Sylvia Durkin is a research assistant in the Laboratory of Evolutionary Genetics and Genomics at The Rockefeller University. Sylvia grew up in a small town in southern Minnesota, and, after graduating college, was eager to move to New York City and experience a large-scale lifestyle shift. Despite its obviously differences from Minnesota, Sylvia has grown to appreciate the commonalities and kinship between New Yorkers navigating the shared experience of “living in such a unique, amazing, difficult, eccentric city”. Sylvia describes her experience in New York as per the Tom Wolfe quote, “One belongs to New York instantly, one belongs to it as much in five minutes as in five years.”
In the fall, Sylvia will be relocating to Northern California to pursue her Ph.D. at U.C. Berkeley.
What’s your favorite thing about being a scientist? Did you always want to be a scientist?
“I love the creativity that comes along with doing research. Ultimately, all of us are searching for answers to the questions that interest us, and designing an experiment to test those possible answers is so cool! For me, a new result feels like an opportunity to hold a magnifying glass to the inner workings of our natural world and understand a little more about how the world functions around us. I did not know I wanted to pursue science until halfway through college. I didn’t know anyone who called them self a “scientist” growing up, and until recently I did not know that a career in research was an option. I think I always wanted to do something creative where I could solve puzzles and explore my environment, and I feel very grateful to have found a line of work that allows me to do that.”
If you could give one piece of advice to young scientists or students, what would it be?
“From a science prospective: Always follow your interests. Prioritize what fascinates you over what others deem as important and/or flashy. Your work will always be better and your pride in it stronger when you are truly excited by what you do. From a mentorship prospective: Know that your personal success and the success of your research are separate entities that do not reflect upon one another. Because scientific research can be wildly unpredictable, it is so important to have confidence in your scientific abilities that is not linked to the data you produce.”
Having present and compassionate mentors in my recent career has been incredibly helpful in giving me confidence to continue in science, and having those mentors be fellow women in STEM was similarly invaluable.
Have you ever made something explode or otherwise wildly go wrong in lab?
“Of course! I think all scientists have. It’s certainly a normal aspect of learning how to work in any lab. One of my favorite personal mess-ups was during college. I was conducting an experiment on water retention in two different frog species and assured my lab partner that I could clean the cages by myself. Fast forward 30 minutes to me frantically calling my professor and lab mates with about 5 frogs jumping around the biology department. We got all but one frog safely back in its cage. We gave up on finding the last one after several hours of searching.”
If you hadn’t pursued science, what would you have done instead?
“Interior design. I loved designing little houses when I was younger. I would use shoeboxes, popsicle sticks, shipping containers. Really anything that I could put miniature furniture and decorations in.”
If you were a lab animal/model organism, which would you be and why?
“While I’m certainly biased, I have to choose Drosophila. Beyond working with Drosophila in the lab, I’ve always had a fascination with insects. They are so much more complex, intelligent, and beautiful than the general public gives them credit for. They also play such vital roles in our ecosystems! Maybe I just like to root for the underdog…”
If the building was burning, what single item would you grab as you ran out the door and why?
“Slightly boring answer, but probably my lab notebook. I forget a surprising amount of details about the experiments I run, so it is truly an irreplaceable resource. Second would probably be some flies of my focal species. Wait they’re an invasive pest, so I would have to think about the ethics on that one a little harder.”