By Ankita Patil
Dr. Tom is an associate professor at the Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy and has been here for 14 years. She started her career in the department as a postdoctoral fellow in Houle lab. Dr. Tom now runs her own laboratory where she studies various aspects of axonal regeneration and plasticity after spinal cord injury. Although she initially aspired to become a Supreme Court Justice, it did not take her too long to fall in love with research.
How did you come to join our department at Drexel?
I joined the department when John Houle was recruited, back in 2004, but we didn't come here until 2005. I did my graduate work with Jerry Silver in Cleveland, and my postdoc with John when he was still in Arkansas. John came to visit Drexel and they recruited him. When he decided to move here, I moved with him. I had only been in his lab for about 2 months before he decided to move, so I started at Drexel as a postdoctoral fellow.
What was the department like when you first joined, and how has it changed in the years since?
When I first joined, Marion Murray was still here full time, Itzhak Fischer was chair, and John was brought in to head the Spinal Cord Research Center. Our lab had collaborations with Gianluca Gallo since we shared a hallway; I interacted with the Gallo lab a lot. Some personalities may have changed but I think the culture has stayed the same—very collegial and collaborative. I collaborate with Peter Baas and others, and that's not atypical for this department.
What is your favorite thing about working in this department?
By far—and I tell this to students when I'm doing interviews—it's the friendliest department I've been in. I was very happy in other places I have been in, but it's very friendly here, open to collaboration and helpful. You hear horror stories about competitive workplaces, but I haven't personally seen that here. In a lot of places, labs work on their own, but that isn't the case here; everyone helps each other with their research. Some people may think twice about that division of time, but here it's about the overall development of the department.
Did you always know that you wanted to be a scientist? What helped shape your decision?
I was actually just telling my kids that when I was young I wanted to be a lawyer. My aspiration was to be a Supreme Court Justice. Then it changed, and I wanted to go to medical school. When I worked in research labs in high school and in university, I really knew I wanted to go the research route, to figure out answers to questions. I like the lab setting and culture. I know it's not for everyone; there are people who are perfect for medical school, or perfect as lawyers—everyone has to match up with their interests.
Academic research can often be frustrating/tedious. In moments like these, what drives you to carry on?
Just knowing that that's part of it, that's part of science. Everyone wants it to go perfectly and to work the first time, but that often isn't the case. It's a learning experience and all part of the process. Something could go wrong, and then you have to revisit and work your way through it.
What was the motivation for your pursuit of research on axonal regeneration and plasticity?
Where I went for college, there was a strong neuroscience program, but a lot of it was systems-based, a lot of vision and audition. I took a developmental neuroscience course and part of the focus was on regeneration in the nervous system, which I found fascinating. That's how I decided I wanted to study axonal regeneration. One of the model systems for this field is the spinal cord. Spinal cord injury is a challenge and a bit different from injury to the brain. When I was looking for graduate school, I was looking for labs primarily focused on spinal cord regeneration. And it went on from there!
What do you personally consider your favorite contribution to science?
Our research group is finding things that are exciting and get funded because the results are meaningful to the community. I think it's important that members of my group are doing research they like, experiments they enjoy and find worthwhile.
As a younger female PI with a family, how do you balance your personal and professional lives?
I think it's all part and parcel. There's no perfect experiment, there's no perfect person, and there's no perfect process. You have to roll with the punches and work with what the day brings. This is true for lab—whether experiments work or don't work, you build from there. The same is true for my children. I always tell them, nothing is perfect, you have to do the best you can, and maybe you need to change things on the fly. You have to adapt and be flexible.
Regarding the "leaky pipeline" metaphor in academia, what advice would you have for students who are unsure about balancing multiple roles?
I think the biggest factor is environment. I think in my case the hurdles were more self-imposed. You have to have a mentor who is supportive. When I was still a research faculty in John's lab, I also went through a period of difficult pregnancy. But John was very supportive. I had to stay home for a while, and even after that I was coming in on lighter schedules, writing from home a lot. It was important that people who were in positions of power were understanding and supportive. Finding and putting yourself in that kind of environment is important. The big issue with the pipeline is that if people want families, women are the ones who will actually bear children. They will need some time off, and they will have certain responsibilities that come with having a family. I was a recipient of understanding and support when I was in that position, so I try to provide that same space for my group now.
How has your role developed since joining the department?
It's very different. I used to do the experiments before and now I don't! I think the biggest shift for me, personally, was not being as hands-on with experiments. I do a lot more writing. There's a lot more administrative work. That's one aspect I think people aren't really trained to do. You manage people and budgets, and that isn't something that's discussed a lot during your training.
If you had to choose a different career path for a day, what would it be and why?
I'm still fascinated by Constitutional law, and I still think it would be cool to be a Supreme Court Justice for a day, definitely if it's a big, groundbreaking case. It's such a huge responsibility—nine people making some very important decisions. But there are other careers I can imagine being interesting. The other day, we were just talking about Rover going to Mars, and my son says he wants to build Rovers! And I thought that would be cool—to build something that you then send up into space! Being an astronaut would be cool too—provided they can bring you back to Earth and it isn't like the movie Gravity.
What is your top advice for students who are currently pursuing higher degrees in science?
Work hard, have fun and think about what you want to do. I like academia and it was perfect for me and my personality. But it isn't for everyone. It's about finding out what's the right fit for you. Adapt to your life situations, since priorities will change over time. There's no one answer or one way to do things.