January 2011

An interview with Heather Pinkett

ASBMB: What advice would you give to young people from under-represented backgrounds who want to pursue a career in science similar to yours?
Pinkett: Get involved in science research early on. You will never know if you would like to pursue research if you don’t give it a try. Most undergraduates at Northwestern University who apply to work in my lab enter with no experience at all, and I welcome them. My advice is to write a well-crafted, “Dear Professor X” letter that talks about your ambition and interest in doing research in their lab specifically. Ask the professor for the opportunity to shadow a student or postdoc in the lab for the academic year. When you join the lab, make an effort to read the papers that pertain to its research. Always take notes and ask questions; there are no silly questions, especially if you won’t understand your assignment without further explanation. And, most importantly, never object to starting with the most simple tasks. We professors see promise in freshmen who quickly learn to pour gels and make buffers and soon ask them to do more complex research-related tasks. Carrying out basic laboratory tasks could be the start of your long-term science career. With that said, it is never too late to get involved in science! After 12 years on Wall Street, my cousin Desmond went back to school to obtain a masters degree in geology.

ASBMB: What are your hobbies?
Pinkett: I love travel and photography, perfect hobbies for the scientist who gets to travel for conferences. One year, the Protein Society meeting was held in Barcelona, Spain, definitely one of the most beautiful and architecturally rich cities I have visited. I stayed for a few days after the conference to tour Antoni Gaudí’s Casa Batllo and Casa Milà (la Pedrera). The pictures from that trip are framed on my wall.

ASBMB: What was the last book you read?
Pinkett: Zadie Smith’s “On Beauty.” Zadie Smith’s novels focus on the dynamics of race, age and economics.

ASBMB: Do you have any heroes, heroines or role models? If so, describe how they have influenced you?
Pinkett: My mother has been a great role model for me as I have pursued my career aspirations. When I was younger, she spent nights and weekends studying for exams that she always aced. She taught me always to show up prepared. Starting with my undergraduate research experience, I also have benefitted from scientists who believed in my potential and gave me an opportunity. From gas phase kinetics to my research experience at NIH, I was given an opportunity to work on something that was completely outside my field. My graduate school and postdoctoral advisers continue to be supportive of my career path.

ASBMB: What is it that keeps you working hard and studying science every day?
Pinkett: I always remember after a long day of experiments that there is something to be gained, even if it is not the expected result. At the least, you learn how to design a better experiment. One of the great things about my job as a principal investigator is the control I have over pursuing research that I want to work on. For me, my interest in ABC transporters has developed into an interest in understanding multidrug resistance. The MDR phenomenon is not only a problem for cancer chemotherapy – using the same mechanism, ABC transporters also play a role in antibiotic resistance. Due to cross-resistance to antibiotics, fungal infections are now on the rise for hospital patients with compromised immune systems. The potential impact that results from my lab may have on the ABC transporter field is what gets me up in the mornings.

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