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Staff Spotlight: Brooke Grindlinger, PhD

This series provides an opportunity to get up close and personal with the people who power The New York Academy of Sciences.

Tell us what you do for the Academy.

As the Chief Scientific Officer at The New York Academy of Sciences, I lead the scientific development and growth of a diverse range of scientific programs, courses, and initiatives that support scientists-in-training, STEM professionals, as well as engage and educate science enthusiasts. By fostering collaborations among academia, industry, and government I help to drive advances in science and innovation for the betterment of society.

I also champion women in STEM, host thought-provoking conversations with scientific changemakers, and share my expertise through public speaking and writing to emphasize the pivotal role of science in shaping a brighter future for all.

What has so far been your proudest accomplishment working for the Academy?

Brooke at the Inaugural Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists, Israel

Undoubtedly, collaborating with billionaire philanthropist and industrialist Sir Leonard Blavatnik to launch the Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists program in the United Kingdom and Israel, offering the largest unrestricted prizes for early-career scientists. This program supports pioneering young scientists doing research in areas such as climate change mitigation, pandemic preparedness, sustainable farming, renewable energy storage, mental health treatments, cybersecurity, and water purification.

It has been incredibly rewarding to help scientists at that critical — and often vulnerable — juncture in their career when they are transitioning from trainee to lead investigator. It’s a time when recognition and funding can have perhaps the greatest impact. I often have the privilege of calling the award recipients to surprise them with the news that they have won. It’s a great day at the office when someone bursts into joyful tears in response to your phone call. Helping others succeed is one of the best ways to leave your mark on the world.

There are also quiet moments, one-on-one with someone, that have made me proud of the work I do. I love to host engaging conversations with dynamite scientists about their latest discoveries, and in doing so hope to elicit in audiences the same awe and wonder that I feel about the science of the world around us. A high school-aged girl approached me during a coffee break at a public scientific symposium that I hosted in London in 2022. She grabbed my elbow and said, “You are so inspirational.” I see every second of my work as an opportunity to be a mentor and role model for aspiring young women who harbor dreams of becoming scientists.

Tell us about your STEM journey. How did you first become interested in science? How did you get to where you are today?

As an undergraduate student at university, I attended a lecture that had a reputation for turning stomachs, so much so that students were advised not to eat breakfast beforehand. Students were not required to take notes, just to watch and listen. What followed was a graphic slide show showing how infectious diseases can ravage the human body.

I left the lecture hall wondering: with all the organisms around us, on us, and inside us, how is it that we wake up essentially “healthy” every day? I was immediately hooked on the field of microbiology. As a graduate student in my native Australia, I studied the organism that causes tuberculosis, to develop a more effective vaccine against this now highly antibiotic-resistant infectious lung disease.

During college and graduate school, there were no female lecturers or women leading research labs in my field. This absence of female role models, mentors, and sponsors in scientific research made it challenging for me to envision a future for myself in the field. Back then, the typical paths for postgraduate research scientists were either securing a tenure-track faculty position at a university, combining research and teaching, or transitioning into the pharmaceutical or medical device industry.

Looking back, I didn’t have the inside scoop on alternative career options for PhD scientists beyond the lab. If I didn’t pursue a traditional academic career path I worried: Would I still be “a real scientist”? Unlike most early-career scientists, I found more satisfaction in writing my research thesis than in conducting bench research. Crafting the narrative, exploring the known and unknown, and revealing how my work contributed to a larger puzzle were my true passions. That was my signal that science communications might be my alternative career path.

I relocated from Australia to New York City in 2001 and joined the Editorial Board of The Journal of Clinical Investigation, a prestigious medical journal. As Science Editor, my responsibility was to identify, evaluate and solicit groundbreaking research from universities for publication. I had to swiftly shift from a niche science expert to a generalist, evaluating the work of fellow scientists and swiftly grasping cutting-edge research and treatments for many different human diseases. It was a remarkable chance to expand my biomedicine expertise, cultivate a global network of expert scientists, build my insider knowledge, and contribute to steering the direction of scientific research in the community, at scale.

