STEM Story: Stephanie Compton
Interview with Stephanie Compton By Divya Gopal Stephanie Edwards Compton is a second year PhD student at Virginia Tech in Molecular and Cellular Nutrition. She received her undergraduate degree in Biology at Emory & Henry College, her Masters degree in Behavioral and Community Nutrition and Dietetics at Virginia Tech, and combined both fields of study for her PhD. She studies ovarian cancer and sphingolipids, a class of lipids with various cell signaling properties, and how they affect cellular metabolism! Stephanie is clearly passionate about science communication. She uses her Instagram account (@steph.sci.access) to talk about her work with cancer and metabolism, educate about nutrition, and teach others how to look through pseudoscience nutrition messages we are bombarded with. She is also an advocate for accessibility and talks about how to increase accessibility in science and education. She believes everyone is a scientist, promoting how science should be available and open to everyone regardless of ability, education, or background. What is your origin story? I’m from Southwest Virginia. I was born and raised there. I’m kind of a first-generation college student; both of my parents got certificates, and I think my mother got an associate’s degree, but I’m the first one to get a higher education. I did my undergraduate studies at Emory & Henry College, which is a really small school in West Virginia, and then I did my master’s at Virginia Tech, which was Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise, but I did it in Community and Behavioral Nutrition. So, that’s how I know so much about nutrition, because I also did dietetics coursework. I thought I was going to become a registered dietitian and decided last minute to not do that. During my master’s, I decided to go back to doing basic science, like I had done in my undergrad, which was biology. I decided to kind of combine what I had done in my master’s, which was basically just learning about nutrition and dietetics, and combine that with the biology I had done during my undergrad, so it’s kind of like I’m investigating nutrition, but at a cellular level, which is really fun. Currently, I work with ovarian cancer and metabolism, so I’m looking at nutrition and doing that kind of stuff. Oh, wow! Cool. Yeah, I like it a lot. What from your childhood or high school education pushed you to do something like you’re doing right now? I went to a really small high school; I think there were about 150 people in my graduating class. We didn’t have a lot of AP classes or dual enrollment classes in science or anything like that. I took as many dual enrollments as I could, so I had some college credits from that. But my main thing in high school was that I really did like my science classes. I was really only able to take, like, general biology, chemistry, I think I took anatomy. But I always tried to take as many science classes as I could; the only one I didn’t take was physics, which I regret now. (laughs) It was hard to do once I got into college, with college-level physics. I tried to take as much as I can and get involved with doing all of the extracurriculars I could in science and that kind of thing. So you were just more of a science-oriented kid? Yeah, for sure, yeah. I like English, I’m not very good at foreign languages or anything like that, math was okay. But I really liked science. I especially liked the chemistry class that I had during high school - that was one of my favorite classes that I took. What kind of work do you do and how do you think it furthers your field? So like I said, I work with ovarian cancer and metabolism - so basically what that means is that I look a lot of the time at mouse models, but really I look at how ovarian cancer makes energy. So at different points of disease progression, how does ovarian cancer react to different treatment conditions? For example, when ovarian cancer metastasizes, it kind of starts out as a little mono-layer on the ovary, but then it kind of sloughs off, and they form little spheroids which clump together in little cellular clumps, and they just float everywhere. So I look at how the metabolism differs between those different points to see how it changes and whether or not the metabolism is an advantage to survive. So I do that mainly. I also look at whether oxygen influences it, or glucose, or something like that. And I also look at sphingolipids. Those are just a class of lipids, just like you have the lipids that are in your cell membranes. It’s like a different class. And there are thousands of different ones, but I look at two specifically. I look at Sphingosine-1-Phosphate, which helps cells survive and a lot of it is in the abdominal cavity of women and individuals with ovarian cancer. And I also look at Sphingosine, which is a precursor to Sphingosine-1-Phosphate. So Sphingosine can actually cause cell death, while Sphingosine-1-Phosphate can prevent cell death. So I’m looking at the difference between those and how they change metabolisms. This is a really basic understanding, so it’s more of a basic science, so I’m not doing drug therapy or anything like that. I think the way it furthers my field is understanding why it happens and how it happens. And can we take what we now know and do some kind of prevention with it? Or some kind of further drug treatment, like modeling, with that information? It’s that baseline knowledge so we can take it further. I like it a lot, I’m biased there. So you work a lot in the lab? Yeah, yeah. I’m usually in the lab just about every day, doing something. How do you think your work affects the general population? The population that might not know that much about lipids and ovarian cancer? I actually got an opportunity at a conference that I went to this spring. I was presenting and I had an individual come up to me, who was an ovarian cancer survivor, and I got to talk to her a little bit. So one thing I really like, other than being in the lab and doing my work, is that what I’m doing, I get to communicate it. That’s like my main thing, right? I love science communication. I want to tell people about what I’m doing. Because in my mind and talking to her and other patients, the people that actually have cancer and are experiencing it, they don’t know what I’m doing. So my ability to be able to share what I’m doing is the thing I find most important about that. I mean, there’s not a lot of people who are going to necessarily care about sphingolipids and metabolism, or at least enough to take it and do something with it in their treatment with it. But just letting other people know what I’m doing and where the field’s at is one way that what I’m doing in the lab everyday can be translated out. Communicating it is the most important thing I can do, other than doing it, obviously. The thing I really liked a lot about your Instagram page was how you talked a lot about bringing that real science into everyday life. People claim a lot of “science” but they don’t really know what’s actually behind it. I thought that was really cool. Yeah, I like to think that everyone is a scientist, in at least a little bit of a way. They might not think that they’re a scientist. People don’t like science, right? But I still think