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Featuring Academy Members

Featuring Academy Members

The Academy community represents one of the most dynamic and diverse groups of STEM professionals and science enthusiasts and supporters around the world, with more than 20,000 Members across 100 countries.

Academy Members are building STEM careers, overcoming the challenges associated with cutting-edge research, putting science into practice, influencing policy, and supporting future generations of science leaders.

We invite you to get to know your fellow Academy Members and learn about new opportunities to interact and get involved!

Mirna Mihovilovic Skanata

Mirna Mihovilovic Skanata, PhD, got her degree in Physics from Brown University in Rhode Island. Originally hailing from the beautiful coastal city of Split, Croatia, she is currently based in New York City working as a Postdoctoral Research Associate at New York University and is relishing in the excitement that her adopted home has to offer.

What projects are you currently working on?
I am working on understanding how neural circuits process information—you can say I am "cracking neural circuits." The human nervous system is extremely complex, so it is paradoxically more profitable to ask these big questions using small model organisms. My research project envisions developing a specialized microscope that can image neural activity in a freely behaving fruit fly larva, "reading its mind" as it makes decisions crucial to its survival.

What is one of the biggest challenges you're facing right now?
My research now involves developing new technologies and utilizing electronics and optics in a novel way to build a very sophisticated microscope. It is a challenge, but also a great adventure.

How do you like to keep busy when you're not in the lab?
Since I moved to New York City, I started ice-skating at Chelsea Piers and at the Central Park Wollman Rink, I sail on the Hudson, tap-dance in the West Village, and skateboard in the many parks in the City. I have one activity for each season! I find it exciting to start from scratch and pick up a new skill.

Mark Jackson

After spending a number of years working in theoretical physics at an array of prestigious institutions, including the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and the Lorentz Institute for Theoretical Physics, Mark Jackson, PhD, decided to change things up a bit in his career. In 2014, he harnessed his entrepreneurial spirit, years of experience as a researcher, and love of sharing science with the public to found Fiat Physica, a crowd funding platform specifically for physics, astronomy, and space exploration.

What is one of the biggest challenges you're facing right now?
When I began Fiat Physica I believed that the challenge would be to convince the public that science was worth supporting. This turned out not to be a problem: the public loves science! The problem is that most researchers do a very poor job of communicating their work to the public. Much of Fiat Physica's focus is now educating researchers on how to market their projects in a way that engages the public.

Who has been your biggest science inspiration?
Linus Pauling: the only person to have won two unshared Nobel Prizes (Chemistry and Peace), social and peace activist, and fellow Oregonian.

What's the best piece of career advice you've received?
If you don't want your supervisor's job, you have the wrong job.

Juan A. Gallego

Award-winning scientist and multi-instrument musician Juan A. Gallego, MD, MS, is an assistant professor of Psychiatry at the Hofstra North Shore LIJ School of Medicine. He lives in Brooklyn, NY, where he can also be heard playing bass, guitar, drums, and more.

What project(s) are you currently working on?
I am performing lumbar punctures (spinal taps) in patients with schizophrenia and in healthy volunteers with the goal of studying the role of microRNAs in cerebrospinal fluid as prognostic and diagnostic biomarkers.

What is one of the biggest challenges you're facing right now?
Recruiting subjects is always a challenge, especially for a study like mine. Therefore, recruiting enough subjects to be able to conduct meaningful and relevant analysis is my biggest challenge.

What is one thing you love to do outside the lab?
I've been playing music since age 16. I play the electric bass, guitar, some piano and drums, and I perform regularly in the New York area. I typically play with bands but also write some of my own music. I play regularly with a few artists such as Nilko Andreas and LaMar NYC (world music) and La Cumbiamba eNeYe (Colombian music). I also fly to perform in my home country, Colombia, with Estados Alterados (synth pop).

Fredda Weinberg

Fredda Weinberg, a graduate of the original Junior Academy program, returned to the Academy as a Member while pursuing her Master's in Information Systems. A programmer for Reliable Health Systems, Fredda is passionate about "connecting the needy to sources of security, justice, and sustenance."

How did you get hooked on a STEM career?
The ability to reproduce results was enough to convert me from superstitious to scientific.

Was there someone who helped encourage you to pursue a career in STEM?
My chemistry teacher at Sheepshead Bay High School [in Brooklyn, NY], in 1977, showed me my first programming language and suggested that one day, it could be a career.

