Why did you choose to become a scientist?
I first became interested in biology in middle school, which is when I started keeping aquariums and breeding fish. At that age, I had no idea that people conducted research as a profession. Instead, I imagined myself becoming a veterinarian, or maybe being an animal caretaker at a zoo or an aquarium. My career plans changed after I participated in the honors programs as an undergraduate at Northern Illinois University. A requirement of the honors program was to complete a research project, which led me to join an aquatic ecology laboratory. Through my undergraduate research experience, I discovered that liked the problem-solving aspect of research, and found the process of conducting science rewarding. I decided that I wanted to continue on a research career path. I ended up staying at Northern Illinois University to complete my Master’s degree, which focused on sexual selection and social learning in two species of darters (a diverse group of small stream fish). I am now in the 5th year of my PhD at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where I have continued to study darters.
What are your current research interests?
My research uses behavioral and genomic approaches to investigate sexual selection and speciation in fishes. Specifically, I am interested in how the outcome of reproductive interactions (i.e., mating and competing over mates) between species influences speciation. If interspecific reproductive interactions are maladaptive (e.g., if hybrids suffer reduced survival compared to purebred individuals), this can select for divergence in reproductive traits between species in areas where they co-occur. This leads to a pattern of reproductive character displacement, where species exhibit enhanced bias against mating/fighting with members of another species in populations where they are sympatric compared to allopatric with respect to one another. I study how reproductive character displacement promotes sympatric and allopatric speciation in darters, which are one of the most diverse groups of North American stream fishes.
Choose one quality that you think is the most important for making a good scientist. Why?
Being able to manage your time and having a healthy work-life balance is crucial. There will be periods of time when you need to log long hours in the field or lab collecting data, or in the office writing a manuscript or grant, but it is easy to get burnt out if that is your schedule 100% of the time. It is important that you take time for yourself, which will ultimately make your career more productive and enjoyable.
What advice would you have for aspiring scientists?
As an undergraduate, try to participate in research in a few different laboratories if you can. This will give you an idea of which types of questions interest you (and which don’t). Getting any experience in a lab as an undergraduate will help you to decide if research is something you want to pursue as a career.
Why 500 women scientists?
I support 500 Women Scientists’ mission of increasing inclusivity in science, providing a supportive community for women in science, and increasing public understanding of science.