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Soon-to-be "PhD" in the middle of a pandemic

Published on May 31, 2020

COLUMBIA, Mo. (May 29, 2020) - The quarantine has postponed a doctoral defense for a Ph.D. candidate but that hasn’t stopped her from pursuing her career. Mallory Smith has been working towards her Doctor of Philosophy in biochemistry and molecular biology for the past four and a half years at the University of Kansas Medical Center

Smith, her mentor and committee had planned for her to defend her dissertation on April 15 in person with her family in the audience, but the pandemic has caused her “to postpone until later this summer in the hopes to defend in front of my family and colleagues,” she said. “Luckily, it didn’t affect my job that starts in September.” 

“It’s been kind of crazy, if we didn’t have the Coronavirus, I would already have graduated and be a doctor,” she said. The university canceled graduation along with the hooding ceremony, when the advisor places the doctoral hood over the graduate’s head, signifying the completion of the graduate program. Smith said they are going to try to do a small version of it after her defense. “We will try to figure out how to make it special with my lab mates, my boss and family. We’ll do our own thing.”

It was important for them to have an in-person defense since she is a first generation Ph.D. student and she is the first graduate student of her mentor Bret Freudenthal, Ph.D., associate professor at the University of Kansas Medical Center. After a conversation with Freudenthal, they agreed they didn’t want her to defend her dissertation using Zoom, instead they decided to wait till July when hopefully it will be safer to gather in person to share the experience with those who have supported her. 

She doesn’t know yet if the university will give her permission to defend in-person later this summer.  “We are holding out and hoping,” she said. Her family said they will come regardless, even if it’s just to sit at her house. 

This year has been challenging so it’s no coincidence that Mallory likes the ‘challenge of science’. She has always found herself drawn to biology but when she wanted to challenge herself, she chose instead to earn an undergraduate degree in chemistry with a biology minor from the University of North Georgia.

After graduation she worked as a clinical chemist for a year before she went on to graduate school where she decided to focus on biochemistry that allows her “to apply her chemistry centered mind to biological systems.”

She chose KUMC because she loved the faculty and staff, she said “The fact that everyone cared about the students and wanted them to succeed.” She also liked the big class size since she is enriched by having a lot of peers and being social. She knew she needed to have a lot of people around her to succeed.

At KUMC she works in the field of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) repair which is the ability for the cells to repair DNA when they become damaged from UV rays from the sun, food, alcohol or cigarettes, Smith explained. 

“I became interested in studying DNA repair and X-ray crystallography for two reasons,” she said. “The first was that I was fascinated by having the ability to see atom by atom how the enzyme was working and processing the DNA. Seeing is truly believing. The second reason was that my mentor was passionate about his work, and I wanted to work under a mentor that was as excited about my project as I was.”

She said she has become more of an individual because of her mentors at KUMC. They have instilled confidence in her. She is graduating with not only the knowledge from her degree but the ability to stand up for that knowledge instead of defaulting to others. 

Over the past few years, her interest in science policy has grown. She developed the Kansas STEM Policy Fellowship Program and has traveled to the nation's capital with her field's professional organization, the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. They attend Capitol Hill Day every spring to speak with legislatures about funding basic science. 

“The lawmakers were very interested. The meetings were very short, and I learned to get my point across quickly,” she said. “It was important to make sure we got those points across as to why they are important to science and innovation. They need to know it’s important to their constituents, and they are very willing to listen. Anyone can appreciate what science does for society so it’s good to speak with them about it.”

“Science communication is a big thing and you need to be able to convey not only the points that you want to get across,” she said. The lawmakers also wanted to know more about the person who is in the room with them and speak about her science interests. They also spoke about international relations and making sure outside students and faculty from different countries are able to come to the United States and participate in science.  

The trip solidified her interest in science policy and participating in the “less traditional role of science,” she said. “D.C. is such a great place with many types of careers and cultures in one place.” 

“It's been pretty crazy trying to find a job, getting ready to graduate and applying to jobs in the middle of all of this,” she said. She started her job search months before the COVID-19 virus took effect and was getting nervous when she started to receive emails telling her the jobs she applied to had been canceled. 

Freudenthal was supportive and told her she could stay in the lab and work as a graduate student during the fall semester, but she said she wanted to take the next step in her career. “When you are ready to graduate, it’s a point of pride,” she said. After almost five years in doctoral school she wanted to take the next step towards her future career as a scientist. 

“The traditional next step in training as a scientist is to learn a slightly different style of science in another mentor’s lab and it helps you diversify your skill set,” she said. During this challenging time, she continued applying to jobs. She wanted to work on the east coast to be closer to her mom and Washington, D.C., to continue science policy. Her persistence paid off, she was offered a job as a postdoctoral fellow at the National Institute Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) that starts in September. 

“I will be just over the river of D.C.,” she said. “I am very fortunate to have my current and future boss be supportive of doing initiatives both on and off the lab bench and participating in kind of non-traditional science.”

At the NICHD, she will be a scientist and with a mentor who is supportive of creating connections within “NIH that will feed into a future career” in science policy or science administration. After she’s been in the District of Columbia for a while, she said she will see what opportunities are available and which would be the best fit for her. “I have a lot of interests and a lot of things I can apply my skill sets to; I will have to see where that right fit is.” 

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