A World of STEM Possibilities

A molecular biologist with a Ph.D. in genetics and genomics, Zakiya Whatley has been a researcher, professor, and podcaster during her scientific career – or her “episodic journey,” as she called it. “It’s more like Netflix’s ‘Are you still watching?’” she laughed, making the point that there really is no set STEM career path that must be steadfastly followed. “It’s any path you take,” she said.

Addressing the school community on May 16, Dr. Whatley gave this year’s Bendheim Lecture, a speaker series established by a Middlesex parent in 2015 to bring inspiring experts in STEM fields to campus to share their professional experience. Accomplished, relatable, and funny, Dr. Whatley described her different interests and endeavors along her journey, encouraging similarly inclined students to focus on building strong skills – of observation and critical thinking – to best prepare for the future. “STEM of tomorrow is going to be different than STEM today,” she noted. “My parents thought that being in STEM meant being a doctor or nurse. I tried that, and blood is not for me!”

Her early interest in sports medicine led her to become certified as a nursing assistant in high school, but she soon switched from nursing to biology in college. Summers spent doing lab research in biology and epidemiology convinced Dr. Whatley that this might be her calling, and she decided to pursue her Ph.D. at Duke University.

She continued her studies with a post-doc at Gettysburg College and became an assistant professor there, working with students in her lab and honing her teaching style. Moving on to the University of Maryland, she served as the assistant director of the Biological Sciences Graduate Program for three years.

During that period, in 2018, Dr. Whatley and Titi Shodiya – a good friend from her years at Duke – created a podcast called “Dope Labs” with the goal of making science interesting and appealing to everyone. In their 48 completed episodes, the co-hosts have addressed everything from science denial and anxiety to nuclear energy and COVID-19. “I enjoy sharing information with lots of people,” Dr. Whatley said. “Every week, I get to do a deep dive into a different topic.” With the success of the podcast, she is now exploring visual media, developing a planetarium show about STEM with Boston’s Museum of Science.

“Nobody told me that being a science communicator was an option,” Dr. Whatley pointed out. Given the myriad opportunities that might lie ahead, she offered this advice to Middlesex students: “Everything you’re learning – all those skills – keep them. You never know when you’ll use them.” She also stressed the importance of building relationships along the way and keeping in touch with people. “You can carve your own way; there is no one right path,” she reiterated. “And STEM is only expanding.”