Scholar Spotlight: Laura Dassama

Research Associate, Harvard Medical School/Boston Children’s Hospital (2017-18)

Assistant Professor, Stanford University (starting Fall 2018)

Sloan Scholar PhD in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, The Pennsylvania State University

 

 

 

 

  1. In the fall of 2018, you will be starting as an assistant professor at Stanford University and will be collaborating with other researchers at ChEM-H, an interdisciplinary research center that focuses on problems related to human health. What do you value about being a part of this interdisciplinary center? How has your research trajectory positioned you to work within this context?

I will start as Assistant Professor of Chemistry and a ChEM-H faculty fellow in 2018. Being at ChEM-H, which seeks to unite researchers using chemistry, engineering, and medicine to improve human health, is a perfect fit for my research program. I believe that being amongst colleagues, who, because of their training and experience, have different ways of approaching the same challenges, will be beneficial to my trainees and myself.

 

  1. You are taking a year before starting at Stanford to do research at Harvard Medical School/Boston Children’s Hospital. Why was it important to you to take this opportunity before starting your tenure-track job?

I was given the opportunity to defer my start at Stanford in order to pursue other research interests. I have long been interested in sickle cell disease, and the laboratory of Stuart H. Orkin has pioneered research in understanding the molecular basis of the disease. For me, this year is an opportunity to pursue that long-standing interest, and I hope that it helps to broaden the way I do science.

 

  1. What advice would you give to other Sloan Scholars who are on the job market and are trying to move on from a postdoc to their first assistant professor position?

An important advice I once received while I considered research directions was to find a problem of sufficient interest (to me and to the public), and for which I was qualified to contribute solutions to in a meaningful way. It is also important to recognize your abilities and be confident in them, but to also be aware of your weaknesses. A good sense of self-awareness helped me maintain my sanity as I applied, interviewed, and negotiated start-up packages.

 

  1. You have been very successful in garnering funding for your work, including from the National Institutes of Health and the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, as well as being a Sloan Scholar as a graduate student. In addition to including a sound and feasible proposal, successful grant applications also typically spur excitement in reviewers about the proposed research. How do you get others excited about your work?

In many ways I have been fortunate to work on problems that are of interest to funding agencies. Bio-medical research, although highly competitive, has been more fundable because it is easier to envisage its benefits to society. Every grant proposal I have written has been like a sales pitch: what the problem is, why it is relevant, and how I will make meaningful contributions to this field/area/problem. I have also solicited and received critiques from more experienced colleagues and mentors; they have almost always made my proposals better.

 

  1. How did being a Sloan MPhD student affect your graduate research experience?

Being a Sloan Scholar was certainly a highlight of my tenure as a graduate student. Not only did I form part of this community of scholars that felt like family, I had funding to access things that most graduate students could not. My Sloan funds were in part used to fund a collaborative project with my eventual postdoctoral mentor, and to pay for my attendance at some key conferences in my field.

 

  1. Does your interest in science seep into your life outside of work? If so, how?

Absolutely! One hobby of mine is brewing beer, and my knowledge of microbes and the chemical transformations they perform has only helped me become better at brewing. I am sure that my brewing partners become annoyed at my penchant for accurate measurements and sterile techniques, but the scientist in me needs to make sure the final product is good and reproducible!

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