Joyful Microbe (@justineldees) Interview

Interview #6

Joyful Microbe (@justineldees)

  • Microbiology educator (PhD)

  • Joyful Microbe Blog

  • Science writer

  • Writing a book

I have some free resources on my blog, the Joyful Microbe, for anyone interested in microbiology or science communication. These include microbiology books and blogs, tips to enjoy the microbial world, gifts for microbe lovers, science podcasts, and science communication information. You can find those at joyfulmicrobe.com/resources


What is your job?

 I have an online business that has two sides to it. One side is the science writing side, where I create clear, accurate scientific content that is also fun and engaging for life science businesses. I usually write blog posts and articles and other educational content. But I also help reshape articles and other content to make it more engaging and easy-to-understand for a broad audience.

The second side of the business is the Joyful Microbe, a blog about the microbial world where anyone can learn the coolest stuff about microbes, especially how they impact our daily lives. I love to write easy-to-read articles to help people better understand the microbial world, but I also like to provide resources and hands-on activities so people can enjoy microbes in their everyday life.

When did you first realize you wanted to do STEM?

I first realized that I wanted to go into science when I was in high school biology. Initially, I thought I wanted to be a cancer researcher. And so when I applied to college, I had that in mind as my future career goal. But that changed. In college, you take classes and start to be exposed to more topics. And it's incredible how a passionate and exciting teacher can change your perspective. That was the case for me. I had an extremely engaging microbiology professor. He told lots of stories from his personal experience in industrial microbiology, which opened up a new part of the world of microbiology and helped me realize I wanted to be a microbiology researcher instead.

Did you partake in any internships? What did you do, and what did they teach you? 

During my bachelor's degree, I did some undergraduate research. Before I discovered my love for microbiology, I still thought I wanted to be a cancer researcher, so I did an internship at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute in Tampa, FL, because I was going to school at the University of South Florida. It’s all on the same campus. That experience gave me a chance to see what being a cancer researcher was like, and it surprised me how nitty-gritty research was. It didn't faze me, but it was eye-opening because I was focused on one part of the cell cycle during the internship. It was also very overwhelming and confusing because the world of research was all so new to me.

And then, my other undergraduate research experience was in a microbiology lab after I discovered my passion for that area of science. It was an environmental microbiology lab that looked at the organisms in the water that indicate whether there's microbial contamination or not. And I learned more about the research environment and whether I enjoyed it. I got to see what it was like to work in collaboration with other researchers in the lab and how to read and understand scientific papers. I also learned some research skills that you don't learn when you're simply taking lab classes — it's an entirely different experience when you do your own research.

Real-world experience is essential. I wish I had known earlier in my undergrad how important it was to do undergraduate research. I was thankful for the experiences I had, but I didn't get into them until my last two years of college. I wish I had started from the beginning. So that would be my only piece of advice for anyone going into a STEM undergrad program would be to get into undergraduate research as soon as possible, whether you plan to go into a research career or not. You never know. You may enjoy it. You have no idea what it's like until you're there. Either way, it will help you understand how research works, which is essential whether or not you become a researcher. Also, it will look good on your resume.

What interests you in microbiology?

Initially, what interested me in microbiology was diseases and germs: how to cure diseases, find new antibiotics, and fight bacteria. And as I started to learn more about microbiology, I realized there's a lot more to it and, but my focus still was very much on germs and pathogens and thinking about how to fight them. Slowly but surely, I was exposed to more parts of microbiology: microbes in the environment, what they do there, and how we can use them in an industrial setting to help us in manufacturing products and even cleaning up oil spills. Those were the things that initially amazed me. But now I continue to be amazed at what microbes do to help us make food, add flavor, and preserve it. Also, it’s incredible that they produce antibiotics that we can use. But it's not just how they help us, but how they help the environment and make the world go round. They're invisible and yet they have this massive impact that we don't even really think about because we can't see them most of the time. So that's what I get excited about when it comes to microbiology.

What other personal projects do you have, and what are they? (Joyful Microbe - what is it, when did it start, what do you write about, etc.)

The Joyful Microbe, my blog about the microbial world, started initially as a personal project, but now I consider it as part of my business. It has given me a way to explore different microbiology topics, not just what I studied during my PhD and postdoc. In the research for your PhD and postdoc, you examine a particular portion of science — your research is laser-focused. So, the Joyful Microbe has given me the motivation to explore other parts of microbiology in-depth and to distill the information into articles. It's also given me a productive outlet to practice writing and science communication.

