cataLIST Spotlight: Jennifer Baker

Jennifer Baker is a 4th year Ph.D. student in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology. As a member of the Dickson and Huffnagle labs, she studies how microbes in the lung respond to, and may influence the severity of, acute lung injury. 

Describe your path in academia so far. How did you find your field? Did you always know you wanted to go into science? What do you want to do next?

I found academia by accident. I have always loved learning new things, so when I was growing up, I planned to become a teacher. After discovering my love for science in a high school chemistry class, I decided to pursue a degree in secondary science education. I never once considered that I could actually generate the knowledge being taught!

While earning my teaching degree, I took a required microbiology course that introduced me to a new microbial world I found fascinating. After the class ended, I signed up to work in my microbiology professor’s lab and spent as much time doing research as possible. I even found myself missing the lab when student teaching consumed my schedule. 

Despite this personal realization, I have to credit my research advisor for encouraging me to pursue science. As someone who grew up in a rural area, I had no idea what it meant to be a scientist, as I had never met one before college. My advisor told me about graduate school (you get paid to earn a Ph.D!) and other career options, which was enough to push me to apply to graduate school. 

While I’m torn about what to do after graduation, I hope to combine research, teaching, and writing in some fashion – getting paid to communicate creatively and encourage others to pursue careers in science is my idea of a dream job!

How do you keep up a good work-life balance (or try to)?

By necessity, work-life balance for me is focused on managing my chronic migraines and anxiety. As a Ph.D. student (and someone whose brain is predisposed to think this way), my mindset when dealing with these issues is often focused on how much lab work I’m not getting done, or how much studying I’m missing because light from my screen feels like an icepick through my eye, or how many resume-boosting activities I can’t take on because of the unpredictability of my conditions. In the past, this mono-faceted mindset has fed into my anxiety and stolen joy from other areas of my life.

I’ve recently realized that my default mindset isn’t helpful (thanks therapy!), so I’ve started to set goals in all areas of my life to combat this type of thinking and create a more well-rounded routine. I forgive myself for not being a morning person and shift my schedule to give myself time to deal with a migraine if I wake up with one. I keep lists and calendars for everything so my foggy post-migraine brain doesn’t have to remember and my anxiety knows I’m not forgetting something. I go to Zumba twice a week to manage stress, since if I have to exercise by myself, I won’t. I try to do one social thing a week and stay in touch with family via video chat. At work, I focus on a handful of realistic goals each day, because stress and unpredictable sleep schedules throw me into a series of migraines – getting just one more thing done before leaving for the day isn’t worth it. 

“Balance means that I don’t get everything done every day, but it all equals out in the end.”

Overall, I try to create a routine I can actually accomplish, forget the non-essentials, and, if I need to grind hard in the lab for a short time, give myself time to recover. There are many facets of my life to keep track of, and quite often, I can’t keep up with them all. Balance means that I don’t get everything done every day, but it all equals out in the end. Forgiving myself when I fail to rest or follow my routine, or when my body gives up on me, has been critical to finding inner balance when my outer life isn’t stable. 

Who are your mentors or inspiration? Do you have any strong female role models/mentors in your life?

I draw a lot of my purpose and inspiration from my grandmother, who loved science though she never formally studied it. She taught me perseverance, curiosity, open-mindedness, and caring for nature and humans alike. She loved to read, discuss new things she’d learned, and ask questions (lots of them). I had just started my research experience when she passed away during my junior year of undergrad, and back then, neither she nor I had any idea I would eventually pursue a career in research. I’m convinced that if she were alive I would spend quite a bit of time on the phone with her explaining what I did in the lab that week, and she’d be a little embarrassed and secretly proud that I credit her for instilling in me the qualities of a good scientist and human. 

Beyond my grandmother, I honestly find a lot of inspiration in the female Ph.D. students and researchers around me. I don’t take lightly how, despite the challenges that female scientists face, I see women across campus learning how to bring their whole identity with them to the bench. I find strength to face my own challenges when I think about how those around me are pursuing their goals, and how my perseverance might make the path for those around and behind me a little bit easier. The words of Dr. Oveta Fuller, a professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, on this past International Women’s Day still resonate with me: “What a wonder we are.” For the short time we are here on campus together, it is an honor to work and learn alongside these brilliant women. 

What volunteer/outreach efforts are you passionate about? Are you helping to support/promote women, underrepresented minorities, or other groups in STEM fields?

I currently serve on the leadership and editorial teams for Michigan Science Writers, which is a grad student-run organization at UM that aims to improve public understanding of science and train researchers how to communicate with non-experts about scientific topics of all kinds. MiSciWriters holds a special place in my heart because of how essential communication is to our jobs as scientists and for the world to benefit from the research we do. Working as an editor has allowed me to support trainees as they learn how to tell stories about science, which ultimately gives them an edge by building their communication skills. It’s highly rewarding to see writers bring their identities to their storytelling, which transforms their writing from effective to powerful. Our platform allows us to elevate voices and perspectives which have been historically excluded from scientific discourse, and my goal for this next year is to find new ways to support students with these voices through our org’s activities. For example, we publish a section of our blog in Spanish, and I would love to find new ways for MiSciWriters to support trainees who speak and write English as a second language.

Edited by MRB and CDG.

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