What happens when we get comfortable with uncertainty? Today, we talked to Audrey Gasch, professor of genetics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center scientist, about all the factors that propelled her from an undergraduate studying biochemistry at UW-Madison to the leader of the Center for Genomic Science Innovation. She shares key lessons she learned from her own mentors, her philosophy of growth mindset, and her advice on getting comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Today's episode was hosted by Michelle Chung, communications specialist and former Wisconsin Energy Institute communications intern, and Mary Riker, Wisconsin Energy Institute communications intern.
Editors: Michelle Chung Mary Riker, Mark E. Griffin, Wisconsin Energy Institute Communications Specialist
Producers: Michelle Chung, Mark E. Griffin, and Mary Riker
Music written and performed by Mark E. Griffin
Michelle Chung: What does true support in research in academia as a woman in STEM look like?
Mary Riker: There's a bunch of factors, including how you grew up, the mentors you've had in school and the culture of the spaces you've had to navigate. Today we spoke with Audrey Gasch about the support she had on her journey studying genetics and energy science.
Michelle Chung: Welcome to Propelling Women in Power, a podcast about the careers of women and energy at the Wisconsin Energy Institute on the UW Madison campus, and our sister institution, the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center.
Mary Riker: I am Meg Riker and I am a junior undergraduate student studying civil engineering. I am a science writer intern with a passion for meeting people from different scientific disciplines and sharing their stories.
Michelle Chung: And I'm Michelle Chung, former intern and current communications specialist at the Wisconsin Energy Institute. I love finding fun ways to highlight the research and people here at WEI and the GLBRC.
Mary Riker: Here we talk about women scientists and engineers, career paths, the obstacles they have faced, and most importantly, their advice for young women, scientists and engineers.
Michelle Chung: It is our goal to highlight their individual experiences, mentors and work life balance while seeking advice for young women in science and asking the question Who and what facilitated your success?
Mary Riker: Today I spoke with Audrey Gasch, who is the director of the Center for Genomic Science Innovation and the Professor of Genetics at UW Madison and a researcher at the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center who talked about how her pathway was one with less obstacles, which she attributed first to having a position of privilege where both her parents went to college, but also to the people that she got to work with and the settings to which she was introduced to research and genetics and talked about why it was important for us to make a structure of equity in the institutions for energy and education and research. We spoke with Audrey Gasch about this today.
Audrey Gasch: I am a professor in the laboratory of genetics. It's a department of genetics on campus. I am a member of the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center and run a research lab that participates in the research. And I'm also the director of the Genomics Institute on Campus, the Center for Genomic Science Innovation.
Mary Riker: What are some things you enjoy about your field and the research that you do?
Audrey Gasch: I am a geneticist, and so we're really interested in understanding how information is encoded in an individual's DNA sequence and how that information relates to character traits in an organism. And so on the discovery science side of our lab, we use budding yeast as a model to ask really fundamental questions about genotype and phenotype relationships, how information in DNA is encoded and relates to how an organism behaves with regard to the GLBRC.
It turns out that budding yeast is not just a really great model for genetics. It is used in industrial processes. And so understanding how yeast cells function has important applications. Now, one area of our research that is a particular focus is understanding how cells sense and respond to environmental stress and understanding how different individuals with different genetic makeup respond to environmental stressful conditions.
Now, this is relevant for biofuels because it turns out that a lot of the stresses that we're interested in are part of industrial processes. And so one of the goals in GLBRC is to engineer the industrial yeast cells, to be resistant to the stresses that occur in industrial processes so that cells are not wasting a bunch of energy mounting defense systems, but rather they're making products and commodity chemicals that we can can use for society.
Mary Riker: How did you get into studying these types of use in cells?
Audrey Gasch: Yeah, that's a good question. Like a lot of things, I would say I fell into it. So when I was a graduate student, I was in a lab that developed a new technology in the field of genomics that allowed us to understand and follow all of the genes that are activated by a given condition. And part of the goal of that research was to try to learn more about genome sequences and the function of genes that are encoded in the genome.
And so it was completely new technology called DNA microarrays. And so I and a lot of my compatriots were using this new technology to just discover how cells responded to different conditions. And I happened to pick stressful conditions like heat shock, different toxins. And it was just fascinating. It was this new technology allowed us to have a totally new view of biology. And I stuck with it ever since, studying stress responses in yeast cells.
