Meet Natalie: A dancer with a PhD in cell biology

I met Natalie earlier this year in Berkeley, CA, where we meeting with other members of the Coalition for the Public Understanding of Science team. She’s beautiful, smart, passionate about science literacy, and a terrific role model for young women. But don’t take my word for it. Let’s hear from Natalie:
Dancing_withJimmySciCheer: What turned you on to science?
Natalie: I always liked science classes in middle and high school, but truthfully, I always liked most of my subjects. Then in high school I got a chance to work for a summer in a research lab, and that was the experience that transformed me from someone who kind of liked science into someone who loved it. *Doing* real science made the difference and convinced me that I wanted to be a researcher. I still think that if people only knew how much fun it is to participate in science, to mull over data or to try out an experiment they’ve dreamed up, then when I tell people that I’m a biological engineer, I’d hear a lot fewer saying, “oh I hated science when I was in school.”
SciCheer: What degree(s) did you pursue for your current position?

Natalie: I studied dance and chemistry in college and then got a PhD in cell biology. And did a few years of post-doctoral training before starting in a faculty position.

SciCheer: What is your current position and what do you do?

Natalie: I develop and teach new classes for MIT’s undergraduate major in biological engineering. It’s an exciting and new field–and scary too. Genetic engineering has so much promise to do good things but there’s also a lot of uncertainty and nervousness: Genetically Modified Foods, nanotechnology, synthetic life forms…plenty of creepy movies start with biological engineering gone wrong. So I also spend time coordinating the local efforts to improve understanding of science and engineering. For instance the Coalition on the Public Understanding of Science (COPUS) is a nationwide, grassroots effort to better connect science to society, and I help coordinate its Boston-area activities. Outreach is key to re-engaging the public with science. The websites, Understanding Science and BioBuilder, are also a resources that I try to talk about and promote in our local schools.

SciCheer: What forms of dance did you study/are you studying?

Natalie: Ballet…lots of ballet…and on that foundation I’ve studied Graham, Horton, and Cunningham technique, some musical theater, and these days lyrical jazz.

SciCheer: Do you find that being a dancer helped or hindered your studies or professional experiences? Were you taken seriously?

Natalie: There are lots of scientists who passionately pursue their artistic talents. Many scientists I know are musicians, others are fine artists. I haven’t met a lot who are dancers, but if I mention that I dance, then nearly everyone is very supportive and interested. The hardest part, for me, right now, is trying to find enough time for the two activities I love. I’m on the run most days, trying to be uber-efficient at everything. In some ways it helps me get more done, being this busy. But I’d be lying if I didn’t also say that there are lots of compromises. For instance, I don’t travel to as many scientific meetings as I might like and I definitely don’t get to as many dance classes as would be good for me.

Teaching_withBenjiSciCheer: Tell me a little about your favorite courses.

Natalie: I remember liking most of my classes, but I wish I’d worked harder at my writing and speaking skills early on. These turn out to be hugely important in any career, even more than grades and test scores. If you can’t communicate the work you’ve done, then you might as well not have done it, right?

SciCheer: Do you have any advice for middle or high school girls who might feel torn between following one dream (dancing) or following another (science) usually associated with, well, geeks? :)

Natalie: I like the Katharine Hepburn quote, “If you always do what interests you, at least one person is pleased.” It’s hard to follow this advice when you’re in school since rules are everywhere and you’re always being judged or tested, and being “well rounded” is highly prized. But eventually you’ll be on a path that you can define and it’s really important to know what you’d like to do with that freedom and what it takes to make your dream a reality.

SciCheer: Best dance experience?

Natalie: Don’t ask me to choose a best! I’ve worked with wonderful teachers and choreographers who took a heart-felt interest in me. I’ve also danced with amazing companies and dancers. They feel like family. These days, I don’t dance with a company but every week I do take class with my dance family. I’m also able to support the younger dancers at the studio through Boston Youth Moves, the studio’s pre-professional training program.

SciCheer: Best academic experience related to science?

Natalie: I love coming into the lab in the morning to see if my overnight experiments worked. There’s something incredibly satisfying and fun about that. But even more, I love the teaching I can do in the lab. My students are so excited to be learning new things and investigating ideas themselves, and they’re so smart! Watching them discover that research could be a path for them is the best part of my job.

SciCheer: Anything else you’d like to add?

Natalie: I would spend my days exactly the way I do now, even if I didn’t get paid for it. Actually, maybe I don’t want people to know that! :)

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