Meet Emily: Unlikely SWMS Member and Aspiring Optometrist

Written by Lauren Salisbury, Senior Marine Biology Major at URI

Meet Emily McDermith, a rising URI sophomore, SWMS member, and aspiring optometrist. Although she seems like an unlikely member of the Society for Women in Marine Science, McDermith has proven to be one of the most involved and committed members.

Growing up in Maine, she spent her summers on the islands of Portland. There, she says she “developed an appreciation and fascination for marine life”. Although she is a Cell and Molecular Biology major on the Microbiology track, McDermith still fulfills her passion for the ocean other ways.

Emily McDermith presenting her poster at the NSF EPSCoR Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship Symposium
Emily McDermith presenting her poster at the NSF EPSCoR Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship Symposium

Emily was introduced to marine science during the second semester of her freshman year when she began working in Dr. Bethany Jenkins’ microbiology lab. Here, Emily saw an opportunity to further explore the issues that affect the ocean. This led her to apply for the NSF EPSCoR Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF), which she was awarded. This summer, Emily worked with URI SWMS co-president, Alexa Sterling, and Dr. Bethany Jenkins investigating a possible mutualism between Antarctic phytoplankton and bacteria in low-iron marine environments. She presented a poster of her findings at the 2017 SURF conference.

Emily enjoyed her summer fellowship and said “Having the opportunity to solely focus on research this summer I’m amazed at how much I’ve learned. Being able to solve problems that arose and design my own experiments has taught me to think like a scientist. I’ve learned the importance collaborating with lab mates, especially when obstacles cropped up, and time management in the lab.”

McDermith plans to continue to conduct research and says it has given her a unique perspective that has made her courses more interesting and meaningful. Emily advises other students to pursue research experiences outside of their major. McDermith states that “Being exposed to marine science has made me a more well-rounded scientist.” This balanced approach to her career goals will surely benefit Emily throughout her undergraduate career.

Even though Emily enjoys undergraduate research in marine science, her post-graduate aspirations are quite different.

“I hope to go onto optometry school.“ says McDermith, “Optometry is a career that I can use science to solve problems in order to help others. It’s more than just prescribing glasses and contacts; it’s a chance to give clarity.” When asked what advice she has for those wishing to switch disciplines, Emily had this to say; “Don’t be afraid to explore all of your passions and areas of interest. Exploring marine microbiology has made me a more versatile scientist and has allowed me to bring a different perspective to my major.”

This semester, Emily is looking forward meeting with the clubs she participates and getting back into her bacteria research. You can meet Emily at the 2017 November SWMS Symposium.

Six Questions with SWMS – Dr. Rika Anderson

“Six Questions with SWMS” is a series of interviews with women across marine science with a wide range of career paths, degrees, and experiences. 

Dr. Rika Anderson
Dr. Rika Anderson

What is your current job, and how did you end up there?

I’m an assistant professor in the biology department at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. I teach bioinformatics, introductory biology, a course on the origin of life, and I’m hoping to develop a study abroad program with a focus on oceanography and the history of oceanography. Carleton is a 4-year small liberal arts college, so I teach small classes of undergraduates, and during the school year and over the summers I have undergraduates working in my lab to help conduct research.

I’ve wanted to be a professor at a small liberal arts college ever since I graduated from a small liberal arts college (Carleton, coincidentally!). So throughout graduate school I made a point of telling my advisors and my graduate committee that this was my long-term goal, and I sought out teaching opportunities as a graduate student. I TA-ed more classes than was required by my program, and I found ways to act as a co-instructor for classes in the oceanography department at the University of Washington, which is where I got my PhD. I wanted to develop my skills in pedagogy, so I participated in the Biology Education Research Group at UW to learn about the latest research on effective teaching practices. I knew that I needed to get teaching experience under my belt if I wanted to be competitive on the job market for a small liberal arts college, but I knew that I also needed a good postdoc. So I spent one quarter teaching oceanography at The Evergreen State College before starting a NASA postdoc. I went on the job market immediately during the first year of my postdoc (I saw it as a good way to practice, and it was!) and the next year I got my current position at Carleton.

