Skip to main content

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.

The Five C’s to Follow When Monitoring Your Child’s Screen Time

A child using a tablet.

Not all screen time is created equal for kids and teens. As digital devices have swiftly displaced classrooms, playgrounds, and playdates, here are 5 practical tips from experts in digital media, parenting, and pediatrics to help parents navigate the daily screen time dilemma.

A child using a tablet.

For parents that may be feeling guilty about the amount of time their kids are spending on digital devices during the COVID-19 pandemic, a recent New York Academy of Sciences panel convened experts in pediatrics, education, and digital media to weigh in on how best to use digital media in balance as a family, find quality content, set expectations around healthy use, and protect kids’ physical and mental health.

To optimize your child’s screen time, experts encourage parents to consider these five C’s:

1.  Content

Engagement with high quality content that stokes kids’ curiosity, builds new skills, fuels the imagination, and avoids conflict situations, is more critical than the overall quantity of screen time.

2.  Context

Don’t think of virtual school classes and video chats with remote family members as generic ‘screen time’. Reframe this as valuable ‘education time’ and ‘family time’. Experts also encourage co-viewing of media – the use of digital media with other family members – over solitary use.

3.  Connection

It’s important that kids are connecting on a personal level while watching, reading or playing on a digital device. Are they engrossed, enlightened, or engaged in critical and strategic thinking?

4.  Creativity

Does the medium allow your child to create new content – be it new art, photography, songs, or video? Creativity affords kids more ownership of their digital learning experience.

5.  Conversation

While parents cannot participate in every moment of their child’s digital experience, they can ask their children about their experience after the fact. Follow-up with your child at dinner time or bedtime and have them tell you what you – as a parent – missed in the most recent episode or game of what your child watched or played.

Finally, the experts reinforced that only you can know what activities create meaning for your family, support your family’s goals, and help family members cope during challenging times.

This article was originally published on LinkedIn.

Beyond Spacesuits and Pain Relievers: Could we Genetically Protect Astronaut Health on the Mission to Mars? 

Beyond Spacesuits and Pain Relievers: Could we Genetically Protect Astronaut Health on the Mission to Mars? On May 12, 2020, I hosted a virtual conversation for the New York Academy of Sciences with astrobiologist Kennda Lynch, PhD (Lunar and Planetary Institute), geneticist Christopher Mason, PhD (Weill Cornell Medicine), and planetary scientist Lucianne Walkowicz, PhD (The JustSpace Alliance; Adler Plantarium) exploring some of the physical—and ethical—obstacles to be surmounted for a successful human mission to Mars.

By Brooke Grindlinger, PhD

Much has been written about finding the next Earth—a planetary body to serve as future outpost for the human race as Earth’s life-sustaining natural resources dwindle. But Mars won’t exactly offer a warm welcome to unshielded humans: an average temperature of -80°F/-62°C, an atmosphere of 96% toxic carbon dioxide, a surface covered in fine red dust, and a hefty dose of radiation constantly tearing through your DNA. Hostile welcome aside, we first have to get there safely.

Are We There Yet?

With current jet propulsion technologies, and depending on the position of the red planet in its orbit, the shortest journey from Earth to Mars is estimated to take 6 months. As revealed by NASA’s study of identical twins Scott and Mark Kelly—undertaken before, during, and after Scott embarked on his one-year mission on the International Space Station—long-term space flight can exact a multitude of transient and permanent effects on the human body: from loss of muscle tone and bone density to changes in vision and the body’s ability to repair itself. A round trip is expected to eclipse the lifetime maximum recommended dosage of radiation. We humans are hardy, but are we tough enough for the mission to Mars?

Beyond the Whims of Evolution

While we don’t yet know if there is life on Mars, or if it had life in the past, a peek at the vast diversity of life right here on Earth reveals lifeforms that can survive in harsh environments that resemble the Martian surface. Some extremophiles—organisms that thrive in high radiation or very dry, salty, acidic, hot or cold settings—may be better equipped than Homo sapiens for life on Mars. Could they serve as a genetic reservoir in which to fish for talents and traits that if introduced into humans would make us more resilient? The gene editing technique CRISPR, or the synthetic redesign of organisms to engineer new abilities, could propel astronaut preparation forward through strategic genetic enhancement of the human body or the custom design of microbes that support daily life on Mars. Imagine a designer microbe that secretes materials that catalyze concrete production from Mars soil, or supports water production, waste disposal, or plant growth. Genes taken from the humble tardigrade—a microscopic creature genetically resistant to radiation damage—when inserted into human cells, have been shown to provide protection against radiation. Along with physical and pharmacological protections—from spacesuits to pain relievers—could we safely genetically protect astronaut heath? And if so, should we?

