Lindsey Avery Fitzsimons is a fifth-year PHD student in biomedical science at the University of Maine, and an instructor and research assistant at the University of New England. She is also a mother-of-one and uses Instagram to show both sides of her life as a mother and scientist.
Here she shares what she does in the lab day-to-day, how she got to where she is in her career, and why she shares her journey as a woman in science and a mother on her Instagram account @LAF_in_the_LAB.
So you’re a scientist – what do you do day-to-day?
As a PhD candidate, my primary responsibility is performing my dissertation research, which looks at the role of a particular cell structure called the primary cilium, and how cells use this structure during the embryologic development of the heart.
My research also looks at how damage to primary cilia and the cells’ ability to communicate with each other lead to congenital heart disease, the most common birth defect worldwide, affecting approximately every 1 in 10 live births.
In addition to my scientific research, I also teach first-year medical students in the subjects of gross anatomy and integrative histology. In between these two activities I can be found managing the lab I work in, and juggling new motherhood within an early academic/scientific research career.
I started my Instagram account (@LAF_in_the_LAB) as a way to share many of the pieces of this journey, to initiate discussions around the stigma of motherhood in science and academia, and to communicate my heart science for all those interested in learning something new!
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Here’s your daily reminder that, YES, YOU CAN! . . One of the most beautiful things this platform has brought me is a whole new community of friends and supporters, scientists and science-enthusiasts alike, you are all welcome here with me, as long as you treat others with kindness and respect. . . One of my new friends, Regen, is the founder and CEO of her side-business and passion project @myteegirls , a line of clothing and fun accessories design to empower, inspire and excite girls and children alike! James and I have matching “Yes I Can” tees, and it is my favorite choice for a casual Sunday in the lab! . . Best of all, if its not the day you imagined, just take a quick look in the mirror to be reminded that whatever you are setting out to accomplish, you can and you will, one way or another! . . Today- I am reminding myself that I can finish up this calendar year strong, I can be prepared for my PhD committee progress meeting next week 😖🙈, I can be a great mom and scientist and I CAN take on this day and the next just being me! . . Also sporting my go-to Medelita Emma Classic Fit lab coat- my staple coat for layering and handling whatever I throw at it, quite literally. Today that happened to be an entire cup of coffee, but I don’t see any stain here, do you?! . . What have you accomplished today? I bet you can think of something great, no matter how small. Maybe it was taking 5 minutes to start your day off with gratitude? . . #mamasinscience #lafinthelab #mothersinscience #herstory #herstemstory #shecandoboth #medelitagram #thegoatcoat #medelita #medelitahipambassador #myteegirls #womeninstem #womeninscience #againstthegrain #savingtinyhearts #chdawareness #chdresearcher #congenitalheartdisease #cardiology #mamasinmedicine #mamasofinstagram #iamascientist #yesican #gratitude #gradselfcare #lablife🔬 #scientist #scientistswhoselfie #femalescientist #girlsinscience
How did you get to where you are today?
Certainly not by taking the ‘traditional’ or ‘direct’ route! I attribute all of my ‘successes’ to having found the right mentors at the right time.
Academia, and especially the bench sciences, was nowhere near welcoming to me, someone with a non-traditional background, clinical based-training, and an outgoing and extroverted personality. I really believe that I wouldn’t have been able to get where I am today had I not been able to connect with the mentors I had. Mentors that were patient, willing to teach, willing to learn from what I brought to the table, and most importantly, who believed in me when I was struggling to believe in myself.
After deciding to take on a PhD at a prestigious university in California, in a nutshell, it wasn’t the right fit. I couldn’t seem to find the right mentor or the right support system to make that program work. After a very difficult period of depression and disappointment, I moved back home to Maine and started my PhD all over again in a completely new field, molecular and developmental biology.
After being rejected from lab after lab (I didn’t have the ‘right’ training), I finally connected with my current mentor, who was willing to give me a chance in his lab. The learning curve was steep, but I stuck with it and found myself challenged, excited, fulfilled and passionate about science in a way I never anticipated or thought possible.
