requires following an exact protocol, otherwise precious samples could be lost forever. There is nothing more frustrating than going through two days of work, looking under the microscope, and seeing nothing! Also, being a PhD candidate can be hard because there are high expectations of your productivity. It can be easy to lose yourself in your work and forget to take a break! Work-life balance is very important in STEM.

3. What made you choose this STEM discipline? Were you inspired by someone?

I have always wanted to go into a STEM field, although I didn’t know that I wanted to go into genetics until high school. My mother got her degree in geology, and while she got pushed out of the field due to sexism (my mother was made to do paperwork while her male colleagues got to do field work), she wanted me to know that I could be whatever I wanted and to disregard anyone who said otherwise. Her voice drove me to pursue higher education and be the first person in my family to attend graduate school.

4. What’s the best way to enter your field? What kind of experience or skills should one possess to build a successful career in the same?

I don’t think there is any right way to pursue genetics. A lot of the advice I hear is to join a lab as an undergraduate. But personally, I went to a small liberal arts school and while I got exposure to lab work, this was very different than larger campuses where you can join a traditional “lab”. I also took a gap year between undergraduate and graduate to work in science policy!
The closest I came to getting “lab experience” was a few months as a post-baccalaureate researcher in what would eventually become by thesis lab. I think if you’re passionate about being a STEM researcher you can do a lot to gain experience! You can take a gap year and work in biotech, you can be a technician in a lab, you can do research as an undergrad, or even in high school! Whatever works for you and your life experience.

5. What are some cool things that people in your profession work on?

There are so many things you can do with a degree in genetics! You can work in biotechnology (think companies like 23andMe), biomedicine (Interested in curing cancer? Think about the growing field of immunotherapy!), academia (professors not only get to teach the next generation of scientists, they can continue to make extraordinary jumps in science), science communication or journalism (what better person to explain what CRISPR is than someone who has used it?), or science policy, which is what I plan on going into.

6. What keeps you going in your research? What’s next for your career?

I am a big believer that science should benefit all of society. My current research lands firmly in the biomedical field, which means some day my research might help a future scientist develop a cure to a disease or create a new treatment. Science is constantly building upon itself, so if I could provide even just one leg up to the next scientist with my data, I know I’ve done good.
Next up for my career to take my love of science and beliefs about science helping society to the next level- science policy! I am passionate about biosecurity, which means protecting the public from anything that could harm them of biological origin, from pandemics to anthrax. Scientists are always needed in fields like this because we provide expertise and understanding.

7. What is it like to be a woman in STEM? What are some challenges that you have faced?

Being a woman in STEM can be hard, I won’t deny it. I’ve been sexually harassed by professors and disparaged by male colleagues. I have been told more times than I can count that I am “too pretty to do science” which is, abjectly, the most horrendously stupid thing I have ever heard. Your appearance has nothing to do with your ability to do science. Race, gender, or ability have zero impact on your ability to do science. Luckily, for every comment like that I have met an incredible person who is succeeding and thriving in STEM and is there to support me. And with online and in person communities fostering and supporting diversity in STEM, it is easier now than it has been in the past (for people like my mother) to find a home in STEM. I have so many queer and women role models in STEM that I look up to now!

8. What are 3 things that you wish could change about STEM?

1) The gender and racial disparity in STEM. There are not nearly enough people of color or women in these fields.
2) The pressure on graduate students. Graduate students in STEM have some of the highest levels of depression and anxiety, typically due to the sometimes very toxic environments in academia.
3) The “Ivory Tower” mentality. Science should be easily accessible and understandable. Scientists can often get lost in their niche that they only ever communicate with other scientists. Most of our research is funded by the public, so our research should be too, not hidden behind paywalls!

9. What do you think can help get girls into STEM?

Exposure. You cannot know if you are interested in something if you’ve never witnessed it! For example, my mother often bought me toys that were from the “boys” section because that’s where things like science kits, dinosaur toys, and other STEM-related toys were located. I am so glad that in recent years this has changed some, but a lot of work still needs to be done. A Barbie in a lab coat is great, but let’s push our girls to keep asking questions and to not be discouraged in school (especially high school). Let’s show them famous women scientists and what they discovered, and let’s get them in the lab, behind the computer, or in the field out having fun.

10. What message would you like to give to our young readers?

Never, ever let anyone tell you that you aren’t good enough to be what you want to be. That includes adults! If something makes you excited or curious, chase that feeling. If you change your mind, that is totally fine, but let it be because you want to do something else, not because the world said you should. It’s hard, I know, but sometimes being stubborn isn’t a bad thing.

Thank you for reading our third STEM Up interview of the season! To know more about what Barbara is up to, follow her journey at @lifewithbabs

Follow us on Instagram for more women in STEM interviews at codejammies

Want to make a difference with your STEM story? Email us at codejammies@gmail.com

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