We see you’re writing a book! What is it, and who is it for?

It will be a book of hands-on microbiology activities that will help people to explore the microbial world in their everyday lives. Some may simply enjoy it for themselves, others may share it with their children, or some may share it with their students. So, it is for anyone who is interested in microbiology or is a microbiology educator. And that can be an educator at the level of a parent teaching their kids or a teacher teaching their students in lower levels up into college. The book is going to range from simple activities to complex activities. So, I am incredibly excited to share it. If anyone is interested and wants to get updates on the book, they can go to joyfulmicrobe.com and sign up for email updates for the blog, and that will also give you updates about the book.

Did you ever want to do anything else?

As a kid, I thought that I wanted to be a veterinarian. I've loved science since I was young. Then, I thought I wanted to be a cancer researcher before I focused on microbiology. And when I was in college, I considered the idea of starting my own business. So the fact that I have my own business now makes sense to me. But at the time, I thought it would be fun to open a tea shop. In Tampa, where I went to college, there was a wonderful tea shop called Kalaisia that sold loose leaf tea, iced and hot tea, and bubble tea. The best part was that they had a wall of tea where you could open up tins of loose leaf tea and smell them at your leisure. So, I thought it would be amazing to open up another one of those shops in a different location. But really, I always knew I wanted to go into science. Now I'm so excited to have my own business. It’s not a tea shop, which I’m honestly glad about, but it’s the perfect blend of my skills and passions.

What does being a science writer/communicator involve? 

Being a science writer and communicator involves considering your audience and the most effective way to communicate to them. When it comes to writing, certain principles apply to any audience, though. Those are your core writing skills. So, being a good science writer and communicator starts with being a good writer and communicator minus the science part. It’s crucial to hone those skills. And then the other layer to being a science writer and communicator is that you're dealing with complicated subjects. So, those writing principles matter even more because you're writing on something technical. But then you have to consider your audience and the type of language that you can use with them. What technical terms do they know? Then, you have to decide whether you will eliminate those words or define them. And that, once again, depends on your audience and the purpose.

Have you ever had any setbacks?

There were times, certainly, when I wanted to quit graduate school. I found it hard and frustrating, and at times I didn't feel like I was good enough. And so I tried to quit. I told my advisor, and, thankfully, he believed in me and discouraged me from quitting. The most challenging part was that I was dating my now-husband, but we lived in two different places. It was tough to do grad school while maintaining this long-distance relationship. So, I wanted to quit, get a job, have a normal life, and get married. I'm thankful, though, that I didn't quit, and my advisor encouraged me to continue. It was difficult but worth it.

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

I would like for people to quit trying to impress each other with their knowledge. I remember going into graduate school, thinking I was supposed to know everything, which seems very silly to me now. I felt embarrassed that I didn't know more than I did going into graduate school. But you are there to learn. So, I wish that that was more clear to students going into STEM fields. You are not expected to know everything from the start. I wish that more students felt comfortable with being in that learning state. 

Graduate school is a humbling experience. You realize that you know only a tiny portion of what is known. It also exposes you to the fact that it's okay not to know everything. We're scientists, so we’re meant to ask questions. It's okay to be confused and look to older students and advisors to figure things out. So get comfortable with the fact that you don’t know everything, and resist the tendency to hide it. 

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

In general, I recommend finding someone who knows more than you do, whether it be an older student, a grad student, or a professor to talk to, ask questions, and have as a mentor. Find someone willing to answer those questions that you feel is too silly to ask. 

If you want to go into STEM, I want to reemphasize that undergraduate research — real-world experience — is extremely important.

And for science communication, I also recommend getting real-world experience. You can write for an organization or on your own platform. Starting a blog is extremely helpful because you can write as often as you want to. And if you want to be a science communicator, especially a writer, you need to practice often to improve your writing skills. You won't necessarily get enough practice if you write articles for someone else. I recommend trying to write a new article once a week or even once a month. If writing is not the type of communication you are interested in, then you can seek out opportunities for public speaking or create videos on YouTube. Look for any opportunity that you can while you are early in your career to help you figure out whether you enjoy it or not. If you do decide to volunteer, I recommend volunteering for STEM field society organizations. Join those organizations, find someone in the communications department to email, and ask if you could write articles for them.


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

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Sci4Teens