An interview with Eileen Collyer, PhD
By Ankita Patil
Dr. Eileen Collyer has had a colorful research journey prior to joining the department here at Drexel. After completing her PhD studies in Chile, she did her first postdoctoral fellowship at the University of California San Diego (UCSD). She is currently a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Dr. Veronica Tom.
Ankita Patil: What was your path in science prior to coming to this department?
Eileen Collyer: I did my undergraduate and PhD studies in Chile, at the same university. I started in ecology, then moved to physiology, and finally neuroscience. When I started my PhD, my adviser was working on peripheral regeneration. They needed a model of central non-regeneration, so he gave me a paper on SCI (spinal cord injury) and asked, "Can you do this?" And I said, "Sure!" even though we had no idea what we were doing. Nobody was studying SCI in Chile, but serendipitously, I ended up going to the Spinal Cord Injury Training Program at Ohio State University. It was an amazing three-week boot camp where you learned how to perform surgeries, behavioral tasks and analysis, and also meet the SCI community. This opened up a lot of avenues for my thesis and I ended up working on Wallerian degeneration in collateral sprouting after injury.
I then secured a position in Dr. Mark Tuszynski's lab at UCSD. Again, this happened by serendipity. He (Dr. Tuszynski) was coming to Chile for a conference. I emailed him but didn't hear back. So, I emailed a friend of mine who was in his lab and she told him about me. He was able to offer me an initial year of funding in his lab, on the premise that I could stay on if I found additional funds for after. I ended up staying in San Diego for 3.5 years studying stem cell-based rehabilitation after SCI. I received a Wings for Life grant but when it ended, there was no other funding available for me in the lab and I had to look for other opportunities. Veronica (Dr. Tom) had an open position. We met and I was invited to come to Drexel. At the time, I actually had two options. The other option was a staff position, which meant more money, but when I came to Drexel, I fell in love with the group, the environment, the lab and chose that option instead! It's been two years (at Drexel), and I do not regret it. This department has an environment that is absolutely unique. I have never worked in a place like this, and I don't believe I will find something similar.
Your academic career has taken you into different research areas. Was there any overlap between the various projects you'd been part of over the years?
The main topic was always SCI, but there wasn't too much overlap in the hypotheses. The specific objectives were not the same but, at the end of the day, they were all in the context of injury, which is what I cared about. At the training program in Ohio, I was able to meet SCI patients, which was an eye-opening experience. There was one patient, a man a few years younger than me. When I asked him what would he want to be able to do again, I was naïvely thought he would say that he wanted to walk again. Surprisingly he said, "I want to be able to pee!" I had never thought about that, of all the everyday problems that result from SCI. Nowadays in developed countries, you can have a life in a wheelchair. It isn't easy, but it is manageable to some extent. The everyday little things are what make your life much harder. That thought has stayed with me, and I would like to continue researching in the field of SCI.
What are you currently researching in the Tom Lab?
My primary project is a collaboration between the Tom and Bethea Labs here. We are looking at the immune response after SCI. It is known that there is a depression in immune response after injury, but we are trying to understand what this actually means when an SCI patient experiences a challenge, like a viral infection. What does the depressed immune response lead to? How do different neuronal types factor into this? The Bethea Lab has multiple mice lines with different receptor knockouts that will help us identify which neurons or which cell types contribute to the aberrant immune responses that we know occur. We are also collaborating with Dr. Patrick Osei-Owusu on a project looking at the regulation of blood flow in kidneys after SCI.
Going further back, what made you want to be a scientist?
A couple of years before I finished high school, I had a special science class. It was basically one of those classes you took for credits. However, that year, they changed the teacher for the class and our new teacher was awesome. He really made us think. He gave us an issue of Scientific American and we would discuss articles in it, all of which I found fascinating. I was on a career path to dental school. You give a national test and you rank programs by your preference. I took the exam and put dental school as my first preference. I put biology as my second choice, which is what I ended up getting into.
First day of school, first class, and I was hooked. It was a Bio 101 class and we learned about abysmal fauna that lived in extreme environments, like at the bottom of the sea. That's what made me initially decide to study ecology! I did a summer project where I collected marine algae next to mining run-off sites. It was very interesting – we were mixing biochemistry with ecology, understanding how levels of contamination affected the algae. But then a position opened up in a physiology lab and I just decided to try it! So, I have worked in many different labs, on many different kinds of projects. And a lot of times it has been serendipity (again!), people offered me opportunities to come work with them, and I said, "Sure!" The same is true for the training program in Ohio. There were two sites that offered the program, one in Miami and the other in Ohio. And when I was researching, I clicked on the link for Ohio, because I had to pick one! And the moment I got there, I thought, "Wow, this is the place I have always wanted to be in!" The network I made there became references for a lot of my thesis work. And the next steps just seemed to follow!
As an international student, I definitely felt some culture shock when I first moved to Philadelphia. What was your experience leaving Chile to work in the United States?
That was a difficult decision. I knew that the research opportunities were better in the United States, but I was worried about the culture shift. But when the opportunity presented itself, to work with Dr. Tuszynski, I just decided to go for it! I was only guaranteed a year of funding, so I didn't think I would end up staying there for nearly four years.
Meanwhile, I had an entire life back in Chile – my friends, my relationship, job offers. My partner was in his PhD program at the time and couldn't move with me immediately. This was very challenging, but we wanted to work through it. Ultimately, he ended up moving away from the PhD track and into clinical trials, which was where his interests really lay. After our marriage, he moved with me to the States and got a job in clinical trials very quickly. We now have a young daughter (Sofia).
Sometimes I think about moving back home, but then I wonder, "Will I really fit in?" I have the feeling that I don't truly fit in here, I am a foreigner and I will always be. But I've lived outside of Chile for so long, I don't feel truly Chilean either. It's a strange sort of inbetween place to be. Somebody told me that it would take six months (after moving to a new country) for you to feel like yourself and two years before the new country felt like your home, and this was absolutely true for me. Everything was so different – the currency, setting up a bank account, applying for your social security number, even applying for credit cards! You are really lucky if you have someone working with you who can also explain these things to you. I didn't and so I took my concerns to the UCSD Postdoctoral Association. They asked if I would be willing to coordinate efforts to make transitions for international scholars easier.
Long story short, I reached out to an Argentinean postdoc at the Salk Institute, where they have an ambassador program to match new international scholars with someone of a similar cultural background who is already established there. It makes such a difference, even just having someone to speak to in your own language! I was able to use this connection to then create a database of postdoctoral fellows at UCSD so that we could also start this practice.
What has the experience of having to balance life as a scientist with being a new mother been like?
It's definitely overwhelming. As a new parent, you want to search for everything on Google. And as a scientist, you want to go even deeper into the searches! I realized how critical it was to have a network that understood these challenges. Luckily, I found a Facebook group for parents in the East Falls area. This led to me a few other groups for new parents in this area. Balancing parenthood with work can be tricky. My life has definitely changed! I have until 4 p.m. to do my bench work and then I have to go pick my daughter up from daycare. This means when I'm at work, I really have to make that time count! Long experiments have to be planned meticulously and in advance. I am more efficient; I know how much work I can get done in 30 minutes.
Do you have any advice for trainees who may be considering starting families during their graduate studies or postdoctoral training?
There's never a "good" time so if you think you are ready, just do it! And reach out, try to build a network and ask for help when you need it. Often enough, the advice you're looking for is out there, but it may not be very easy to find, especially when you're so busy and have to juggle these different roles. It is very rewarding, and it is very fun as well, but it's definitely something to make sure you feel ready for.