Ph.D., synthetic biology
J. Craig Venter Institute
When she was small she learned plastic pollution was hurting the animals. Now she hopes to put the tiniest organisms to work solving the pollution problem.
No Role Models
To Boss or Be B0ssed?
THE UN-IDEAL JOB
No Role Models
It was great for Erin to see women portrayed as scientists in the movies, but they were always white. As a child, she concluded that she wouldn’t be able to do what they did — paleontology, archaeology, medicine. Although representation has been slow to change, Erin determined she could change the way her mind responded to it. “I had to think, no, I can do this. This is attainable. This is something I can do, it’s doesn’t matter if I’m male or female, Hispanic or not. I just need to put the time and the work in.” She didn’t mention this reckoning to anyone else. “It was just one of those things that I assumed as fact: [representation] wasn’t going to change, whether I talked about it or not. It didn’t even make sense to bring it up, because it just seemed so impossible that I thought, why even talk about it?” In junior high and high school she wasn’t sure exactly what she was going to do. “I didn’t know I was a scientist,” she recalls. “It wasn’t until I went into grad school that I was like, ‘This is happening. I can do this. I can be a scientist here.’”
To Boss or Be B0ssed?
Though her parents expected her to be done with schooling at the end of college, Erin decided to go to graduate school. “After I finished my undergrad, I was trying to decide whether to get a job. I knew that if I called it quits after getting my bachelor’s degree, I would have a hard time finding a position where I would have the final say, where I would run the lab. It was more likely that I was going to be doing whatever someone else was telling me to do. I knew I wasn’t going to be happy doing that. So that was what pushed me to go to graduate school.
How about a little time to think? Erin took a year as a student-at-large while she tried to decide whether to go on to grad school. “I had a bit of self-doubt as to whether I could actually do it. I was still idolizing people who got a higher level degree. I thought you had to be a different kind of person or something.” One of her professors tried to put the anxiety to rest. “He really pushed me to continue on for a master’s degree. He saw something in me. He felt — no, he knew! — that I could do it.” That reassured Erin. “I thought, okay, he’s seen me in class, he’s given me extra time and attention to try and talk me through this. I should try. Let me apply to the master’s program and see what happens.”
Erin had a recurring nightmare: she would wake up (in the dream) and realize she’d forgotten to turn a paper in. In real life it never happened, but the idea of being late was the thing that made her most nervous during school. “I always turned everything in on time, not because I was afraid I’d get a bad grade, but because I was terrified that I was going to miss a deadline. That, of all things, would ruin me — not that I wasn’t capable but that I forgot or was procrastinating too much or something.”
Both Erin’s parents served in the U.S. Marine Corps. She recalls her dad joking that on her 18th birthday she would wake up to him packing her bags to send her off to the service. Joining the Marines, she says, “was something I always assumed I wouldn't do.” But she knew from the start that joining up was not for her. She faced the fact that there might be some disappointment as she told her parents of her decision to go to college.
The Un-Ideal Job
During college, Erin earned extra money working at Costco. In graduate school she took work at a nearby Monsanto agricultural facility, studying corn pathology (diseases). It didn’t have much to do with her studies, but at least it was science-oriented. Later she moved on to Monsanto’s entomology (insect study) department, another departure. “Entomology had nothing to do with what I was going to school for.” But one of her first job interviews post-degree was at another company that were working on the same beetle she had worked on at Monsanto. She feels that her Monsanto work opened doors for her, including the door at her current job at the J.Craig Venter Institute. The job advertised there had to do with diatoms (a unicellular algae). Erin says, “When I applied, I thought, ‘I’ve never worked with diatoms, I don’t know if they’re going to want me, but I’ll try. Might as well see what happens.” They said, ‘All the genetic engineering uses E.coli, you already do that. You’re experienced, come on over!’ I was like, YEAH!”