As a medical journal editor, I frequented The New York Academy of Sciences, regularly participating in its scientific and medical conferences. I swiftly recognized the transferability of my technical and communication skills to the organization’s mission: bringing together top scientific minds to exchange new information and collaborate on science-based solutions for society’s pressing challenges.

Over a decade ago, I joined the Academy’s staff as the Director of the Life Sciences conference portfolio. Transitioning to the nonprofit sector marked another significant career pivot, my first foray into nonprofit business administration, a world apart from my expertise as a microbiologist. In addition to staying current with science and curating cutting-edge programming, my role expanded to include budget management for a standalone business unit, securing program sponsors and donors, negotiating partnerships and contracts, building and mentoring a team of former academic scientists (including many women), and serving as a spokesperson on various platforms to raise awareness of the Academy’s work.

This unique skill set combined science with business management; a path rarely envisioned at the start of a scientific career. Today, as CSO, on any given day my role might involve advocating for science-based policy changes at the United Nations, meeting with university or company leaders for collaborations, creating social media content celebrating women scientists during Women’s History Month, coaching young scientists on communication skills, or selecting deserving researchers for funding to support their ambitious scientific endeavors.

My scientific career represents a journey along the road less traveled — a shift not just from the traditional path of lab scientist to steering influential, mission-driven scientific initiatives, but also a response to the glaring absence of women role models in STEM, a desire to transition from deep expertise in a niche area to a comprehensive understanding of all facets of science and tech, and the need for trusted voices to challenge scientific misinformation. Once a singular force driving discovery in a niche domain, today as a C-suite leader of a nonprofit, I can empower countless scientists, shaping the collective future of science itself.

Brooke with Mae Jemison, 2017

Why, in general, are you proud to work for the Academy?

The Academy has brought together the leading minds in science to solve global challenges for over 200 hundred years. It’s a true privilege – for this moment in time – to serve as one of the stewards of scientific discovery, dialogue, and dissemination during the Academy’s history.

Why do you think science is so important to society?

Science nurtures our innate curiosity and is the primary tool for understanding the world around us. It transcends borders and cultures and leads to new discoveries and technological advances that improve our quality of life, from medicine to transportation.

Investment in science has led to economic growth and countless inventions that have evolved into products that today we’d all find hard to live without: from camera phones and the computer mouse to water purifiers and wireless headsets, from dust busters to memory foam mattresses. Science is also crucial for addressing environmental challenges like climate change and provides the data and analysis necessary for informed policymaking. The scientific discoveries made today will shape how our world looks over the coming century.

Which scientist (or scientists) would you most like to have dinner with and why?

Here’s who I’d love to have around my dinner table:

At the Pyramids at Giza, Egypt, 2023

One, the legendary naturalist and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough. His lifelong dedication to wildlife conservation and environmental advocacy has ignited global awareness and action for the planet’s well-being. And let’s not forget that voice!

Two, astronaut, physician, and engineer Mae Jemison who made history by becoming the first African American woman to travel in space. She was a mission specialist on the Space Shuttle Endeavor launched in 1992. I met her at an Academy event in 2017 and had to try very hard not to cry with joy in what was a very special moment meeting an inspirational woman in STEM.

Three, primatologist Jane Goodall for her depth of understanding of chimpanzees and their behavior, and for promoting animal welfare and conservation.

Then, let’s throw in fictional intrepid archeologist Indiana Jones and the always rational, skeptical, and analytical FBI Special Agent Dana Scully from the X-Files. Add me as host, and my dinner table for six is complete!

What hobbies or interests do you have outside of work?

Travel, travel, travel — for the thrill of discovering new cultures, savoring exotic cuisines, forming connections with people from around the world, and marveling at the beauty and diversity of our planet. I just returned from exploring Egypt. The legacy of Egyptian engineering, seen in the precision of their architectural marvels, serves as a timeless testament to human creativity, innovation and determination.

Staff Spotlight: Carrie Bates

A woman smiles for the camera.