The Big Experiment

When human medical studies are conducted, patients must be fully apprised of the risks and willingly give their consent to participate. If at any time the patient wishes to leave the study, they can withdraw their consent and go home. No such U-turns will be available to astronauts when months into their journey to Mars. The risks associated with space travel are carefully calculated, and many regulations in place to protect astronaut health. However, as we push the human body to, and perhaps beyond, reasonable limits, this begs the question: are the health risks so high that extreme methods of protection like gene editing or synthetic biology would be justified? Are we in fact ethically bound to pursue these methods of protection because the risk of not pursuing them is too great? While these technologies are still in exploratory stages today, it’s intriguing to think of the future possibilities, and ethical quandaries, that may be realized on the fourth or fifth generation missions to Mars. Mars may only be half the size of Earth, but it will pack one heck of a sensory punch for the astronauts anticipated to touch down on the red planet by 2035. As the fantastic future of human space travel continues to unfold before us, the challenges of sustaining human life in space should, in parallel, drive us to live more sustainably here on Earth in the here and now.

This article was originally published on LinkedIn.

5 Reasons Scientific Prizes Are Good For The World

If athletes and celebrities can be recognized for their achievements, why can’t scientists?

By Brooke Grindlinger, PhD

Every October, the world learns who will be the newest members of a very elite circle known as Nobel Laureates.

Whether or not you agree with the selection committee’s choices, the Nobel Prize is considered a career pinnacle of success and the annual announcement continues to captivate the media and general public in addition to the scientific community. This in part is due to the hefty prize purse, roughly $1.1 million, but also because of the body of work that the winners represent and its contributions to societal advances.

At the New York Academy of Sciences, we believe prizes like the Nobel and others help to advance scientific discovery, which in turn is good for the world. And if athletes and celebrities can be recognized for their achievements why shouldn’t scientists? But we also believe that acknowledgement of early-career work is equally important.

We administer two scientific prizes that in the past 15+ years have helped boost the careers of more than 450 young scientists pursuing unconventional ideas and new directions with the fearlessness and creativity of youth: the Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists and the Innovators in Science Award. While many people may be familiar with the concept of a science grant, the purpose of a scientific prize—such as the Nobel or the Blavatnik Awards—may be less clear. Here are just a few of the reasons scientific prizes are important to the pursuit of science, the scientific community, and the public, at large.

1. Recognition

In addition to receiving cash and prestige, awardees receive recognition for their instrumental role in making key advances in areas of science in the service of humanity. This type of recognition can lead to acceptance of a paradigm-shifting idea, allocation of funding and resources to a particular area of research, and increased awareness of a research topic. For rising young talent, it can cement the shift from local player to the global stage. And while not every discipline’s importance may be readily understood by lay audiences, such as Astrophysics or Mathematics, the attention drawn from the award can still confirm the importance of the achievement.

2. Platform

Scientists are not always the most proactive advocates for their own work. So a nomination for an award, typically made by nominees’ respective institutions and/or colleagues, is itself a validation of their work. Being one’s own spokesperson also involves flexing a set of communication skills, not often utilized in the lab. Whether it is vying for a nomination, distilling complex ideas for a broader audience or giving TV or radio interviews about the research—these experiences help scientists fine-tune their skills in communicating science, not only to other scientists and stakeholders, but to funders and the general public.

3. Public Awareness and Engagement

Media buzz around awards can boost public awareness and engagement in science. Scientific innovation continues to shape the nature of modern life as we know it: from antibiotics and vaccination to the internet and smartphones. Actively promoting the role of science, and scientists, in the development of the tools and technologies we often take for granted today, reinforces the need for continued public funding of science. The voices of scientists and a scientifically literate public are equally important in the critical ongoing dialogue on science and evidence-based policy-making.

4. Role Models

Awards create positive role models in the scientific community. These men and women, drawn from across the globe, inspire young students to pursue careers in science, and drive current scientists to strive for excellence. Both are key to maintaining a strong pipeline of talent in STEM and essential if America is to remain competitive in a global economy.

5. Flexibility

As the funding climate for scientific research continues to grow increasingly challenging, awards can help ease financial tensions, whether personal or in the lab. More stable funding allows scientists to take on additional or high-risk, high-return projects not otherwise supported by traditional avenues of funding.

By recognizing and honoring those individuals that have made significant contributions to science, through the presentation of scientific awards, we continue to elevate the bar of scientific progress and its positive impact on humanity and promote the breakthroughs in science and tech that will define how our world will look over the next century.

This post was originally published on LinkedIn and has been updated.