17 Questions with Alumna Dr. Caroline Hall, Flow Cytometry Field Application Scientist with ThermoFisher Scientific
A lot of my science influence came from my parents and relatives whose occupations and interests revolved around various aspects of healthcare. My mother was very career oriented as a public health officer in the United States Air Force and taught me to dream big. She used investigative medicine to follow infectious disease outbreaks and employ better global and public health policies and practices. At home I was encouraged to investigate, test hypotheses, conduct experiments and learn from results. Some of my earliest memories are of following my mother outdoors with insect nets in hand to catch various specimens, learn about their life cycles, observe their behavior, diagram and dissect their structures, and report my findings. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t fascinated by life.
2. Why did you pick The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio and your program?
I knew I wanted to pursue a Ph.D. in Immunology but I felt it important to pursue a multidisciplinary education given that the immune system involves a complex evolutionary response that spills over into cellular biology, microbiology, molecular biology, and many other fields of study. I looked for a program that approached biomedical sciences from a broad approach to equip myself with the background knowledge I would need to better understand and study something as complex as the immune system. Many schools offer seats in graduate programs where your course of study and research is done within a single department. Of the graduate programs I considered, it was the Integrated Multidisciplinary Graduate Program at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences that offered me the broader biomedical curriculum and training program I desired. During my first semester at UTHSCSA, I heard Dr. Ellen Kraig give a talk on the development, education, and life-long maintenance of the human immune response. Interested to learn more I interviewed to do a six-week rotation in her lab where I eventually spent the next four years of my research training studying the impacts of aging on the immune system in non-human primates.
3. Tell me more about your career path.
I had a rather unexpected career path. I pursued my Ph.D. because I wanted to study immunology and one day run my own lab. My graduate research in the lab of Dr. Ellen Kraig at UTHSCSA focused on studying the impacts of aging on the immune system and how immunological senescence diminishes the body’s ability to respond to newly encountered antigens. As a graduate student I learned many scientific techniques at the bench to help me answer the questions at hand, including flow cytometry. Flow cytometry analysis was an instrumental tool for identifying immunological differences across species, and understanding how naïve, effector, and memory T cell subsets become altered with age. Following graduate school, I accepted a position as a post-doctoral fellow in the lab of Dr. Kai Leung at the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research. While my research focus shifted to a more translational role, studying the wound healing processes and hypertrophic scar formation following a traumatic burn injury. I again found myself utilizing flow cytometry techniques to assess cellular functions and phenotypic changes in response to anti-scarring therapeutics. Utilizing flow cytometry in such diverse research projects, I became proficient in designing complex multi-parameter experiments, assessing DNA, intracellular and surface proteins, metabolic indicators, cytokines, and many other cellular targets. In an unexpected turn of events, I found myself spending a lot of time explaining flow cytometry to others, assisting with experimental design, or helping others to interpret data. I worked closely with other researchers involved in flow cytometry, including the UTHSCSA Flow Cytometry Core Facility, and found I was passionate about flow cytometry analysis. I was offered a position as a Flow Cytometry Field Application Scientist with ThermoFisher Scientific and found my calling. I see flow cytometry as an innovative application that is constantly improving and changing as the technology advances. I am passionate about bringing FC, which was traditionally an immunology application, to other fields of research. In my role as a Field Scientist I have the unique opportunity to be involved in dozens of research projects, providing hands-on technical expertise.
4. Tell me about your current career, what do you do?
I am a Flow Cytometry Field Application Scientist with ThermoFisher Scientific. As such I find my job description to be quite diverse. I give educational lectures and hands-on workshops. I’m a technical consultant; I help design experiments, run experiments, analyze data, and troubleshoot issues. As an expert in the field of flow cytometry, I’m expected to follow current trends in flow cytometry research, new applications, and innovative advancements in the technology. Continuing education is very important to me and is an important aspect to my current role as an Application Scientist. I regularly follow new publications, attend lectures and workshops, and participate in research symposiums.
5. What is a day like in your job?
My favorite thing about being a Field Application Scientist is that no two days are ever alike. My day-to-day role is constantly changing. I work remotely to provide support to a territory that currently covers 10 states and I’m part of a larger international team. This means I get to visit laboratories across the nation to provide training or other technical support. Whether I’m giving a seminar-style presentation, hands-on training at the bench, or providing expertise remotely, it’s never a dull day in the office. And as a remote employee, “the office” happens to be my home office.
