Meet Grace Kago, PhD candidate in Cell and Molecular Biology University of Texas at Austin, USA

April 22, 2020

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Grace’s Bio

Grace is a Kenyan-American scientist who emigrated from Kenya to the USA when she was in middle school. In college, she earned a Bachelor of Arts in Biology with a Minor in Art History from McDaniel College (Maryland, USA). She is currently a doctoral student and National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellow in the Cell and Molecular Biology program at the University of Texas at Austin. She has presented posters detailing her research at various international conferences like the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB) and Biophysical Society (BPS). Her current research project is focused on using genetic and molecular biology tools to better understand the stress response in an enteropathogenic bacterium called Shigella flexneri. In addition to her passion for the lab bench, Grace is a firm supporter of increasing science literacy and making science accessible and engaging to all, which has led her to participate in science outreach and workshop curricula design both in the United States and in Kenya. Prior to starting graduate school, she worked as a Research Scientist Technician for over five years at the University of Texas in Austin. Grace loves languages including her first languages Kikuyu and English and spends a lot of time trying to polish her Kiswahili and Spanish.

Why did you get into STEM? 

My interest in STEM arose directly from my visits to my doctor’s office when I was younger. Whenever I would get sick, I would ask my paediatrician, Dr Florence Nantulya, what specifically was making me feel bad. She was always so patient with me and never dismissed my questions. When I went in with a sore throat, she would tell me about small microbes that were in my throat and that they were the ones causing my throat to hurt. When I would cough, she said the reason I was coughing was to help my lungs get rid of irritants that were bothering them. She answered all my many questions each time. So, growing up, I maintained a fascination with microbes, always wanting to know more about how they make us sick, and how our bodies respond to them. 

When it was time to pick a major in college, I selected Biology with the goal of becoming a physician. In my second year of college, I took a class taught by Dr Susan Parrish called Molecular Biology, and that class exposed me to the different molecular machines and components that operate in cells. After graduation, whilst preparing my medical school application, I decided to work in a research laboratory at the University of Texas. There, I realized that not only did I enjoy scientific research, but that being a researcher would permit me to truly investigate interesting questions about how the cell works and how viruses and bacteria can hijack cell function. I worked as a laboratory staff member for approximately 5 years, where I got to learn about all sorts of biochemical assays and methods, experiment design, and other general laboratory functions. In 2016 I decided to start doctoral training in order to advance my education and make a unique contribution to science. So here I am!

What do you consider your greatest achievements? 

I’d say that my greatest achievements are when I have conversations with people about molecular biology and the many cool things that take place inside cells every single day. I have yet to meet a person who isn’t incredibly fascinated to learn a new thing about bacteria, viruses, or living cells in general. The fascination and excitement are always palpable! 

What challenges have you faced as a woman in STEM and how did you overcome them? 

Hmm.. I have only ever worked in academic labs, so I can only speak to the challenges I have faced there. First, the culture of academia is not straight-forward to figure out, especially if you are a minority student who has not spent time with academics/STEM professionals. There is truly a “hidden curriculum” that you have to learn, and which you’re often assumed to know, and that was very hard. To overcome this challenge, I started reading books and articles written by senior academics from diverse backgrounds in order to help me contextualize and understand my experiences. I advise anyone wanting to go into academia to find trustworthy mentors who care about you/your career and are willing to guide you (outside of your academic work). It will save you time and many embarrassments! Secondly, the world of academia is extremely competitive, and trying to make your way in that world can result in isolation and a lack of community. I struggled for a long time to find outlets of support, and more often than not, found many people who believe that the only way to succeed includes bringing down others. I think that I have overcome that particular challenge by learning how to: communicate clearer, be a better advocate for myself, better define my value system, and be more prudent about finding environments where I am accepted. 

What is your advice to budding women in STEM?

First: If you have an interest in a certain topic, use resources around you to investigate what the limits of knowledge are in that field. For example, in my world of biology, websites like ibiology have an impressively awesome portfolio of talks and interviews from accomplished scientists from all over the world in many types of biology. So, if you are interested in biology, that is a good place to start. In addition, in recent years, there is an amazingly diverse and brilliant emergence of scientists who are active on accessible forums like Twitter and Instagram. These scientists not only discuss their science and disseminate knowledge in accessible ways, but they present a wealth of general advice and perspective about life as an academic.

Second: Reach out to a scientist near you. Scientists have all sorts of roles. Some are teaching and equipping future scientists in schools and universities, others are creating innovative technologies and knowledge incubators, running start-ups, doing STEM outreach among all sorts of other roles. Find the one closest to you whose work might overlap with your interests. Conversations with these people will give you some perspective. 

Third: Do not allow yourself to be boxed in by someone else’s limited imagination. Do not allow someone else to speak negativity over you. You will find that oftentimes, you will need to be your biggest advocate. You will need to be your biggest cheerleader. So, be proactive about learning the skills you need, and do not be afraid to seek help when you need it. Additionally, make sure to have friends/family/people around you who will help you remember why you want to pursue your specific STEM goal. These are the ones who will support you when you get overwhelmed! 🙂

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