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Women in STEM interview: Kim Smith
In our Women in STEM interview series, we highlight inspirational and influential women, womxn, and woman-identifying individuals in STEM to learn about their backgrounds, how they got to where they are, and what obstacles they have overcome to get there. Today, we are joined by Kim Smith, director of molecular biology at the Allen Institute for Brain Science.
Director of molecular biology at the Allen Institute
With 20 years of experience overseeing large scale genomic and transcriptomic projects, Kim is an expert at managing production groups, methods development, and data handling including the brain atlas and mouse spinal cord atlas. Kim first worked with large scale genomics project management at the University of Washington (UW) while working on chromosome 7 of the Human Genome Project, Pseudomonas Genome Project, and Rice Genome Project. She then went on to develop the Center for Expression Arrays at UW. Kim was hired as the first scientist at the Allen Institute for Brain Science, employing her experience both at the bench and with establishing new production pipelines. Read on to learn more about our guest, Kim Smith.
- Genome-wide atlas of gene expression in the adult mouse brain. Read more »
- An anatomically comprehensive atlas of the adult human brain transcriptome. Read more »
- Transcriptional landscape of the prenatal human brain. Read more »
Spencer: Hi, everyone. Welcome to our inaugural women in STEM interview, wherein we highlight women and women-identifying individuals in STEM who currently work in a wide range of industries and roles.
I'm Spencer Wong, and I'm a technical writer at Takara Bio. Today, we are so excited to have Kim Smith, the director of molecular biology at the Allen Institute for Brain Science, where she manages the single-cell RNA-seq core. Kim's first experience with large scale genomics project management was with chromosome seven of the Human Genome Project, Pseudomonas Genome Project, and Rice Genome Project—all at the University of Washington. Kim was the first bench scientist hired at the Allen Institute, and I'm looking forward to hearing more about her experience. Thank you so much for joining us, Kim!
Kim: You're welcome. Thank you for having me.
Spencer: We can dive right into the questions. What's your favorite part about being the director of molecular biology?
Kim: Great question. I’ve been there for a long time and my favorite part of being the director of molecular biology at the Allen Institute for Brain Science is the opportunity to work with a variety of dedicated scientists. We focus on creating large, comprehensive, high-quality foundational data sets. These data sets are not only for our own use and publications, but they're delivered to the scientific community, and really everyone at large, through our website at no charge. They are also available with tools and infrastructure supporting discovery by any person in any lab.
It's exciting and an honor to know my team is responsible for creating these high-quality, long-term, thorough data sets that will be used to further scientific discovery and knowledge, not only through our own efforts, but also through foundational knowledge to fuel other researchers in their own endeavors.
Spencer: That's so awesome! I never knew that the Allen Institute provided these datasets free of charge.
Kim: Yeah, it's an amazing place to work, knowing that our mission is science and fueling discovery for everyone.
Spencer: Definitely! And I'm sure a lot of great collaborations come out of that because a lot of people want high-quality data sets, which you are able to provide.
Kim: Exactly. Yes.
Spencer: Awesome. I was curious to know one thing that you would change about STEM culture.
Kim: I think STEM culture still has a ways to go to be more inclusive and diverse. I would like to see the momentum continuing to stretch, and it's moving in the right direction for sure. STEM culture has certainly come a long way in terms of inclusivity of women since I graduated high school, but equality and diversity at the top levels of institutions, companies, and boards still needs to be actively pursued and supported.
More relevant to today's STEM culture is to keep the focus and momentum on reaching into underrepresented groups in terms of outreach, hiring, internships, and networking opportunities. This effort really needs to be intentional on the part of recruiting at all levels and all types of institutions, whether it's academic, an institute, or biotech. One very real way to break barriers that we've started to implement at the Allen Institute is to support paid internships instead of unpaid internships. I really think that this is starting to make headway into broadening the diversity that was seen in in STEM culture.
Spencer: That's definitely very interesting that you brought up paid internships; I'm a firm believer in that. How many internships does the Allen Institute have available?
Kim: Across all institutes, around 25.
Spencer: That's a very sizable amount. I have done those undergrad research experiences, and it’s definitely helpful to have them available, especially to underrepresented minorities.
You've been a scientist for a long time, and scientists always feel so passionately about their data. Is there one experiment that you will remember for the rest of your life?
Kim: Memorable experiments are more often the ones where mistakes are made or are not necessarily breakthroughs.
My entire career has been focused on high-throughput production of large datasets, where our challenge is to ensure that the structure and reproducibility is maintained over time and through many different research associates doing the work.