everyone is a scientist. I like treating it like that so I can communicate what I’m doing, because I’m just a regular person, right? That’s super important. And it gives them an opportunity to know what’s happening instead of science being a behind-the-veil, ivory tower thing. Who would you say is your STEM role model? I don’t know if I have a single person in mind. There is a huge, thriving community of women in science on social media. I think that community is my role model. I love seeing other women in other fields sharing what they know and I look up to a lot of them. I can probably name a whole list of people that I look up to in science. That collective community is what I love being a part of and look up to. Also, with the community, we don’t compete with each other. It’s really interesting because I thought we would, but honestly, there’s just a lot of lifting each other up. What has your experience been like working as a woman in STEM? I think I have been very fortunate, but I also think it’s a symptom of the field I’m in. Nutrition is traditionally very female, so my group and my committee for my Ph.D. is all women, my advisors are all women, so I have a lot of role models. That has been really nice because I’ve had other people to model off of. As a whole, especially if I go to a conference, there’s more men, especially cancer conferences. Getting my voice out there is something I’ve experienced difficulty with. But with my field, I haven’t had too many barriers yet. But I know there are a lot of women out there in STEM with problems. Personally, though, I have not had to deal with that. What would you say to someone, a young girl, who is a little unsure of STEM? I know it’s really popular to hate STEM. I would say you don’t have to do that and it’s okay to be more interested and love your classes. With STEM, you have to put in a little more work yourself. A good teacher can help, but you have to be willing to study for it and find your passion in it. If you don’t necessarily like it, that’s okay also. You have to think past the sheer amount of stuff that’s thrown at you and think about how cool it is. The way our cells work and how it makes us human and finding joy and wonder in STEM is what helps get past the difficulty, so you can think past what’s being thrown at you to how awesome it actually is. What would you say to a young girl who is really excited about STEM? I guess I would kind of say the same thing. It’s okay to love it! I know when I was in high school, I would kind of diminish my love for it. And you know, if you’re good at it, I diminished being good at it. I would pretend I failed the test or I was bad at it, but in all actuality, I loved it and thought I was good at it. And also, not being afraid to fail at something. You can’t be good at everything and for me, physics was the bad part. Yeah, it’s so bad! But I had to take it and got through it and could focus on the other parts that I liked. What would you say to yourself 10 years ago? You don’t have to have every single thing planned out and go in a single straight line. MY experience with STEM was all over the place. I started out in this one place and went over to healthcare and went somewhere else in healthcare and ended up not doing healthcare at all. Also, listening to yourself and your passion, not if there are jobs in it or what other people say. Actually finding what your passion is and following it is this advice I wish I had. Following my passions is what led me to where I’m at, but starting out, it took me a little time to figure that out. And it’s okay to be bad at something. What would you say drives you when you don’t want to work? With science, I found that things usually go wrong more often than they go right. It’s so common to fail an experiment. Instead of letting it ruin my day, I take it in stride and that’s science, you fail things everyday. It keeps me going and when you get one good set of results, it’s so cool and it keeps you going. Keep in mind, science is never going to go the way you think it is. There’s always something new to discover and a new way to think about something. How do you bring your work into your outside life? And vice versa? Through science communication. Definitely with Instagram, I feel like I can...I feel if I didn’t share it there, it would be this secret corner of my life. But instead, I can take it out to other people and get their opinions and questions and think about it a different way. Taking my personal life into science is just like thinking about it in a different way. Taking my personal experience into the lab and thinking about it in a different way through science communication too is how I would bring my outside life into the lab. I think about how I can explain it to the general public and that’s how I bring it back and forth. Do you find, with that community of women in nutrition, that they support you in science communication and do a lot of people do that in that field? With nutrition, it depends. I’m on the basic science side of nutrition, so I’m doing cell work right now. But I was on the whole other side, which is looking at implementation in communities. So I’ve worked all across the research spectrum. That side is really really good at science communication because their whole thing is talking to the community. The basic science side is less common to see people actively sharing stuff, but I will say, my department is really good at trying to do that. I know several people who’ve had community outreach events, like Science on Tap, which is when scientists go to breweries and explain some kind of science. I know some basic scientists in nutrition in my department. It’s like this whole little spectrum and being on the other side and bringing that into basic science is what I do. So, it's a good mix. If you had to sit next to anybody on a 10-hour plane ride, who would you choose? Honestly, I think I would just choose somebody who would actually talk to me! One of the longest plane rides I’ve gone on, I sat next to this guy who wouldn’t move. He wouldn't get up to pee, he wouldn’t talk to me, he wouldn’t do anything. Just having somebody who would talk to me! The very first flight I took, I took by myself, and I did have a really nice lady sit next to me. She asked me if it was my first and petted me and gave me gum, and she walked me from one terminal to the next, which was really nice. Someone talkative and nice- those are my only qualifications. What are some passions you are excited about outside of science? I’m also super passionate about accessibility. It's something I'm starting to bring more of in my field if I can. I got involved in the accessibility office in Virginia Tech, my first year that I moved there. I got hired as a braille transcriber, so I transcribed braille. I do tactile graphics, which are raised graphics that can be felt. I do alternative text, the text you embed in pictures. I do captioning. I'm super passionate about making content accessible to as many people as possible so everyone can access science and experience it. If you don’t want to go as deep, I'm passionate about dogs, hiking and stuff like that! Those are all my questions! I had a really nice time talking to you! You’re such a role model! Thank you! Thanks for reaching out!