Published 28 June 2019 by Ulrike Böhm

Women in Research at #LINO19: Whitney Costello from the USA

This interview is part of a series of the “Women in Research” blog that features young female scientists participating in the 69th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting to increase the visibility of women in research (find more information on Facebook and Twitter).

#LINO19 young scientist Whitney from the USA is a PhD student at the UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, Texas. Her research focuses on developing techniques using Dynamic Nuclear Polarization Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (DNP NMR) to elucidate the structural changes of proteins, especially those involved in neurodegenerative diseases. With the sensitivity enhancement of DNP NMR, experiments that used to take decades can now be performed in a day. Using the sensitivity enhancement from DNP NMR, she developed sample preparation methods that allow visualisation of a single building block of a protein, an amino acid, at it’s physiological concentrations in its native cellular environment, something no other biophysical technique can accomplish! Enjoy the interview with Whitney and get inspired:

What inspired you to pursue a career in science?

I was always good at math and science growing up, and my senior year of high school I had a really wonderful teacher for physics, David Askey. He made physics fun. I forgot it was supposed to be intimidating. I loved understanding the principles of the world around me. So, I graduated and went on to earn my Bachelor’s in physics from the University of Oklahoma. However, during this time both my mother’s parents passed away from neurodegenerative diseases and this affected me strongly. My grandpa had Spinocerebellar Ataxia Type 6, he slowly lost the function of his body, even though his mind was intact. My grandma had Alzheimer’s disease, her body was fine, however she slowly lost her mind. I needed to understand how two ‘neurodegenerative diseases’ could present in such different ways, what caused this, could we prevent this? So I decided find a way into biophysics.


Photo: Whitney Costello

How did you get to where you are in your career path?

I grew up in Norman, Oklahoma, attending the public school system. Within Norman Public Schools there were many wonderful teachers, without whom I would not be where I am today. Specifically Lenny Gibson, whom introduced me to calculus, and David Askey, whom introduced me to physics. Two factors went into my decision of where to do to college: graduating high school I thought I wanted to be a meteorologist and college is expensive. So, I enrolled at the University of Oklahoma (OU) in my town, also home of the National Weather Center. However, I quickly learned that many other people love weather a lot more than me. So, I chose another path that combined my love of math and science, physics. During my time in undergraduate, I studied abroad in Arezzo, Italy. This was a wonderful once in a lifetime experience that pushed my boundaries. I had never been away from Oklahoma for more than a month, let alone six! Adapting and learning to live in a new culture can be challenging, but very rewarding. You learn so much about yourself when you are outside of your comfort zone! Also, during undergraduate I did a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) as well as my thesis work. I did my REU at OU on my thesis project: Metal Enhanced Fluorescence of dye-doped silica nanoparticles. These were really important experiences for me as, I learned that I loved being at the bench and doing experiments. The physics programme taught me presenting your research in an understandable way is a critical part of research. I also learned that every research project does not have a ‘happy ending’. Sometimes projects do not work out, and it took me a while to realise that you do learn something from failures too! However, during this time both my mother’s parents passed away from neurodegenerative diseases and this affected me strongly. My motivation shifted towards more biological questions and I started looking into the field of biophysics. Even though my motivation shifted, I finished my Bachelor’s degree in physics, with a minor in Chinese. However, at the end of my bachelor’s I did not feel ready to apply to PhD programmes. I was tired of being in school and working part time jobs to support myself. I liked the bench, but enough to commit to a five year PhD programme? How would I get the money to apply to schools? Where would I even apply to? It was a little overwhelming, so I decided to look for a job.
I saw a posting on OU’s website for a research technician position at the OU Health Science Center. The position was looking for a biologist to do research on Friedrich’s Ataxia, and my grandfather had ataxia. So, I thought why not? I wanted more experience at the bench to see if I liked it, and no classes, perfect. I sent an email with my resume to Dr. Sanjay Bidichandani and got an interview. Even though the whole job was genetics, something I only had a couple zoology lectures on, somehow I convinced him I was good at learning new things and he hired me! In my time there I learned many new genetic techniques as well as how to do cell culture work. I also published two second and two third author papers. However, I missed looking at the details of things, and I missed physics. Dr. Bidichandani supported me to apply to PhD programmes in biophysics. I started preparing my applications and took the GRE. My scores were very average. I have never been good at taking standardised tests. Because of this I was worried about getting into any programs. However, I applied to ten and got interviews at four. And after interviews, I chose the programme at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center (UTSW).

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?

Wait, but all of them are so cool, I can’t pick! It is so hard to choose. Every project is cool and bright and shiny in the beginning. Then after a while you are stuck in the nitty gritty details and it is hard to see that ‘coolness’ anymore. And what even actually defines ‘coolness’? Is it the potential impact factor of being able to light up tumors with metal enhanced fluorescence? Is it seeing your work directly relate to the patient, having their family visit the lab because they are just so grateful you do research to help their child’s disease? Is it being on the cutting edge of research, developing techniques that could impact the whole field of structural biology? No, it’s too hard to pick. Every project is cool, and every project has times where you love it or hate it.

What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself / your work?

