Erika Ebbel: From Beauty Pageants to Pipetters

Erika_E1Science Cheerleader readers,  I’d like to introduce you to Erika Ebbel, current PhD candidate in analytical chemistry at Boston University, former Miss Massachusetts, and founder of WhizKidz, an amazing non-profit that promotes science and technology awareness in local schools.

Erika was recently featured on NOVA ScienceNOW’s web series, The Secret Lives of Scientists, which makes her an official superstar celebrity scientist! Check it out — there is a particularly great video of Erika demonstrating “the science of the gown walk”.

I had a chance to ask Erika few questions about her passion for science, the challenges of dealing with stereotypes, and some of her future ambitions. Thanks to Erika for making the time for ScienceCheerleader!

Dr. John: Tell us your story. What inspired you to pursue a career in science?

Erika: When I was in the fifth grade, a school field trip was offered to my class to go to Washington, DC, for a week. My parents told me that I had the following choice: I could go to Washington with my class, or we could go on a family vacation to Mexico over the summer. They could not afford to pay for both. I selected the trip to Mexico. However, during the time when most of the class was in Washington, it was mandatory for those that stayed behind to attend school. In my English class, we read Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton. My English teacher discussed genetic cloning and engineering with us. I became fascinated with the topic and on my own began reading such books as The Body at War, The Andromeda Strain, and The Fantastic Voyage. That summer, while on the family trip to Mexico, I visited a crocodile farm and was surprised to learn that when crocodiles are critically wounded, they turn over onto their backs, slip into coma, and eventually die a painless death.

Ebbel_GlamWhen I returned from summer vacation, I was entering the sixth grade and doing a science fair project was mandatory. The idea came to me that “if crocodiles can do it why can’t cells?” For my sixth grade science fair project I hypothesized that cells commit suicide when infected by a virus so that they can die a painless death and prevent other cells from being infected by viruses. I decided that this was going to be the subject of my science fair project. I called numerous pharmaceutical companies and laboratories in the area, looking for a lab where I could test out my hypothesis. Many of the laboratories did not return my calls. One lab was concerned that I might be growing viruses in my basement and wanted to speak with my parents. All around, no one wanted an 11 year old mentee.

Only one individual was willing to speak with me about my idea. He was the director of a local Public Health Laboratory. He taught me how to culture cells, grow viruses, use microscopes, and perform various lab techniques. He also provided me with literature relating to cells and viruses. He spent time after work hours discussing the literature after I had gone over it. I designed an experiment to “see” if cells would commit suicide when they were infected with a virus. I was allowed to use the Herpes simplex virus type-1 (HSV-1), which was the least dangerous virus at the laboratory. I learned about the scientific process and method. These skills have stayed with me ever since. Although, the results of that experiment were inconclusive (it was difficult to tell whether the cells were committing suicide or simply dying because they were infected by viruses), my interest in viruses continued.

I started reading scientific journals and was fascinated by the Hantavirus outbreak at Four Corners. I read books published by the CDC such as Hot Zone by Richard Preston.  While browsing around at a garage sale, I found a book on Russian folk medicine. I purchased the book to see what remedies were recommended by these ancient healers. I was amazed at the number of herbal remedies suggested for the treatment of the HSV-1. I wondered if I could test some kind of herb on HSV-1 (the virus I had worked with the previous year on cellular suicide).

I went to the University of California Medical Library in San Francisco and found through a computer search many articles related to herbal treatment; however, the one that interested me most was an article by a researcher in China, who had tested over 470 herbs on the HSV-1. According to the short outline that was in English (the rest was in Chinese), ten herbs inhibited the growth of HSV-1. The next day I went to a local Chinese herbal store and purchased four of the ten that were available at the store.

KIF_4394For my seventh grade science project, I asked the lab director at the Public Health Lab, if he would allow me to test the four herbs on the HSV-1. He agreed, provided that I designed my own procedure. I designed the procedure and determined that two of the four herbs were indeed able to inhibit viral growth without inducing cellular toxicity. After additional research at the UCSF Medical Library, I decided to focus my research efforts on one of the two herbs, because little to no work had been done on this particular herb.

I spent the next five years studying this herb, using various analytical methods to isolate and identify the anti-viral components in the herb. I was able to propose three novel nucleoside analog structures, which were proposed to have anti-viral activity. I worked at institutions such as San Francisco State University, Stanford University and MIT and at companies such as Genentech and Applied Biosystems. The experiences and knowledge I gained from this project were vast and have contributed to my continuing in the pursuit of a scientific career.

