Hannah Chu Interview

Interview #7

“I'm a second-year PhD student in the Yamanaka lab studying insect puberty using fruit flies! More specifically, I'm interested in the interactions among the environment, insect hormones, and insect physiology. I want to know how changes to an insect's surroundings, such as fluctuations in temperature, can affect their hormones, which would in turn affect how an insect develops and grows up into an adult! In my free time, I care for over 25 house plants, my 4 year-old black cat, and many Madagascar hissing cockroaches. I also dabble in art on the weekends.”

What is your current job and what is the focus of your research?

I am currently a second-year Entomology PhD student at the University of California, Riverside. I study insect hormones and how these hormones affect their development and physiology. In simpler terms, I study how changing hormones in insects affect their puberty!

What was/is your STEM journey?

Growing up in New York City, I was not exposed to the amazing natural world. My heart was set on becoming a lawyer, especially because I did not do well in my science classes in high school. With this in mind, I decided to major in forensic science for my undergraduate degree because I could be a better criminal defense lawyer if I knew the science behind criminal investigations. However, in my second year, I was invited to join a research lab so I decided to give it a try. I joined a forensic entomology lab where we studied the factors that affect insect development, especially for insects involved in criminal cases. Here, I learned how to use insect age to determine the post-mortem interval, or the time since a corpse has been exposed to the environment. I started to wonder about the molecular basis of insect development, the biochemical interactions involved in insect maturation, and the effects of the environment on these internal interactions. I sought out research experiences in a few more labs and decided that I would like to further my scientific journey by completing a PhD.

What has been your experience as a PhD student? What are the ups and downs of graduate school?

Being a first-generation PhD student, the PhD application process, academia, and graduate school itself has been very new to me. Navigating the graduate school application process was quite daunting, but I was lucky enough to have undergraduate advisors and mentors who helped me through the process.

Something that comes up often in many peoples’ graduate school experience is imposter syndrome, which I often suffer from. Imposter syndrome describes a feeling of inadequacy in the position you hold. I often feel like I do not belong here and maybe I would be better off doing something else. To battle this way of thinking, I like to talk to friends who always tell me they feel the same way. I think usually the downs of graduate school are related to feeling like you’re not smart enough and that you’re not working hard enough, and feeling burnt out. But the ups of graduate school, like the people you meet, all the knowledge you acquire, and life experience you gain, I would say outweighs the negatives. Of course, this is different for every individual, but for me, I believe the ups of graduate school outweigh the downs.

When did you first realize you wanted to do STEM and more specifically entomology?

I realized I wanted to go into STEM after a few months working in a research lab. I really enjoyed the experimental aspect of science and coming up with innovative solutions to questions. I decided to focus on entomology because insects can answer so many biological questions. They are such a diverse group of animals that cover a wide range of varying biological processes.

Who were your role models growing up?

Oddly, my role model was the character Detective Olivia Benson (played by Mariska Hargitay) from Law and Order: SVU. When I was seven years old, I watched a few episodes of the show when the adults who had it on didn’t notice me in the room. Not only did I fall in love with the show, I was fascinated by the depth, intelligence, independence, and strength of Olivia Benson. She embodied the woman I wanted to be when I grew up. In real life though, my mom and dad were my role models because they gave up everything in China & Hong Kong to come here and work for a better life for us. I didn’t realize the sacrifices they made to support and care for us until recently.

Did you ever want to do anything else?

I wanted to go to art school for fashion, become a lawyer, thought about becoming a dermatologist, work in a crime lab...a lot of things! I have come to compromise with myself so my hobbies now include a lot of my interests.

Have you ever had any major setbacks (in STEM or otherwise)?

Yes, I was rejected from every single college I applied to, mostly because I applied to highly ranked colleges. At this point, the application deadline for local colleges had passed too, and I did not want to delay my education. Luckily, my guidance counselor and some connections at the local colleges and she was able to get me into one of them.

What’s one thing you’d like to change about the STEM community?

I would definitely like to change the lack of diversity and inclusivity in the STEM community. I’ve encountered sexism and racism in the community and it was very discouraging.

Is there a problem with sexism, racism, homophobia, and discrimination in general in the STEM community?

YES! I personally have experienced sexism and racism as I mentioned above, and it hurts, but it also made me commit to making changes in the STEM community. The systemic discrimination that persists is unacceptable and deters many people from going into STEM.

What’s your message for young teens wanting to do STEM?

Stay curious! Science isn’t all about doing experiments and seeing instant results. It’s all the failure and curiosity that keeps me motivated. There are so many things that we don’t know in science and that can lead to a lot of failed experiments, but persistence, resilience, and a constantly curious mind can push you so far.

What is your favorite science joke?

A statistician gave birth to twins, but only had one of them baptised. She kept the other as a control.

What is your favorite entomology-related science fact?

There is one species of “fruit” fly (Drosophila sp.) that lays their eggs on clumps of frog eggs and the larvae feed on healthy frog embryos. They’ve been nicknamed Frogflies!

What is your favorite food?

French fries!

What can be done to make STEM more diverse?

Being okay with being uncomfortable. Educating and talking about things like implicit bias, systemic racism, and elitism need to be regularly incorporated into courses, faculty meetings, and conferences. It’s so important to recognize the mistakes and not only apologize but strive to fix the issues in STEM. Also, I’d like to note that when issues related to diversity and inclusion do come up, it’s important for us to listen to those who actually face the obstacles. Oftentimes, people who do not have firsthand experience are the decision-makers and do not credit underrepresented groups for their hard work.

Has being a woman impacted your career in STEM? If so, how?

Being a woman in STEM, I’ve found that I’ve had to work harder to prove that I am worthy of being in the field. Unfortunately, this is what many women, LGBTQ+, BIPOC, and other underrepresented groups face in the field. A lot of the hard work was driven by spite, and although that may not be considered the “right” reason, it has taken me to places I never thought I would be! I’m grateful to all the people I have surrounded myself with who have been able to support me throughout the ups and downs of a career in STEM.

Thank you so much to Hannah for joining us!

Hazal Kara