This series provides an opportunity to get up close and personal with the people who power The New York Academy of Sciences.

A woman smiles for the camera.

Tell us what you do for the Academy.

I help donors identify the areas of the Academy’s work that they care most about, and I share ways for them to support that work. I also help donors understand that their collective support makes it possible for the Academy to drive innovative solutions to society’s most pressing challenges.

What has so far been your proudest accomplishment working for the Academy?

One of my proudest moments thus far has been securing underwriting support to ensure the success of the many cancer-focused conferences that are organized by The New York Academy of Sciences. Many of my extended family members and friends are cancer survivors or cancer patients and two years ago I decided to move back to New York to be able to spend more time with them. I am proud to be able to work with The New York Academy of Sciences and know that we are convening researchers, clinicians, and industry leaders to create a brighter future in cancer treatment.

A tiny tree front is perched on a woman's hand.

Why do you think science is so important to society?

I think science is important to society because science helps us address the top challenges that we all face together, like creating a sustainable future for life on this planet.

What scientist (or scientists) would you most like to have dinner with and why?

A family of four and their dog pose outside for the camera.

I would most like to have dinner with Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson. She is a trailblazer and has had a long career as a scientist, educator, and leader. She believes in being intentional in the inclusion of women and people of color in the STEM fields. She believes that in order to use the power of science to uplift people’s lives, we must tap the complete talent pool and provide the resources needed to grow the talent pool. She recognizes that there has been progress, that more progress is possible, and that more progress is needed. In every place she goes, she strives to make a positive difference. She is relentless, tenacious and resilient, and I look forward to learning more from her.

What hobbies or interests do you have outside of work?

My family and I enjoy the outdoors and we spend as much of our free time as we can with our extended family and friends exploring and learning through outdoor activities like hiking, viewing wildlife and camping.

Staff Spotlight: Sonya Dougal, PhD

A woman smiles for the camera.

Sonya Dougal, Senior Vice President of Scientific Programs and Awards, talks about her STEM journey.

A woman smiles for the camera.

Tell us what you do for the Academy.

When I first came to the Academy, I was a program manager on the conferences team. The very first conference that I planned from start to finish was on neural prosthetics, called Building Better Brains: Neural Prosthetics and Beyond (or something like that!), which was funded by the Aspen Brain Forum. It was awesome.

Now, more than ten years later, in my current role I provide strategic oversight for the conferences portfolio across life sciences, physical sciences and engineering and sustainability. I also oversee our awards portfolio, which includes the Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists, as well as the Takeda Innovators in Science Award and the Tata Transformation Award. I also oversee our fellowship programs for postdoctoral sciences, which include our AI and Society Program with Arizona State University, as well as the Leon Levy Scholarships in Neuroscience.

What has so far been your proudest accomplishment working for the Academy?

I have two answers. I’m really proud of some work we did to develop the Alzheimer’s disease and dementia initiative. We brought together a public-private partnership and a consortium of scientists across sectors who shared the common goal of accelerating drug development for Alzheimer’s disease. This was a few years ago, during a time when pharma was reducing their spending because we just didn’t understand the disease mechanisms.

So we brought that council together, and they came up with recommendations that were provided to the G10—the global summit on Alzheimer’s worldwide. We also launched the global Alzheimer’s platform for recruiting more subjects into clinical trials for Alzheimer’s, because that was one of the bottlenecks to accelerating research and development. So that was really nice to be able to see an idea become actionable programs that were impacting patients.

More recently, I’m really proud of the Leon Levy scholarships. When I was a postdoc in New York City in cognitive neuroscience, I would have loved to have had the opportunities that this scholarship provides. Not only is there a salary benefit, but the professional development opportunities that these scholars are receiving are going to be invaluable to them, no matter what career path they choose. If they stay in academia, it’ll help them set up their lab. If they leave academia, it’s going to help them to find a new job because they’ve been properly prepared. So it’s just been so gratifying for me to be a part of launching this new partnership.

Why, in general, are you proud to work for the Academy?