6. How did the education you get at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio prepare you?
As a student of the Integrated Multidisciplinary Graduate Program at the UTHSCSA Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, I found the diversity of my educational background to be pivotal to my career path. It wasn’t just the coursework that was diverse, I found my technical training to be quite diverse as well. I worked in Dr. Ellen Kraig’s lab in the Cell and Structural Biology Department, but was a student in the Microbiology and Immunology Track. At that time I was only one of a few students in the M&I track whose research was almost entirely immunology oriented. And given that my research focused on immunological aging, I often participated in the Biology of Aging Departmental research symposiums. It was this broad educational background that helped me better understand how the various fields of research are inter-related and truly helped me to excel as a post-doctoral fellow and now as a Field Application Scientist with ThermoFisher Scientific. I provide support to dozens of laboratories across the nation, all of whom are conducting research in diverse fields, or who are involved in pharmaceutical, biotech, or clinical applications.
7. What is the most challenging part of your work?
I think the most challenging part of my work has been transitioning from bench research to applications support. I have so many different roles in my current job description, any number of which I might have to be in a single day. You have to be self-sufficient and know how to use your time wisely. As a remote employee I’ve had to learn to be able to work from anywhere, whether my home office, a busy airport, or a crowded café. Just because I had to fly to a different city to work today doesn’t mean my deadlines get pushed back.
8. What is the most rewarding part of your work?
By far the best part of my job is the rewarding feeling of helping others. Whether it’s teaching basic flow cytometry theory or troubleshooting complicated technical issues, at the end of the day I know I’ve impacted science for the better. And being engaged in so many diverse research topics I learn something new every day.
9. What has been your proudest achievement?
I’ll always remember the first time I presented a poster at a national conference, or my first publication, or my first grant that was funded, my first travel award, winning 1st place in the San Antonio Postdoctoral Research Forum…but my proudest moment hands-down, was my dissertation defense. I remember how I felt before and after I gave my defense. I was absolutely confident walking into it and I walked out of it knowing I had answered every question as thoroughly as possible. Going to graduate school outside of my home state it was often difficult to explain to my family what I was doing. Not only were my peers and the graduate school faculty present at my defense, my family and friends were able to attend and witness firsthand what I was doing and why it was important to me. As the first person to get a doctoral degree of any kind in my family, this was my proudest moment.
10. What would you tell a current student interested in your career? Any advice?
Don’t stress about things outside of your control. I remember feeling the pressure of publishing and brining in grant money all while working at the bench and trying to oversee other projects. Not to mention having a personal life in addition. It can be a lot of pressure, and in today’s scientific economy even the brightest among us may not be fortunate enough to be successful in the traditional sense. So define your own measure of success and don’t worry about how others measure it.
11. What do you like to do outside of work?
My husband and I relocated to Colorado this past year and I’m enjoying exploring my new state. I love being outdoors and try to hike with my two dogs as much as possible. I also love to travel and visit new places whenever possible.
12. Who has influenced you the most in life?
Definitely my mother. She not only raised a family with three kids, but she did it all while making a successful career as a Public Health Officer in the United States Air Force. She taught me to constantly question that status quo, to think scientifically, and to love life. I would not be where I am today without her continued guidance and influence.
13. If you were stranded on a deserted island, what one band or musician would help keep your sanity?
Just one?! I have too many favorites to only be able to pick one.
14. What do you consider your favorite hobby?
Luckily I get to do a lot of traveling with my job, but traveling recreationally is just the best. I love sightseeing and learning about new places. I love meeting new people and experiencing new cultures. Trying new foods or new activities will always create lasting memories.
15. What is your favorite quote?
I’ve always enjoyed these two quotes. I even had them hanging above my desk for several years when I was a graduate student.
“Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge.” – Carl Sagan
“Science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated. – Rosalind Franklin
16. If you could have dinner with one person, living or dead, who would it be?
I think Hedy Lamarr is one of the most fascinating people to have ever lived. She was a world famous actress, inventor, and spy! She somehow managed to lead a very public Hollywood life while simultaneously working as a secret agent. I would love to ask her about her experiences and what she would think if she knew that her inventions helped revolutionize our society today by bringing us GPS, WiFi, and Bluetooth technology. Also, I’d be curious to see what she ordered.
17. If you could travel anywhere, where would you go?
Outer space. It may not be in our too distant future.