Mary Riker: How did you decide to go to graduate school to go study these really fascinating, interesting things? And was there anybody who really influenced your decision or any anything that happened to you in your life?
Audrey Gasch: That is a really great question because I'll add it helps all of us think about making sure everybody has access to science and graduate school. And like a lot of things and maybe this will be a theme of today, I kind of fell into this. I had certainly I had a lot of support from my parents, and they really instilled in me a curiosity and the drive to pursue things that I was interested in.
But in terms of graduate school, it was actually my time at UW–Madison. I was an undergraduate student here in the biochemistry department, and I had an academic advisor who's retired now. His name is George Reed, and he was my course advisor. He helped me pick courses and he just encouraged me to do undergraduate research. Now, these days, for those of you who are undergrads here, you know, there are a lot of fantastic opportunities for undergrads to do research.
Back in the early nineties, that wasn't so obvious and so I remember George suggested to me, Oh, you should try doing research. And it just never occurred to me that that was a possibility. So he connected me with one of his friends, Bill Resnikoff, who is retired now, but he was a faculty in the biochemistry department. And Bill took me into his lab.
And so from there was just that everything was history. I loved doing research. I learned about graduate school. I learned about opportunities. I learned about how to prepare for those opportunities. And so it really has struck me that, you know, if I didn't have somebody to suggest to me to do this, I may not be here. So I'm very grateful to George and Bill.
Mary Riker: So does that that access, which you highlighted, does that kind of transfer to how you mentor students nowadays and making sure they have the knowledge or the resources to apply to those positions?
Audrey Gasch: Yes, definitely. It influences how I mentor students who are in my own lab and courses, but it's also really pushed me to seek opportunities where I can return the favor to the world and make sure that young people know about opportunities, know about different types of careers, know about science and STEM in particular. So I do spend a lot of time thinking about scientific outreach to young people, to kids, to families in the community, but also to undergraduates and even high schoolers who are at other institutions who might not have strong research.
These students may never have thought about a career in STEM and certainly not graduate school. So I do seek out opportunities where I can make an impact there.
Mary Riker: I want to jump back to something you said earlier. In the nineties, research wasn't as maybe visible as it is nowadays on campus. Do you think it was visible to certain groups more?
Audrey Gasch: I'm certain we've come a long, long way and have a long way to go. The nineties wasn't that long ago, but even back then, you know, I think that, you know, people were less conscious of their own biases. And I think one of the things we benefit from these days is, is thinking much more critically about the biases that we have, not just in thoughts, but in actions.
And so you asked about, you know, was research. I think you were asking was it equally accessible to everybody? And my guess is that it wasn't just because it wasn't promoted as explicitly back then as it is now for undergrads at UW–Madison, students can take classes. They hear about research opportunities that are part of classes now. And so it's just more, you know, equitable, I guess, that, that it's broadcast more.
So back then and I would say there are probably still areas of society that are like this. You know, I really benefited from being in the right place at the right time, but I was also really enthusiastic. I was like, I alluded to my my parents before who were really encouraging. I knew it was okay to ask questions and seek out things that I was interested in. So I benefited from from that also.
Mary Riker: So this research experience, how did that tie in to what you studied in grad school? Was it kind of a direct correlation or did you jump into sort of a different sphere?
Audrey Gasch: Yeah, that's a really good question because often what happens is people gravitate towards areas that they know already a little bit about and feel comfortable in. My graduate school, I went I did a Ph.D. at Stanford in the biochemistry department. And I will admit, you know, I went there because people here said, oh, that's a great place you should apply there.
Like, I didn't necessarily know where were the best schools to apply to. And yet once again, you know, I was influenced by having strong mentors who were advising me. So I chose my graduate program and graduate area based on what I was doing at UW Madison as an undergrad, which was biochemistry. But once I got to graduate school, I had other mentors there who really encouraged me to keep an open mind.
So I think that is really a useful lesson keeping an open mind, but also trying to push one myself, you know, out of my comfort zone. And so I ended up doing research that was very different from what I did as an undergraduate.
Mary Riker: What was it like to push yourself out of your comfort zone in grad school? You know, because, you know, for some people, grad school can be sort of stressful or it's a lot of time in the lab, a lot of research. Maybe the work life balance isn't there yet. So what was it like to try to push yourself in that academic condition?