Well, for one thing, the Academy is a very old and esteemed scientific institution. But it’s an institution that’s changed and grown to meet the challenges in society and in science over the past 200 years. I love that the Academy has risen to the challenge during really important times in history. For instance, we were one of the first organizations to hold a scientific conference on HIV in the 80s when there was a lot of stigma associated with HIV.

I think that’s really important. I’m also really proud of the way that we bring scientists together across sectors and across disciplines and across stages in their careers. At one of my conferences, I had a line of postdocs and graduate students waiting to meet Jim Allison after he had won the Nobel Prize. That’s really special. There aren’t that many venues where, as a young trainee, you can meet your heroes in real life and have a chat with them about your research.

Tell us your STEM journey. How did you first become interested in science, and how did you pursue it to become who you are today?

I actually started out college thinking I was going to be a professional clarinet player. I wanted to go to a conservatory but my parents thought I needed to have a well-rounded liberal arts education, so I ended up going to a state school where I majored in music.

The thing was, I had really bad performance anxiety—I just hated going on stage. And that made me think a lot about what happens when we’re performing and how anxiety can impact skilled memory—the things that are so well practiced. So I ended up taking a psychology class, which really hooked me on thinking about the mind. Around that time, I found a research lab that was studying skilled memory. I loved that you could use the scientific method to answer questions and collect data and get some evidence for or against a hypothesis.

I loved that so much. So I switched majors, and the rest is history. I went to graduate school in Pittsburgh where I did behavioral research, and then when I came to NYU for my postdoc, I used brain imaging techniques to get to the same questions I had been studying as a graduate student.

Why do you think science is so important to society?

Because all of the major challenges in society can be addressed by science. Because science is at the heart of everything that we do, from explaining how the molecules in the matter that makes our desk fit together, to understanding how I choose the people I want to spend my time with. There’s science to explain everything in our lives.

Which scientist (or scientists) would you most like to have dinner with and why?

I would have dinner with Rudy Tanzi—he’s a neurologist at Mass General. He plays piano and he’s so much fun. Another person I think is really amazing is Richie Davidson, the cognitive neuroscientist who did the brain imaging studies of the Buddhist monks while they were meditating. He’s a personal friend of the Dalai Lama.

I’d also include Roland Griffiths—he died recently but since we can include those who have passed, I’m including him. He studied how psychedelics influence human behavior and disease can be used therapeutically. And I would also say Marie Curie because she was the only female scientist to win the Nobel Prize twice, and she’s Polish. I’m Polish too.

What hobbies or interests do you have outside of work?

Spending time with my son Thomas and my cats Cleopatra and Claude, going to the beach and gardening. And I love reading. Nabokov is my favorite author—you can’t go wrong with anything he’s written. One of the reasons I think I like his prose so much is he was trained as a scientist—he studied butterflies before he became a writer.

Another thing I still love to do is play the clarinet. I quit for a really long time, but a few years ago my son told his teacher I could play the clarinet, and she asked me to come in and play for the class. I hadn’t picked up the instrument in 20 years! And because I don’t do anything half-way, I went and found a teacher to get me ready to play for this little class of first graders! And I’ve continued to take lessons from him for the past few years.

Staff Spotlight: Thomas Gilbert

A man poses for the camera.

This series provides an opportunity to get up close and personal with the people who power The New York Academy of Sciences.

A man poses for the camera.

Tell us what you do for the Academy.

I advise programming and research directions for the newly launched AI & Society initiative. This includes mentoring of postdocs, maintenance of the weekly research seminar, and the preparation of new public-facing programs on critical societal topics.

What has so far been your proudest accomplishment working for the Academy?

During my second week here, I gave testimony to the New York City Council on the integration of AI into public schools. Our schools are asking whether or how chatbots should be used. Should they be banned? How should teachers assess students’ work? These are important questions. But we might ask a different question: Are the challenges AI poses to schools also an opportunity to re-articulate the aims of education itself? The Academy is drawing on our deep ties to both leading AI professionals and the academic institutions of New York City, with the goal of facilitating discussion on generative AI as the value of education is transformed. I invite students, parents, teachers, administrators, and citizens to join us on this journey and help generate a new articulation of the aims of AI and education in tandem.

