Successful women in science – featuring Dr Hailey Gahlon

Women presenting their research during our weekly university seminars are rare events. Nevertheless, when they happen, you can be sure that they are very special lectures on an extremely high level. In July, I had a pleasure to meet Dr Hailey Gahlon, who told us about her studies on protein and nucleic acid (DNA/RNA) interactions and genome instability at the ETH in Zurich. If you want to read more about the group she is leading, visit this website: www.gahlongroup.com.

What I remembered the most from her speech? That I could understand absolutely everything! You can be surprised but we are all specialized in our own topics. Whether it’s a mechanism, gene or a protein and when it comes to listening to somebody’s presentation it can be difficult to understand the jargon and the meaning behind expert’s words. I won’t say it is easy to get into the shoes of someone unfamiliar with your research and be able to explain the results of your experiments without digging into unnecessary and confusing details. Public speaking skills of Dr Gahlon are amazing and worth appreciation, that’s why I would like to thank you so much again, listening to your talk was a pleasure.

A beautiful smile and a great power with which our guest started her presentation made me even more curious. Tens of questions came across my mind – what is your story Hailey? Please tell me about yourself!

Have you always planned to become a scientist?

Not at all.  Actually, right after high school I attended a two-year associate arts college (in the U.S.) where I studied business. I went to a career counselor when I started and told her I wanted to go in to fashion design.  She told me that I would need to take many chemistry classes to “understand textiles and fabrics.”  The thought of that terrified me, so I focused on economics and finance instead.  After taking a basic biology elective course I realized how much I enjoyed learning about topics such as “what is life” and “how do our cells divide.”  I then decided to get my four-year bachelor’s degree and pursue medicine.  However, during my sophomore organic chemistry class I fell in love with the topic and decided that I wanted to go to graduate school and do research.  This was, and still is, where I think I can make the most impact in society. 

Do you consider yourself lucky or hard-working?

I’m not sure I can disentangle the two, I am both lucky and hard-working.  I am lucky to have grown up in a country where the education system allows girls to study without barriers.  I can’t believe there are still places in the world where this basic human right is not met.  I am incredibly lucky.  Regarding hard-working, I guess I would say I was raised in a family that was hard-working.  I am the youngest of five children.  My parents always made us contribute around the house from pulling weeds in the garden, mowing the lawn to washing the dishes.  I naturally picked up this habit and it has stayed with me into my professional career.

 Do you ever feel like you are suffering from impostor syndrome?

I think everyone suffers from imposter syndrome at some point or another, so of course the same applies to me. I honestly try not to focus on that too much. Dwelling on feeling as if I were inadequate usually results in anxiety.  I find having good mentors that support me and truly want to see me succeed are important to reinforce my own confidence and to help me develop each step of my career.  I also feel like imposter system can be a good thing.  If you stay in your comfort zone all the time, you are not pushing yourself.  Feeling like an imposter means that you are treading on new unexplored terrain and pushing yourself to advance and grow. 

What are the advantages of working as an independent researcher after getting your PhD if you are a female? How would you advertise career in STEM to young females?

I think the advantage of working as an independent researcher after a PhD are similar for men and women.  This profession allows you immense freedom to work on big ideas and societal challenges that can make an impact.  In this line of work, you decide on the amount of time and resources to invest on solving a problem.  This can be incredibly rewarding.  In the STEM fields, there still remains a large gender imbalance; women and minorities are significantly underrepresented.  This is a complex problem and one that requires working with girls at a young age to ensure they have role models they can relate to and to reinforce their self-confidence.  I would advertise this career to young females as one that both women and men are equally qualified to do and where it is long overdue that we close the gender gap.

Did you ever doubt in your career decision? If yes, when?

I wish I could say never, but that would not be true. I started doubting my career decision to stay in academia after my postdoc.  The next step to find a faculty position is difficult.  I have had no doubts about staying in science, however.  I genuinely love what I do and I think it is important, so that is what keeps me motivated when I am feeling doubt and unsure about what is next in my career.     

I watched your World Minds’ video on YouTube and I’m fascinated by your public speaking skills. Did you learn it yourself or did you attend special courses? Since self-presence, stress management and clear diction are very important for aspiring young female scientists, what are your best tips for presenting in public?

I’ve never taken a course on public speaking.  I do, however, enjoy watching TED Talks.  I find them incredibly interesting; not only for learning new and innovative ways of thinking, but also for observing what makes a good public speaker.  In my opinion, the most important part of being an effective public speaker is to be authentic.  You can be shy and still be a good public speaker.  The audience wants to feel comfortable with you, so you need to be comfortable with yourself.  I guess in some ways, I also enjoy being able to speak to an audience.  I enjoy the jitters I feel right before hopping up on stage.  It’s also very rewarding to be able to present a topic that I am very passionate about.