What is your favorite thing about marine science, or your research field more specifically?

I study microbial evolution and ecology in deep-sea hydrothermal vent systems, so I dabble across astrobiology and oceanography. I love how interdisciplinary my field is, and I love the fact that we ask big-picture questions. I get to talk to oceanographers, geologists, biologists, chemists, atmospheric scientists, and astronomers as part of my job, which keeps things interesting and stretches my brain in new and fascinating ways. We ask questions related to the origin and early evolution of life, the fundamentals of evolution, how climate change might affect marine ecology, and more. Students love these kinds of big-picture questions, so it’s a powerful tool to attract students to STEM disciplines at all ages.

What is your greatest professional/educational accomplishment?

I always think of my students as my greatest accomplishments. Whenever I see a student go on to do great things, or even when I see a student’s eyes light up in response to something they’ve learned in class or in doing research with me, I feel like I’ve accomplished something. That’s why I love teaching.
What are your goals for the next six years?

Well, I’ve just started here, so my main goal is to keep my head screwed on straight, enjoy myself, and establish myself here at Carleton! I’m hoping to get my research program off the ground and publish some papers with my students, and thanks to some absolutely amazing students I had working with me this summer, we’ve made great progress on that. I’m also really looking forward to developing a study abroad program that focuses on a combination of science and society through the lens of oceanography, marine ecology, marine policy, and the history of oceanography and maritime exploration.

What advice would you give the six-years-ago version of yourself?

Six years ago was 2011, and I was deep in the throes of graduate school. I’d say it’s important to identify your goals and work towards them, but at the same time take time for yourself. Go on those backpacking trips, take the time to spend time with friends and family. It’s so easy to get overwhelmed by things like qualifying exams or generals in graduate school, or to feel like you aren’t accomplishing anything. Take the long view and keep the important things in mind: your long-term goals, and taking time for yourself.

Dr. Rika Anderson (center) and colleagues in the DSV Alvin ~7 years ago.
Dr. Rika Anderson (center) and colleagues in the DSV Alvin ~7 years ago.

Our theme for our 4th annual fall symposium is “Swimming in Confidence: Declaring your Scientific Authority.” How do you increase your self-confidence?

I’ve been told that I have a problem with confidence, and I think I’m not alone among women in academia! I find that teaching and mentoring is actually a huge confidence-booster. When I’m mentoring or teaching students, I can so often see myself in those students, reminding me of what it felt like to be in their shoes just 5 or 10 years ago, often asking the same questions they were asking me. It reminds me how far I’ve come, and helps me feel that I have, in fact, learned useful skills and become wiser (I think!) since I was a student in college.

I think an important distinction to draw is that it’s possible to be self-confident while also possessing a strong sense of self-awareness and humility. I place high value in being confident in my own skills and my knowledge while also recognizing the skills of others and understanding the limits of my knowledge. It can be difficult to admit to a class full of students that you don’t know something, but ultimately I’ve found that students’ respect for me increases if I tell them (confidently) that I don’t know something, but that there’s nothing wrong with that and that we can learn something new together.

SWMS Career Explorations: Teaching intensive institutions

In this blog post, URI SWMS member Tejashree Modak shares her recent experience visiting Bridgewater State University and learning about teaching intensive institutions.

If teaching is your passion and especially if you are thinking of it as a career option, a question you should ask yourself is: What type of teaching am I passionate about? I realized it more than ever before when I visited Bridgewater State University this past March.

It all started when I got an email about the workshop ‘Teaching in Teaching Intensive Institutions’ organized at UMass Boston. I signed up since I was interested in teaching and wanted to make use of the resources it offered. At the workshop we met a variety of professionals from different institutions, in different phases of their career from new faculty to deans, the whole spread! At the workshop, I met a lot of people from Bridgewater State University (BSU).  Dr. Martina Arndt, Professor in the BSU Physics Department shared her story of how she got to her current position in one of the sessions. That got me thinking that I really don’t know what being a professor in a teaching intensive institution entails! Teaching intensive positions have a higher teaching load than research based universities but research is also a part of the expectations from tenure track positions. However, the important difference is that often student participation in research is undergraduate only. I have always been a student in a research university so I know very little about this part of the world.  I got in touch with BSU to see if I could visit to get a feel of their institution. The Dean of Bartlett College of Science and Mathematics, Dr. Kristen Porter-Utley, hosted URI students that shared my curiosity for a full day at BSU!