What has been one of the most rewarding moments of your career?
There's nothing like having your work profiled on the local evening news. A little technology, leveraged properly, changed countless lives for kids who previously did not imagine they had a future.

Yana Zorina

Yana Zorina, PhD, is currently working as a cell biologist at Acorda Therapeutics, a biotechnology company located just north of New York City that focuses on developing treatments for multiple sclerosis and spinal cord injury.

What's the best piece of career advice you've received?
When I was in college, I entered the pre-med program with the assumption that if I was interested in science and biology, then the most logical place to go was medical school. My pre-med advisor at the time told me that science comes in 3 stages: scientists discover new knowledge, teachers disseminate the new knowledge, and doctors apply it to patients. At that point I realized that I wanted to be at the root of the process, and these words have stayed with me until the present day.

Did you ever compete in a science fair as a kid?
During high school I participated in the Intel Science Talent Search program and became a semi-finalist after performing a screen for iron-regulated promoters in mycobacterium tuberculosis. The Intel competition served as my springboard into the amazing world of scientific research.

Do you have any hobbies outside of science?
Ever since childhood I have always enjoyed intricate craft making. I particularly love making flowers out of fine beads. The patience and attention to detail required in such projects directly translates to the projects I now work on in the lab. The morphological beauty of neuronal and glial cells speaks directly to the artist in me, and I greatly enjoy imaging these cells via confocal microscopy.

Devika Varma

Devika Varma is a PhD candidate in Biomedical Engineering at The City College of New York. Her thesis focuses on developing novel, plant-based materials for intervertebral disc repair and regeneration. In short, she is working to figure out a non-invasive treatment for back pain. In her spare time, Devika mentors students by participating in the Academy's mentoring programs.

Who has been your biggest science inspiration?
My grandfather, K.K.R Varma, has been my biggest science inspiration. He would always encourage me to read science fiction authors and push his collection of Popular Mechanics my way. Even at the age of 90 he is learning new languages like Urdu and Arabic and brushing up on his Calculus. This constant thirst for knowledge is what continues to inspire me. I am very lucky to have him in my life.

What's a fun fact about you that might surprise your friends or colleagues?
I strongly believe in the power of human "poop." Human excreta is packed with nutrients and has tons of untapped energy which I believe can be manipulated to power our future and increase our agricultural productivity, organically. Resourceful sanitation can create biofuel and compost from dry toilets. Sounds like a pipe dream, but organizations such as SOIL in Haiti are setting great examples.

What is the most important benefit you feel the Academy's Global STEM Alliance provides?
The programming at the Global STEM Alliance has been very impressive in terms of how impactful they are for young professionals in STEM and how genuine their outreach efforts have been. Their mentoring programs such as the Afterschool STEM Mentoring Program and its "Food Connection" project have really helped me tap into the inner mentor in me.

Dmitry Storcheus

Dmitry Storcheus, MS, is an engineer at Google Research NY, where he specializes in the research and implementation of dimensionality reduction.

What initially drew you to the field of machine learning?
I was drawn to the field because of the remarkable power of machine learning tools to learn and forecast patterns in data. I remember an article from 2011 about scientists from Stanford who were able to use machine learning to study breast cancer with their algorithm (called C-Path) using microscopic images. They reported that the algorithm was more accurate than human doctors in predicting survival, which was amazing for me at that time. The success of machine learning combined with its mathematical rigor inspired me to conduct research in this field.

What are some of the biggest challenges in machine learning right now?
The first one is regarding supervised versus unsupervised methods. While unsupervised methods have greater flexibility, the supervised ones can be fine-tuned to achieve better accuracy, so there is a tradeoff. Recently I published a paper coauthored with Mehryar Mohri and Afshin Rostamizadeh that makes a point for using supervised dimensionality reduction, since it has favorable learning guarantees. Particularly, we show that the generalization error of a hypothesis class that includes learning a linear combination of kernels that define projection jointly with a classifier has a favorable bound.

The second challenge is "Can kernel machines match deep neural networks in accuracy?" So far we have seen great progress by wonderful scientists, such as Fei Sha and Le Song, who were able to use kernel approximations to match deep neural networks in accuracy on speech datasets and provide theoretical justification of their results. This work is still in progress, and I think it will be raising widespread discussions in the next couple of years.

Michael I. McBurney

Michael I. McBurney, PhD, FACN, who lives in Kinnelon, NJ, is the vice president of Science, Communications & Advocacy for DSM Nutritional Products as well as an Adjunct Professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science & Policy at Tufts University. Michael's "life goal" is to make a difference and he is achieving this through his work in the fields of nutrition and health.

