Feature Article, Part 2
Meet the Mentee, Ashley G. Rivenbark PhD
Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics
University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill School of Medicine
I attended North Carolina State University (Raleigh, NC) and graduated in 2001 with a B.S. in Biological Sciences and a double minor in Genetics and Botany. I received my Ph.D. in Toxicology from the University of North Carolina School of Medicine under the direction of Dr. William B. Coleman in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine in 2007. Also in 2007, I received a postdoctoral fellowship from UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center to work under the direction of Dr. Brian D. Strahl in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics. Subsequently, I obtained a postdoctoral fellowship from the American Cancer Society in 2008 to examine the role of histone H3 lysine 36 methylation and demethylation in transcription elongation using budding yeast as a model system. Since histone H3 lysine 36 is associated with cancer development, I plan to apply what I have learned in yeast to human cells in order to gain a better understanding of cancer pathogenesis. My research in Dr. Strahl’s lab also includes examining histone methylation patterns in breast tumors, elucidating the modification profile of these tumors in order to help determine if histone modifications are clinically relevant for patient assessment of breast cancer. Presently, I am a joint postdoctoral fellow under the direction of Dr. Pilar Blancafort in the Department of Pharmacology and Dr. Brian D. Strahl. Together we are designing and utilizing a novel technology to modify target genes differentially expressed in normal breast and breast cancer cell lines by sequence-specific zinc finger domains engineered to bind to a gene of interest tethered to a specific chromatin modifying enzyme. By developing this technology, we are hoping to stably alter gene expression states via epigenetic reprogramming to gain better understanding of the pathogenesis of breast cancer and ultimately to help with the treatment and control of breast cancer.
How did you first become a member of one of ASIP’s Committees?
My Ph.D. advisor, Bill Coleman, is very involved in ASIP and has been for a number of years now, so I became an ASIP trainee member when I joined his lab in 2003. When I became a postdoctoral fellow, I asked him how I could get more involved in ASIP as a trainee. He suggested that we talk with Dr. Satdarshan “Paul” Monga who was at that time the Program Committee Chair about the possibility of me sitting on the Program Committee as a trainee. Dr. Monga was open to the idea and talked with Dr. Mark Sobel, Executive Officer of ASIP. This suggestion was approved by the ASIP Council and I became a trainee member of the ASIP Program Committee shortly after that. I have now been on the ASIP Program Committee for 3 years and have been reappointed for another 3 years. I have enjoyed and continue to enjoy this experience tremendously. Last year, I was invited by Dr. Tara Sander to become a member of the Committee for Career Development, Women and Minorities. I am looking forward to my continued involvement serving on this committee as well.
What advice do you have for trainees that want to get involved?
Definitely get involved with ASIP if you have the desire to do so! It is a unique experience that will help your scientific training and career.
How would you recommend a trainee member get involved initially?
Ask your faculty mentor or other involved trainees in your department at your particular university to help you get involved in ASIP if you are interested. Also, there are opportunities to get to know ASIP members and trainees through the ASIP Annual Meeting at Experimental Biology. Being involved in ASIP as a member of a committee or in other positions is an important obligation that takes responsibility and time. Therefore, being involved in the right capacity that fits your specific training is very important. ASIP staff and ASIP leaders are enthusiastic about trainee volunteers that are willing to help and they will guide each volunteer to a place where they are needed.
What benefits have come from your experiences on these Committees?
Serving on ASIP Committees has put me in contact with numerous people that are important to the larger pathology community. ASIP is made up of a network of investigators from a number of different backgrounds and stages in their pathology careers. It is a huge benefit to be able to interact and network with this group of scientists. Another major benefit is that I was kindly awarded the ASIP Excellence in Science Award at last year’s ASIP Annual Meeting at Experimental Biology (2010). I would not have been competitive for this award if it was not for my experience and volunteering within the Society because one of the criteria for this award is your involvement in ASIP.
More specifically, has your network proven valuable for job and career advice/opportunities?
