Where you can find her:
- Twitter @cheerchemist
- LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/natalie-lafranzo/
- BS, Chemistry – Bradley University 2007
- PhD, Chemistry – Washington University in St. Louis 2013
Current Job Title: Vice President, Market Development at Cofactor Genomics
What experience first got you interested in science and is that field the same one you went on to pursue?
In high school, I became interested in forensic science and looked into bachelor’s programs in forensic science. However, I got some good advice that pursuing a chemistry major would be a more flexible option and allow me to go into forensic science or any other career path that sparked my interest along the way. I am grateful for this, because majoring in chemistry allowed me to change my area of focus throughout my education and career without hindering my progress. Chemistry is the central science, and everything I learned along the way has applied to the many scientific questions I have encountered.
Tell me about some people who helped or inspired you along the way, in your early training and later in your career.
I worked as an intern at a USDA laboratory in Peoria, IL while studying at Bradley University. My advisor at the laboratory was Dr. Girma Biresaw, who sadly, recently passed away. Girma treated me like a BS-trained technician while I was an intern, and I mean this in a good way. Girma trusted my instincts, my autonomy, and showed me that if I could learn how to do anything I set my sights on. It was thanks to Girma’s support and advice that I knew graduate school and advancing my career in chemistry was the right path for me. Dr. Kurt Field, who was the Chemistry Department Chair at Bradley was also instrumental in my success. This is because he fully supported my interests and life outside of the lab/classroom, specifically being a NCAA D1 college cheerleader. Where many other academics have criticized or even mocked my passion for cheerleading, Kurt was on the sidelines of many Bradley Basketball games cheering me on. Students bring their whole selves to science, and the best mentors help show them the value of authenticity. Finally, within my volunteerism for the American Chemical Society I’ve met countless other volunteers who give their time and energy to mentor and serve others. There’s too many to name, but they inspire me daily as well!
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?
I mentioned earlier how not everyone was supportive of my interests in both cheerleading and chemistry. During a graduate school visit, I had a professor who enquired how, “As a cheerleader, how did you become interested in chemistry?” as if to imply that these are mutually-exclusive. There were other folks who questioned my decision to attend graduate school, because I had diverse interests outside of the laboratory. So, to be honest, I wasn’t sure if I was going to cut it. But, I am stubborn and solving problems in science is fulfilling to me. Having other interests, including coaching cheerleading and volunteering with ACS during graduate school, provided moments of reprieve when science was not working or a reviewer wanted another (!) experiment. Having friends and family who were there to listen and provide support, even if they didn’t fully understand the unique challenges of grad school, were also integral to my survival. As I transitioned away from the bench into the biotech industry and a business role, I had many moments of ‘imposter syndrome’. Thankfully, over time I have learned to trust my instincts and have found that the skills I learned in grad school are fully transferable into other disciplines, and into the business arena. The ability to distill down a problem to one salient question, and then to acquire, digest, and apply information you’ve found is integral to problem solving no matter the industry.
Can you share two or three surprising twists or turns in your early scientific training and your later career path.
The story I told earlier, about choosing chemistry in lieu of forensic science, was definitely a plot twist for my career. I had no idea the impact that decision would make on my future – in a positive way! I’d never have joined the American Chemical Society and become an active volunteer if I hadn’t become a chemistry major, and ACS has made an immense impact on my career and personal development.
Choosing to continue coaching cheerleading as a graduate student was also a leap of faith. I knew that I had the time management skills to balance undergrad life, but I was unsure of what graduate school would bring. Thankfully, I learned that having an outside life was an essential part of surviving graduate school, and transitioning successfully into the ‘real world’. Coaching also allowed me to become more connected to the University and local community, building a bigger network and stronger reputation as a leader, mentor, and professional.
Finally, the decision to leave the bench and jump fully into a business role immediately after graduate school was a significant change. I had major concerns that I would be ‘less of a scientist’ if I wasn’t working the laboratory. Or, that I couldn’t assert myself as a technical expert if I wasn’t the one executing the experiments. It took a few years to feel confident in my decision, but today I am certain that this path is the right one for me. I will always retain and leverage my identity as a chemist. Spending the time reflecting on what’s important to you and how to get there can take some time and mental energy, but it pays off when you choose the right path and can build a rewarding career that you are proud of.
Can you give some examples of how you have incorporated your non scientific interests into your work.
As a graduate student, I participated in a student and post-doc run consulting group called the Biotechnology and Life Science Advising (BALSA) Group. In this organization, we partnered with both startup and established companies in the St. Louis region to provide short-term consulting work. In this role, STEM students executed market research, determined market entry and product-market fit, as well as cost analysis, company valuation, pricing, and exit strategy recommendations. It was a crash-course in applying our technical knowledge to business training. And, the inverse also happened. The business knowledge I learned through these experiences made me look at my science differently – I was more eager to understand how what I’d observed or discovered in the laboratory would be applied in a commercial setting.
Within my role as a cheerleading coach at Washington University, I had many, many STEM majors on the team. It was fun to see the connections they made between cheerleading and science. Over the years, I’ve used physics to explain proper technique and skill progression, linguistics and group dynamics to explain team building and trust, and how communicating effectively with people from different backgrounds is essential to team success. In return, I had the opportunity to try out different leadership styles, and learn hard lessons in a safe and trusting environment with plenty of opportunities for candid feedback!
Is there some advice you could share from your own experience to help someone with a science degree who is just starting off on their own career path.
We need creative, driven people in science. Even if you struggle with chemistry, math, or any part of the discipline you’re pursuing…don’t give up. If you are passionate, innovative, and resilient you can make an impact in science, even if it’s not ‘easy’ for you. For a project or a discovery to be successful, we need many different types of people to contribute to the work. If you know you’re willing to put in the time and effort to be successful in the lab – do it. Don’t let anyone tell you differently. That said, you don’t need to spend your entire career in a laboratory to make immense contributions to the world through science.
If you’re feeling stuck, or unsure of your next step, reach out and look for mentors who can help you find the path that will be most rewarding for you. The American Chemical Society has a team of Career Consultants available to our members, and we’re always eager to help! Do what makes you happy and fulfilled, not what others expect of you.
Link to Career Consulting: https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/careers/personal-career-consulting/career-consultants.html