Allie Folcik (@theprettyphdblog) Interview

Interview #6

Allie Folcik @theprettyphdblog

  • PhD candidate in Toxicology

  • Blogging about Life + Science

Allie is a PhD Candidate at Texas A&M University studying Environmental Toxicology. She completed her undergraduate studies at Florida Institute of Technology in Biochemistry with a minor in Sustainability in 2017. She found the field of Toxicology when she completed an internship with the National Center for Toxicological Research (NCTR) under the FDA. Her current research focuses on using a form of ionizing radiation called electron beam (eBeam) technology to clean up water that is contaminated with toxins produced by harmful algae and bacteria. She also writes a blog called, “The Pretty PhD Blog,” which combines lifestyle and fashion blogging with science communication. She hopes to show women that they are capable of being both beautiful and smart and to encourage them to pursue their passions.

What is your job? (Also, what project are you currently working in at your lab?)

My current job is as a Doctoral Candidate and Research Assistant at Texas A&M University. I also write a blog called, “The Pretty PhD Blog,” which combines fashion and science. 

My project that I am working on is focused on removing toxins produced in harmful algal blooms from water supplies. I’m sure you’ve seen lakes that are covered in green goop, right? Well, these blooms are actually due to algae or cyanobacteria that grow out of control because the water has a lot of nutrients in it, or is warmer than normal. A lot of times these blooms produce harmful toxins that can hurt humans and animals if they are exposed to them. I specifically work with a type of cyanobacteria called Microcystis aeruginosa that produces a liver toxin called microcystin. 

The goal of my project is to use a special technology called electron beam (or eBeam) technology to break apart the microcystin toxin, and to prevent the cyanobacteria from producing any more toxin. This is important because we use these lakes as sources for our drinking water that comes out of our tap! If this water contains toxins or bacteria and is not treated correctly, it could make people sick.

What is your favorite part of toxicology? 

My favorite part of toxicology is that it combines a bunch of different types of science! In toxicology you use chemistry, biology, public health, and even engineering sometimes. I also love that toxicology is always trying to address real world problems. For example, there are many toxicologists working on developing a COVID-19 vaccine right now.

Who were your role models growing up?

Growing up my role model was always my dad. He was in the Air Force and an engineer. He always told me that I could do anything I wanted to and always supported my love of science.

Tell me about your journey in science communication!

I started my blog at the beginning of 2020 as a creative outlet from all my technical work that I do for my job. But, it has already become so much more than that! I quickly realized that a lot of people are interested in science but either don’t know where to find information or the information available is not understandable to those not in the science field. 

There is a lot of distrust in scientists from the public because scientists are notoriously poor at communicating what they do. I hope that with my blog and my involvement in science communication, that I can help bridge the gap between technical science and everyday life. 

I also hope that by combining fashion and lifestyle with my science communication content that I can show girls and women that there are no boundaries as to what you can do. The stereotype of a scientist is often the madman who wears a white lab coat and doesn’t ever leave the lab. That is just so untrue! I have so many inspirational beautiful science ladies around me showing just how untrue that is. Just because you want to be smart doesn’t mean that you can’t also be fashionable, or follow whatever other passions you have!

Getting involved with science communication has actually changed my outlook on what I want to do with my future career after I finish my PhD. I think there is so much work to be done to make science accessible and I would like to be a part of it!

What are some traits a science communicator needs? Any advice?

I think a very important trait for a science communicator is to be able to listen and engage in conversation. People are much less likely to understand or believe what you have to say if you just recite them a fact. Instead, you need to encourage them to ask questions and share their point of view.

What’s your message for young teens wanting to get involved in science communication?

Just do it! If you are interested in science communication, the best place to start is by doing it. This could be sharing science with friends and family, writing articles for your school newspaper, joining a group at school, etc. What is great about starting early, is that when you start getting more technical in your studies, you will already have a great basis for effective science communication.

A few tips for when you get started: First, make sure you always check your sources. Make sure where you get your information from is reviewed and not just an opinion. Second, always cite your sources! This way, if people want more information, or question why you said something you did, you can point them to the source. And finally, have fun with it! You can pick whatever topic you want to talk about that interests you, there are no boundaries.

We hear you have a blog! What is it, and what do you write about?

Like I mentioned above, my blog, “The Pretty PhD Blog,” focuses on combining science communication and lifestyle/fashion blogging. Sometimes I write about science topics (like COVID19 vaccine research) and sometimes I write about how to style some fall outfits! What I really enjoy is when I can combine the two. For example, the last time I went to their hairdresser to get my hair colored, I wrote an article about how hair dye works in your hair. I try to make my articles interesting for both scientists and non-scientists alike.

How did you come up with your blog? What sparked you to begin one?

I came up with my blog as a way to get creative while doing my PhD work. I enjoy fashion and beauty but of course love science, so why not combine the two? 

What does your job involve? 

My job involves a little bit of everything!

A lot of the time I work in our lab doing experiments to understand how eBeam affects microcystin or cyanobacteria. This involves growing up cyanobacteria or human liver cells, working with the National Center for Electron Beam Research at Texas A&M to treat my samples, running lab assays, and analyzing data.

Another big part of my job is writing up papers after I finish experiments as well as reading scientific literature. Staying on top of the current science is important for understanding why my experiments work the way they do. Plus, I need to share my research with the scientific community so they can learn from me as well.

Finally, after I finish all my PhD work, I read up on other science topics so that I can effectively communicate them on my blog!

Did you ever want to do anything else?

I’ve always wanted to do some type of environmentally related science, but it took me a little bit to figure out what kind of science I wanted to do. I actually started in college as a Marine Biology major. I worked in a couple different laboratories at school and eventually found what I was most passionate about. The funny thing is, there are not many undergraduate programs in Toxicology. So, I completed my degree in biochemistry and sustainability before doing my graduate degree in Toxicology. Even since starting my blog, my career aspirations have changed a bit.

Moral of the story: don’t be afraid to try different things while figuring out what you want to do! 

huge thank you to Allie for joining us today! Be sure to subscribe to receive more STEM-related content coming to your inbox.

Jessica Zheng