“Beware of finish lines, and the importance you attribute to achieving a goal” With Dr. Carolina Tropini

Beware of finish lines, and the importance you attribute to achieving a goal. We tend to delay happiness until a given goal is achieved, but we rarely keep those victories alive within us; once we have surpassed them, they seem small and unimportant as we are already focused on the next finish line. Make sure […]

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Beware of finish lines, and the importance you attribute to achieving a goal. We tend to delay happiness until a given goal is achieved, but we rarely keep those victories alive within us; once we have surpassed them, they seem small and unimportant as we are already focused on the next finish line. Make sure you value and respect past victories as proof you can achieve your future goals.

As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Carolina Tropini.

Dr. Tropini is an Assistant Professor at the University of British Columbia in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology and the School of Biomedical Engineering. She is a Johnson & Johnson Women in STEM2D Scholar in the field of Engineering, a CIFAR Azrieli Global Scholar in the Human & the Microbiome Program, and a Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research Scholar.

The Tropini lab is investigating how the microbes that live in the gut affect our health during altered nutrition or concurrent with disease.

Dr. Tropini conducted her Ph.D. in Biophysics at Stanford University. Her studies in the laboratory of Dr. KC Huang combined computational and experimental techniques to investigate how bacteria grow. In 2014 she received the James S. McDonnell Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship Award and she joined the laboratory of Dr. Justin Sonnenburg at Stanford to study the microbes that live in our gut.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

When I started my Ph.D. I didn’t know what research topic my career path would bring me to study, but I was sure of one thing–I would never research microbes. I (erroneously) thought that bacteria were just harmful agents to human health, and, being so small, they were too simple to devote much attention to. At Stanford I took a class with a new Assistant Professor, Dr. KC Huang, who taught a beautiful class on classical experiments in biophysics. Dr. Huang is an excellent speaker, and the way he approached problems completely captivated my attention. I was looking for a lab to do my doctorate work in, so I looked up online his research and I was quite disappointed to find out that he worked on bacteria. However, he encouraged me to work on a project with him, just to try it out. The project investigated how bacteria are able to grow and sense their environment. The topic was challenging, delved deep in a world that was incredibly fascinating and largely untapped. As I was learning more about the project, I also realized that the ten trillion bacteria that live on and in us are essential to our health. I soon realized my mistake, joined the Huang lab, fell in love with the world of microbes, and never turned back!

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

When the pandemic hit in Canada, I was teaching an undergraduate class on the UBC campus and my group was actively conducting research. I remember telling my class on a Friday to get ready for classes to be moved online within a few weeks. That afternoon I received a notice from the University that in-person classes would be shutting down much faster than that — by Monday I was teaching online. That was an extremely fast transition, and I was really impressed at how resourceful and supportive the UBC teaching community was, and how seamlessly that transition happened, despite a weekend of scrambling! This fast switch to online teaching would have not been possible without the help and support from other UBC faculty members teaming up to find a quick and effective way to move our classes online. Our lab was also rapidly shut down, and it was really inspirational to see the UBC and world-wide research community coming together, sharing protocols, and findings about COVID-19, and working together to adapt to the pandemic.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When I was setting up the lab, we poured hours into checking every detail of one of the key pieces of equipment in the lab — an expensive anaerobic chamber where we can grow bacteria in absence of oxygen, which is the environment they experience in the healthy gut. We were constrained by the size of the chamber and had to remodel part of the lab to make it fit. We made careful measurements of the space available in our lab, and triple-checked them against the dimensions of the chamber we were purchasing. It took several days to set up the equipment, but once that was done, only about 5 seconds for us to realize that, unlike our previous chamber whose door opened outwards, the new system had a door that rotated directly into the wall, and thus would not fit. This experience taught me to leave no stone unturned!

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

I attended the University of British Columbia as an undergraduate student and I left with the goal of coming back after pursuing graduate studies, and I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to do so. The amount of discovery, support and mentorship I experienced at UBC during my undergraduate was the reason I wanted to come back. I never experienced a university that was more committed to undergraduate research, and for me it was a life-changing experience that eventually brought me to becoming a professor and leading a research group.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

In our laboratory we study how gut bacteria affect our health. Humans have over ten trillion microbes that live inside us, helping digest our food, producing vitamins, and helping regulate our immune system. Our microbes are akin to our fingerprint: they are unique to each one of us, and they are uniquely adapted to our lifestyle. We are so tightly linked to our microbes that 10% of the dry weight of maternal breast milk contains components that are not consumed by the baby, but rather by its bacteria. Mom produces these compounds in her milk even if she is malnourished, highlighting how important the correct establishment of the human-microbe relation is. From there on, babies that are exposed to more microbes via dogs, farm life, and even sucking their thumbs, are less likely to develop allergies and asthma: our immune system has adapted through evolutionary times to being exposed to microbes. By studying how our bacteria respond to changes in health, diet, or drugs we strive to develop a deep understanding of how changes in our microbes relate to our health. This perspective is beginning to guide personalized medicine by targeting the presence and abundance of specific microbes in each individual.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

