Women in STEM: Keighley

Keighley proudly posing with her pipettes

Ninth episode of Women in STEM. Today we host Keighley, a 4th year PhD candidate working on breast cancer and co-founder of Present Your PhD.

Hi @scientifikeighley! Would you like to tell us something about you?

Hi! My name is Keighley (kay-lee) and I am a 4th year PhD candidate at Baylor University in Waco, TX. I received my Bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where I majored in genetics and in Spanish, and received Honors in Research. I now study metastatic breast cancer and have long-term goals to pursue science communication. Currently, I am a co-founder and Director of an outreach organization called Present Your PhD (@presentyourphd) and am a Graduate Outreach Fellow for the National Center for Science and Education (NCSE), along with involvement in other scicomm and outreach programs.

When did you start your Instagram account? How did you get the idea?

I have had my Instagram account for a while, but in 2018 I began to revisit and refocus it from a purely personal account to a more science-inclusive account. Then, in 2019 I set a goal as my New Year’s resolution to embark on a personal 52 Weeks of Science (#52WeeksOfScience) campaign to encourage myself to post more regularly, that is, once a week. After completing the full 52 weeks, I realized I loved Instagram and I loved the blend of science and “real-life” that my account fosters. Some people will have a private, personal account and then another dedicate to science content. Because I run the Present Your PhD account, it didn’t really work for me to use this model. I also think it’s really important for people to see scientists as real people, instead of stereotyping us as staying in the lab all the time and having that be our whole lives. I decided to change my handle a few weeks after making this content transition because I wanted it to be more reflective this change. My mom actually helped me come up with the name, having it be a play on the word “scientifically,” since I was taking a real life approach to science, and I’m always here for a good science pun.

Can you tell us something about how you balance work and private life? 

I end up spending a lot of my non-work (i.e. out of lab) time doing a lot of things that I still consider work, so keeping them truly separate is pretty tough for me. As a scientist who wants to not pursue academia, I have to spend a lot of additional time working on networking and building skills in the field I want to find a career in. I track my time to ensure I’m not overextending myself in any one space or letting anything fall by the wayside. And I try to build in at least 2 or 3 times a week that I can put email and to-do lists aside and just focus on spending time with loved ones. Being present like that helps me recharge and find balance.

During your university experience how many women were in course? Why in your opinion?

I was a genetics major for my bachelor’s and there were slightly more women in my cohort, though it was close to 50/50. Now, in my PhD, the ratio isn’t all that different. My cohort is really small and is all women, though other cohorts are closer to even representation. The biggest discrepancy I notice is with faculty; our department only has one woman who has tenure and two who have been recently hired. Every other women in our department either works in administration or is a lecturer and only teaches. This is a lot more frustrating to see, especially when I have to build my committee from researchers in our department and I don’t have a lot of women to chose from. I know academia is not a very flexible place and many women aren’t interested in spending lots of additional energy carving out space when the space is already hostile and unaccommodating, driving female scientists to other fields such as government, industry, or outside research completely.

Have you ever felt harassed or being kept apart as a scholar because you are a woman?

I’m very fortunate to have always had wonderfully supportive advisers and mentors, who have always been a champion for me and kept at least the gender-based hostility away from me. I’m also a fairly loud voice in my department and have been this way for my whole life, so I haven’t usually experience people challenging me on the basis of being a woman. I think having confidence helps deter some of that.

How did you become passionate about science? 

I fell in love with science in seventh grade, when we were doing Punnet squares and learning about genetics. I put my head down and did everything I could to learn about it and took all the advanced classes I could throughout high school to immerse myself more and *do more science*. I chose to attend a university with a strong research program, especially for undergrads, and pretty much didn’t look up from The Plan until I was two years into my graduate program. I still love science and I will never not be amazed by it. I think I became a little disillusioned with the process because of how inaccessible science can be, which I have an ethical issue with since taxpayers are usually the ones funding research dollars. That’s when I transitioned into being a great scientist so that I can understand complicated ideas and be a good communicator of science. Ultimately, I love being able to answer questions that nobody has been able to answer before. I am truly honored and humbled to be playing a small part in that process. I’m constantly motivated to learn more and to see what other scientists in the world are learning.

Would you like to talk briefly about your job?

I work on metastatic breast cancer using cell and mammalian models. We are interested in the genetic drivers of metastasis, the role of a cellular process called EMT (epithelial-mesenchymal transition), and the influence of a type of cell called cancer stem cells on disease progression. My project is more translatable than others in the lab, because I focus on a novel small molecule that we think is able to target some of the more “dangerous” cells in the tumor to help chemo-therapies be more effective. 

Thank you so much for your time. Lastly, can you give any advice to girls interested in STEM?

STEM is not a field for the crazy smart of the extremely gifted. It’s a field for people who are willing to work hard, to ask questions, and who are brave enough to get help with they need it. STEM communities are incredibly supportive, but you have to be strong enough to take the first step. Once you do, you’ll have opened so many doors to more opportunities than you could have imagined. Stay curious, don’t settle for just one opinion, and keep pushing. It took me a long time to be okay admitting when I needed help in my science classes – I thought it meant I was dumb, or that I wasn’t supposed to be there because I didn’t understand. Once I started asking my teachers and professors for help, I started truly learning and I realized how beautiful science is. And the best part was that nobody ever made me feel dumb. My instructors were genuinely happy that I wanted to understand and learn, and they were willing to work with me to ensure I got it. This also helped me find people who were mentors and helped me make hard decisions down the road.


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