Saturday, September 9, 2017

Scientists in Stitches - Loren Cassin Sackett, PhD

Loren at the bench in her Prairie dog knit hat

"Scientists in Stitches" is a new series on my blog where I will interview scientists about their careers and the steps they have taken to get there. I have made each of these scientists a knit item that represents their PhD (#KnityourPhD) or career (#KnityourScience). 

This post features Dr. Loren Cassin Sackett. Loren is an evolutionary biologist that does some amazing work studying natural resistance to pathogens using the prairie dog and the Hawaiian 'amakihi as model organisms.

You can follow along with Loren at the links below. Her Instagram feed is especially rad. 
twitter: (@LorenCSackett)
instagram: (@travellingcassin)

What is your current job title and what do you do in your job?

I am an Assistant Professor in Integrative Biology at the University of South Florida. I spend about half of my time on research and half on teaching/mentoring activities (I teach both mammalogy and evolution). My research is focused on evolutionary processes in wildlife, including dynamics of small populations, adaptation to introduced diseases, and the disruption of gene flow by habitat fragmentation. Given that much of my research is on wildlife, I am in the enviable position of getting to do some field work each year in amazing places like Colorado and Hawaii, although I also do a lot of molecular lab work, data analysis and writing, and above all mentor students in how to do those things.

What is a typical workday for you?

The first and most important part of my day is making coffee.  :)  I bike to work, and then usually start my day by writing something I'm working on (a paper, grant proposal, lecture, etc.).  I start this way because as soon as I open my email, chaos breaks loose (I get about 100 emails a day during the middle of a semester).  I also have a lot of meetings with students.  I teach two days a week and spend those days planning activities, writing lectures, reading papers that are relevant to the course, and grading.  I try to infuse contemporary science into the courses I teach, which benefits the students because they get an idea of what scientists are actually doing in the field/lab, and how they are generating knew knowledge.  And it's good for me too, because it keeps me abreast of the relevant literature.  For me, this is one of the things that I tend to let slide too much when I get busy, so it's nice to have something that forces me to keep reading.  
On the days that I don't teach, I try to pick a specific project to work on so I can make noticeable progress on it.  It's hard for me to multi-task different projects on the same day, so I try to generate some momentum to carry them forward separately.  I still have to answer emails these days, but I spend more time reading abstracts and papers, writing, and planning research projects. Those things pretty much eat up 8 hours in what feels like no time!  I am currently developing a new class, so unfortunately my workday does not end after 8 hours, but I try to minimize the amount of time I spend at home working (work-life balance and all that).  :)

What inspired your interest in science?

Loren with 'amakihi (source)
It had to be my mom and my grandpa, who encouraged me to constantly ask questions about the world around me, and to try to understand the patterns I saw.  I did not recognize this as an interest in science until much later -- in fact, I rebelled against my mother in high school be deciding that I would study psychology.  I obviously did not know exactly what science was!  I think I was probably subject to many subconscious ideas that science was performed by old white-haired men in lab coats in dark windowless labs, and my understanding of science was limited to what I had done in high school courses, so I thought it consisted of essentially doing 30-minute experiments that had no purpose because we already knew what the outcome was supposed to be.  I had no concept that a scientist designed her own experiments to answer her own questions about the mysteries of the world, or that those experiments could lead to fascinating new questions.  But when I finally figured out that research was a career--that a person could get paid to seek knowledge--I knew right away that that was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.  My mom and my grandpa probably wondered what took me so long.

I think I was probably subject to many subconscious ideas that science was performed by old white-haired men in lab coats in dark windowless labs ...  I had no concept that a scientist designed her own experiments to answer her own questions about the mysteries of the world, or that those experiments could lead to fascinating new questions.  

