Profile of a Female Scientist: An Interview with Miriam Boer

By Jennifer Kruschwitz

Miriam Boer
PhD student in Biochemistry, College Park, MD, USA
Advisor: Dr. Sergei Sukharev
Meeting brilliant people striving to make long‐lasting contributions to the field of optics as well as the science‐education community has been a regular occurrence since my affiliation with the Optical Society of America (OSA). So when OSA asked me to interview and profile a few of the Society’s female members for these newsletters, I jumped at the chance.

This month I had the pleasure of speaking with Miriam Boer, an OSA Student Member who describes her experiences scouring the DC area for cheap eats and mastering her fencing skill — that is, when she isn’t busy getting her PhD in biochemistry at the University of Maryland.

Kruschwitz: For those in the MWOSA community who aren’t familiar with you, since 2006, you have been pursuing a PhD in biochemistry under the supervision of Dr. Sergei Sukharev at the University of Maryland. What is the focus of your research currently and what brought you to UMD?

Boer: When I applied, the most attractive aspect of UMD was the lack of very strict boundaries among science departments. I knew I wanted a PhD in biochemistry, but I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to research. UMD’s relaxed interdepartmental research policy meant I could get a solid interdisciplinary background in biochemistry and choose from many diverse labs.

I’m studying the small mechanosensitive channel, MscS, in E. coli. MscS is sensitive to tension in the membrane. It regulates turgor pressure by allowing water and small osmolytes to exit the cell at higher‐ than‐baseline membrane tensions. MscS is not only in bacteria, but in other organisms such as archaea, plants, and fungi – essentially all organisms with cell walls. One issue I’m trying to resolve is the role of inactivation, a closed tension‐insensitive state, within MscS’ full functional cycle. Because MscS opens at sublytic tensions, it not only needs a means to open, it also needs a means to close. If the channel didn’t close, the cell would “bleed out.” We think inactivation may fill this role, protecting E. coli from losing vital metabolites at threatening but non‐lethal membrane tensions. Using a combination of traditional plating experiments, fluorescence, and light scattering, I’m exploring inactivation in vivo. It’s a challenge to work with live cells because they present so many variables, but my preliminary results are encouraging.

Currently, I work on campus at UMD under the direction of Dr. Sergei Sukharev. As far as academic labs go, I suppose it’s pretty standard, but Sergei is an excellent advisor. He leads from the front, which I particularly like. If there’s a new technique or apparatus to figure out, Sergei will be right there next to you. He’s very available, and judging by what my peers have said, I think I got lucky choosing a lab.

Everyone here – the post‐docs, lab tech, my fellow grad students, and undergrads – are incredibly talented, competent, and friendly. Sometimes it feels like a lot to live up to, but I do my best.

Kruschwitz: What excites you most about your academic and professional pursuits? How do you hope to leverage your PhD in optics to enhance your career?

Boer: Currently, I’m forging ahead with my experiments so I can write a paper and contribute to conferences. Academically, I’m really looking forward to my independent research proposal coming up this fall. Post‐candidacy biochemistry PhD students write a paper and present a potential post‐doctoral topic to their committees.

Sometime in my first year, I got interested in exploring birth control, and it’s certainly something I’m looking into as a career. It’s a surprisingly under‐researched area, considering it involves nearly all people with an active level of heterosexual preference at some point in their lives. There are advances being made, but they seem to be focused on hormonal methods. I want to research alternatives for hormones. In regions of the world where birth control is scarce yet very much needed, the odds of getting a reliable supply of birth control pills or even condoms, for instance, is pretty low. What if there are other long‐term methods that could grant the same level of protection with less reliance on a constant supply of goods? What if there’s a way to grant relatively long‐term security to people in developed countries without using hormones, which are polluting the natural environment despite our efforts to keep such substances under control? Based upon several papers and gratefully received responses from professionals in the field, there’s a chance I might actually be able to explore this topic after graduation.

While my work hasn’t been based solely on optics, I’ve certainly leaned heavily on a variety of optical techniques. In a bid to familiarize myself with them, I’ve connected with other graduate students who are more knowledgeable in optics, and along with my advisor, I credit them almost entirely with my optical knowledge. After all, you can’t just be a biologist or chemist. So many experimental techniques rely on optics, like light scattering, FRET, and CD. Now optical tweezers are being used to watch biopolymers and enzymes work in real time. I hope to take what I learned about these experimental techniques and apply them to any future work I do.

