STEMinist: Clara Malouines

All photos provided by Clara

All photos provided by Clara

STEMinist is our interview series aimed towards women in STEM fields who are engaged in some form of research. We want to highlight the projects and skills of women in science and hopefully encourage more women to enter STEM fields.

1. Tell us a little bit about you, your background, and your field of interest.

I am a grad student in Biology, more specifically in the Ecology, Evolution and Behavior program at UT Austin. The name of the program summarizes pretty well the areas I am the most interested in, and my specific work is with insects. I’m from France, I did my bachelor there in the university closest to my home and then went to a very good (and hard!) school in Paris for my master. Since I’ve always loved traveling and discovering new cultures, I lived abroad several times during my undergrad and master through academic exchange programs and internships.

2. What got you interested in STEM? Did you always want to be in this field?

As far as I remember I always loved scientific subjects the most and knew I would go in that area. Already in middle school that was not a question for me, and this was not because of any parental pressure but really my interests. I did not know which part of science to go to though, I just found it all very interesting and it always made sense to me as I have a pretty logical mind. In France you have to choose your specific major right at the end of high school, and have to start your undergrad all from zero again if you change later on, so that’s a big decision. I knew I wanted to do research but I really liked both math and biology so it was very hard to pick between the two. I even applied to both programs so that I would have a few more months to decide. Finally I went with Biology but because of the way things are in France, my parents really encouraged me to do either an engineering school or medicine school. Going with the ‘regular’ university path in France is considered the default because anyone can get in whereas other paths are very selective. Since I was a very good students, my parents convinced me not to do the university.

Despite loving science, I also always knew I definitely did not want to be an engineer or go to engineering school ( I might have been a bit prejudiced against it from seeing engineers always in formal outfits and from my dad, an engineer, always telling me when I asked about his day that he did meeting and phone calls, which sounded super boring to me). So I went with medicine school with the idea of doing research in that field. But it only took me a couple of months to realize I did not like it, and as much as I can work a lot on what I like, I am really bad at working hard if I am not motivated by what I do. So I decided to switch to the university path, which I honestly should have been doing from the start. 

The second semester of this first year, I took the equivalent of what is called here ‘intro bio II’ class, and everything became clear to me. Before that, I knew I wanted to do research in Biology, but I did not know which specific area. When I learned for the first time about speciation, evolution and the diversity of life I literally fell in love with those topics and had a specific long term goal in mind – that is pursue bachelor, master and PhD in that field so that I could work as a researcher on some of those topics.

During summers I did various internships, including my first one being a volunteer opportunity in a research station in the desert of Arizona. The internships working with various organisms made it clear to me that insects were what I wanted to focus on. This preference was also coming from what I learned in my courses of how diverse and fascinating these animals are. At first I was drawn to insect with the topic of reproduction and sexual selection, but I then went into the ecology of insects laying their eggs into other insects to complete their life cycle, as well as got interested in the fascinating biology of social insects and am now focusing of how fire ants defend themselves against viruses.

3. What are you researching right now?

I am still on the stage of developing my proposal, meaning that I am defining what specific topic and experiments I want to do for my dissertation. I am focusing on fire ants – which I am sure you know if you live in the South! But what you may not know is how cool they are! Some colonies have one queen, while others have many. With this distinction comes a lot of differences in the ecology and behavior of the populations, for example multiple queens colonies are less aggressive than single queen ones, can accept workers from other colonies (which a single queen colony would NEVER do!), have workers which are more genetically diverse within the colony, etc. This in itself is super interesting, but I am also interested in the viruses that infect insects and how insects defend themselves from them. We know a lot about insect immune response to bacteria or fungi, but when it comes to viruses we don’t have as clear general information yet. Besides, ants are social organism, meaning that individuals are much more in contact with each other but also that most individuals are workers who don’t reproduce. This strongly impact the co-evolution of pathogens and their hosts. Finally, very few ants are known to have viruses infecting them, so the knowledge in this area is very scarce. So my goal is to look at how ants immune response work against viruses, how being social animals impact this immune response, and how having one or multiple queens (and the associated behavioral differences) in the colony also makes the virus more or less able to spread or allow the ants to have better or worse immune defenses.

4. What is the most exciting thing you’ve learned doing research?

That whenever you answer one question it just opens up so many more questions… Also that what most people consider ‘animals’ or ‘life’ is just such a tiny part of it. There is so much more in nature, so much diversity, complexity and understanding why the world is the way it is and evolved across huge amount of time are all definitely very fascinating and exciting things to me. Or more briefly, being part of the human timeless efforts to learn more about what is around us and understand the world.

5. What are some challenges you’ve faced? 

Early in my studies, making a choice that may not be what my parents or people around me expected of me, more precisely going through the university path instead of something more selective as explained earlier. My dad was quite unhappy about that and made it clear for a while, but that was nonetheless one of the best decisions of my life since that led me to the class where I learned about evolution for the first time and discovered a passion for it. Also I now know that it is important to enjoy the process as much as the end goal, so I am glad I did not stick to a study path I did not enjoy much even if I could potentially at the end have done research anyway.
So whatever your parents or society expectations are of you, go for what you want. If you cannot get it one way (like you don’t immediately get into the best university or you don’t have the funding for it, or whatever it is), find an alternate route to do what you enjoy. Don’t let outward pressure changes your personal career decisions. You won’t regret going for what you want and giving it a full try, whether it eventually works out or not. You will however regret not trying because of fear or comfort and asking yourself for years “what if I had gone for it?”.

During grad school, I find that there are a few major challenges:

- The work you do has a very broad and very long term goal, so you can easily feel a bit lost as to whether what you are doing is constructive for the whole project or if you are going the wrong way. I don’t have a solution or advice on how to work with that difficulty yet!

- Research has very little short term rewards, or even rewards overall. Most supervisors, and later on people in academia, are not very generous in compliment giving. So it’s easy to get discouraged. The best is to be aware of it so that you can congratulate yourself for small steps and learn not to rely too much on external gratification (I’m still working on that too!).

- You are expected to work all the time, whether or not that works with your personality and emotional health. Also, other people always seem to be able to do it all and have free time on top of it while you might feel like you’re struggling. Regarding that last point, remembering that ‘seem’ is very different from ‘is’ can help. But overall, the best is to focus on yourself, define what you want for yourself and how much work-life balance you need, without comparing yourself to others. Find friends with who you can be real and vulnerable and know that they are too so that you can share and enjoy your ups and downs together.

- Research can be pretty lonely. That was very hard for me my first year here, also because of cultural differences. So if social interactions are important for you, just plan ahead by meeting a friend for lunch regularly, joining a writing group, living with roommates, etc. The best solution is different for each person, but know that you won’t get your social interaction from your actual work time like you may in some other fields. On the other hand, there are advantages to working alone. You do things the way you want and don’t have to settle down for what a coworker would want when you have a different idea.

6. What advice would you give younger girls that are interested in STEM?

Besides the ones listed in the previous question, I would just add that you should go for it. Just do what you want. If you like STEM the most, then definitely do that. It’s about you, it’s your life. It may not seem like that when you are still very dependent on your parents and the opinion of your friends, but really what matters are your own choices. And don’t let outdated stereotypes about girls influence you. You are unique and you can only be you, so don’t try to fit in by being someone who is not your real self.