Unique Scientist: Susanna L. Harris

Say hi to the outspoken mental health advocate Susanna L. Harris (She/her)! Susanna is a PhD candidate at the University of California at Chapel Hill (@UNC) in the USA!

What kind of scientist are you?
I’m a microbiologist who studies how bacteria stick to plant roots! My PhD thesis research is focused on learning how “good” bacteria can form relationships with plants, which can help the plant to grow under different stressful conditions.

What made you want to become a scientist?
Honestly? I just think it’s really cool. I’ve always loved trying to figure out puzzles and learn how things work by pulling them apart or reading. Especially reading. When I read about bacteria and viruses, I was hooked – how cool is it that we are COVERED in tiny organisms with their own agendas, but that we are dependent on them for so many things?!? Microbes are the best.

What makes you a #UniqueScientist?
A #UniqueScientist is anyone who leans into the parts of themselves that differentiate them from what society tells us a “scientist” should be. For me, I talk openly about my struggles with mental illness. Social pressures tell me that I should hide my struggles with my own mind, because maybe that indicates I am not fit to be a professional thinker. I disagree – my challenges bring along a perspective that is different from others’ and can be helpful in making science more accessible and relevant for people in similar situations.

“A #UniqueScientist is anyone who leans into the parts of themselves that differentiate them from what society tells us a “scientist” should be.”

Susanna L. Harris

What’s something cool you do outside of work?
I love exploring through food – whether it’s in my own kitchen or halfway around the world. I consider cooking to be my form of self-exploration and expression, and experiencing other cultures through food can be amazing, beautiful, and even scary. Like reading a good book, eating an amazing meal can be like stepping into a different life for a moment.

If you had one wish and could change anything in science, what would it be?
I wish we would stop teaching “facts” and focus on the process of critically evaluating problems through logic. Facts are always changing, but the scientific method can help us adapt and learn much more quickly. The internet is full of all human knowledge but not the ability to interpret it or even decide which parts are useful. We need to learn how to ask questions and pursue answers, not just regurgitate them for tests.

“I wish we would stop teaching “facts” and focus on the process of critically evaluating problems through logic. Facts are always changing, but the scientific method can help us adapt and learn much more quickly.”

Susanna L. Harris

Who has inspired you the most in your journey to where you are now?

My dad taught me to ask questions, my mom taught me to persist through hardships, and my high school science teacher (who had her PhD) taught me to pursue and consume knowledge like learning is the most fantastic thing in the world – she is right.

Let’s end on a high note! What’s something you’ve done this week that you’re proud of?
I’m really proud of finding ways to live my dream of traveling while doing work that I feel makes a difference in the world. This week, I’ve been a speaker on the Mental Health panel at ComSciCon in San Diego, California, talking about my work with PhD Balance (@phd_balance) to improve visibility and support for mental illness in academia. A few days later, I traveled to Glasgow, Scotland to meet with amazing scientists around the world at the MPMI (Molecular Plant-Microbe Interactions) meeting and show off my research on a poster. I’m so fortunate for these opportunities, many of which have come through hard work.

#WomenInSTEM, #QueerInSTEM, #PhDBalance

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