Hidden Figures at the Waltham Public Library: A Q&A with Brandeis’ Adrianna Shy

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This summer’s ‘Watch Read Listen’ title at the Waltham Public Library is “Hidden Figures,” a 2016 film that details the true story of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, three brilliant African-American women, who worked as engineers at NASA in 1962.

They were the reason that John Glenn’s Friendship 7 mission was successful. Thanks to their efforts, Glenn was the first American to orbit the earth.

From June 22 to Aug. 17, the Waltham Public Library will host six speakers who, like Johnson, Vaughan, and Jackson, are creative, innovative, and forward thinking.

Each month, scientists from Brandeis University’s Materials Research Science and Engineering Center share their personal journeys into their careers with Waltham High School students, giving them the opportunity to ask questions and enjoy lunch during Pizza Talks.

On Tuesday, July 30 at 6:30 p.m., the library will host scientists Adrianna Shy and Raul Ramos.

The News Tribune sent Shy and Ramos questions regarding their upcoming talks. The interviews were conducted via email and responses have been edited and condensed for publication.

What kind of research are you working on at Brandeis? What attracted you to the field?

Shy I study biomaterials, specifically small peptides and their interactions to understand more about small molecules and their use in the biomedical field. What attracted me to the field is the application. There are so many unanswered questions in medicine and other areas, maybe the use of small peptides could be the answer.

Ramos I am currently doing neuroscience research regarding how learning and memory is accomplished at the cellular level. I was attracted to neuroscience because it’s an incredibly interdisciplinary field of study.

What would you want students who have interest in science/scientific fields to know? Is there something—advice or a skill or something else—that helped you get to where you are today?

Shy If science interests you, commit to it and don’t be afraid to ask questions! There may be some setbacks which can be stressful, take some time for yourself, reevaluate the problem and try again, but don’t give up.

Ramos I want them to know that being a scientist isn’t going at it alone. On the contrary, good science is all about working together and collaborating with people who have skills that complement your own. I don’t know everything, and that’s fine, but I have a willingness to learn and work with others. That’s my strength.

What is the ultimate goal of your research? What has been surprising to you through the process of conducting the research…any specific takeaway so far?

Shy As of now, the goal is to learn whatever I can about each result I can get. This may be very far in the future but maybe one day some part of my research could be used in cancer therapy or tissue engineering. At first, I thought I had to be an expert in everything I was doing, but the reality is that everyone is learning, whether you’re just starting or just finishing your graduate studies the learning process never stops, anyone can struggle.

Ramos The ultimate goal of my research is to better understand how synaptic plasticity works to stabilize memories. Potentially, this could influence how we think about certain memory disorders such as PTSD. The most surprising thing about doing research is how amazing and exciting it feels when you find results that support your hypothesis. It is also very exciting to come up with new experiments when you refute yourself.

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