Spring 2019 Showcase: Meet Dr. Jillian Nissen

Our final panelist for the Women’s Research in STEM Showcase is Dr. Jillian Nissen of SUNY College at Old Westbury. Dr. Nissen works to understand the differences between women and men’s immune systems in response to glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer.

EDUCATION: Ph.D. in Molecular and Cellular Pharmacology from Stony Brook University
CURRENT POSITION: Assistant Professor at SUNY College at Old Westbury
CURRENT RESEARCH: My current research focuses on the phenomenon that men are not only more likely to be diagnosed with glioblastoma than women, but are also more likely to succumb to this disease following diagnosis.

As glioblastoma, similarly to other cancers, shields itself from detection and clearance by the immune system, my research focuses on differences in immune system function between men and women. Some preliminary work indicates that male microglia, the immune cells of the brain and spinal cord, may be by default more anti-inflammatory than those in women, allowing the cancer to take root and spread at greater rates.
FUTURE GOALS: My future goals are to obtain external grant funding for my work, and recruit undergraduate students to participate in research, publications, and conference presentations on their projects.

Who and/or what got you interested in your field?

I initially did not have any plans to pursue research in the field of neuroscience; despite the fact that my major as an undergraduate was Cell Biology and Neuroscience, I ended up not taking any of the neuroscience courses and my undergraduate research was entirely conducted in yeast and focused on cell cycle checkpoint proteins. I initially started in this field because I was interviewed by Dr. Stella Tsirka during my application process to the Molecular and Cellular Pharmacology Ph.D. program at Stony Brook, and she was so passionate about her research that I couldn’t help but be intrigued. I did my first rotation in her lab, and on my very first day I was shown how to remove a spinal cord from a mouse. It was a bit of a shock, as I had previously only worked with cells in a dish. Although I felt a bit squeamish at first, I found the whole process and project fascinating and haven’t looked back since.

When did you know you were interested in pursuing a degree in science?

There was never necessarily a single crystallizing moment that let me know I wanted a career in science, but I was interested in science from when I was very young. I remember when I was around age 8 that my uncle brought over a bunch of preserved cow organs (in retrospect, I probably should have questioned why he had those things!), and let all the cousins cut them up. Most of my family ranged between uninterested to disgusted, but I sat there fascinated as I looked at all the chambers of the heart, the folds of the brain, and the insides of the kidney. I always was drawn to science classes in school but it wasn’t until I started a research project as an undergraduate at Rutgers that I knew a Ph.D. was the path for me. As far as knowing I wanted to go into teaching, I realized that when I saw how much I enjoyed working with the undergraduates and high school students who joined the lab, especially when I saw them truly grasp a new concept.


Dr. Nissen’s lab group (left to right): Jeremy Miyauchi, Stella Tsirka, George Georghiou, Me, Rob Bronstein, and Luisa Torres.

What do you think needs to happen for there to be more women in science?

There are many levels at which this problem can be addressed, starting at a young age. Girls start out being able to envision themselves in the sciences; when asked to “draw a scientist” at age 6, about 70% of their drawings are of women. However, by the time they are 16, this drops to only about 25%. This seems to correlate with when girls start to rate themselves lower on self-efficacy, or their perceived ability to succeed, in STEM fields, despite showing similar aptitude in these subjects to their male peers. I think this is the point in time that it is critical for girls to see themselves represented in the sciences, whether through media depictions of researchers or just positive female mentors in STEM careers.

Later on, it’s been well-established that the the point in which many women’s scientific careers have been derailed is when they choose to have children. One change that would greatly improve this would be to not only offer gender-neutral family leave so fathers could also take off time after the birth of a child, but also promote a cultural shift in which men were encouraged to utilize this leave fully. However, this is imperfect because women are the ones who have to deal with the physical and medical burden of carrying babies, sometimes significantly impairing their ability to work even before their children are born. This is a harder issue to address, but a shift away from the “publish or perish” model where gaps in your CV could be seen as career-ending would be a start.

In your opinion, how can academic programs like IRACDA NY-CAPS help young women in STEM fields?

As an alumna of the IRACDA NY-CAPS program, I can say it was incredibly valuable! A large part of the training of this program involves courses in communicating science, both inside and out of the classroom. By making science more accessible to those we encounter, we can ignite that spark of curiosity that could lead to a future STEM career. More importantly though, this program aims to change the face of faculty in the sciences, not only to promote diversity, but to create a truly inclusive classroom that caters to students of different backgrounds and learning styles. I want my students to see that women can be successful in scientific careers without having to sacrifice the ability to have a family as well.

Let’s say you’re having a rough week, what do you do or think to keep yourself going?

I’ve been having rough weeks more often than not recently, because I only just returned to work from maternity leave at the end of February. What gets me through the rough times is thinking about my two girls, one who is almost 3 and the other four months old. No matter how crazy it is in the lab or with my teaching, they are always so happy to see me when I get home that it helps me reset a tough day. Plus, I think of how I want to be their role model in the future, to show them that they have no limits in the careers they can pursue.

Dr. Jillian Nissen with her graduate principal investigator, Dr. Stella Tsirka.

Do you have any tips or advice for young women scientists in your field?

My advice would be to find a great mentor as soon as possible; this person has to be someone you can be completely open and honest with about your career goals, fears, and aspirations. I know this is difficult because it’s often that people in graduate programs decide that a career in academia is not for them, and it can be a hard conversation to have when your PI chose that path. This is why it doesn’t necessarily have to be your PI, just someone who can be a safe space for you to obtain honest feedback about your future. I was extremely lucky that my mentor was my PI for my graduate studies, Dr. Stella Tsirka. She showed me that it was possible to be a productive, engaged scientist and also be there for all of your family’s needs as well. My other advice to those dealing with life changes like marriage, pregnancy, childbirth, etc., is to not be afraid to ask for help. I found my peers to be incredibly supportive throughout all these major events in my scientific career.

Author: sbugwise

We are the Graduate Women in Science and Engineering group at Stony Brook University and we are dedicated to supporting women in STEM fields.

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