Early in my career when I was working on the Rice Genome Project and managing a lab, we were sequencing 24/7. I had three different shifts of teams loading slab gels—three teams pouring old-school polyacrylamide gels and loading these slab gels with multi-channel pipettes three times a day.
One of the teams had started to produce lower quality data sets across their team members over several days. We could not figure out what the cause was. After lots of discussions with the team and reviewing the process and controls, we determined that the cause was due to the team trying to be more efficient with their loading. The way that they had streamlined the process resulted in the ficoll dye reagent sitting on the gel interface for a longer period than the other teams’. This prolonged incubation of the ficoll and the gel actually disrupted the quality of the gel matrix. Upon entering the gel, the samples were affected and resulted in lower quality when bases were detected by the laser.
I often think back to that period of time of troubleshooting and working with the team because it was actually an early win in my career in motivating team members to investigate processing details, to care about the data, to figure out how to improve quality, and to standardize the process across many team members day in and day out. Often as I'm presented with new challenges and new pipelines to put in place, I think back to this experience.
Spencer: It's very interesting that you say that because as scientists, we're always looking for the most efficient way. It definitely serves as a good reminder to refer to a time when efficiency did not prove advantageous in the long run.
Shifting gears a little bit here, what would you say is the most adventurous thing you've ever done in your life? It could be personal, professional, maybe jumping off a cliff.
Kim: I'm not a very adventurous person. I stick close to home. I love to read. I love to watch soccer, play soccer, watch my daughters play soccer. I lead a pretty unadventurous life.
With that said I have, I have been to Iceland, Machu Picchu in Peru, and South Africa on safari. All of those were great adventures and good vacations.
One of my most favorite vacations was the summer of 2019 when we could actually still vacation. I traveled with my two teenage daughters to France to watch the US play in the Women's World Cup. We saw the quarter-finals, semi-finals, and the final. The US team won and it was just such a great time traveling with my daughters. We did a couple of weeks in France and up to London for a quick couple of days. In terms of adventure, it was my first time traveling as the sole adult internationally. And we had a blast. Oh my gosh.
Spencer: I bet that was very stressful for you as well. Having to plan everything out is a lot of work. Were you backpacking or traveling by suitcase?
Kim: It was definitely with a suitcase. We had a mixture of Airbnbs and hotels, and we traveled by train.
Spencer: What are some of the things that you do for fun outside of STEM that keep you passionate and enthusiastic about your career? I'm sure that your daughters play a role in that.
Kim: I feel like I'm the ambassador scientist in the family. I try to keep them enthusiastic and engaged with science as it comes through popular culture. I try to be the translator and the cheerleader. I would love for them to be interested in careers in sciences, but it’s not likely for both of them. I participate in their science curriculum, especially as they've moved through middle school and high school. I volunteered to dissect the pig heart at my daughter's middle school a couple years ago. Unfortunately, my other one didn't get to do that because of COVID and school shutdowns.
Spencer: Yeah, definitely. And I imagine that right now, especially during COVID, it's a great time to talk about viral evolution, infections, and a lot of those broader scientific topics as well.
Kim: Exactly. And just to impart the respect for science that everybody should have that seems to be deteriorating in some parts of society.
Spencer: But we are hopeful that things are turning around now, especially with the new cabinet, a lot of new people being appointed to various positions. We're definitely staying optimistic here.
Kim: Yes, for sure.
Spencer: So those were all the questions that we had for you here, but I was also curious to know in this women in STEM interview series, are there any specific women in STEM whom you'd love to see interviewed in this series?
Kim: We have a lot of topnotch women at Allen Institute.
One would be Rebecca Hodge. She's an investigator in the human cell types team, and she's done an amazing job over the last several years in the single-cell transcriptomics arena for human and non-human primate work.
Then, there is Cindy van Velthoven, a senior scientist working on the mouse cell types. She leads all analysis efforts as we decode the transcriptional and the epigenomic cell types in the adult aging brain and developing mouse brain. Those two are just rockstars and workhorses. They're really squeezing a lot of analysis out of the data that we're producing.
Spencer: Yeah, that's awesome. And definitely a lot of high-quality data we have come to expect from Allen Institute. So that's all the questions that I had for today. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today. Kim, we loved learning a little bit more about you and we are really looking forward to Takara Bio's upcoming webinar with Allen Institute about SMART-Seq v4 for Patch-seq!
Kim: Yes. And I'm looking forward to that as well. Thank you, Spencer.
Spencer: Take care, everybody, and That’s Good Science!®
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