Alumna Profile: Dr. Kara Cerveny, Assistant Professor of Biology, Reed College

Kara Cerveny performed her thesis work in Robert Jensen’s lab in the Department of Cell Biology in 2005.  In the short time since, she has completed a post-doc in London, worked as an editor for Cell, and recently joined the faculty of the Biology Department of Reed College in Portland, Oregon.  Below, Kara details her transitions between fields and how her motivations have ultimately carried her to Reed, shares some wisdom about how science compares between the US and the UK, and talks about life as a new faculty member at a small liberal arts college.

At Hopkins 

Upon completing her undergraduate program at Duke, Cerveny knew from volunteer work at a local hospital and at the Duke Marine Lab that she wanted to pursue a career in science.  “[I] decided that I really liked sharing my knowledge and exciting others about science, so I applied for several different teaching jobs and landed a great position at Friends Select School in Philadelphia.”  During the following two years, she gained experience in designing and teaching several science courses.  Kara’s curiosity, inspired during various volunteer positions in labs at Duke and elsewhere, soon prompted her to apply to graduate school.  “I decided that I really liked asking questions and doing experiments to answer them.”

After joining BCMB in 1998, Cerveny’s interests in genetics, yeast, and mitochondria led her to Rob Jensen’s lab for her thesis work.  “[It] seemed like the perfect fit, and it was. I learned a great deal about doing science, about presenting science, and about thinking logically and working methodologically on a problem. I gained the skills to attack a problem genetically, biochemically, and cell biologically. I feel like graduate school was a successful experience because of Rob’s mentorship, my thesis committee’s advice, and my labmates’ help, support, and camaraderie. Grad school solidified my love of genetics and gave birth to my love of microscopy.” 

“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger – and smarter” 

Certain genes uncovered during her studies in mitochondrial genetics stimulated Kara’s interest in eye development and retinal disease.  She complemented her exploration into the literature of a new field with the Fundamental Issues in Vision Research course at Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory, and upon gaining her PhD moved to Steve Wilson’s lab at University College London.  “Making such a big change was initially very difficult – I felt like a first year grad student all over again, only worse because I didn’t have anyone else who was in the same boat as me and no coursework to bring me up to speed. I read a lot of papers and tried to find mentors inside and outside of the lab who would help me learn the techniques and approaches that would help me make some headway on my projects. In the end, however, moving abroad for my post-doc and changing fields was the best thing I’ve ever done.”

Cerveny draws interesting comparisons between how scientific research is conducted in the US and in Europe.  “Americans are notorious for our ‘can do’ attitude and strong (long) work ethic. We don’t often take long vacations, whereas Europeans do… At first taking these breaks was difficult for me, but I later realized that it improved my planning skills and I was able to be just as, or more, productive having had time to think and get out of the lab.”  A difference in the academic attitude imparted other benefits: “I learned to take more time to read papers and learn from the literature. I think I’ll always feel like I should be constantly working and getting data, but I now more fully appreciate taking time to think and plan the best experiment – not just any experiment.”

Back home, to Cell 

The combination of mounting funding pressures in the Wilson lab with her own upcoming visa renewal prompted Cerveny’s entry into the job market.  Her search included small schools like Reed but also targeted positions outside of academe which matched her other interests.  I knew that I was good a lot of different things and started to question whether academic science was for me. I had always enjoyed writing about science, and had started my own blog (which I think only my parents and friends read, but I had fun writing it). I decided to participate in the Santa Fe Science Writers workshop, applied for a variety of science communication positions, and landed a job at Cell. It was Cell, and I thought, what an opportunity! I jumped at the chance to try something new…”

As an editor, Cerveny was able to maintain the element of career scientific learning that she’d pursued through graduate school and her post-doc, and gained added lessons on scientific writing and interpersonal politics among coworkers and authors.  She describes the job, comprised of reading and reviewing duties, as “like having a journal club, all day, every day,” and lists as her favorite aspects as “meeting new people, reading broadly, [and] getting to write short ‘editors’ picks’,” among others.  However, it wasn’t long before she came to miss distinctive elements of her academic career.  “I really missed working with students, I missed bench work more than I thought I would… and I missed having a sense of ownership in what I was doing every day.”

Reed to present 

Speaking about her recent position at Reed, Cerveny says, “I feel a bit guilty that I landed what is, by all accounts, my dream job.”  Comparing the environment of a small liberal arts college with that of a large, research-intensive school like Hopkins, Cerveny says, “At Reed, we have great resources for a small liberal arts school but fewer resources when compared to a place like Hopkins (no sequencing facility on campus, no microscopy core facility, no CoreStore…). We also have a very broad faculty. As a member of the Biology Department, my colleagues include a behavioral ecologist, a plant evolutionary biologist, a cell and molecular biologist, plant and animal physiologists, a microbiologist, and a genetics/genomics person.”  Such an environment seems well-tailored for someone who has maintained diverse interests throughout her career, and is rich with teaching opportunity.  Says Cerveny, “Working with students is, by far, the best aspect of the job… Watching [them] have an “ah-ha” moment is one of the most rewarding experiences I could ever ask for. Their enthusiasm is contagious; I love sharing my knowledge with them and learning from them.”

While some days are a matter of “putting out the fire that burns the brightest,” with respect to establishing her lab and building on her research, Cerveny nevertheless regularly makes time to unwind. “I make sure I do some sort of exercise nearly every day – running and swimming are my two favorites… My guilty pleasures are watching an episode of the cartoon Avatar, The Last Air Bender and reading. I’m currently reading Mutants, by Armand Leroi, and rereading Isaac Asimov’s I Robot short stories.”

Overarching principles and universal advice

Interviewing Kara Cerveny, above all else, reveals how earnest and enthusiastic she is about her work, implicit traits that have followed her to Reed.  When asked directly about the principles that guide her work, she replies, “I simply strive, each day, to do my best and be a good person, to let my curiosity and love of learning drive what I do. I want people to understand the importance of thinking logically and appreciate the beauty of a well-designed – and performed – experiment.”  She credits her mentors, husband, and friends as integral during the progression to her dream job.  “One thing that I can’t stress enough is the importance of having a supportive partner, mentors, friends, and parents. They make having an academic career manageable.”

With an already varied career path under her belt since leaving the program, Cerveny advises: “Don’t underestimate the importance of making contacts at meetings and cultivating your relationships with your peers and with your mentors. As an introvert, I struggle to find the energy to engage with people, but it is almost always well worth the effort.  Practice writing and presenting your research to people of various levels of expertise – communicating science, and communicating in general, is important no matter what you go on to do.”  Moreover, “When I have a favorite hypothesis, I always try to think of the best experiment for testing it.  [I] ask myself, ‘What’s the “killer experiment”?’  I’ve also learned the importance of perseverance, admitting when I’m wrong or need help, and thinking creatively.”

Finally, she includes a message for the program: “I feel like as a student of the BCMB program, I had many opportunities to learn to talk about my science and to evaluate others’ science. I have to say a big thank you to Rob Jensen and my lab mates during my time at Hopkins. It is because of our lab meetings, journal clubs, departmental seminars, and practice talks that I’m able to give a decent presentation pitched at appropriate levels, from young kids to advanced undergrads, and from my colleagues to the general public.”

-Tom Schaffer

2 thoughts on “Alumna Profile: Dr. Kara Cerveny, Assistant Professor of Biology, Reed College

  1. Pingback: BCMB News Profiles Kara’s Career « cervenylab

  2. Pingback: November Issue | BCMB News

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