Beyond excellent mentorship, I believe I have gotten where I am because of my grit and resilience. I know that I am meant to be doing exactly what I’m doing, and I LOVE what I do. Even though the periods of ‘success’ come and go, these feelings remain consistent, and, I think, ultimately are what keep me motivated when the stakes are against me.
Did you always know you wanted to be a scientist?
I haven’t always loved science (gasp!). In fact, I used to do everything in my power to avoid taking science classes because I was afraid of not being ‘smart enough’ to ‘do well’.
I started my undergraduate education majoring in studio art and art history and originally saw myself going into gallery curating and the visual arts. After being required to take an anatomy and physiology class for my figure drawing requirement, I quickly discovered how fascinated I was by what was going on underneath the skin, and how and why movement was carried out.
It is highly atypical in my field for someone to go from movement sciences to clinical/medical research to ‘benchwork’ (i.e. traditional Molecular Biology performed in a laboratory).
I have had to really fight every step of the way to prove myself and my knowledge base and to demonstrate the abilities that are unique to me, that set me apart from others in my field. What I love about science, and why I ultimately was able to see a future for myself in this field was the fact that those who are able to think outside of the box are the individuals who generate innovative solutions, and who are also the most resilient to all of the unknown and uncontrollable variables in science.
What advice would you give someone wanting to follow this career?
ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS, be true to yourself and what you are passionate about. Academia, medicine, and ‘The Ivory Tower’ are known for taking a toll on your self-esteem, wearing you down with politics and bureaucracy. If you are intrinsically motivated, fulfilled on a daily basis by doing the most simple of tasks, collaborating with others, possessing an inherent level of curiosity, then you can and will go far.
I am a firm believer in the power of persistence. At the same time, you need to be able to enjoy the journey. There really is no endpoint unless you decide to leave your field or retire, so the more you can find fulfilment in the what you’re working on in the here and now, the more happiness and balance you will be able to achieve.
What is your proudest achievement?
That’s a tough one! As much as I have academic achievements that I am very proud of (I received the Thomas Maciag Award for Excellence in Basic Science, 2019), I would have to say that I am most proud of the skills I have developed, and the person I have become along this journey.
Through the experiences of facing and surviving big challenges, the times I have questioned my capabilities and talents, the discrimination as a female and mother, you learn a lot about yourself, how to protect yourself, take care of yourself; how to like, believe in and advocate for yourself!
More challenges will always come. But, the more coping skills you can build along the way, support networks you can secure, etc, then you will foster the self-confidence and resiliency you need to be comfortable being YOU – exactly as you are!
What challenges have you faced? How did you overcome them?
I will be completely honest and say that I have been fortunate enough to have been enormously privileged over the years.
I was raised by a single-mom who valued education and independence above all else, so access to higher education was always an option for me. That being said, essentially every other part of my journey has been difficult, and despite my outwards appearance, I have faced an enormous amount of adversity and discrimination.
The biggest challenge has probably been the combined effect of mental illness (anxiety/depression), combined with attention-deficit disorder. Things have come a long way in the past decade, but I initially encountered a lot of harsh criticism, judgment and discrimination because of my openness about my struggles with mental illness and ADHD.
My peers often felt I was given unfair advantages (e.g. test-taking accommodations), my superiors often assumed I wouldn’t be cut out for the harsh realities and demands of graduate school, and people always seemed to be very vocal about how I ‘didn’t belong’ or ‘didn’t have what it takes’ to be wherever I was at the time.
What’s the focus of your Instagram account?
Now that I am a mom and scientist, I continue to face a whole new set of challenges related to misjudgments that I am ‘less ambitious’ than my peers because I have chosen to have a family. The harshest of these often come from other women—women who feel that you have to choose between your love of science OR your love for your child and family. I refuse to subscribe to this way of thinking. My response to this has involved surrounding myself with as many like-minded #mamasinscience as possible (both in-person and virtually through @MothersinScience).
I have also found that the more time goes by, the more my confidence builds in my identity as a dual mother and scientist. Part of my motivation for starting my Instagram platform and the #mamasinscience campaign was to create a space for mothers like me to connect, to discuss challenges openly and without judgment against each other, and to document some of the real and every-day challenges women and mothers in science face.
Lindsey chronicles her life as a scientist and mother on Instagram at @laf_in_the_lab.
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