Karla Terrazas shares her thoughts about working at the cutting edge of science and technology, and finding a graduate programme.
This post was sponsored by the Stowers Institute
Since childhood, Karla Terrazas has wanted to be a teacher. While an undergraduate at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA), she tutored students in maths. “I like maths, and I enjoyed helping them like it, too,” she says. During her senior year at UTSA, when she was an undergraduate summer intern in the lab of developmental biologist Marianne Bronner, PhD, at Caltech in Pasadena, California, Terrazas became intrigued with experimental science.
Encouraged by Bronner, Terrazas visited the Stowers Institute for Medical Research in Kansas City, Missouri. Impressed with the research campus, faculty, and basic biological research programs, Terrazas applied to its graduate school, and was accepted. She is now in her third year.
In her PhD research, Terrazas is investigating the roles of several genes involved in craniofacial birth defects in the lab of Paul Trainor, PhD.
How would you advise someone considering a graduate programme?
Before applying, take some time to work on a research project in a lab without the pressure that comes with being in a graduate programme. To gain a lot of research experience, try to find an opportunity that lasts for an extended amount of time. If you’re an undergraduate, you might even consider taking a semester off to really explore a research experience. Summer internships are great, but they tend to be very brief and are usually very structured, which limit a researcher’s ability to go where the science takes them.
What were some influencing factors when you were evaluating graduate programmes?
During my visit to the Stowers Institute (pictured right), my meetings with researchers were more like scientific conversations than job interviews. I was attracted to the collegial environment which creates a great sense of community. I was also looking for a supportive environment to pursue the kinds of experiments I was interested in and that would allow me to make a real impact. The Stowers Institute’s core facilities and other scientific support help make this possible. In addition to being equipped with state-of-the-art technologies, the support teams are staffed by exceptional scientists.
What advice can you provide to people interested in applying to graduate programs regarding location?
My first piece of advice would be to make sure to spend a few more days in that destination other than your interview, if possible. Tour the city and look for activities you would enjoy doing outside of research. I love to dance to Latin music and I found a studio and a great community for salsa dancing. This is where I go to have fun and de-stress. Finding a balance between work and social life is key.
What was it like for you to move to the Midwest?
Like many people, I thought Kansas City would not have much to offer. Surprisingly, during my first visit, I changed my mind. I enjoy having all seasons here. I am in awe of the fall and spring colours. My first weekend here, I went to an art show, and a couple of entertainment districts, all of which showed me the variety of events and fun activities Kansas City has to offer. Although the city mattered, the programme at the Stowers Institute made the decision for me. The science and the facilities were like no other I looked at. After several other interviews, I realized this was the only place to be.
What has been your biggest challenge as a predoctoral researcher?
My biggest challenge has been managing my time, which seems like a common challenge. In addition to planning and conducting experiments, I have papers, grants, and a thesis proposal to write. When I leave the lab at night, I often feel that I should stay and work another 12 hours. My PhD mentor has given me great advice about leading a more balanced life, and I’m trying!
What stands out to you about research at the Stowers Institute?
The support services are incredible and allow researchers to spend their time thinking about and conducting experiments. When my mouse embryos need to be sectioned, I can partner with the histology group to get the work done faster. When I need help designing new experiments, I can work with the core facilities experts to design the optimal conditions.
Also, we have an on-site supermarket of science supplies, called the Cube, which contains items that otherwise would take days to receive through standard purchasing and shipping or would take days to make. Coffee and tea are available and free 24/7 in the Stowers Café. Getting free coffee any time of day plus spontaneous chats with colleagues around the espresso machine are great perks.