There is more opportunity for women in STEM than there ever was, but there is still work to be done. Low women representation is an open issue for many STEM fields, including physics, engineering, computer science at the student level, and it’s a big issue across all STEM fields at the leadership level. To address this imbalance, we need to ensure that women, and, more generally, underrepresented minorities, feel welcome and encouraged in STEM.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

The biggest challenge faced by women in STEM and Tech is the lack of role models and female mentors. This problem extends beyond women to other underrepresented minorities, such as Black, Indigenous, people of color and people with disabilities. We need to make sure that our leadership and teachers represent the diversity of our communities. This can be achieved by hiring a more diverse pool of instructors and thought leaders, as well as by ensuring that women, minorities and all students have equal opportunities and support throughout their education.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?

“Women are less interested in STEM or Tech”, “Women are biologically less capable than men” are two of the myths that I want to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. I grew up with the subconscious conviction that I was not as smart as the male counterparts in my classes, but that somehow, I managed to do as well in tests because I worked hard and knew how to write tests. It was my mentors, both men and women, that over time dispelled these myths for me and cemented in me the realization that increasing diversity in STEM is not only the fair thing to do, but that it makes science better.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Invest in people before investing in projects.
    An unhappy team struggles with productivity and focus. Motivated team members are curious, creative, engaged and drive projects themselves.
  2. Fail fast and don’t be afraid to re-invent yourself.
    High-risk projects should have a time-limit as not to devote an unlimited amount of resources towards them.
  3. Request feedback, often.
    The further along you go, the harder it is to receive constructive feedback. It is up to you to make sure you know how you are doing with your team, not just with your supervisors. Gathering feedback is often done at a company level, but it is rarely done within small teams or in academic groups. Designing a feedback form with your team and gather anonymous feedback allows to follow progress over time.
  4. Promote your team and don’t forget to pass on well-earned praise.
    Keep the morale high by giving honest and specific praise.
  5. Beware of finish lines, and the importance you attribute to achieving a goal.
    We tend to delay happiness until a given goal is achieved, but we rarely keep those victories alive within us; once we have surpassed them, they seem small and unimportant as we are already focused on the next finish line. Make sure you value and respect past victories as proof you can achieve your future goals.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

Build a diverse team and make sure everyone feels welcome and supported. Diversity, inclusion and equity are not only what is right to do, they make science better by providing different perspectives and novel ideas.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

Find mentors that will help you fulfill your potential. You need people that will not only support you, but that will also challenge you to be the best manager and leader that you can be.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

At every step of my career I have been lucky to have mentors who supported and championed me. One of these mentors is Dr. Mona Berciu, an outstanding physics professor who taught me undergraduate physics. Her passion, dedication and support were essential for me to realize the type of scientist I wanted to become. I will never forget how in one of her classes she told us that in the early universe heavy atoms such as carbon could only be made from supernovae, or star explosion. She reminded us that each one of us was partly made of stardust. Finding the beauty in the world around us and promoting women were two things Mona embodied and that really stuck with me.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

My team strives to give opportunities for underrepresented communities to learn more about science. We are involved in the NSURP program, an initiative to create rewarding remote summer research opportunities for BIPOC undergraduate students, as well as local programs to engage Indigenous communities in STEM. Lastly, I am part of the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Committee for my Department, where we are making change to ensure underrepresented minorities feel welcome, supported and engaged.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

We go to the doctor when something goes wrong, but preventative medicine is better than reactionary medicine. A healthy lifestyle including sleep, good eating habits and exercise goes a long way in ensuring we don’t need to fix our bodies and our well-being.

In addition, we need more kindness and unity for the well-being of our soul and society. Our world-wide community is torn apart over so many issues — we think we are close together because of social media, but in reality, we are as far apart as ever. We need to find ways for people with different ideas to spend time together, and experience first-hand that the very large majority of us have the same goals of health, happiness, caring and being cared for, despite different political leanings, background, or information at hand. If everyone reading this reached out today to an old high-school acquaintance, we would re-discover a bit of the humanity we are missing these days.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Be the change you want to see in the world.” It was attributed to Gandhi, but it’s unclear whether he actually said it himself or if it was paraphrased. If we all take part in leaving things better than how we found them, we can help keep our world beautiful and full of opportunities for generations to come.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Michelle Obama. Her “Let’s Move!” public health campaign encouraged a healthy lifestyle in children, which is something that we desperately need. She used her influence and popularity for good and progress, while being warm, accessible and an incredible role model.

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