What makes you proud to work for the Academy?

I agree with the Academy’s values as a scientific society, motivated to advance the public interest towards democratic ends. All three of these values are frankly missing or massively undervalued in the AI space at present.

Why is science important to society?

Science is important because it helps keep outlandish claims about technology and the future in check. Very few of the leading voices in AI right now have substantive, meaningful commitments to science, but they draw from its language and methods in order to lend objectivity and authority to their work. Restoring the relevance of science means clarifying how it actually works and why it is important, so that it is not mis-appropriated by bad actors. I have a blog, The Retort, whose theme is the fact that most technical work in AI is more like medieval alchemy than modern science.

Which scientist (or scientists) would you most like to have dinner with and why?

Top of mind for me is Carl Sagan. Sagan was a unique combination of scientific integrity and public communication. He was a genius at both and in particular how to use one to inform the other. Over dinner I feel I would both learn a lot about astrophysics and about human nature—about our collective relationship to the cosmos.

What hobbies or interests do you have outside of work?

I jog around the reservoir and garden in Riverside Park (my wife and I live on the Upper West Side of New York City). I also like to read for pleasure—my favorite books of all time are The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoyevsky and Moby-Dick by Melville. I reread them both on a semi-annual basis! A recent book I would also recommend is  Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen.

Staff Spotlight: Sanaz Masserat

A woman having fun and making a goofy face.

This series provides an opportunity to get up close and personal with the people who power The New York Academy of Sciences.

A woman having fun and making a goofy face.

Tell us what you do for the Academy.

I coordinate logistics, contact vendors, negotiate contracts, and manage platforms to support internal and external events.

What has so far been your proudest accomplishment working for the Academy?

Bringing together different departments to work together to host an Open House event that marked the official opening of the Academy’s new headquarters at 115 Broadway. Marketing helped Meeting Ops with printing and laminating; Meeting Ops supported Development with logistics; and on the day of the event, our executives helped us hang paintings! It was a mix of enthusiastic minds and tireless hands, and that collaboration delivered a successful evening.

Why do you think science is so important to society?

It spreads knowledge and improves education.

Which scientist (or scientists) would you most like to have dinner with and why?

Sir Isaac Newton. He was very shy—so shy that he would not share his findings on gravity! If not for a bet with friends that changed everything from there on, where would we be? I would love to sit down with him and just get him to talk, talk, talk and I would just listen, listen, listen.

What hobbies or interests do you have outside of work?

I love taking care of myself by spending time at a spa.

Staff Spotlight: Melanie Brickman Borchard, PhD, MSc

This series provides an opportunity to get up close and personal with the people who power The New York Academy of Sciences.

Tell us what you do for the Academy.

In my role as Director of Life Sciences, I’m responsible for supervising a diverse range of scientific symposia, evening events and workshops encompassing the fields of life sciences and public health. My role involves facilitating meaningful connections between academics, industry leaders, non-profit representatives, government officials and various stakeholders to foster innovation in science through the exchange of ideas.

What has so far been your proudest accomplishment working for The Academy?

One of the most fulfilling experiences during my tenure at the Academy was orchestrating our inaugural event post-pandemic. After two years of exclusively virtual conferences, the opportunity to reunite stakeholders from across the globe for the Advances in Pain conference was truly gratifying. Being the catalyst for the resurgence of enthusiasm within the scientific community and witnessing the restoration of in-person idea exchange and networking was immensely gratifying.

Why, in general, are you proud to work for the Academy?

I take immense pride in my long-standing tenure with the Academy because we serve as a beacon for the most accomplished and innovative individuals who are dedicated to advancing science, often through unconventional pathways. We are united by a shared aspiration to champion the highest standards for the progression of scientific knowledge.

A painting of a colorful flower bouquet.

Why do you think science is so important to society?