Audrey Gasch: Yeah, well, like anything, I think pushing oneself is hard and challenging, and I guess by definition means that you're a little uncomfortable, right. And so that's one of the things I like to tell graduate students and undergraduates also, is that, yeah, I think in our world today, people get very unsettled by not knowing things, not knowing exactly what job they're going to have or what their courses going to be like or what anything is like.
And we're in a pandemic, right? There's a lot of anxiety around that. But I do think it's useful for people to get comfort, travel being a little unsettled. And I think that's what's required. When we push ourselves to do something new, we have to be comfortable not knowing exactly what's going to happen, and we have to be comfortable not knowing everything about our research system.
For example. And I think for a lot of the scientists that I admire, they're working in research domains where we don't understand what's going on, but they're comfortable working there and pushing, pushing things forward.
Mary Riker: Do you have any specific tips or tricks for getting comfortable with not knowing certain things?
Audrey Gasch: That's a good question. And it's and it's a tricky question, too, especially, you know, coming back to graduate school or or studies, you know, the whole goal of school is to learn more. And so often when students come into school or graduate school or whatever program, they don't know. And they're there to learn things. And so I think in the beginning, it's hard for students to know when they're in the the realm of not knowing things that other people know.
So they could seek that information by reading or studying versus in a scientific research setting, not knowing something because nobody knows it. And I think that distinction is hard when you're new and learning lots of things. It's hard to know if you are uncomfortable not knowing things because because you're, you know, in which which side of that domain, if that makes sense.
So I think my advice to students is one step at a time. Just learn as much as you can about your research area, your subject. It's a process. You know, when students are starting in in school, we don't expect them to know everything. We expect them to be there because they're interested in pushing themselves. So I would say if I if I had to boil all of that down, focus on the process of learning and discovering and not the product of the moment.
Mary Riker: In graduate school, minorities and women may have more on their plate in terms of social expectation and trying to find the time to balance and that process in the lab with the other social expectations that they may have. How did you deal with that when you were in grad school or how do you see it occurring in your lab today?
Audrey Gasch: 50 years ago was all white men who were doing science and they had access and they felt comfortable in in that role because that's what everybody else looked like. And so nowadays, in the modern times, we spend a lot of time thinking about diversity and making sure that everybody has access. So so one of the points you raised is that as we bring in more diverse people with diverse backgrounds, sometimes they have social, you know, constraints or expectations.
Financial is one, right? We've opened up the playing field so that it's not just, you know, not not, you know, rich people who can afford to take time off to go to graduate school. We've made it more accessible to a wider range of people from economic groups. But so that's one challenge then that people that that come from a more challenging situation may be have access now, but there are different demands on their time that that affects them differently than than the person sitting next to them.
So that's that's one challenge. Another challenge is, you know, expectation or biases that other people have that I think you might have alluded to before. And so that is something that we're dealing with as a society. So how did these things affect me? I've been pretty lucky and pretty privileged, so I would say that I was very lucky to be raised in an environment where I was confident and confident going for things.
And so I think when I was younger, I didn't like a lot of people I didn't think so much about. I never thought about being a woman in science. I was just a scientist doing science.
Mary Riker: But you said you had really good mentors in grad school. Could you maybe talk about them and how they influenced your development?
Audrey Gasch: Yeah, I would say my primary mentors were my two advisors in graduate school. So I joined the lab of Dr. Pat Brown, who was was my primary advisor, and then I had a second unofficial advisor who was named David Botstein. Both of them are very, very, very famous, which is intimidating. So I think that can be a challenge.
I think is having mentors who are much later in their career than you are. And so for a lot of young people, that's intimidating because it's, I think, human nature that we compare ourselves to one another. But it's really important to think about where a person is on that trajectory. But both of them were really great mentors because they cared about science, they cared about the pursuit of pursuit of truth, but they were also family people.
So I think in that case, they both of them had young kids and both of them were super famous, but would give it all up for their kids if it was needed. So I think that was really important to see that that one could do this job and have some kind of life balance. That doesn't mean it's easy.
That doesn't mean the balance is easy. But it's possible to do both.
Mary Riker: Mm hmm. So you're a teaching professor here in Madison. You have a lab. You're the director of the Center for Genomic Innovation. How do you balance all of that with having a life outside of academia?