Dr. John: What are you currently studying for your dissertation?

Erika: I am currently attending Boston University Medical School in the Division of Graduate Medical Sciences as a Ph.D. candidate in Analytical Biochemistry. I use instruments called Mass Spectrometers and Electrochemical Arrays to study Huntington Disease (HD). HD is a genetically inherited debilitating disorder, which typically has an onset during mid-life (40-50 years of age). Symptoms include chorea and psychiatric dysfunction.

The goal of my research is to continue understanding the biochemistry behind HD. In order to do this, we obtain samples of plasma, urine, etc. and use the instruments mentioned above to help learn how diseased samples differ from non-disease controls. By learning which compounds differ between disease and non-disease samples, we are able to further understand the mechanism of the disease and what biochemical pathways may be affected in patients with HD.

We are also interested in learning whether any of the compounds present in HD samples interact with proteins or DNA in aberrant ways.

Erika_ICSF_TeachingDr. John: Why did you start the WhizKids Foundation?

Erika: I started the WhizKids Foundation, Inc. in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 2002 while pursuing a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). After reading several articles in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post describing declining student interest and performance in math and the sciences, I decided to start WhizKids, a program which would reignite student interest in these important subjects. Since my childhood experiences in science played a vital role in my determining to pursue a career as a scientist, I thought it was crucial to start this program.

WhizKids’ goal is to help schools and students organize and set up science fairs, science clubs, facilitate access to the scientific community, run science days, teach students how to be entrepreneurs, and offer ongoing lectures by WhizKids instructors in subjects such as biology, chemistry, physics, engineering and technology. I believe that participation in science fairs stimulates students to develop inquisitiveness, creativity and reasoning power. I also think that hands-on experiments allow students to see the applicability of science in the everyday world. WhizKids is involved with many student groups and communities. WhizKids programs have been started in Massachusetts, California and Florida.

Erika_E2Dr. John: Did you face any challenges with stereotypes after participating in the Miss America Pageant? How did you overcome those challenges?

Erika: Yes. It is interesting how strongly people react (both positively and negatively) to learning of my participation in the pageant. There were those who thought it was a very unique experience and wanted to learn about it. However, the majority raised their eyebrows and questioned why I would enter into the contest. Many thought it was a waste of time. I told them that they were wrong. The pageant gave me an opportunity to improve myself in ways that MIT did not. Academic learning was highly important to me, but I realized that I needed to learn how to speak in public, be poised, and become a better dresser. Participating in the Miss America pageant helped me to win scholarship money for MIT (approximately $20,000) and to begin working on my non-profit WhizKids which has since grown dramatically. It gave me a platform from which to speak about causes important to me, such as female participation in math and science careers and the importance of breaking with normal stereotypes. It has been 6 years since I won the pageant, and still I am balancing stereotypes.

I have learned to pay little attention to negative commentary. If people want to be closed minded, it is not worth my time trying to convince them that my choices were the right ones. I chose what was best for me; what helped me to improve myself. I have learned to ignore negative people who consistently want to characterize me as being one particular way. This has been the most effective way to overcome stereotyping. It is possible to be both academically inclined while pursuing many hobbies and interests.

Dr. John: Do you have any advice for young women considering a career in science or engineering?

Erika: We live in the “modern” era and yet there is definitely still stereotyping against women. My advice is to pursue science and engineering regardless of whatever social adversity you may face. Science and engineering are exciting fields to study. They take time to master, but consider the road to be fun and challenging. There may be moments where you take a hard class and wonder if you made the right decision. Each of us has gone through this. If you stick with it and be persistent, you will persevere. If you are interested in math and science, do not be daunted by those who may make fun of you. Do not pay attention to those who wish to tell you that scientists are geeky and cannot have other interests and talents. I was both Miss Massachusetts and a scientist, which proves it is possible.

Dr. John: It seems like you’ve accomplished so much already. What are your plans for the future?

Erika: I am interested in attending medical school after completing my PhD. I am also interested in continuing work on my non-profit WhizKids. Also, on a personal note, I continue to be active promoting math and science to students in elementary, middle and high school. It is my passion to share with them why these subjects are fun, cool and worth pursuing as careers.