Shattering the Glass Ceiling with Irene Park: “From the Lab to the Public”

I am amazed by people who are experts in multiple areas. For instance, Renaissance man Leonardo da Vinci was not just the famous painter of Mona Lisa, The Last Supper, and The Vitruvian Man, although Mona Lisa alone was definitely enough to ensure his fame. He was also a scientist who worked on hydraulics and civil engineering projects and studied anatomy and botany, among many other subjects. Beatrix Potter, the beloved author of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, was heavily involved in and a leader for land conservation. Maimonides, also known as the Rambam, was a twelfth-century Jewish doctor and Torah scholar whose work has become part of the backbone of the tenets of Judaism. The saying “Jack of all trades, master of none” does not apply to these historical giants. Nor does it apply to University of Michigan graduate student Irene Park.Lab Pic

A proud Cornell alumna, just like yours truly, Irene obtained her bachelor’s degree in biological sciences and philosophy before starting her Ph.D. in Genetics at Michigan, where she has published some of her work in the prestigious journal Genome Research and has discovered her passion for science writing. She has learned to manage her time to indulge her love of public communication as a writer for the university’s newspaper The Michigan Daily and as former editor-in-chief of MiSciWriters, a science blog run by Michigan grad students and postdocs. However, a devoted Ph.D. candidate, she spends most of her time on her dissertation topic: DNA.

She explains that her research involves understanding how errors are made in DNA replication and how to prevent them. She says, “DNA is copied every time a cell divides…and an adult body has over 30 trillion cells in his or her body,” and compares the possibility of a replication error to a game of Telephone: the more times the message is relayed, the more likely an error will occur. And an error in DNA replication can lead to cancer, autism spectrum disorder, and even be a factor in mental illnesses.

She is focusing on a specific consequence of DNA replication error called Copy Number Variants, which changes the number of copies of DNA. For example, Copy Number Variants can delete or duplicate at least one of the two copies of DNA obtained from the person’s parents. Sometimes the deletion is harmless; other times it can result in serious and even fatal diseases. Because of the work of geneticists like Irene, we are seeing major breakthroughs in the area of gene therapy that have led to treatments for sickle-cell anemia, cancer, and even hemophilia.

While this line of work is fascinating to scientists and non-scientists alike and is making great strides toward improved medical care, the daily grind of a graduate student trying to obtain results is not always as glamorous as the topic itself appears. Irene makes a very poignant statement, one that many prospective students need to hear:

“You’re in grad school to learn how to think and reason, not to make a huge, splashy discovery. Most of the thesis defenses I’ve been to did not describe groundbreaking work. This is not to say that their work was insignificant in any way, but the main focus should not be getting your paper into the top-tier journals. It should be learning to do good science. Otherwise, you might feel really unhappy when you realize that it took you years of work just to generate that one figure.”

As a former master’s and current Ph.D. student, I can attest to this in a resounding way! I spent three years working on determining an energy profile for an organic solar cell material. Since I’m a computationalist, one of my primary concerns is determining the right model; while this is the easiest part of the project, it is not an easy task. It took about a year and a half just to find the right model that described only 6 atoms of a 100-atom system. A few thousand calculations later, we finally had our profile along with some other explanatory graphs and figures. That was three years of work right there.

While I was working on my master’s, I felt as if I knew very little about my field, especially since I was only studying a small cog in a vast machine. I thought that my work was minuscule, something anyone could have accomplished and in a much faster time span. It wasn’t until after I’d finished and discussed with others what I had studied that I realized the brevity and impact of my results and just how much I had learned. But getting there seemed like an endless saga of setbacks. This is familiar to all grad students, including Irene; and not all setbacks are from faulty data.

Irene addresses a very common problem for graduate students: the work environment.

“There are not many clear expectations for the students…being a graduate student is different from being an employee. There are no job contracts or clear expectations on what you should do or are responsible for. And part of that is intentional since graduate school is all about developing independent thinkers, but I work best with deadlines and clear communication/feedback from people so I found the lack of expectations really frustrating at times.”

She cautions prospective graduate students to not only consider the type of research they want to conduct but also the type of environment in which they want to work. They should determine if they want very involved or very hands-off advisers, what they want to accomplish during their program, whether or not to have multiple advisers, and, if so, how to set clear boundaries so that everyone is satisfied with the outcome. And that is probably one of the most important lessons anyone, especially a graduate student, learns: setting boundaries.

Irene is, unfortunately, not the only person to experience bullying in academia. Even though she has had very supportive advisers and committee members and her conflicts have involved other faculty members in her department, she believes that bullying is becoming even more of a problem because it has gone unchecked for so long. And sadly, many instances of bullying involve the adviser’s abuse of power towards his or her graduate students. It’s true that graduate students exist at the pleasure of their advisers, who control everything: funds, materials, equipment, and the date of your graduation. And when one person holds that much power, the working relationship can rapidly fall apart.

Coming from a Korean family, Irene says that she was taught to put the needs of the group ahead of her own. So when it came to bullying, she was hesitant to speak up for herself, believing it could cause friction and make things more tense for others. However, she has learned the balance of picking battles: it is okay to defend yourself and to voice your concerns and ideas; however, remaining silent, as long as no one is being hurt, is not a sign of weakness.

Although Irene has had to endure many adversities throughout grad school, which included trying to decide whether or not to continue with her program, her science writing have provided her with joy and purpose. Her desire is to become a science writer and “to bring the science from the lab to the public,” something that is desperately needed in today’s anti-science climate. She further states, “Many academic projects, especially basic science research, are publicly funded, so it only makes sense for the public to know what researchers are doing with their money. I believe that type of transparency will raise the public’s trust in scientists, too.”

She believes that in order to convey her message, understanding her audience and finding common ground with them is essential.

“I think people sometimes dismiss the power of emotional empathy when it comes to persuasion and assume that laying out the facts is enough. Facts are important, but you have to come up with an angle or a message that really resonates with your audience — otherwise you sound like a broken record just citing facts over and over again. Knowing a diverse group of people helps me see and realize what others might think of current issues, especially for controversial ones.”

This is valuable advice for not only communicating science but also addressing biases. As an Asian-American woman in STEM, Irene says that she does not expect complete understanding regarding the issues women and Asian Americans face; but she does hope for a willingness to be aware and to be an advocate for change.

“You have to really SHOW that you’re open-minded, and you aren’t just saying it to relieve your guilt. Wearing the safety pin or saying something like ‘my door is always open’ or ‘my prayers are with you’ means nothing if I don’t feel like you will genuinely pay attention to what I have to say and implement (or at least try) the necessary changes to fix the problem. The mismatch between the actions and words/representations can quickly lead to mistrust.”

And she believes a call to action is in order to change the way women and girls are exposed to STEM. She says that labeling traits, such as emotions and interests, as ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’ is problematic, and that one of the biggest issues now is not just about accepting women into STEM but keeping them interested in it. Considering the rampant sexual harassment that occurs in the workplace, it is understandable why many women leave their careers. “…ignoring sexual harassment directed toward female academics (especially if the harasser is a big-name, famous researcher or faculty member) sends a very clear message about the work environment. Why would anyone want to work in an environment where they have no voice and where their safety is not guaranteed?”

With people like Irene Park at the helm, women will continue to find their voices and the courage to use them.

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