Kruschwitz: How involved are you in the Optical Society of America and the University of Maryland student chapter?

Boer: Brooke Hester, who’s in charge of the UMD student chapter, has gotten some fantastic scientists to speak here, and I enjoy the talks immensely. Those presentations are definitely some of the best I’ve seen, inasmuch as there are record low numbers of people taking naps in the audience! Seriously though, I would say I’m moderately involved. Along with going to the talks, the opportunity to take the speakers to dinner has been very interesting. Sometimes, we get so caught up in the work, we overlook the person who might have some hilarious stories to share about how they ended up where they are. Also, I had the opportunity to meet more OSA members this winter at the Leadership conference, and the breadth of professional pursuits among the members was particularly interesting.

Kruschwitz: Growing up in the New York area and attending NYU as an undergrad, how has the city shaped your interests in science and learning?

Boer: I’m a born and bred New Yorker. I was born in the Bronx and grew up 30 minutes north of Manhattan. My mother, a Bronx native and an artist, made sure we went on frequent trips to the city to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Bronx Zoo, Yankee games, the New York Botanical Gardens, and the Museum of Natural History when I was young. These trips were frequently accompanied by traipsing around Chinatown (I loved looking at all the unfamiliar produce and fish), St. Mark’s Place to watch the people (although it’s now really cleaned up), and SoHo galleries. We also went canoeing, ice skating, sledding, and hiking in Harriman State Park, a little north of where we lived. I love all of it, the rural and the urban. New York is a fantastic place.

Then I went to NYU and got my bachelor’s degree in chemistry with a minor in math, but the learning wasn’t just academic. I was lucky enough to get a couple of scholarships so I was able to live in New York City while I went there, which was an amazing privilege. When you encounter so many fascinating people from literally everywhere, you become aware of just how large the world is.

From high school into my undergraduate career, grades were everything, and suddenly it dawned on me that outside of the academic

system, no one cares what your GPA is. It brought me up short. This isn’t to say grades carry no meaning, because they do. They make you take responsibility for how much or how little work you put into a given course, and sometimes grades point out that your best just isn’t good enough andyou learn to deal with failure. If nothing else, you see how important it is to be able to work withisystem in order to get what you want, even if you don’t agree with how it’s set up. I was not a stellar straight‐A student in college, but I like to think my transcript isn’t all I left with.

Kruschwitz: Coming from a city rich in culture, has it been difficult transitioning to the College Park area after living in the city

Boer: The hardest part is having an actual campus literally separated from the rest of the world by a wall and needing to drive almost everywhere. The second hardest thing is the lack of cheap good food.

Everyone thinks NYC is expensive, but that’s not true if you know where to look. Mamoun’s on MacDougal Street sells a falafel in pita for $2.50, and The Dumpling House in Chinatown sells 10 dumplings for $2. I haven’t encountered anything even remotely like this anywhere in or around DC. The change you find in your couch won’t take you very far in this town.

Kruschwitz: Early on, what inspired your interest in science?

Boer: It just kind of happened. Other than my parent’s natural desire that I do well in school, no one pushed me. I was exposed to everything and encouraged to do what I really loved, from art and music to sports and outdoor activities – as long as the grades stayed up! I grew up in a family of gardeners, so I was always outside looking at growing things. Also, my father, who is an electrician by trade, is an incredibly talented builder. I was usually pressed into labor when something needed to be done. The jobs were small, holding tools or measuring tapes, but as I got older, he gave me more useful things to do. Perhaps a combination of exposure to the natural world and the problem solving needed to build/fix things funneled me into science? I wish I could give a better answer, but to tell the truth, I just like it. It’s a nice combination of creativity and problem solving.

Kruschwitz: How would you describe the education you’ve received thus far? Do you think young girls in America are encouraged to study math and science? Can you tell me a little about your early education and interests in these subjects?

Boer: I’m a product of a 100% public school education. Looking back, it was an above average education; I certainly had some great teachers. However, math and science education in this country overall is lacking. The best teachers I had were the older ones, the old guard who not only loved and studied their subjects, but taught with a flair for the dramatic and a sense of humor.