What training/education did you do to get to where you are now?
Loren with prairie dog (source)
I took kind of a circuitous path to get here.  I was always passionate about conservation, but I never really knew what types of careers could be associated with conservation work, except some that did not appeal to me (like fundraising from private donors, which is essential work but is better suited to extroverts). I was fascinated by a lot of scientific fields and ended up studying psychology in college, even though I didn't want to be a practitioner.  It was through participating in psychology research that I learned research could be a career.  By this time, I had discovered conservation genetics, and immediately after I graduated, I enrolled in undergraduate courses in biology to get the prerequisites for graduate school (but I never actually got a bachelor's in biology).  I received my PhD in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, and I was lucky to have received really solid training in both ecology and evolution from a fantastic department.  And thanks to the patience of my PhD advisor, I took a lot of opportunities to receive specialty training elsewhere:  I took 2 short courses in Costa Rica through the Organization for Tropical Studies, and I took a leave of absence from CU for personal reasons and audited Alan Templeton's population genetics class at Washington University in St. Louis.  I think it was really useful to gain intellectual perspectives from a lot of very diverse-thinking scientists.  Eventually (!) I finished my PhD and secured a postdoctoral fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution, which is really the dream for a conservation biologist.  One of the things that was important to me in a postdoc was to work in a different system and learn a new skill set.  Not everyone chooses this strategy, because it does take a lot of time to shift systems and techniques, and many postdoc terms are not really long enough for this.  I was fortunate that my PI and I were able to secure funding to keep me there for 3 years, and I learned a lot of genomics tools--which is becoming essential for biologists today. 

What was your best day in science?

Wow, that's a really tough question. I haven't had a Nature paper or anything prize-worthy, but I appreciate the little victories (like an editor choosing my paper to feature on the journal's website) and I love fieldwork. Last year I got to backpack into a field site on Kauai with a 40-lb pack that kept hitting trees above my head level, and army-crawl under fallen logs to get to one of the most pristine places on Hawaii (except for the tourist helicopters flying overhead).  And catching elusive species (like the Kauai amakihi, which we caught only three of in a week) is really satisfying.  When the animals make us really work hard for it, the feeling of success is greater.
And actually, I really like the day-to-day work in almost all respects. I love having students get excited about projects, and getting grants funded is an awesome feeling.  

What was your worst day in science?

Well, some of the same days. Before we caught that Kauai amakihi, it felt like a huge failure and a waste of money to be spending all this time not catching anything. It is always really frustrating having dozens of traps set at a prairie dog colony with dozens of prairie dogs and not having ANY of them go into the traps. The days when you realize rodents are outsmarting you really start to make you question your sanity.
Bad days are also the ones when I get rejected from something.  There's a lot of rejection in science -- rejection from jobs, rejection from grant proposals, rejection of papers.  I try to just assume everything will get rejected, and then I'm not too disappointed when it happens, and if it doesn't, then it's especially exciting.  And I remind myself that everyone gets rejected and not to take it personally.
There's a lot of rejection in science -- rejection from jobs, rejection from grant proposals, rejection of papers.
What do you do in your free time?

I try to stay active and keep my body healthy as a balance to working my brain all day.  I love being outside. Biking makes me feel completely liberated, like I am capable of anything (it's a nice illusion).  Biking--mostly commuting rather than going on long weekend rides right now--is the main thing that keeps me sane.  And I like hiking, rollerblading along the water, running, etc.  I read, but never enough! 

What are your hobbies?

I dabble in photography.  Nothing fancy--mostly pictures from my travels.  I really love traveling.  Well, it's more than love: it's more like an insatiable desire to explore every corner of the planet.  When I see a dirt road winding around a bend, I have to take it.  It's not even a choice, it's an urge I can't control.  I love meeting people from all over the world and seeing the day-to-day life in other countries, and I really appreciate the perspective it gives me on the world. 

7 of Loren's travel photos, 1 from each continent

If you could send a letter back to your 18-year-old self, what advice would you give yourself?

Ha! So many things: Listen to your mother. Practice your Spanish with your classmates. Science is fun, and you can be good at it.


Now it is your time to participate:
If you have any questions for Dr. Cassin Sackett, leave them in the comments below. If there is enough interest, I'll gladly publish a follow-up with Loren so she can answer your questions!


  1. Thank you! Great interview, and Loren's story about not understanding, based on her experiences in school, what science really was have struck a chord with me. I look forward to the next installment.

    1. Thanks for responding, Kristen! That part also resonated with me. I think I didn't truly understand what science research was like until I was mired down in it as a graduate student. My undergraduate summer research experiences gave me an idea, but they were so different from my PhD research.