Audrey Gasch: I would say that probably the number one trait is being organized, at least organized at work. I don't know if I'm as organized at home, but being organized is is one trick. I think another trick is knowing how to prioritize tasks and and duties and pursuits. So it is a my my feeling is it is not possible to have it all at 100%.
You can't do everything. Nobody can. So that means picking and choosing where my efforts go. And so I think that's one thing, one bit of advice I have for other people is to know what your priorities are and and then make that happen, but then also accept that you can't have everything set at 100%. And so you have to give up some things that's also dynamic over time, you know, life changes.
And so that's also useful. I think as I've gotten older to learn that what I'm doing right now just doesn't have to be permanent. Things evolve.
Mary Riker: Do you think that's a good message to give to students in grad school who might be hyper focused on one thing right now? But maybe to realize that in the end it is important, but it's not your entire life.
Audrey Gasch: Yeah, I think especially with all the stresses of the pandemic, I would say I'm a big proponent of growth mindset, which is the philosophy that life is a process, things are not fixed, we're all on the path. And so for me it's comforting to focus on that.
Mary Riker: After grad school, you worked as a postdoctoral researcher at a national laboratory. What was that experience like? You said you were part of a team that discovered something brand new in your field. Mm hmm. Were you the only woman woman on your team, or were there other women? What was the atmosphere like?
Audrey Gasch: Yeah, there were definitely other women and diversity of people and ethnicities. And so after graduate school, I was really interested in this new technology. But it involved generating very large datasets. And it became clear to me at that time that if I wanted to stay in this field, I was going to need to learn how to analyze large datasets using computer programs and statistics.
So in my postdoctoral research, I went to a lab that was a new lab, Mike Eisen's lab, and he was just developing computational tools to be able to analyze that, that large data. And so I went to do that in my postdoctoral work. It was a regular lab, but it was a really interesting contrast because whereas my graduate advisors were already super famous and had very large labs, my postdoctoral advisor was already getting well-known, but he was starting his lab from scratch.
And so it was a really interesting contrast to see somebody I pointed out before, you know, it's hard to take into account where somebody is on their career trajectory, but it was interesting because I got to see somebody who was in the very beginning of their career trajectory just setting up their lab. And that was strangely empowering in a way.
So the environment was really fun. It was a national lab, but it functioned like a regular research lab, so I wouldn't say it was that different. And it was the Lawrence Berkeley Berkeley National Lab, where the Department of Energy's Joint Genome Sequencing Institute is, we’re partner of GLBRC and yeah, it was just a really exciting time.
Mary Riker: Did you learn or take away anything specific about starting your own lab and moving forward from that experience?
Audrey Gasch: Yeah, I did. I remember getting to the lab and just when we thought we'd had ordered all of the equipment to do an experiment, we'd realized there were no stir bars. So little things like that were just really challenging. I think nowadays for people who are starting a lab, there are startup packages of equipment that you can get.
But one of the things I learned before I left the lab, as I walked around the lab and I opened every drawer and I wrote down what was in it. So when I started my own lab, I knew exactly what I was going to need upfront.
Mary Riker: That's great. So what drew you back to UW–Madison?
Audrey Gasch: Well, I as I said, I was an undergraduate here. I was in the biochemistry department. And, you know, once I had gone to a number of other departments to see what research climates were like elsewhere, I had good experiences everywhere, but I realized how special UW Madison is, and I once again was in the right place, at the right time because just when I was looking for jobs, there was a job opening up at UW Madison in the field of genomics, which is exactly what I do. And so I applied and got the offer and came here, but I switched departments to the genetics department.
Mary Riker: Were there many women in the genetics department at that time?
Audrey Gasch: Um, I would say, you know, since we're talking about women in science, it's, it's an interesting phenomenon that we still experience in academics, that in graduate school there's very good representation of women, in fact, sometimes more than 50% women. But as people get up in their career stages, there are fewer and fewer women in in academic, you know, professorial roles.
And so when I started, there had been an initiative in our department to hire several women. So there was a group of us. And yeah, it was, it was it was nice times. But, you know, we're there are fewer women at the academic levels, even among the younger faculty than there are in graduate school.
