Olivia Mullins, PhD

she/her/hers

You can find her on Twitter: @oliviajune82

Education:

  • Boston College 2004, Psychology with a concentration in Biology
  • University of Virginia 2012, PhD Neuroscience

Current Job Title: Science Educator & Executive Director

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

Science was always around me growing up. Before college I was most interested in math and thought I would be a math major. Freshman year however, I did badly in a math class while adjusting to studying in dorms. The poor grade made me feel I hadn’t learned math basics properly and couldn’t continue (now I know this was not the best way of going about things). I had also always been interested in human behavior and so became a psychology major. 

My junior year I took a neuroscience class as a requirement for that major and became fascinated by the idea that electrical signals zipping around your brain were the basis for emotions and behavior. This led to adding on a biology concentration so I could go into neuroscience. 

I worked as a lab tech, got a neuroscience PhD, then had two years in research as a Post-doc, and finally left academia to start Science Delivered, a nonprofit that provides science education to elementary school students. 

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

My father and grandfather were scientists. I grew up around science and it was a constant presence in my childhood. I understand what a privilege this is. I don’t think I would have been someone who would have gone into science if it hadn’t been so exposed to it, because it wasn’t my strongest subject. But it ended up being a good fit. Recognizing the role of that exposure in my life and career drives me to provide that exposure for young students today. 

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?

Research is full of doubts. I remember things going so badly research-wise early in my PhD that it felt like a vacation when I got appendicitis. It is hard when your research isn’t working to work hard everyday and have made zero progress by the end of the week or even month. But during my PhD I eventually had a finding that led to a paper, then more papers, and ended up doing very well. 

Starting a nonprofit is exciting but also extremely stressful at times. And I have a tendency to take on a lot. Running multiple projects, doing the administrative work, while taking care of two young kids can make your head spin! But I’ve learned recently to do a little less.

There’s been plenty more challenges. It’s good to remember that things cycle. Work or your career will inevitably feel hard, maybe impossible, at times, but you can usually figure out a way out of the problem.  

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

Starting and running a nonprofit was a twist! But maybe not so surprising. I was starting “environmental clubs” in elementary school. I don’t think we did anything impactful back then but social issues have always been important to me. I was also asked to write a science experiment book a few years ago for a kid’s version of the “for Dummies” series which was exciting. At age 38, I don’t think I’m yet in my “later career path!”

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

Science Delivered’s work combines a lot of my interests. One of my favorite parts of the work is developing lessons. I love kid’s science activities; some of them still feel like magic. It’s really fun to work out that right combination of “wowing” the kids but also supporting deeper learning. And working with little kids is just really joyful. They love everything and are so earnest.

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.

Find good people to be your mentors and build a support system. Hard work is always a part of science but always remember to take care of yourself. 

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