Rhody Rams Visit Bridgewater Bears

Six graduate students from different departments at URI spent morning to afternoon at BSU on March 31, 2017. BSU is located in Bridgewater, MA with a large beautiful campus. We checked in at the Dean’s office at 9:00am. We were given class schedules of courses taught in our field if we wanted to sit in a lecture.  I got a revision of meiosis taught by Dr. Jeff Bowen to a class of very well attentive students. I was blown away by how engaged the students were and asked such good questions! After the lecture we were led to a conference room and Dr. Porter-Utley along with Dr. Bowen and a new faculty in geology, Dr. Christine Brandon talked about BSU, their experiences and career at BSU. Dean Porter-Utley also gave us a gist about the hiring process, course load and overall responsibilities of a professor at BSU. She encouraged applicants to thoroughly research the institution before applying for open positions and to let that research show through the application. She pointed out that this tells the hiring committee you spent time and tailored your application for the position. She said, “The worst mistake you can make is to show up for an interview without knowing enough about the institution you are applying to.” She says it is very evident and reflects badly on your candidacy for the job. Make a note everyone! Dr. Brandon is a new faculty and Dr. Bowen has been at BSU for several years so we got to hear from two people at very different stages of their career, about their role and experiences at BSU.

Next we split up into our fields of interest and met with faculty that teach in our field. I was in the biology group and met with Dr. Merideth Krevosky, Dr. Kenneth Adams and Dr. Joseph Seggio. Apart from sharing their journey and experiences at BSU, they also gave us some very good advice and shared helpful resources for grants and career decisions. One important advice was that when you apply to undergraduate institutions it is very important to tailor your research questions such that the experiments can be conducted by undergraduate students, be done with smaller grants and shared resources.  This is quite a different thought process than what we are used to in graduate programs at URI. Start practicing your research statements if this is your career choice!

We got so wrapped up into the discussion we didn’t even realize it was time for lunch! We all walked to the fancy BSU dining hall and enjoyed a delicious buffet over more conversation with Dr. Arndt, Dr. Krevosky and Dr. Brandon.  We got many pointers and really good advice from all of them. Unanimously all of them pointed out that building and maintaining collaborations with other research institutions was critical for their research. Many of these collaborations started in graduate school. So as graduate students it is important for us to start building that network sooner than later!

Undergraduate Research Opportunities

The day was wrapped up by a tour of the Dana Mohler-Faria Science and Mathematics Center. Dr. Krevosky gave me a tour of the classrooms and research labs. The research space was immaculate and shared between faculty members where undergraduate students perform experiments. They also write research and travel grants with their professors. Early scientists in the making for sure! It was very cool to see entire research run by undergrads! I wrote my first publication as an undergrad so it felt even more heartwarming to see enthusiastic students finding time from courses to work in the lab!

Thank You, Bridgewater

Each person I met had a different story of how they reached their current position. Some landed there by chance, some had always planned to teach in teaching intensive institution and some tested out the research universities and then came to BSU. But one thing was very evident in all of them: they love what they are doing right now! They love being a part of BSU.  That sends a clear message: you are not limited to academic positions in research universities if you want to stay in academics after your PhD.

All in all it was a very resourceful and enlightening experience to visit BSU. It gave us all the tools to think about teaching as a career option and whether a career at a teaching intensive institution is a viable one for us. I along with everyone who attended the event would like to sincerely thank BSU for the gracious and warm invitation to URI graduate students and for such a thoughtfully organized event! Along with everything else, I found several women role models who are so good at their jobs and provide inspiration to other women who want to pursue a career in science!!

Tejashree Modak, URI PhD Candidate in Cell and Molecular Biology