Women in STEM: Dr Alexis Braun

Dr Alexis Braun is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Genetics. Here, she tells us about the importance of mentors, how her research might aid in conservation efforts, and how growing up in a First Nations community in Canada spurred her interest in biology.

The major turning point in my career as a scientist happened only a couple of years ago during my first postdoc. I was given the freedom to develop my own project with the support of my current boss/mentor, Professor David M Glover. I was evaluating whether or not I wanted to continue on in academia when I approached him with a project idea and asked if he could teach me how to be a primary investigator. He taught me how to write a grant and we were eventually successful in getting funding for my project. With his advice, I have been given the freedom to design my own project and choose the methodology I use in answering the questions that I have. He also supported me in mentoring students and is currently helping me build the career I want. Without this opportunity, I would not have gotten the chance to see if the track I was on was what I really wanted.

I initially became interested in biology growing up in my First Nations/Native American community in the Great Bear Rainforest. My grandfather taught me about many of the animals and plants in the region we are from (Bella Coola, Canada). I continued on this interest throughout my undergraduate studies and into my postgraduate studies, where I became more focused on animal development. I continued on the academic route and became a scientist because I could not picture my life any other way. I cannot think of any other career that offers the type of freedom and creativity that science offers. To anyone interested in becoming a scientist, I will pass on the same advice that I was given: if you love it then do it. Nothing is ever set in stone, if you try something and don’t like it then you can always do something else. Additionally, don’t be afraid of not fitting the mould. Anyone can be a scientist.

I switched fields of study between all of the degrees that I have obtained, as well as during my postdocs. You are never stuck studying only one thing. I am Canadian, and I completed a double major in Biology and Biochemistry at the University of Victoria. I moved to Sweden and completed my Masters in Biotechnology at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm. I completed my PhD in developmental biology in the Department of Zoology in Cambridge with Dr Isabel Palacios. I stayed in Cambridge to do my first postdoc in the Department of Genetics with Dr Yuu Kimata, studying cell cycle regulation and the role of centrosomes within the female germline of Drosophila. I am now on my second postdoc in the lab of Professor David M Glover, still in the Department of Genetics. I am now focused on female reproduction and evolution.

My research sets out to understand one of the fundamental principles of animal fertility, asexual reproduction, using different species of Drosophila as a model. I am interested in this topic because although there are huge differences in the development and intimate body structure that animals have, there are key principles that all animals abide by during their development and how they produce offspring. I hope that my research will help understand fertility in animals and potentially aid in conservation efforts.

One of the unexpected fun parts of my job is collaborating with friends who have complementary skill sets. Since starting my current project, I have found that I enjoy discussing my work more and have built new collaborations with people doing a wide variety of different work. These collaborations have helped my work but also made me enjoy it more fully.

Cambridge is a great place to study and work because of the freedom I have always felt to research ‘out-of-the-box’ things. In my experience, there is a respect for independent thought and creativity that I have not noticed to such a degree in other universities. A lot of other competitive research institutes put emphasis on productivity, whereas here I feel like there is a lot more emphasis on the overall question one is approaching. There are also very few places in the world where you have access to great thinkers in so many different disciplines. I feel like I can talk to anyone because of the sense of community here. Additionally, there are also amazing facilities and huge support for fledgling scientists.

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