Interview with Dr. Cathie Pfleger, a Scientist at Mount Sinai
I first encountered Dr. Pfleger two years ago after a long and tedious cycle of writing emails to strangers who never bothered to respond. I was a sophomore then, fresh in my Science Scholars journey and feeling let down by my dismal mentor-hunting experience thus far. Through an acquaintance from my Chinese school, I got Dr. Pfleger’s contact information and reached out. Despite some unfortunate timing (thanks 2020!), we have been working together for two years since then.
She has impressive credentials (a bachelor’s from Princeton and a Ph.D from Harvard Medical School), over 15 years of experience in the field and is currently an Associate Professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai. We talked over Zoom, me in my bedroom and her in her office overlooking Central Park, about her background, her research, and her experience as a woman in a male dominated field.
Emily (E): Did you conduct research in high school?
Dr. Pfleger (D): I did work on independent projects after school with a science teacher in high school, but I did not have a high school research experience in a lab setting. My physics teacher was showing our class the Cavendish experiment, which is very laborious and time-consuming. I worked with him and another student to design a machine that would do the experiment in an automated fashion. It was a nice way to get my feet wet in terms of thinking in science. My first research experience in a real lab was in my junior year of college.
E: What was your role in that lab?
D: I was heavily involved in data acquisition. I was an undergraduate in the lab, and my PI (principal investigator) had a 30-year old hypothesis that we were testing. They had come up with the way they were testing it, and I was doing a lot of the actual tests.
E: Was that experience different from what you had expected?
D: I hadn’t envisioned how much the dynamic between the people you work with can affect the science. A really cautious person might take longer to do a tricky experiment, while the risk-taker might try many things that don’t end up panning out. It was really interesting to me to see how much science was not science!
E: What was your major in college?
D: I started out intending to major in Physics, but I ended up majoring in Molecular Biology and doing a biophysics thesis project.
E: What was it about Molecular Biology that was so appealing to you?
D: If I’m being really honest, I think I was probably interested in biology and disease research since I was little. But in high school, I had an amazing physics teacher, and it was hard for me to distinguish between being actually interested in the subject, or liking it because I liked the teacher. Also, the way it was taught in my high school, biology was just not an experimental science. In college, I was taking chemistry and biology for fun, and in my sophomore year, I realized that I loved biology more than my physics classes. But part of what was hard was that there weren’t many women in physics, and I did feel like I was betraying the other women by switching to biology, which had more women involved.
E: What area did you study in graduate school? What was the most challenging aspect of it?
D: I did my thesis research in a lab with three primary research areas: development, cell cycle, and the cytoskeleton. Ph.D research takes long hours and hard work. There are times when things aren’t working at all and it’s easy to get demoralized. I think a major challenge is to feel just as fulfilled when things aren’t going well as when they are, and that’s important, because negative data is a crucial part of getting to those exciting results. That perspective comes with time and experience, but as a graduate student, it can present a huge challenge.
E: Can you describe what your lab researches in layperson’s terms?
D: I have always been really interested in just the basic question of how the fundamental processes of growth and proliferation are regulated and how loss of that regulation can lead to disease, such as cancer.
E: Was there a figure in your life that stimulated your interest in STEM?
D: My mother was the kind of person who would drop everything when I came to her with a question as a child. We would instantly go to the library to find the answer (this was before the internet) or do experiments in the kitchen. She encouraged my tendency to ask questions. I would say that what was important in my life wasn’t someone encouraging me toward STEM, but my parents and teachers who encouraged me and supported me to pursue my interests (which always pointed to STEM).
E: Do you have a female scientist that you look up to?
D: This may sound corny, but I think the women I look up to most aren’t my senior colleagues but the young women I see entering science. They’ve grown up in a world more open to women in science, and a more inclusive world overall. There are still challenges, but I am often in awe of how I see young women meeting challenges and facing the world. I more than once have told a student that I wanted to be like them when I grow up.
E: Compared to your own experiences from when you were a student, are you seeing a change for women entering STEM fields?
D: In graduate school, a male student in my lab, while trying to ask me out, physically put me in a chokehold when I mentioned karate! This was in the 1990s, and it was just something that I brushed off as an inconvenience. There wasn’t any sort of expectation that he would face consequences. I imagine that if a male student put a female student in a chokehold in Mt. Sinai’s graduate program today, he would certainly be expelled or at least face some sort of disciplinary action. Compared to 30 years ago, we live in a much more inclusive, respectful world, which is great.
E: Has there ever been an instance in your career where you were the only woman in the room? How did it make you feel?
D: I have frequently been the only woman in the room (both back in school and now). Sometimes it is irrelevant and doesn’t affect anyone. Sometimes it can be an opportunity to bring about positive change. Sometimes it can be a challenge or a problem. There are times when I am acutely aware of it, and yet the men in the room don’t even notice. In one of the Physics classes I took, there were only two girls (myself included). Only half the class went to the problem sessions, and I was the only girl at those sessions. The professor and TAs were trying to encourage women in physics, and I think the TAs were told to make sure the two girls did well in the class. That was very well intentioned, but what ended up happening was that when the TA would review things, he would turn to me and say, “Do you understand? Do I need to explain this to you?” I felt very singled out, like he was implying that I was stupid and there was a reason why I, rather than any of the men present, wouldn’t understand it.
E: As someone who is a female scientist, do you have any advice for high school girls interested in pursuing STEM?
D: Find good mentors. Plural. Different people can mentor you in different ways. It's important to learn from multiple people who’ve had different experiences. It’s also important to find a mentor that can tell you about the obstacles they faced and can teach you how to navigate situations before you have to face them yourself. Find mentors who will invest in you and your success. Then when you achieve success, make sure to invest in the next generation.
E: How would you recommend someone find a mentor that is a good fit for them?
D: That’s a really good question. When you meet people, ask yourself if there are specific mentors that you have a rapport with. When they interview you, you can ask a potential mentor about their mentoring style and how involved they are when their student’s move on to college, graduate school, etc. How you feel when talking to the person is really important: are you completely scared and intimidated by them, or is this someone you can talk to and ask questions with. Whatever your version of happiness is, the mentor should be able to give you support in achieving that.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.