Unique Scientist: Heather Macomber

Let’s welcome Heather Macomber (She/her) to our #UniqueFamily! Heather is working towards her PhD at the University of Chicago in the USA where she studies neurobiology!

What kind of scientist are you?
I’m a neurobiology PhD student at the University of Chicago, and I study how we learn, make good decisions, and form lasting memories. To figure this out, I watch mice run around in virtual reality video games, and use light to see how their brain activity changes with time. I can see about a thousand active neurons at a time in the hippocampus using this technique, which is a part of the brain we know is important for making and recalling memories!

What made you want to become a scientist?
As a kid, I read all the time. One genre I’ve always loved reading was science fiction, which is still my favorite today. This turned into reading popular science articles and books. I thought it was amazing that scientists could discover things no one knew before for a living. I remember when I was 12, I was trying to decide if I wanted to get a PhD in astrophysics or neuroscience, and remember my parents being bemused at the declaration (and somewhat surprised I knew what a PhD was). I was fortunate to have really supportive parents growing up. While neither of them are scientists, they encouraged my interests and made sure I could participate in various women in STEM programs as a kid, which I think helped grow my interests and protect against some of the negative stigmas.

“While neither of [my parents] are scientists, they encouraged my interests and made sure I could participate in various women in STEM programs as a kid, which I think helped grow my interests and protect against some of the negative stigmas.”

Heather Macomber

What makes you a #UniqueScientist?
Being a woman in science comes with a lot of challenges. I certainly don’t look or act like the stereotype of a solitary great (white, male) scientist, discovering things all on his own. I’m extroverted, friendly, and talkative, and sometimes it surprises people to learn I’m a scientist because of those qualities. Despite those systemic challenges, I also have a lot of privilege as a white, cisgender woman in a scientific field where there’s a pretty good gender ratio of trainees (although this falls off precipitously at more advanced levels). I want what a scientist looks like to expand beyond white men not just to white women like myself, but to people of all genders and ethnicities.

What’s something cool you do outside of work?
One big hobby I have completely unrelated to science is playing unreasonably complicated board games with friends. I make sure to take the time every week to socialize over games and catch up – there’s no way to get through a PhD without a supportive network of friends. I’m also a somewhat obsessive sci-fi nerd and love watching/reading science fiction, going to comic-con(s), and getting deep into the lore of a fictional world.

If you had one wish and could change anything in science, what would it be?
Making the whole enterprise more open, collaborative, and driven by a desire to figure out how things work. Critically, removing barriers to underrepresented groups is imperative to making science a more inclusive place for everyone.

“I want what a scientist looks like to expand beyond white men not just to white women like myself, but to people of all genders and ethnicities.”

Heather Macomber

Who has inspired you the most in your journey to where you are now?
I’ve been fortunate to have fantastic mentors who have supported me along the way. My undergraduate PI Randy Bruno and his fantastic graduate student Georgia Pierce were guiding mentors, formative in my development as a scientist, and helped me tremendously in getting into graduate programs. My current lab is made up of a diverse and talented group of people who work together collaboratively to tackle tough science questions, and I’m so lucky to be a part of the group. Outside of science directly, my friends (scientists and non-scientists alike) have been my biggest allies, and I couldn’t have gotten to where I am now without them.

Let’s end on a high note! What’s something you’ve done this week that you’re proud of?
Science-wise, I’m proud of how my project is going! I’m relatively new to the lab and still learning lots of techniques, but I recently had a group of mice where everything went right for the whole group, and collected what is probably my first usable data.


#WomenInSTEM

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