When Danielle Liubicich first learned about Hox genes in her high school biology class, she couldn't quite believe how powerful and strange they were. The genes, which are responsible for the basic structure of an organism, could dramatically affect the appearance of any living thing. "I was amazed that a fly could develop a leg on its head in place of an antenna by changing expression of these amazing genes," she says. "They have such a profound effect on an organism."
For Liubicich, who is now an assistant professor in the biological science department at Los Medanos College, in Pittsburg, California, that moment of astonishment led to a career. The more she learned about genetics, gene expression, and the mechanisms of evolutionary change, the more she wanted to know. She circled the globe to earn bachelors' degrees in biology and zoology, a master's degree in developmental biology, and, finally, a Ph.D. in integrative biology from the University of California, Berkeley.
But even as she dug deep into her research, which examined the role of Hox genes in crustacean development, she realized her real interests were in the classroom, not the lab. Though she fondly recalls collecting sponge larvae in the Long Island Sound during one of her early research projects, she knew that she didn't simply want to learn about these genes and organisms—she wanted to share her knowledge with others. April Hill, a professor at Fairfield University and an early mentor, had already opened Liubicich's eyes to the power to great teaching, and she had been considering following in her footsteps. "She was engaging, she challenged us, and she taught us so many real-world applications of what we learned," she says. "She set high expectations."
Though Liubicich had always had a hunch that she might like teaching, she approached her interest like a true scientist, and tested out her hypothesis. As an undergraduate, she served as a teaching assistant. She also added to her teaching experience by working at a science camp and as a naturalist at an aquarium. And with the help of her graduate advisor, Nipam Patel, she had the opportunity to teach at world-renowned institutions including Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory's Watson School of Biological Sciences. By teaching science, she found a way to combine her love of science with her desire to make a difference in young people's lives.
Indeed, she says, a scientist doesn't have to make a brand-new discovery to have an influence on the field. As a college professor, she feels she can do even more than as a researcher. "I think I can have biggest impact by inspiring and nurturing the next generation of scientists," she says.
As she watches her own students find their way in the sciences, she encourages them to think broadly about their options. "Don't be afraid to pursue various paths," she says. "Many people switch careers, and there are countless opportunities for scientists. Not all scientists end up behind a bench or as a professor at a research institution. Find out what your options are and expose yourself to as many different career options as possible."
Author: Erin Peterson