Here is the first blog in my interviewing a scientist series! If you know a budding scientist that would love to learn more about various scientific careers and the ins and outs of being in science/STEM, please send them the link to the blog. Happy reading!
Education and training:
Dr. Rebecca Nolan Harris was my former roommate and classmate during our undergraduate studies. She originally was an English/ Pre-law major but ended up switching majors in the second half of her freshmen year because she enjoyed the biology and chemistry courses. I remember Dr. Harris being so passionate about science during our coursework, especially in our physiology class (shout out to Dr. Hess!). She would literally talk about her love of physiology all the time! She ended up staying on the science path and went on to receive her BS degree in biology. Upon the suggestion of one of our mutual professors in undergrad she then went on to pursue a PhD in physiology because he also recognized her love for the field.
During her PhD, Dr. Harris studied Alzheimer’s disease using both animal and cellular model systems and studied the disease using molecular techniques. During her time in grad school she also taught courses at a local community college. After receiving her PhD, Dr. Harris went on to do a 15 month postdoctoral study position and also worked as an instructor at a community college. She stayed on as an instructor after her post-doctoral appointment ended and at that time also became involved in freelance science writing for a variety of different projects including text books, simulated labs, lab manuals, and test design.
While not the most ordinary path of a Ph.D. graduate, Dr. Harris chose to leave academia to pursue a career as an entrepreneur by opening up a float studio which I think is supercool. She is now CEO/Founder Kairos Float & Wellness Studio, LLC in North Carolina. If you aren’t aware, float therapy involves floating in a self-contained “pod” with only 10 inches of water and a high percentage of Epsom salts. Floating in the pods for extended periods of time is known to relieve anxiety and stress and to treat muscle pain. I’ve seen the studios popping up here and there for the past several years.
If you are wondering why Dr. Harris chose to leave academia, she states:
“I chose to leave academia to pursue my passion for total body wellness and helping people find alternative modalities for relaxation and a positive life experience. I am currently an entrepreneur & owner of a small business. Using my knowledge of science to promote health and wellness and my writing experience to create grants I have been successful in starting a Float & Wellness Studio. My understanding of molecular and cellular physiology, as well as teaching for many years, allows me to clearly explain the benefits of alternative health therapy using scientific terms, all of which is supported by research. Grant writing and running the daily aspects of the lab as a scientist gave me skills that I can apply to my business. Grant money is important in the small business world so effectively communicate is critically important. Also, the ability to show that I can manage the financial side was essential for securing loans.”
While being the boss of your own career is both exhilarating and daunting, Dr. Harris discussed what she considers the best parts of her new career:
“The best part of my job is that I am the boss. I am responsible for both the good & bad, easy & challenging aspects of my business. As a graduate student, then post-doc, then instructor you are always reporting to someone. At no point did I have absolute control of my situation. I also did not have control over my salary. After discovering that I was being paid less than a male colleague, who had a lesser degree, less experience, and held less responsibility than me I went to the HR department. The HR director, a male, treated me terribly and ignored my request for an investigation and threw away the research I had done to demonstrate that my compensation was significantly lower than expected. This was a low point for me and I knew I never wanted to be in that situation again.”
Dr. Harris also loves discussing health and wellness along with the scientific basis of the benefits of float pods with her clients, friends, and family.
However, as with any business, there are always obstacles with state, local, and federal rules which Dr. Harris discussed as being the biggest cons of her new role:
“I don’t enjoy the hoops I need to jump through while working with permitting, a float pod should not need depth signage (it’s only 10-inches of water) or a “No Lifeguard on Duty” notice, these things seem ridiculous to me, but I do understand that the policy makers are just trying to keep things uniform. As floating is a re-emerging alternative health resource many people are not familiar with it and unless I meet with each person their misunderstanding can lead to odd requests.”
I asked Dr. Harris what her thoughts were about the political aspects of applying and interviewing for various science positions, as with my previous experience I noticed that the person best fit for the job isn’t always the one that is hired. From personal experience there is still a gender bias in the STEM fields which was echoed by Dr. Harris as well.
Her thoughts were:
“Previously, I have had mixed experience with the job search and every position you apply for is completely different (even if the position title is the same). I did choose to give both of my children unisex names, first & middle, so they will never be judged just by their name. The hiring process is completely different everywhere. There are still plenty of “old boy clubs” here in the south that seem to think a woman will never be as good as a man, it’s infuriating but, in my experience, it can be political. However, to counter that, there are more colleges and companies that have learned that greater diversity improves functionality. The best advice I can give here, research the company/college extensively. Talk to current employees to get honest answers. You can learn a lot by talking to people, you may notice as you talk to them they give hints about special treatment for some employees, that’s a warning that the environment is political.”
The current political climate regarding science in America:
Dr. Harris shared that she, like many other scientists, is frustrated with the current climate of scientific awareness and education in America.
“I worry about the current political climate and its impact on science. The near destruction of the EPA was mind-boggling. Climate-change deniers that refuse to accept valid science is terrifying. I think the political agenda is making a negative impact on the view of science among individuals that have a low understanding to begin with, sadly their votes can change the outcome of science. However, I think the STEM/STEAM movements and the positive view of female scientists has made science more accessible for young women. “
Even though Dr. Harris chose to leave academia, she has no regrets of the past training and education she has received because she believes that those experiences are what led her to where she is now.
Her advice to aspiring scientists:
My favorite advice from Dr. Harris is:
“You don’t have to know exactly where your path will take you, just follow the road the way it goes, you’ll end up in the right place.”
She encourages students that if they want to pursue a PhD, they absolutely should but to be aware of and take time to work on their mental and physical health because it is not an easy career choice. Adding to that, there are numerous studies showing that obtaining a Ph.D. in the STEM fields leads to increased mental health disorders.
Her advice to non-scientists:
Dr. Harris believes that everyone should be a scientific advocate even if they do not work in a scientific field.
“Even if you don’t choose to pursue science as a career, invest in science. You can do that by being informed about your local environment. You can pick up trash when you see it. You can give blood or volunteer at hospice. Support a charity that aims to increase research for a medical cause. EVERYONE needs science, openly share your knowledge with people around you.”
I wish Dr. Harris the best of luck in her new career, thank you for sharing your experience with us!
Stay tuned for more scientist interviews coming up soon!