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SHEs in STEM: Cassie Warden

Name: Cassie Warden
Company: Vanderbilt University Medical Center
Industry: Biomedical Research
Age: 27
SHEroines: Beth Leuk, Lucille Ball

Tell us about yourself: who are you, where are you from, what do you do? I’m from a small town in southern Louisiana. Now, I work as a research assistant at Vanderbilt University Medical Center while pursuing my Master’s. I also teach tumbling classes. I also like to knit, crochet, and sew, but I don’t have much time for it. Same with hiking and camping.

Remember there is a reason why you are where you are, and you deserve your success.

What was your path to becoming a SHE in STEM? Which area of STEM are you a part of? I guess it started when I was a gymnast. I started getting injuries in middle school, and my sports medicine doctor and my orthopedic were both awesome doctors. It inspired me to pursue a career in medicine. I went to Centenary College of Louisiana because they had a great pre-med program and a gymnastics team. I had to take organic chemistry my sophomore year, and that gave me the first sign that I may not be able to do med school. This was confirmed (to me at least) my junior year when I took comparative anatomy, which was supposed to a mock med school class to prepare us for the work load of med school. For the next year, I was bouncing around my options. Maybe physical therapy school? Maybe physician’s assistant? Maybe I shouldn’t do a health care profession. There’s a lot of pressure there to have great grades, but I didn’t have the drive or discipline to achieve that. Then I thought about doing graduate school, but I knew of a few people that didn’t have the best experiences in grad school. Finally, I went to one of the professors and asked for her help (see Beth Leuk in the SHEroines section above). She forwarded me an email from a principle investigator at the local medical center who was looking for a new researcher for his lab. I applied and got the job. Ever since then, I’ve happily been a part of the science of STEM.Remember there is a reason why you are where you are, and you deserve your success.

What about being a SHE in STEM brings you the most joy? I’m not sure I can really name a benefit of being a woman in STEM. Everything I love about science and working in science could be said by anyone. I’m just really happy and really lucky to be able to do something I enjoy that will help us better understand the science behind diseases.

What is the most challenging part of being a SHE in STEM? On the contrary from the previous question, it feels like there’s been a lot of challenges being a woman in STEM. I’ve been interrupted. I’ve had ideas ignored. I’ve had accomplishments overlooked. I’ve often wondered if these challenges have been because I’m a woman or because I only had a Bachelor’s degree. Then sometimes I’ll offer an idea which is overlooked, but a male coworker proposes the same idea and is encouraged. So that makes it feel more like the former than the latter.

What’s the professional achievement that makes you the most proud? With every experiment that’s done, the first step is optimizing the parameters of the assays you’re performing. What this means is taking time to find how long you should incubate your samples, what concentrations you need to work with, which reagents work best for your samples. It takes a lot of time, patience, and thought. Every time I finalize a protocol that works best for what we are trying to accomplish, I feel proud. It’s the most interesting part of research to me because it’s like a puzzle.I’ve been interrupted, had ideas ignored, accomplishments overlooked.

I’ve been interrupted, had ideas ignored, accomplishments overlooked.

What and who has motivated you the most in your journey as a SHE in STEM? My professor in college, Beth Leuk, and my Master’s program director, Ray Mernaugh, have been my biggest motivators. When I was lost in college and wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, I lost that love and curiosity I always had for science. I had Beth for anatomy and physiology and again for animal behavior. Her passion for teaching and amazement towards the human body and science re-ignited a flame that had burned out long before (probably sometime during organic chemistry). The same could be said for Ray. By the time I joined the program, I was in a bit of a rut with academia. I was just doing experiments with no real critical thinking because those were the experiments I was told to do. Ray had the same passion about teaching and research that Beth had. I had the pleasure of working with him for about a year, and he taught me a lot about what it means to be a researcher and to continue asking questions and being curious.

If you could go back in time and offer yourself sixty seconds of advice, what would you say? Don’t waste your time with the idea of med school, it’s not for you. Don’t view classes as obstacles you have to get through by temporary memorization. Take them with curiosity so what you’re taught will stick with you longer. Impostor syndrome is real, and it is really discouraging. Remember there is a reason why you are where you are, and you deserve your success.

Remember there is a reason why you are where you are, and you deserve your success.

If you could give any advice to young women considering a path in STEM, what would you say? Being interested in science/research and doing science/research are very different. Research is filled with a lot of failure and a little success, so you can’t take it personally. Before getting too far into studies, try to get research experience to ensure you enjoy it. On top of the failure, it can be isolating, depending on the lab. In my first lab, I was by myself in a small room with no windows. Some days, I wouldn’t interact with another person for more than 30 minutes in my 8-9 hour day. I liked it, but it’s not for everyone.

Who are some other SHEs in STEM to watch? To keep it local, Tonia Rex has some interesting research for vision therapies for trauma, with a focus on traumatic brain injuries and how it could help soldiers/veterans.

What’s the most exciting thing happening in STEM? Look out for the James Webb telescope launch in the next few years. It’s supposed to venture outside of our solar system and get some pretty awesome pictures.

What are some resources for SHEs to learn more about your field? Pubmed and Google scholar offer free access to research articles, but these can be dense. Thermo Fisher has a nice library that simplifies assays and protocols to better understand what’s being measured and how.

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