I am from a small town in south Jersey, less than 10 miles from Philadelphia. I grew up as an only and super shy child and I was always kind of bored when I got home so my mom took me to adopt a cat because she thought it would make me happier at home. It did and that’s when my love for cats began. “Cuddles” (I was 8 so of course that was her name) was my best friend for almost 20 years. I was always a curious kid and I wanted to be a biologist before I even knew what the word meant. I started my undergraduate career at Drexel University in Philadelphia and finished at Sam Houston State University here in Texas. I also completed a master’s degree at SHSU studying the population genetics of American mistletoe. My husband is also a graduate student here in the Nuclear Engineering program. My research at TAMU in the Pepper lab focuses on unraveling the molecular mechanisms that allows a small plant in the mustard family to grow and thrive on super poor quality soils (serpentine outcrops).
Outside of grad school I love to cook, watch ridiculous reality TV shows, play video games, and hang out with my husband and cats. I am also an avid sports fan, especially hockey and football. I am not a fun person to be around when Philadelphia teams lose games, which if you’re keeping score, is quite often these past few years. I volunteer with a local TNR (trap, neuter, release) program and help homeless cats either find homes or at least receive medical treatment, something that is really important to me. I truly love teaching and after graduating with my PhD, I want to enter academia and teach at a smaller institution. When you’re responsible for teaching someone something for the first time and they get it and think it’s really cool…that’s a special feeling and something I look forward to each semester I teach.
What inspired you to join Dr. Alan Pepper’s lab?
At first it was the research, of course. I liked the fact that his lab was working on trying to figure out how specific species of plants can do some really weird things. I like answering a question about a specific organism, especially weird ones. Then after I met him and his lab members, I instantly felt welcomed and relaxed. It felt like a great fit right from the start.
What projects are you currently working on?
My project focuses on finding the molecular differences between two sister species, one that lives in granite soils and the other that only lives in serpentine outcrops which are really poor quality soils. We want to know at the molecular level how these plants are able to thrive in such poor conditions. I’ve assembled and annotated both transcriptomes and now I am working on RNA seq data to find genes that are differentially expressed between the two taxa.
Describe a recent research collaboration that has impacted your research.
Just within our lab we have great collaboration. My lab mate Elyssa is working on the genome aspect of these plants and at first my data helped her build those genomes, but now her genomes are helping me analyze RNA seq data.
What are your future plans, now that your tenure as a graduate student is coming to a close?
I love to teach and ideally I would like to wind up at a small university where I can split my time between teaching and research. However, those positions are super hard to come by these days so I am looking into other opportunities such as outreach, industry, or opening up a cat café if all else fails.
What characteristics do you prize most in a colleague?
A good sense of humor, not just to make me laugh but to be able to roll with the punches and tough times that come with science. You also need to be able to communicate efficiently with each other and call each other out when need be.
What advice would you give to new/incoming graduate students?
Keep your chin up and if you don’t have tough skin, get some. Science is hard and full of negative results: PCRs are going to fail, grants aren’t going to get funded, and manuscripts will get rejected. Use those negative experiences and learn from them, allowing them to make you a better scientist. That being said, if (when) you feel overwhelmed, make sure to talk to somebody and vent.
You need to leave some time in your life to not be a graduate student. Working 80 plus hours a week is going to get old and burn you out. Science is going to go on if you take a day off and don’t check your email. Do something that you enjoy on a regular basis or you’re going to be miserable.
What undergraduate courses have you taught, and what specifically do you do in your classes to enhance student learning?
I got to teach botany and plant taxonomy labs as a master’s student. As a PhD student I taught plants and people, genes ecology and evolution, and biology 111 lab. In 111 I get the chance to interact with students a lot. I make sure to tailor my power points to their interests. If they are all pre-med, I’ll give real life examples of that week’s lab that affects health and/or medicine.
What outlets do you have to relieve stress in order to focus on your research?
I really love cooking and if I hadn’t become a biologist, I would have gone to culinary school and become a chef. It’s really relaxing to me and reminds me a lot about science. You get to experiment with ingredients and appliances, but with cooking you usually get to eat your end results.
I also really like watching trashy reality TV with my husband and cats. I don’t have to think while watching and it’s usually so ridiculous I just laugh the whole time. Big Brother just started this week, so it’s an exciting time in the Hawkins’ house.
What is one thing people would be surprised to know about you?
This is definitely the toughest question so far. I’d hate to give you the trite “I really am the typical nerdy scientist” answer…so I’ll say this: I have always, and still do, love rap/hip hop. It’s by far my favorite genre of music. Currently Childish Gambino, Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, and G Easy are my favorites.
Also, it’s no surprise to anyone that I love cats. However, the inevitable “how many cats do you have” question comes up all of the time. I have to preface my answer with “I promise I am not a hoarder and they all have health insurance and are well taken care of….7”. Yes, we have 7 cats that are all rescued from a shelter or the streets. They are our babies.
You have been very involved in outreach as a graduate student. Describe your experiences with outreach and tell us how you think it has impacted you and others.
One of the most important parts about science is communicating your results. It’s great to publish papers that other scientists will read, but it’s imperative to get that out to the community of non-scientists and tell them how important this work is for them and how it effects their lives. So for me outreach is a great wat to do that and to start that at a young age. It’s really great for the kids and honestly sometimes I think the parents are having just as much fun as their kids. Also, everyone is born curious and as we grow up it’s drilled out of some of us. Outreach is a great way to tell and show people it’s ok to always be curious, you may end up as a scientist, but there’s nothing wrong with that!
Tell us about any other volunteer work you’ve been involved in.
I volunteer with BCS Spay and Neuter project here locally. It’s a wonderful organization that offers low to no cost spaying and neutering for cats and dogs in Brazos Valley. Most importantly, it’s a trap, neuter, release (TNR) program that helps homeless cats. They test the cat to make sure it’s free of disease, vaccinate, microchip, and most importantly spay or neuter them. The tame or tamable ones go to foster homes and the truly wild ones get their ear clipped (to signify that they’ve been through the program) and released back to where they were trapped. This program helps thousands of local animals each year.