Deanna Montgomery, PhD

she/her/hers

Where to find her! 

Education:

  • Chemistry major, math and Bible minors at Houghton College – Houghton, NY 2014
  • PhD in Medicinal Chemistry, University of Michigan 2019

Current job title: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, EECS Communication Lab manager

What experience first got you interested in science and is that field the same one you went on to pursue?

I think my story here is a little different than most. I really disliked science when I was a kid. Sure, I had a project here and there that I liked, but overall, I thought science was just boring memorization of facts. But I always loved math. It wasn’t until my high school chemistry class that I realized that science could use the same problem-solving and analytical thinking skills that I loved about math. I enjoyed and excelled in a class that most students found difficult and burdensome. I did some exploring in college before landing on a chemistry major. I chose to pursue medicinal chemistry because it offered a way to apply skills and activities that I enjoyed to real-world problems by working towards creating new medicines. Ultimately, it was my love of math that propelled me towards chemistry, and experiences during my PhD introduced me to science communication, the field I now work in.

Tell me about some people who helped or inspired you along the way, in your early training and later in your career.

The person who immediately comes to mind is my high school science teacher, Chris Schweiger. She is a fantastic educator and the person who showed me that science could be something that I enjoyed. 

I have also been fortunate enough to have many teachers and mentors along the way who cared for my development as both a scientist and a person. Among them, Dr. John Rowley and Dr. Karen Torraca, two of my college professors, and Dr. Hank Mosberg, my PhD advisor, particularly stand out. I believe that my success in college and graduate school, respectively, were due in large part to the holistic approach that each of these individuals took to answering questions and guiding me along my academic path.

The last person I want to mention is Dr. Jess Anand. Science is not done in a vacuum, and this is especially true in interdisciplinary fields like mine. My PhD project required me to learn a lot about the relevant biology, something I, as a chemist, had no background in. Jess, who was a postdoc when I started grad school and is now faculty, was instrumental in helping me learn. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anyone answer questions – both mine and those of countless other trainees – with more patience than Jess, and her excitement for science is contagious.

Can you tell me about any moments of doubt you had as a student or early in your career and how you dealt with it?

Ooh, where to start? The biggest period (“moment” feels too short) of doubt that I had was definitely during my second year of graduate school. Despite working on a project that I loved, I found myself working in a lab that wasn’t a good fit for me and for an advisor with whom I didn’t see eye-to-eye on much of anything. After a long period of personal and professional crisis, and with a lot of support from family and friends, I transitioned into a lab that was a much better fit for me. If it wasn’t for my new advisor, who took a chance on me, I might have given up on both my PhD and science entirely.

The second experience I’ll share is much less dramatic. Like with any major life transition, I had a few doubts about moving across the country to start my current role. All of my interviews for this position were via phone and video call, so I accepted a job at MIT without ever having set foot in Cambridge. When I stepped into my manager’s office on my first day of work and she greeted me excitedly with, “You’re here! Can I give you a hug?”, I knew I was in the right place.

Can you share two or three surprising twists or turns in your early scientific training and your later career path.

If you had talked to me during my junior year of college about what I was going to do when I graduated, I likely would have told you, “I don’t know what I *am* going to do, but I’m not going to grad school.” Fast forward to spring of my senior year, and I seem to be out of town every weekend, visiting a different PhD program, landing at the University of Michigan that fall. The summer between my junior and senior years, I participated in an REU (Research Experiences for Undergraduates) program at the University of California, Davis. This was my first real taste of both large-scale research and medicinal chemistry, and the professor I worked for that summer went a long way towards changing my opinion of what grad school would be like and whether it was for me. I also took a specially offered class in medicinal chemistry during the fall of my senior year, which solidified for me that it was the field I wanted to pursue.

When I started my PhD, I was convinced that I was going to work in the pharmaceutical industry when I finished. As it turns out, I never even applied for a job in pharma. During grad school, I discovered a passion for science communication and did a lot of work with an organization called RELATE, which trains scientists and engineers to speak to non-technical audiences. After learning about many different options, I decided I wanted to pursue a full-time career that involved teaching these skills.

Can you give some examples of how you have incorporated your non scientific interests into your work.

I guess the most obvious answer for me here is communication. I’ve always enjoyed writing, speaking, acting, and the like. I love translating these skills to scientific tasks such as writing papers or giving talks, but I’ve also chosen a career where I can use them more directly. My job involves both writing and speaking, and I sometimes get to incorporate lessons and activities from acting and improv into workshops that I teach.

Other non-scientific interests, such as music, are things I have pursued alongside my work rather than incorporating them into my work. Participating in activities completely unrelated to my work (in moderation), such as playing the piano and singing in my church choir, is part of what helped me survive grad school and still helps me maintain a well-rounded perspective.

Is there some advice you could you share from your own experience to help someone with a science degree who is just starting off on their own career path.

The idea that you have to plan out every step of your career is a myth. While thinking about the future and having goals are both important, you really only need to know your next step. When I shifted to this perspective, it took a lot of the pressure off. If I tried something and didn’t like it, I knew I could try something else. Ten years ago, I never could have dreamed of where I am now or how I got here. I’m no longer naive enough to think I have any real idea of where the next ten may take me.

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