Alanna is a chemist who has made significant contributions to the field of chemical biology. She is known for her willingness to take risks and explore new areas, and she is a role model for young women and men in science.
Alanna grew up in Queens, New York City. Her parents both had science backgrounds, and she was always interested in science from a young age. She recalls one of her earliest experiments, in which she mixed salt, pepper, and ketchup in empty liquor bottles on an airplane. “Those were my first reactions” she said.
In college, she originally planned to study medicine, but she took an anatomy class that involved live animal dissections. This experience made her realize that she was not cut out for medicine, as she was very queasy. At the same time, Alanna was taking chemistry classes and she found that she enjoyed them. She also found that the chemistry lab was a place where she could be socially awkward without any consequences. Alanna's chemistry professor encouraged her to go to graduate school, and she ended up attending Columbia University.
Alanna faced many challenges as a young woman in a male-dominated field. “I spent that first year just trying to keep my head above water”, she said. However, Alanna was able to overcome these challenges through hard work, determination, and the support of her mentors. She had an unexpected setback during her research, in which another scientist performed a site-directed mutagenesis experiment that largely invalidated some of her work. “I was crumbling, literally” said Alanna, but she ultimately overcame this setback with the support of her advisor. And she said: “Unpleasant experiences are not always bad; long as there is a sufficient support system around you, unpleasant experiences can be utilized to gain enormous strength.”
Alanna is a scientist who is willing to step out of her comfort zone and take risks for novel and interesting things. One of Alanna's most notable achievements was her decision to pivot her lab's focus from the chemical synthesis of beta peptides to their translation using the ribosome. This was a major risk, as Alanna knew very little about translation at the time. However, she was willing to take the risk because she believed that it was an important and worthwhile challenge. Alanna's work on repurposing the translational machinery has the potential to revolutionize the way we design and manufacture novel proteins and bio-materials.
After Moving to Berkeley
Alanna believes that the Bay Area is a great place to be a scientist. She is surrounded by people who are passionate about entrepreneurship and innovation, and she feels that she has the opportunity to make a real difference in the world. Alanna also believes that the entrepreneurial environment has made her more focused on the potential impact of her research. She is aware that she is using taxpayer dollars, and she wants to make sure that her research is used to make a positive impact on the world.
Alanna's Mindset Shift on Training Students
Alanna's early approach to training students was factory focused. She says that she used to write people "love notes" as a way of mitigating her “pushy” behavior. Alanna also believes that it is important to be kind and respectful, even when you are being pushy. Over the years Alanna has shifted her mindset to be more student focused. More than anything, she wants to help her students gain the confidence and skills they need to do great science. Alanna believes that this shift has made her a better mentor and has led to a more enjoyable experience for both her and her students.
Alanna's Advice for Students
- Don't be afraid of what you don't know. Science is constantly evolving, so it's important to be open to learning new things. Don't be afraid of how much you think you have to learn in order to contribute. Recognize that no matter what you know now, you can work hard and learn what you don't know. Your inherent creativity will help you find a place where you can make a unique contribution. Alanna also believes that it is important to be happy, healthy, and safe. She says that hard work can overcome anything, but it is important to take care of yourself both physically and mentally.
- Position yourself where people are asking really hard questions that you think are meaningful. Find a mentor or research group that is working on cutting-edge research that you are passionate about.
- Go to seminars and read papers. This is the best way to learn about new research and stay up to date on the latest trends in the field. “It doesn't matter what the field is, because you'll learn things. What you learn will be in the back of your head and then at some point in the future, you'll build on that knowledge to make a connection or develop a collaboration, or design an experiment that you never would have thought of.”
7th Annual Chemistry/ Biology Interface (CBI) Retreat was hosted by Sarafan ChEM-H, Stanford University.
Thanks to Prof. Carolyn Bertozzi, Professor Alanna Schepartz, and Mr. Marc Sinykin for proofreading the blog and to Mr. Marc Sinykin for editing the photo.
The author Hansen Chen is supported by AHA Postdoctoral Fellowship 916011.
Conflict of Interest: None