You blog a lot—what's one of your favorite posts?
This is a difficult question as I am usually enamored with every blog once it is posted! With over 900 blog posts at DSM's TalkingNutrition blog, it is our readers who have the final say (vote) on best blog post. And using that yardstick, the vote usually goes to those by my co-blogger, Julia K. Bird! However, as a recent example, it is personally satisfying to have a platform to discuss nutrition research [such as my recent post on] "Why Conduct Nutrition RCTs without Nutrition Assessment?"

What is one of the biggest challenges you're facing right now?
Consumer confusion about the nutritional quality and safety of foods. Over 70% of our food purchases are for processed foods. Our health is most often challenged because we eat too much and/or we routinely eat the same few foods. Without a diverse diet, moderate portions, and adherence to recommended number of servings from each food group, it is very difficult to consume recommended quantities (RDAs) of vitamins and minerals. Food enrichment and fortification has increased the amount of micronutrients (nutrient density) of our diet. A multivitamin-mineral supplement can provide additional insurance that we meet RDAs. Yet, there is a misperception about the healthfulness of fortified foods and multivitamin-mineral supplements. Because of our food choices and sedentary lifestyle, obesity co-exists with undernutrition (inadequate intake of essential nutrients).

Mohamed El Zowalaty

Virologist and microbiologist Mohamed El Zowalaty, PhD, who often goes by the nickname Mez, has been passionate about biology for as long as he can remember. His commitment to the animal–human interface has led to unique opportunities in Malaysia, the United Kingdom, and the U.S.

What are you currently working on?
I am working on research projects focused on zoonotic diseases, including the MERS coronaviruses, nanoparticles of biomedical application as antimicrobial agents, and the microbiome as it relates to human health.

Who has been your biggest science inspiration?
My late father Dr. Ezzat El Zowalaty. He was a veterinarian who inspired me to study at the animal–human interface. The animal–human interface refers to diseases that are transmitted from animals to humans (zoonotic diseases), or from humans to animals (zooanthroponosis). I find veterinary science to be a cornerstone field in improving human health.

What are some of the things you do outside the lab?
Arts, reading, tennis, and I volunteer in community and childhood education initiatives on various topics aiming to improve health.

Also, a few months back, I was selected as a champion and listed member for Antibiotic Action, an independent, global initiative funded by the British Society for Antimicrobial Chemotherapy. Antibiotic Action contributes to national and international activities aiming to improve public awareness on antimicrobial resistance.

Anne Inger Helmen Borge

As the Head of Research for the Department of Psychology at the University of Oslo in Norway, Anne Inger Helmen Borge, PhD, has focused her own research on developmental psychology. She conducts longitudinal studies on behavioral and emotional development from childhood through adulthood. An internationally recognized expert with Horizon 2020, the largest European Union research and innovation program, and a mentor to others, Anne cites early experiences with a mentor of her own as the source of major science inspiration.

What are you currently working on?
"The Matter of the First Friendships," a longitudinal study that examines whether friendships protect against the development of psychopathology among very young children. Data collection originally took place between 2006 and 2009. It was surprising to observe how early children, ages 1–2 in daycare, establish friendships and show preferences among peers in the groups. This spring, 10 years after we started, we will follow up with the children who are now are 12–16 years of age.

Why did you become a Member of the New York Academy of Sciences?
I attended one of your excellent conferences and I understood international organizations were important. I like very much the Academy's balance of understanding young scientists as well as those of us who are older.

Profiles by: Rosanna Volchok, Network Engagement Manager; Alexis Clements, Social and Digital Content Strategist; and Elizabeth Gough-Gordon, Content Development Specialist.

Expand Your Network!

Inspired by the passion, expertise, and unique perspectives of your fellow Members? Tap in to the incredible network the Academy offers through our mentoring programs.

We're thrilled to offer you access to a new opportunity to get involved and interact: Member-to-Member Mentoring. The program matches you with a mentor—or a mentee—who is a fellow STEM professional and Academy Member. Depending upon your experience level and needs, you can request a mentor, become a mentor, or both.

Interested in mentoring students? We also offer incredible mentorship opportunities through the Academy's Global STEM Alliance, which delivers education programs that can help you develop your teaching and communication skills, while paying it forward to the next generation of scientific innovators. The Junior Academy and 1000 Girls, 1000 Futures are recruiting new mentors this June.