Lisa Learman ‘16 is a prime example of how Obies can explore and build upon a range of interests and activities in undergrad and beyond. A biology and musical studies double major at Oberlin, Learman is completing the fifth year of a PhD in the Cellular and Molecular Medicine program at Johns Hopkins University. In this Q&A, Learman discusses the pathways that led to an aspiration for a career in science communication.
Learman was a biology and musical studies double major and a chemistry minor who graduated with highest honors. Her Oberlin career was vast and multifaceted: she played flute in the Oberlin Arts and Sciences Orchestra, the Oberlin College Marching Band, and in the pit orchestra for six Oberlin Musical Theater Association shows. She also did research in Professor of Biology Maureen Peters’ lab, was a teaching assistant and personal biology tutor, was on the Biology Majors Committee, and participated in the annual Lab Crawl event.
Learman recently won the 2020 Lasker Essay Contest for young scientists. Now, she is working toward her PhD in neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University. Learman can be reached on Twitter at @LearmanLisa.
Can you describe what you currently do in your PhD program at Johns Hopkins University?
I’m currently a fifth-year finishing up my PhD in the Cellular and Molecular Medicine program at Johns Hopkins University. I’m conducting my thesis research project in the lab of Dr. Paul Worley, where I study the molecular mechanisms behind memory formation and how they go wrong in neurological diseases. Since matriculating at Hopkins, I’ve engaged in a variety of science communication activities, which include being a collaborative teaching fellow through the Johns Hopkins Teaching Academy, volunteering at the Maryland Science Center, and serving as a writer and editor for the Biomedical Odyssey blog.
How did you figure out what to major in?
I went to Oberlin knowing that I would be a music/science double major. In high school, the band community was my family: I was in the wind ensemble, jazz ensemble, pep band, and marching band. Because music had defined who I was for so long, I knew I wanted to continue my education as a musical studies major. In terms of the science, I had an amazing AP chemistry teacher in high school, and loved learning organic chemistry mechanisms. I started out at Oberlin as a biochemistry major, but after taking BIOL 101 with Professor Yolanda Cruz, I was so enthralled by the science of life that I decided to switch to the biology department.
How have you navigated being a PhD student in the medical field during COVID-19?
All of my extracurricular experiences at Johns Hopkins made it very clear to me that scientific discovery can only take us so far without a public understanding of those discoveries. This has become even clearer in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. I developed a firm aspiration for a career in science communication, a career in which I believe I can make the best use of my scientific knowledge and passion for increasing public understanding of science.
I set out to further hone my writing skills by pursuing as much experience as possible. I attended events from the Professional Development and Career Office (PDCO) at Hopkins and wrote summaries of the events to put on the office website. I joined a student-led science editing service called ReVision. In the lab, I wrote and was later awarded a predoctoral grant from the National Institutes of Health, which I considered to be an exercise in persuasive writing. When my laboratory shut down due to COVID-19, I was eager to find even more opportunities to write.
How did you approach The 2020 Lasker Essay Contest?
I knew about the Lasker Essay because in previous years my mentors and peers had emailed me about it, knowing that I was passionate about writing. Until this year, though, I wasn’t crazy about the prompts. I knew that I would write a better essay if I waited for a prompt I had strong feelings about.
The 2020 Lasker Essay Contest prompt was to "describe how a notable scientist has inspired [me]—through the scientist’s personality, life experiences, and/or through their scientific contributions." This topic seemed perfect for me, as I have been fascinated by cytogeneticist Barbara McClintock for many years, but never sat down to organize my thoughts. Writing a concise essay for the contest enabled me to reflect on how she has influenced my scientific philosophy. In my essay, I describe how McClintock’s approach to science, and the pushback she received from her contemporaries, inspires me to embrace complexity and diverse perspectives in science to arrive at a more complete truth. I am deeply grateful to be one of the honorees this year, as the Lasker Foundation exemplifies high-quality biomedical research, communication, and outreach.
How did Oberlin help you build skills for academic, personal, and professional success?
My time at Oberlin definitely helped me see that almost any endeavor, including science, has to be viewed and worked-at from many different angles for it to be done well. Oberlin’s liberal arts education helped me develop a very well-rounded set of skills that make me a better scientist and a better communicator. How can you be expected to think outside of the box, to innovate, when your skill set is all in one box?
In addition to being a biology major, I was a musical studies major, concentrating on music theory. In many ways, I find science and music theory to be very similar. Much like the goal of science is to discover the rules that govern the natural world, the purpose of a music theory analysis is to discern the rules that govern a world that Brahms or Debussy created. Ultimately, Oberlin helped me develop the creative as well as analytical thinking skills that I continue to improve on today.
What’s next for you?
Right now I’m considering two career options. One option is to find a postdoctoral fellowship in which I can focus on teaching as well as develop my own research program. After that I would take my teaching skills and research to a primarily undergraduate institution, where I would have mostly teaching responsibilities, with research on the side.
The second option would be to find a job in science communication or outreach. Right now I’m applying for a fellowship program to gain some hands-on experience in science writing for a media outlet. If I’m accepted, it would help me make professional connections and learn more about different careers in science communication.
My ideal job would be working as a science communicator for a disease organization, such as the Alzheimer’s Association, where I could help patients and families better understand why they have certain symptoms, existing treatment options, as well as what to expect in the future. I could also see myself writing for NPR, Discover, NOVA, or a similar news outlet targeted toward people interested in science.
In addition, since I have enjoyed my volunteer work at the Maryland Science Center, I can see myself writing content for a science museum geared toward guests of all ages. It’s funny— it took so much mental work for me to decide that I wanted to go into some kind of science communication, that I didn’t even realize there would be so many options within that field.
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