As far as academic encouragement for young women to enter science, there’s plenty. However, there are many social barriers. In this country, scientists are the weirdos, the freaks, and the antisocial geeks. I almost get the feeling that if you’re too outgoing or look too put‐together, it will detract from your credibility as a scientist. Compare this to the culture of law, for example, and you see why the sciences suffer an image problem. More personally, I’ve met my share of young men at various establishments and engaged them in conversation. No matter how well the conversation goes, the second I mention I’m getting a PhD in  biochemistry, the overwhelming majority of them will literally turn around and walk away. Although with the economy where it is, perhaps now they’ll think twice about meeting a smart, motivated woman. Seriously though, it’s an attitude problem we have. Pop culture says women can either be smart OR pretty, but not both. The closest our culture has come to addressing this is through the character Miranda from Sex and the City, which is pretty sad. But I’m not letting that stop me, and neither should it stop anyone else. If there isn’t anyone trying to beat a stereotype, how can we ever expect it to go away?

Kruschwitz: I understand you were on NYU’s Women Fencing team and continue to play. Do you see any connection between the skills you use as a fencer and as a scientist?

Boer: I fence at the DC Fencers’ Club in Silver Spring, MD. I stumbled into fencing from basketball in the middle of high school, so I’ve been fencing for nearly 9 years. I went to a practice in high school, realized fencing was just like basketball defense only sideways, and I fell in love. It’s a great sport that combines flexibility, endurance, and explosive strength with smarts. You can succeed without being the fastest, tallest, or strongest person out there if you’re smart (but those other traits don’t hurt). After competing in all three weapons in college, épée, the weapon with rules that most closely mimic a real fight, feels the most natural to me.

Currently, I’m fencing recreationally and taking lessons because that’s all I have time for. I never had the resources to get into the national competition circuit, but I still have a few years of good athletic ability – you never know, right?

As far as overlapping skills, it was quite a change coming from a team sport (basketball) to an individual one. If you lose a basketball game, you take responsibility as a team. If you lose a fencing match, the responsibility is on you and only you. The most useful crossover from competitive fencing to science and the rest of my life is the way it helped me take full responsibility for losing without going into a hysterical tailspin of self‐flagellation. It’s so much more helpful to either shake it off or calmly decide what you’re going to do better next time (duh, of course, but it was a lesson I needed to learn myself).

That awareness has been priceless in graduate school, where getting psychologically beaten into a submissive mess is pretty much what happens. As a TA, professors have been completely disrespectful to me, I’ve felt like a total idiot on a regular basis and taught discussion sections in a subject in which I had literally no knowledge, but I’m getting through it. I passed candidacy, which was an exercise in abject terror and learning what antiperspirant works best for me (none of them are as good as I’d like), but my job is to pick myself up off the floor and keep moving forward. It’s just like fencing. You may get destroyed on the strip, but once you get over being angry you go to practice, run your drills, stay calm, and take them down the next time. To quote Ice Cube, “Life ain’t a track meet, it’s a marathon…” If I was the kind of person who had theme songs, that would be my grad school theme song.

Kruschwitz: Ice Cube would be proud to hear that! Thanks for taking the time to share your experiences so far with the Minorities and Women group of OSA. Do you have any words of encouragement for other young women with an interest in science around the world?

Boer: Yes! But this isn’t just for the ladies. Like Nike says, just do it. You like science? Do it. Nothing’s going to happen to the stereotypes without people who are willing to buck them. My father taught me no matter what, no matter who gets you down for whatever reason – gender, race, religion, etc. – you will never lose what you know. If you’re good, no one can deny it. Educating yourself is your ticket out and up from wherever you are. No matter what discrimination exists, if you put your head down and work as hard as you can, you’ll get noticed.

Jennifer D. T. Kruschwitz, President, JK Consulting

Jennifer is a Sr. Optical Coating Engineer and President of her coating design firm, JK Consulting. She received her Bachelors and Masters Degree in Optics from the University of Rochester in 1989 and 1995 respectively. She has been working in the field of optical interference coatings since 1988. Jennifer has been an active member of OSA since 1990, serving in a variety of volunteer and governance capacities.