First, if you’re reading this, you deserve to know a secret: the “X” in EMX Reed doesn’t stand for anything. Or maybe it stands for any X name you can think of? Personally, I like Xenopus, which is a genus of aquatic frogs native to sub-Saharan Africa.
When I was getting ready to publish my first peer-reviewed academic article and was, probably prematurely, setting up a Google Scholar account in celebration, I found a lot of Reeds, E Reeds, even EM Reeds out there. So, I wanted to set myself apart a little bit, and settled on adding an X. I was a little nervous to tell my advisor, but luckily Dr. Martha Burford Reiskind was completely supportive.
When I read scientists’ ‘origin stories’, many start with a lovely childhood anecdote. So, here’s mine: when I was a kid and forced to go outside, I would collect dried berries in the backyard. I kept them in my room to use in potions composed on my parents’ shampoos and soaps. One day, my dad found my collection, and informed me they weren’t dried berries, but deer and rabbit poop.
That is to say, I didn’t set out to be a biologist or scientist from a young age.
I mainly took politics and English electives in high school. I majored in French at UNC-Asheville, a public liberal arts university in western North Carolina. I didn’t consider graduate school as an option until after I received my BA, and I had no idea what to expect or what was expected of me. I took my first Biology class at the end of my sophomore year, “Cellular and Molecular Biology”. I did not particularly enjoy it, especially the labs. However, the professor, Dr. Jennifer Ward, was incredible. Her lectures were fascinating, and whenever a student would as a question to which she didn’t know the answer, she would research it after class and send us all an email with a detailed response and citations.
The next year I took Principals of Zoology with Dr. Timothy Forrest, another great and formative professor. I loved memorizing taxonomy and synapomorphies for species, although my pronunciation was terrible. Whenever I would study with a group, I would have no idea what they were talking about because the way I said the taxa’s names in my head were so far off from what was correct. I excelled in coming up with mnemonic devices: one of my favorites was for the species’ name of the Diamondback Rattlesnake, Crotalus adamanteus. The Diamondbacks are a baseball team, and in baseball when you do a good job, they say, “‘At a man!”
I really felt inspired and excited about biology after those courses and filled my senior year with more science courses. I started thinking about graduate school as an option, and attended a “careers in liberal arts” panel at UNC-Asheville. The panel was filled primarily with young, white men who were in their first or second-year faculty. Their advice: “if you’re a senior, and you haven’t been planning for graduate school for at least the past two years, it’s too late. Graduate school is hard and miserable and there’s no guarantee you’ll get a job.” I was discouraged and let the idea of pursuing more education go to the very back of my mind. Besides, I was ready to be out of school. After graduation, I wanted to work with animals. I was accepted as a wildlife rehabilitation intern at the Western North Carolina Nature Center, an AZA accredited Zoo that housed native species to the area. My time was split caring for orphaned and injured wildlife, answering calls and questions from Western NC residents about wildlife, helping senior keepers with animals in the zoo’s collection, and writing a rehabilitation guide for the Nature Center for native mammals, birds, and herpofauna. This experience was followed by a summer internship at the Franklin Park Zoo in Boston, MA, a much larger and more traditional zoo. While work in the aviary, I was able to help with a few internal research projects, including rearing practices for neonate and juvenile honeycreepers. I was particularly taken with the tawny frogmouths, and I got to help with feeding training with both these beautiful, weird birds and the Andean Condors. It was cool.
By the end of the summer, I recommitted to going to graduate school in STEM. I spent a year taking prerequisite courses that I lacked with my French BA and working as a research technician with the North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center. By October 2015, I was looking at potential faculty advisors for a master’s and found Martha Burford Reiskind at NC State. Her research was genetics-heavy, with which I had very little experience. However, talking to Martha, her values and style ticked many of the boxes I was looking for: female mentor, dedicated to equity and representation in STEM and academia, an advocate for graduate student mental health, and an incredibly smart and passionate scientist.
Others have said this before: finding an advisor is a little like blind or online dating. Luckily, Martha was also interested in me as a student, and I was accepted at NC State, despite my non-traditional, non-STEM-dominated background. My last semester in Asheville, I worked in a molecular lab with Dr. Angeldeep Kaur, another incredible, supportive professor, and gained some essential skills for starting in a genetics lab.
Halfway through my second year at NC State, I transferred into the PhD program. I just loved my research project and the skills I was learning too much to let them go. Now, I’ve just completed my fourth year of graduate school, with one more to go. It’s gone by in a blink. I still have a lot of work to do, but reflecting on how I got to this point only helps me recognize how meaningful and personally satisfying research is.
Looking forward, as I complete my dissertation and look for jobs, I think a lot about what I can do to ensure representation and equity in STEM, how I can use my knowledge and position to help mitigate and adapt to climate change, and how I can be an advocate and activist for justice. I will keep thinking and acting on these issues, and do what I can, both in my capacity as a scientist and as a citizen, to make my field and my community better.