Meet the Scientist
Postdoctoral Fellow at Columbia University
What scientific field do you work in?
"I'd love to experience 24 hours in space!"
Could you briefly explain what your job involves?
I’m a postdoctoral fellow (= postdoc for short), meaning I have a Ph.D. and I’m now working in a lab on an independent research project. After I’ve finished this phase of my career, I’ll apply to university faculty positions so that I can run my own research group.
As a postdoc, I’m beginning a new research project trying to understand how cuttlefish (a cousin of the octopus) camouflage. They have an amazing ability to change their skin pattern and texture in seconds to match their surroundings. I’m trying to understand what’s happening in their brain when they do this. I’m fortunate to be working in the lab of Richard Axel, a Nobel Prize winner. I spend most of my days doing experiments in the lab and downstairs in the cuttlefish facility we just built here in New York City
Do you have any secret talents?
I have a black belt in kickboxing. I trained hard for this when I wanted to be a spy!
When did you decide you wanted to work as a scientist?
When I was growing up in London, I wanted to be an astronaut and then CIA agent. To increase my chances of getting into a good university, I applied for a summer internship at a nearby research institute (despite not really enjoying high school biology). It was a life-changing experience. I worked on a project trying to understand how limbs are formed, using chick embryos (one of the ‘model organisms’ used in scientific research because we can’t study humans). I still remember the first time I cut a hole in the top of a fertilized egg and peered inside with a microscope. There was a tiny embryo on top of the yolk, and its teeny heart was beating away. I was transfixed! Since then, I’ve wanted to be a scientist.
What's your favourite food?
Cheese toastie with Marmite. American translation: Grilled cheese with weird, salty, yeast spread.
What educational pathway did you take to get to where you are now?
I did A levels in biology, chemistry, maths and further maths at my local public/state school. I then did a B.A. and M.Phil in genetics at the University of Cambridge, and then I moved to the U.S.A. to do a Ph.D. in biochemistry at Harvard University. I graduated from Harvard in May, so I’m now Dr. Montague
If you could be anyone in the world, for 24 hours, who would you be and why?
Astronaut Anne McClain, who’s currently on board the International Space Station. I’d love to experience 24 hours in space.
"I don't have a boss who tells me what to do."
What was the best thing about your job?
The thing I appreciate the most about being a scientist is the flexibility. I can work whatever hours I want, and I can use my time however I want. I learned as a teenager that I really enjoy freedom(..!) As a scientist, as soon as I find something interesting or exciting, I can pursue it until I find an answer. I don’t have a boss who tells me what to do.
What was the worst thing about your job?
With flexibility comes a lack of structure, so we have to be disciplined. Also, science research is hard – failure is much, much more common than success. Even though most scientists think they’re pessimists, really, we’re eternal optimists. Experiments fail all the time, but we keep trying new things until suddenly something works. I live for those little breakthroughs.
If you could take one thing with you to an island, what would it be and why?
My boyfriend Fred (if he counts as a thing?!) because I love adventures with him. Second choice: a panda.
"I trained hard for this when I wanted to be a spy!"
Do you have any advice for young people who are interested in your career path?
If you’re still in school and you’re interested in a particular career path (science or anything else), I really recommend you try to find a relevant internship. In a lot of cases you get paid for it, so it can replace a regular summer job. Not only does it help you find out if you enjoy a particular career, but it is great for your CV. For me, everything in my career began with my high school internship. That revealed to me what career I wanted, it helped me get into a good university, which helped me get into a good graduate school, etc. Each step is built on the previous one.
Anything else you'd like to add?
I’m involved in a lot of outreach activities because I want to help young people from underrepresented backgrounds get opportunities to succeed in science. One of the most exciting programs I’ve participated in was mentoring a 14-year-old girl from the United Arab Emirates, Alia Almansoori, in a competition called Genes in Space. She won the competition, so last year we sent her experiment to space. It was amazing. We watched the rocket launch from the Kennedy Space Center, and we’ve since published a paper on the study. This was a dream-come-true for the kid in me who wanted to be an astronaut. It was also a great lesson that you never know what opportunities will come your way in a career in science. I love that.
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