Science plays a vital role in society as it drives innovation and technological advancements, improving our quality of life. It helps us understand and address pressing global challenges, from climate change to public health crises. Furthermore, science empowers informed decision-making, fostering a more sustainable and prosperous future for all.

Which scientist (or scientists) would you most like to have dinner with and why?

If given the opportunity, I would like to have dinner with Dr. Paul Farmer, who is now deceased. He was a global health hero who brought medical care to the poor and marginalized. I have been a long admirer of his work pioneering community-based healthcare and championing equity in health care.

What hobbies or interests do you have outside of work?

I like to spend time with my family, go hiking in the desert, and paint.

Staff Spotlight: Adrienne Umali 

This series provides an opportunity to get up close and personal with the people who power The New York Academy of Sciences.

Tell us what you do for The Academy?

In my role, I manage K-12 School & Community Programs in New York City aimed at sharing the joys, relevance and importance of STEM with students.  

What has so far been your proudest accomplishment working for The Academy?

This past May we had our first in-person Science Student Showcase since the start of the pandemic. We invited students from 25 schools to share what they learned throughout the year and show off their science communication skills. I was so impressed with all the students, and their excitement was contagious. It felt great to be able to be in-person again and seeing the product of a year of work. 

You’re a scientist. How did you first become interested in science, and what has been the STEM journey that has brought you to where you are today?

In 5th grade I did a project on Thomas Edison where I built a model of a telegraph machine. It was so cool to learn about his life and all his inventions. I loved the idea of problem solving to make life easier, and it got me interested in how science and technology can do just that. 

One of Adrienne’s recent crochet creations

Why do you think science is so important to society?

Science is about asking questions and discovering knowledge, and I think that’s necessary for society to keep moving in a positive direction. 

Which scientist (or scientists) would you most like to have dinner with and why?

Marie Curie, because I’m sure she could tell amazing stories about the work the led her to TWO Nobel Prizes, and also stories about what it was like to live life in the 19th century. 

What hobbies or interest do you have outside of work?

I like crocheting, watching true-crime TV, and planning my next vacation! 

Staff Spotlight: Ben Ragen

Ben Ragen talks about his work as an editor of Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences and why art inspires him.

In a nutshell, tell us what you do for The Academy?

When I started at the Academy, I helped to administer the Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists. I reviewed nominations, collaborated with expert scientists and worked with the winners to help convey their research to a general audience. I now work as an Editor for our academic journal Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, where I help find reviewers for manuscript submissions, give input on which manuscripts should be considered for publication and copyedit papers to prepare them for publication.

What has so far been your proudest accomplishment working for The Academy?

Since I’ve served in two capacities for the Academy, I have two different “proudest accomplishment” answers. During my first year on the Blavatnik Team, I collaborated with Blavatnik Award Laureate Heather Lynch to get her ready to present her research—on the use of satellite machine learning to find Antarctic penguins—to the audience of the National Blavatnik Awards Symposium. I’m really proud of that. And more recently, as an editor, I’m very proud of the first special issue that I conceived and organized, which was on the Biology of Social Behavior. What a thrill for me when the first article of that special issue was published!

Why, in general, are you proud to work for The Academy?

I find the dissemination of science critical for society. This is particularly important in the current environment where there is a high level of science skepticism. I also enjoy seeing the excitement and awe in my friends, family and acquaintances when I tell them about the science I am discovering and reading.

What do you think science is so import to society?

Painting by Ben Ragen

Scientific discoveries have been crucial to improve the health of society. My family, like so many others in the world, have experienced illness and daily life challenges. Whenever someone I know recovers I always say, “YAY SCIENCE!” It’s a way to express my gratitude for all of the work, brilliance and creativity that scientists have brought to the table.

Which scientist (or scientists) would you most like to have dinner with and why?

A dinner with biologist, naturalist and author David Attenborough would be amazing.  As he is a fantastic storyteller, I would be able to listen to his incredible journeys observing the natural world, animal interactions and adventures.   

What hobbies or interests do you have outside of work?

I’m a painter and have shown and sold my work in local neighborhood art festivals.