Yes! I have been an ASIP trainee member now for 7 years and have had the privilege of winning multiple travel awards through ASIP to attend the Annual Meeting at Experimental Biology. This was (and continues to be) extremely valuable for my CV in applying for postdoctoral positions and fellowships. Through my involvement in the different ASIP Committees as well as the Society as a whole, I have been able to interact with numerous Department of Pathology Chairs and other advanced faculty and have gotten very valuable advice for the advancement of my career. Being a trainee of Bill Coleman has also benefited me tremendously because I have been able to tap into his wealth of knowledge and his academic network within ASIP. As I hope to progress to an Assistant Professor, I am looking forward to the continued advice and counsel of this network of Pathologists.
What advice would you give a trainee that is trying to find a mentor?
It is beneficial if the trainee’s research mentor is their primary advisor in not only the capacity of research, but also when it comes to providing professional development and career advice throughout graduate school and beyond. I am very fortunate and thankful for my primary mentor Bill Coleman. I think that each trainee trying to find a mentor needs to evaluate what is important to them during that certain time in their career. Specifically, most mentors are not all encompassing. All trainees need multiple mentors throughout their career. Trainees should look for and expect certain things out of their mentors, for example we should evaluate our prospective mentor’s expectations of his/her other students or trainees, their accessibility and willingness to give us priority when we need it, and their patience with us and with our research/career path. I think the most important thing is for trainees to learn from both the positive and negative experiences with their mentors. I truly believe that trainees are a product of their mentors, just like their mentors reflect the mentoring that they received.
What is the best career advice you were ever given?
My mentor Bill Coleman shared with me how important it was to establish a research niche and receive the training that will fill that niche. He stressed that it should be something that you are passionate about and that is worth pursuing. Each person undergoes training that is structured to what their interests are and only that person can fill a particular void in a research area.
What experiences or qualifications do you think are important to succeed in science?
- Determination - There are many failures associated with experiments, trying to publish results, and getting grant applications funded (just to name a few big ones). If we are not determined to succeed and persistent than it will be more of a struggle for success.
- Self confidence – Many times in scientific research our self confidence will be tested and tried. As a trainee, experimental failures often allow us to lose the confidence we have in ourselves. It is important to ground ourselves and remember how we got to be where we are in the first place. Good mentoring also helps when we lack self confidence.
- I also think it is important to have good and bad experiences working with colleagues on research projects. This helps improve our character and also helps us to understand how different people perform experiments and tasks. These experiences will hopefully make us more tolerate of other scientists, a more patient collaborator, and a better mentor for our trainees in the future.
What factors should an individual consider when choosing a post-doctoral or faculty position?
In choosing a postdoctoral position, I think it is important to choose a field of study that you could see yourself staying in for the long-term. That said, I also would encourage and suggest that learning different fields of study from what you trained in as a Ph.D. candidate will help you in your career. As a trainee, I was given this advice by my graduate mentor, Bill Coleman, as well as others that I talked to when looking for a postdoctoral position. Also, from my experience in applying for postdoctoral fellowships it is essential that your training as a postdoc be different than that of the training you received as a graduate student. Your training potential is the most important thing when applying for outside funding such as fellowships and for future faculty positions.
In choosing a faculty position, I think it is important as trainees to look for a solid support system in the university where we are interested in obtaining a position. It will be important for us to establish collaboration partners to advance not only our research, but others as well. Also, collaborative projects and an experimental support network will help us in applying for external funding. Another factor of importance in choosing a faculty position is having a niche that you can fill within your institution of interest.
What is some of the best career advice you have for trainees of our Society?
Get the most out of your training at the graduate and the postdoctoral level. Strive for excellence and get involved in leadership activities within your university setting as well as with the greater Pathology Community (ASIP). Choose your mentors carefully and evaluate them and yourself constantly. If you need a project change or a mentor change, do not be afraid to pursue that change and be open and honest with your mentors/advisors. They are here to help guide us on the right career path and most will be happy to help us in any way that they can.
If you weren’t a scientist, what would you be?
If I were not a scientist I would like to work closely with them because my interests have always been “science” related. I think I would enjoy working within a Scientific Society (like ASIP for example) or within a hospital setting (possibly genetic counseling). Also, I enjoy teaching/lecturing. My drive is behind helping people, whether that is through translational research, counseling, mentoring, or just being a good listener.