Laura Hamel, PhD

making science more accessible to scientists and society

Hello, I am so glad to be here to speak with you all today. My name is Laura, and I am a molecular biologist. I currently work in Developmental Neurobiology Research at St Jude, but I am speaking to you today on behalf of myself. My thoughts and opinions are by no means a representative of my company, or my origin.

I am a scientist, technically speaking, but technically speaking, everybody is. Every person who has ever done anything and thought “that hurts, I don't want to do that again” has just performed an experiment, and obtained the hypothesis that doing A causes B. Some people prefer to be extra diligent, and will repeat the action a number of times before coming to the conclusion. I say this, because, yes, I am a scientist, but I do not think of myself as a scientist. I think of myself as a person who enjoys science. I think of myself as a science enthusiast.

Education and science has brought me around the world, and landed me in Memphis. I have worked in Germany, spent over a month in India, traveled Europe and the United States. Science and the community I found through my education opened my eyes to the world in front of me, and around me.

I came to Memphis a bit serendipitously. I would say it was a tough decision for me because at the time I was applying for jobs, the only place I wanted to live was back in New England, near my family again. I had been living in Tampa for 5 years at this point, and I didn’t mind it, but it never felt like home to me. Not like Maine did. St Jude invited me to Memphis for an interview, and the only thing I knew about Memphis was Elvis and BBQ. To be honest, I never thought I would get a job at St Jude. I came to check another state off my list and explore the city. I can honestly say that interview changed my life. Memphis instantly felt like home for me, and I knew this was where I belonged.

I was only going to be in Memphis for two-five years. Get some research experience and then move back to New England. That was always my goal, but over the year and a half that I have been here, I realized, I am not quite ready yet.  Memphis has become a part of me, and I want to make it my home.

The main things I want to discuss with you all today are accessibility of science for scientists and society, and the latter you will find is my true passion.

The accessibility of science to scientists comes down to funding. You will never have to talk to a scientist too long before hearing something about applying for grant, not having enough grant money, or just all around frustration with grants – the source of the money that allows all of us to do science.

There have been proposed cuts to the NIH and EPA up to 18%. That’s a pretty major cut to a budget that was already rather meager. But instead of talking at length about the proposed cuts, let me instead talk about when funding works. St Jude receives grant money from the NIH and other sources, but a majority is publically funded. In 2015 St Jude expenses were in the range of $1.1 billion, and of that ~$1 billion came from public donations, with the average donation being in the ball park of $35. Now, what does that money mean for Memphis and beyond?

That money has not only gone towards patient care and clinical treatment, but research. When St Jude opened their doors 55 years ago, in 1962, diagnoses of a cancer like acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), was basically a death sentence. In 1962, a child diagnosed with ALL had a 4% chance of survival. I can show you that number on one hand. Fast forward to today, the treatments invented at St Jude have helped push the overall childhood cancer survival rate from ~20% to >80%, and for ALL from 4% to 94%! I can now almost represent the mortality rate on one hand! That is what funding does – it supports research so that cures and treatments can be created and optimized.

Researchers at St Jude, we’re the lucky ones. We may face some cut backs on grants, but because of public funding, it won’t set back our progress much, but what about universities and other institutions, especially here in Memphis? UTHSC is already feeling the pinch, and the proposed cuts haven’t even gone through yet.

We need to stand together and say science matters because we simply cannot afford not to fund research.

This brings me to making science accessible to society. We can’t make our voices heard and illicit change if no one understands what we’re talking about. I started investing myself in scientific outreach during my college days. I am one of few college graduates in my extended family, and the only one that went to school for science. Visiting family and explaining to them what I was researching and its significance helped hone my skills to speak to a greater audience. Whether it was explaining to my step dad who brews beer, or my mom who bakes bread, that the same yeast they use for their hobbies could potentially lead to a new cancer therapy, or helping them understand the exaggerated scientific news stories they keep finding on the internet.

I realized how great a need it was to reach out to society and how willing people are to listen when you take out some of the technical jargon and find a common ground to speak about it on.

Today, I focus my outreach towards society by volunteering at events like the Science of Beer or Wine hosted at the Pink Palace Museum, by helping out with local Science Café meet-ups, and by bringing the Taste of Science festival to Memphis, an annual festival spread out over three days and at three locations across Memphis where scientists are brought into pubs and coffee shops to speak to the general public about what they do in a non-intimidating setting. It is a great way for people who may not otherwise have the opportunity to really get a taste of the science going on in Memphis.

But beyond all that, I focus a lot of my energy on children and high schoolers. Whether through events like DNA Day where post docs from St Jude and grad students from local colleges and universities go out to different schools and teach kids about DNA – lighting that initial excitement for science and a potential career in it. Or Science Scholars of Tomorrow where high schoolers are invited to St Jude for a day to see what goes on within those walls and what a career in the sciences could really be like. I am also a mentor for TN Achieves which exists to increase higher education opportunities for Tennessee high school students by providing last-dollar scholarships with mentor guidance. I also assist with a postdoc run science podcast called Science Sound Bites that is targeted towards school age children, but is accessible for people of all ages. There are truly a grand number of opportunities for scientists to give back by reaching out to the local youth to promote science.

They are the future, after all. When I look back on my life, and really think about who my greatest mentors were, who set me on this course, I am always drawn to my mentors I had in high school, whether it be a teacher, boss, director, friend, or just an adult I looked up to. They are the ones who really shaped me to be the woman I am today.

My high school experiences set the ball in motion, so for me, it is really exciting to be a part of something that could do that for someone else.

So I encourage all of you to take a stand for science; call your legislatures and ask for increased funding and no cuts to the NIH and EPA. Get registered to vote and research what you’re voting for. And get involved with the community. Because today is just the beginning.


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