Have you ever felt unequally treated at your workplace? Have you ever struggled as a female in academic environment, if yes how did you manage to handle it?

The more I have advanced in my professional career the more unequal treatment I have personally experienced and also observed towards other females.  I think this is sadly the case in many professions.  I find the best thing to do is develop effective strategies and awareness to deal with the problem.  This way when you are confronted with this type of situation you are equipped to react or remove yourself from the negative environment.  This will of course depend on each unique situation.  Being involved in hiring and conference planning committees, I have observed unfair evaluation and recruitment based on gender.  I have found it important to vocally, but respectfully, disagree even if my point of view is not the consensus of the group.  It is important to realize that bias and discrimination can come from females as well as males.  I think it is vital that hiring, planning and recruiting committees involve equal representation of females and males to reduce this bias. 

What are the three most needed skills in academia in your opinion? What personality traits are beneficial?

Resilience.  Creativity.  Grit.  I think these three personality traits are helpful in any career, but they are especially important in science.  Over 90% of experiments we do, fail.  Resilience is a large part of being able to pick yourself up again and try.  I think one of the reasons I love doing science on a day-to-day basis is that it is such a creative endeavor.  I really enjoy designing new experiments and seeing them result in something meaningful.  Now, in a position of leading a small research team, I get excited when I see my team come up with clever experimental designs or new ways of thinking about something.  Grit is another important trait that, for me, means having the courage and perseverance to tackle big problems in our society even when your critics don’t believe in you or your ideas.     

What comes across your mind when I say self-care?

Having time for yourself.  I think that as academics we tend to live inside our heads.  I feel like we are constantly thinking and exercising our brains and it is important to take a step back and take care of the whole self.  Physical exercise, such as running and doing yoga are two activities I enjoy and are important for my overall “self-care.”  Nutrition is also a big part of healthy living.  It takes more time to prepare a healthy dinner, but it is time well invested.  Sleep is also so important, but this is one area that I’ve always struggled with.

How do you spend your free time?

I love going to libraries and looking through old books.  It sounds a bit funny, but I love how they smell.  There have been studies investigating the complex mixture of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) released from old paper (Anal. Chem. 2009, 81, 8617–8622)[1].  The faint smell of vanilla is due to the breakdown of lignin.  Some of my favorite subjects to read about, outside of work, include heredity, natural selection, human evolution and linguistics. I also enjoy classic novels and The Grapes of Wrath is one of my favorites.  Besides reading, I enjoy spending time traveling with my husband.  We both love exploring new places, learning new languages and trying new foods.  Spending time with close friends and family is also something I love to do in my free time.  Unfortunately, living abroad makes it difficult to see my family as much as I would like.

Out of all the countries you have studied or worked in, which one would you rate the highest and why?

I have lived and worked in the United States (where I am from), the United Kingdom and Switzerland. I can’t rate any one of these as being the highest, because they all have their strengths and their weaknesses.  I am extremely fortunate to be able to work in such amazing countries. I will say being an expat for the last 10 years has carved a special place in my heart for immigrants. They are such a vital part of a community and they contribute so much.  Dealing with visa frustrations and hassles has had its difficulties to say the very least.  However, living abroad has made me a more well-rounded person with an expanded worldview.

Who is your biggest inspiration and what is your daily motivation to get out of bed?

My parents are my biggest inspiration. I am lucky to have been raised by two very hard-working people. They are the most honest people I know. My strongest attributes are from the sacrifices and values my parents have passed down to me as a child. At first, I read this question as “what is my biggest inspiration” and not “who”….so here is my answer to “what is my biggest inspiration.” My biggest inspiration is continually learning new things.  I think this is why I enjoy reading and watching TED Talks so much.  And, it is definitely the reason I enjoy research and discovering new things.  My favorite part of the day is the morning.  I love waking up and carving out my to-do list. There is something about the ‘blank slate’ in the morning that motivates me to put a plan into action. People that know me well, know that I make about 5-6 to-do lists in one day. It’s an obsessive habit, which I somehow inherited from my father.  

Thank you, Hailey for all your answers. It has been an amazing journey through some of the aspects of your life. It allowed me and my readers to meet not only a successful female scientist but also a female who runs, does yoga, cooks, reads books, travels and has a lot of self-awareness. Someone, who went through ups and downs like anyone else but fights her way through like only a few of us. A girl who needs mental support and likes to spend time with herself alone. And most importantly, we met a successful woman, who any of us – ambitious females – can be… with a lot of hard work and a bit of luck of course J

Link to sources:

[1] https://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/ac9016049

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