Mary Riker: Do you know or do you think that institutions or the academic society as a whole, what can they do to improve those differences or make it a little more equal, do you think?
Audrey Gasch: Yeah, a lot of people, including me, have thought about that. Why is there such a drop off of women? I think it's improving for for sure. I should say that. I think one thing that can improve the situation is, is empowering people to know all people that they can do it. And I think that has really changed in the last decades.
I think another thing that has is improving the situation is for departments and faculty, including male faculty, older male faculty, to recognize that there are other constraints that people have outside, you know, kids, families taking care of parents, immigrant parents, those kinds of things. So I think having more flexibility and recognition of balance is helping things.
Mary Riker: Do you have any advice for women going into your field?
Audrey Gasch: Yeah, I think I'm not sure. The advice I would give to women is that different from the advice I would give to anybody? But I think some of the points I've already made, you know, identify what you're interested in and then go for it. Um, make, don't, you don't need to wait for opportunities. You can make opportunities if you see a faculty member or a situation where you're really excited by it, send them an email, you know, reach out.
That's that's hard, right? It takes some confidence and feeling a little unsettled because you're pushing yourself. But I think that's what I would encourage people to do, is go for it. And then one thing I would add is that focus on the process, you know, perfection is is actually not part of the process. And, you know, sometimes we think about applying for grants, you know, in the research setting.
And a lot of times you'll write a grant and not get it. You won't get funded, you'll get critiques back. That's part of the process and it means that you just it's a bummer when you when you get those kinds of, you know, professional rejections, but you got to just pick back up and go go out for the next one.
And I think that is something that I think in the older days, women and maybe minorities didn't get that message. The message was, oh, you didn't. You weren't successful this first time. You must not be good at it. And I think that's something I absolutely reject.
Michelle Chung: And I love your conviction on trusting that the process is like a path, not a destination. How did you come to learn that lesson?
Audrey Gasch: That's a really good question! I'm not really sure, but I think it was just the perspective of my parents and I think their parents. And so I was lucky to get that early on. It's really influenced how I go about things.
Michelle Chung: Did your parents also go to higher education?
Audrey Gasch: Yes. So my parents had themselves an unusual trajectory. So my dad is grew up in central Wisconsin on a dairy farm. He went to college because it was the Vietnam War era. And so for students who went to college, they got out of the draft. He said if it wouldn't have been for the war, he he maybe wouldn't have gone to college.
But he got degrees in math and economics. And then when the war was over, he went back to farming. So I grew up on a pig farm in in Wisconsin. What was unusual was there was a stint in-between college for my dad and farming, and that was he was a satellite film analyst for the CIA, which is where he met my mom, who was one of the first computer programmers at the CIA.
She also had a degree in math, the government, and hired a bunch of mathematicians to do some of the very early computer programing, which she absolutely hated. And so she met my dad and he somehow convinced her to move back to Wisconsin and farm. So I grew up on a farm. I'm a farm kid. I'm a country kid.
But again, to come back to the importance of early life influences, my parents went to college. My parents said, have seen the world and lived in the big city. And so it was useful for me to get that whole perspective, even though I would, you know, grew up in a very small town in central Wisconsin.
Mary Riker: So, Michelle, what did you really hone in on from my conversation with Audrey?
Michelle Chung: I think it was interesting that she had the resources and like her journey was maybe easier than others. She had the support networks that she needed to succeed, and I thought that was interesting compared to the other people we've talked to. She knew like what she wanted to keep in the forefront of her mind when she is being a mentor to others, she wants to make sure that other people had the opportunities that she had with other people.
It was, they wanted to make sure the people that they're mentoring have the opportunities that they didn't have. I think that's an interesting perspective.
Mary Riker: Absolutely. It goes to show that like some places are doing it right or doing it more right and making it easier for people to get involved in academia or higher education.
Mary Riker: And that's our show. Thank you to everyone listening. We're your hosts, Meg Riker and Michelle Chung. This show is edited and produced by us and Mark Griffin. Thanks again to our guest, Audrey Gasch, professor of genetics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
And see you next time on Propelling Women In Power.
Michelle Chung: What is your superpower?
Audrey Gasch: Oh, no, I wasn't prepared for this one. Maybe annoying my kids. I mean, I hate to, that's an obvious one for any parent who has middle schoolers, but I'll go with that for now.