Meet the 2018 L'Oréal USA For Women in Science Fellows
Understanding the Brain Could Help Control Weight
Amber Alhadeff, PhD, University of Pennsylvania
The old adage “we are what we eat” does have some foundation in science as research has shown that what we eat typically contributes to some of today's leading health issues including: obesity, type II diabetes and eating disorders. And it’s not just about self-control. According to Amber Alhadeff, PhD, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, the brain is the master regulator of food intake and metabolism. She is studying the brain in hopes of finding better ways to treat these diseases. A marathon runner during her free time, Alhadeff, believes in staying healthy. She joined a neuroscience lab that focused on neural circuits that control feeding behavior in college and found her niche.
Her research focuses on how the gut communicates with the brain and how different kinds of food affects brain activity as well as how neurons in the brain control hunger. “It’s a lot more creative than many people think. We’re constantly thinking of new approaches to solve problems, and constantly troubleshooting our current approaches,” Alhadeff says.
The Snickers commercial that talks about being “hangry” when you’re hungry, is not far off from the truth. Alhadeff and other researchers believe they have discovered “neurons in the brain that are at least partially mediating that feeling.” She says once they understand these neurons, it could lead to developing more successful weight loss strategies. Through Alhadeff's career she has found other women in labs, but principal investigators are primarily men. She aims to change this. She wants it to be different for her students. “I want to take the next step to be the principal investigator,” she says.
An Engineer Finds a Way to Help People through Mechanical Engineering
Brecca Gaffney, PhD, Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis
Helping people has been ingrained into Brecca Gaffney, PhD, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. She grew up in a family of clinicians, psychologists and special education teachers. She currently works with patients who have hip dysplasia or an altered geometry of the joints. Gaffney has an engineering background and is applying that knowledge to her study of full-body and joint level mechanics and understanding how changes and movements affect the joints.
Gaffney wants to better understand the challenges faced by clinicians when they are rehabilitating a patient. This is how she ended up in a physical therapy program at the Washington University School of Medicine for her postdoctoral research. “The goal of engineering is to design and improve systems. The human body is a complex mechanical system,” Gaffney says. “I wish I would have been able to make that bridge a little earlier, but it certainly isn’t the first thing people think of when they hear mechanical engineer.”
Gaffney is not just passionate about helping her patients, she’s passionate about inspiring other female engineers. She’s had all male mentors, and would love to provide a platform for her female students so they can see what the possibilities are.
A Different Approach to the Ocean Floor
Elizabeth Trembath-Reichert, PhD, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
There's still a lot to be discovered in the ocean. Elizabeth Trembath-Reichert, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, is studying samples from the deep biosphere, a couple of kilometers beneath the ocean floor. “Instead of looking for new adaptations to deep life in my samples, I will be looking at similar organisms that are on the surface of the Earth and comparing them to the ones I can recover from the deep biosphere,” she says.
Trembath-Reichert is also in a period of transition in her career. She’s going from being a postdoc to being a faculty member at Arizona State University, starting in the fall. She’s finishing up research projects and planning her lab's future direction. She wants to continue studying the ocean floor, but also wants to study desert life in-depth, too.
While she acknowledges there are still issues facing women in science, Trembath-Reichert is looking forward to the roles her new position provides as a mentor and leader. “I’m enjoying the opportunity to actually participate in a meaningful way to try to help,” she says.
From a Love of Colors to Making a Difference
Fan Liu, PhD, Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard
Growing up in China, Fan Liu, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, saw firsthand the increasing issue of drug-resistant bacteria.
At the start of her PhD, Liu was presented with several projects, and one of them was developing new antibiotics. She was already invested in this problem, and the more she learned, the more passionate she became. “As a scientist, I really wanted to be able to make meaningful contributions to society, and it just so happened to be an area that chemists can really bring a lot of power to help solve this problem,” she says.
This issue is personal to her because at the beginning of her PhD, Liu’s grandfather was diagnosed with tuberculosis, a disease that is curable.
Liu is now using new technologies to predict how bacteria became resistant in the first place, by studying the resistance mechanism and trying to develop treatments that counteracts it. “It’s always good for us to try to stay a step ahead of the bacteria, and anticipate what they might do to fight against our current antibiotics. Then we might be able to prepare better for the future,” she says.
Growing up, Liu had two great role models, her mother and grandmother, who are both engineers. She never doubted that she could be a scientist. She now works with young girls in hopes of inspiring them by volunteering for the Science Club for Girls in Boston, and working with kindergarteners and first graders doing fun science experiments.
Liu loved colors as a child. In middle school, her first experiment was combining two colorless solutions that turned into a “beautiful blue and white precipitate.” “I just absolutely fell in love right then and there with chemistry,” she says. She wants other children to experience that moment as well.
Producing New Energy-efficient Materials
Stacy Copp, PhD, Los Alamos National Laboratory
Imagine if humans could make new materials that mimic nature. That could revolutionize technology and medicine. That’s what Stacy Copp, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow at Los Alamos National Laboratory, is trying to do with her research.
Copp is developing new materials that produce and manipulate light with the potential application of energy and energy-efficient lighting. Her concern about the environment is a motivating factor in her work. Not only is she working on new materials, but she’s also mentoring the next generation of scientists. She’s mentored more than 10 students and loves receiving emails from them about their accomplishments. “It’s important for women in science to be visible,” she says.
Copp is using her career as an example to encourage other women. As a mother, she would like to see a friendlier workplace environment for parents, as it's a barrier she keeps seeing. She considers herself lucky to have a supportive husband, who is also a researcher. She also received a grant for child care that enabled her to take her daughter with her to a conference and would like to see similar support systems be made available.