Oh, this is a hard one. At first when I read this question, I was thinking “oh another thing I am failing at”, but I got up to finish some bench work and thought about why this is. Having pride in the things I do is not something I excel at. Because what I do is normal, and if any person had passion for the same things as me, then they would do the exact same things I do, right? But there are flickering moments. I was really excited when I got accepted into the Lindau Meeting. I was waiting and waiting for the application. But of course thinking “do not expect a yes”, “the odds aren’t in your favor”. But then I got accepted! It was a pretty good feeling. My advisor and my parents were so proud. However, I want to work on being proud in smaller moments of my everyday life. For example, being proud of getting an experiment to work, going to exercise, bringing my lunch to work or giving a good departmental presentation. It’s important to be proud of the little things too. Being a biophysicist I guess it’s easy for me to argue to myself that life is in the details. Short answer – I am still working on it!

What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?

Oh my, well isn’t this the million dollar question? What do I want to accomplish? Let’s make a list: 1. I want to do something that helps people. 2. I want to do something that furthers the knowledge of the world. 3. I’d like to become a successful female role model, no matter where I end up. 4. Have a good work/life balance. 5. Be able to explain complicated topics, as if it was just so easy. 6. Be a good mentor, be able to pass on the things I have learned. As of now, I think my next step will be to do a postdoctoral fellowship, but I do not like to close any doors. Since I will graduate in the next year or two, I have started looking into many different jobs. I am indecisive, so I normally choose the next option that leaves the most possibilities open. However, knowledge is power, so I have started exploring my career options through the various programmes offered here at UTSW – We shall see where I end up! Where ever I go, I always want to continue to support women in science.

Whitney on the top of Huangshan (the yellow mountains) in China. Photo: Whitney Costello

What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?

I hang out with friends, read, play board games, and cook. On Tuesdays I play sand volleyball with the best team, Sandsational. Hanging out with my non-science friends is sometimes the thing that keeps me the most sane. I travel to meet my boyfriend, since he lives in France. We try to see each other every two months, whether it be for a work conference, meeting in Montreal or in one of our home cities. We try to be together for all the big events, like friends weddings and Christmas. I definitely have the travel bug. I am hoping that my next big trip of choice I can go to South America, maybe Chile or Argentina! Or I would love to go back to Japan. I visited Tokyo for a week once and it was the complete opposite from Texas, but in the most amazing ways. And the food was so delicious. When I travel I like to find flowers and take pictures of them. It takes up 80% of the photos on my phone.

What advice do you have for other women interested in science?

Of course, follow your passion, but find good mentors along the way. No matter what in life things always get tough at one time or another. It is really important to find a mentor that believes in your skills as a scientist and is willing to support you through project highs and lows. Find a mentor that will recognise when to nominate you for awards. Find a mentor that you can talk to, and ask career questions to when life gets stressful. Don’t accept things as mediocre or because “that is just the way life is”. If you want it to be different, try to change it. Oh, and you have to become okay with being told no. Because being told no means you put yourself out there. And you have to keep giving people chances to say yes, or you will get nowhere.

In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in physics?

There are so many potential breakthroughs on the cusp in all fields of science. And it’s all related, a breakthrough in physics could greatly impact chemistry and biology. I just hope that the next breakthrough will help improve the lives of all people.

What should be done to increase the number of female scientists and female professors?

From undergraduate, I know what it is like to be one of two females in the physics class of 30. It is very isolating at times. So, when I joined the PhD programme at UTSW, I immediately became involved in the Women in Science Mentoring Series. Once a month we invite a female faculty to speak about her career path and any obstacles she felt she had to overcome, or important career moves she made to get to her current position. We also host some panels throughout the year, such as how to get your ideal post doc or how did you get your fellowship. Not all female PhD students have a female boss, or may interact with a female professor in their everyday lab life. The Women in Science Mentoring series hopes to provide a place where these connections can be made. So that one day when you are struggling, you have that ‘every day’ mentor to ask advice from. It’s amazing how much this can help. Also how much ‘to see it is to believe it’ is actually true. It’s wonderful to have amazing famous role models, like Oprah or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), however they are not people you can actually sit down with and ask life advice from. I believe it is these ‘every day’ role models that are one of the connections that help provide support for success.

In addition, I serve as the graduate student representative on the Women in Science and Medicine Advisory Committee (WISMAC) to the dean. This committee enhances the visibility and recognition of women in science and medicine at UTSW, creates a collegial and supportive environment through promoting initiatives that support faculty career advancement and provides inspiration and career guidance to the next generation of women in science and medicine. The committee host events like a science and medicine career exploration day for female high school students and the university wide Celebration of Women in Science and Medicine. Last year at the Celebration of Women in Science and Medicine, I got the unique experience and pleasure to meet Dr. Susan J. Fisher, whom is such an inspiring role model. She is not in my field of expertise and I doubt I would have met her without my position in the committee. My involvement in this committee has opened my eyes to the many policies and events that are affected by such a committee.

Ulrike Böhm

Ulrike Boehm is a physicist and science enthusiast. She works as an optical scientist at ZEISS in Oberkochen, Germany. Previously, she did her Ph.D. studies at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen in the Department of NanoBiophotonics of Nobel Laureate Stefan Hell, followed by research stays in the US at the National Institutes of Health and HHMI’s Janelia Research Campus, developing tools for biomedical research. She is generally passionate about designing and building (optical) instruments to image, probe, and manipulate (biological) structures. Furthermore, she is passionate about science communication and open science and is a huge advocate for women in science.