P-rated researcher Dr Katye Altieri was born in the largest city of the U.S. state and Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. She was a typical overachiever in high school with an interest in the majority of the extracurricular activities. Katye went to a very small university in the United States, The College of New Jersey, which was made up of about 5000 students and that is where she studied Chemistry. She points out that she initially wanted to study Biology because she wanted to be a medical doctor, and many will relate to this. This option was diverted by the fact that the university required an extra essay and Katye was not so keen to scribble that essay and therefore the next option was Chemistry. She soon after enrolling for the degree realised how much she enjoyed the route she had taken and that it would not have been as exciting a path had she selected Biology. Katye admits to not being a very good student in her undergraduate studies and encountering a number of struggles. This was partially due to being approximately a thousand miles away from home and struggling with grasping the responsibility side of being a student. This all led to her not benefitting much from the first two years of her education and therefore having to make up for that in the next two years that remained. Trying to learn concepts that she should have learnt in her basics complicated her learning process in the advanced levels of her Chemistry classes and over and above made college a bit of a challenge for her. These difficulties also had a snowball effect as Katye was eventually not a suitable (or not the best) applicant for medical school which diminished her plans of getting into the streams of medicine. In her senior year, Katye enrolled for a research project module which she was not entirely excited about as the very small Chemistry department was predominantly focusing on pharmaceutical based chemistry research. This is where her research skills were first tested because she decided to conduct a private mini survey which uncovered that the larger public university down the road, Rugters University, had a wider spectrum of scientists which included chemists who worked on Earth Sciences, including Atmospheric Sciences and Oceanography. Katye decided to email the head of the Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences at the university and her email was forwarded to two Professors and one of them was most intriguing.
Professor Sybil Seitzinger worked on organic chemistry in the environment, exploring what chemical composition organic molecules have. Katye was mind blown by this discovery, that “these scientists didn’t know. What did they mean they were trying to figure out what kind of chemicals they are?!” and naturally for her, the answers would be in the Chemistry textbook, she thought to herself. This peeked her curiosity and she was allowed as a then-undergraduate student to visit the institute once a week and the rest is history as Prof. Seitzinger eventually became her PhD supervisor after falling in love with the research the Professor’s lab was exploring. One of the things that gravitated Katye so much towards this lab was the fact that their research was not predominantly lab-based but allowed one to be out there in the field and it is exactly what intrigued her. Of course, the cherry on top was that she had a knack for both her chosen field of expertise and research in general! Dr Altieri remembers how novel it felt to get a stipend to do what she loved and enjoyed.
Through her academic journey and career as an atmospheric scientist with an interest in biogeochemistry and climate change, Dr Altieri acknowledges her PhD supervisors who she visibly thinks very highly of as she occasionally lights up every time she mentions their names. She describes her very first encounter back when she was an undergraduate student and Sybil was a dynamic woman who has over the years consistently proven her work ethics and excellence, especially as a science communicator. On the other hand, Professor Barbara Turpin had a different approach which was much more typical academic style of doing research and producing papers for publications. These two very influential women in science really played an important role in the woman she has become today. For Katye, one of the most exciting things about being a woman in science, particularly in South Africa is that there are definitely more women in STEM when compared to the U.S., for example. She says that this is very noticeable and attributes it to the academic structures in the country. In South Africa, for women in academia, having children does not necessarily hinder one’s career, while in the U.S. with the 10-year academic plan which is not women-friendly, this is rather detrimental for a woman in STEM. Her most challenging aspects in the science world include the constant rejection, whether in the form of a paper after reviews or an academic fellowship or even a job position. All this, coupled with the fear of being proven wrong by another researcher with their more interesting and accurate data set which renders you and your finding incapable. However, through all this, Dr Katye Atieri advises that in order to make it in this field, one should not dwell much and be slowed down by the continuous rejection. She additionally guides that one should always remember that the successful people also have experienced all the ups and downs and have gone through the imposter syndrome. Finally, Katye recommends that each of us find someone we can always contact when we are going through tough times, someone who will always help you remember why you started, how far you have gone and that you can do it. For her, that person is Professor Sybil Seitzinger!
Visit Katye’s blog!