Maryam Zaringhalam

“I have a small confession: I actually hate bench work. Pipetting is really not for me. The part I love about being a scientist is hanging around with my labmates and just letting our imaginations run wild with what could be going on in the organisms we study. That’s the most fun for me. People often don’t appreciate how valuable an active imagination is for doing science. But imagination is essential when you’re constantly trying to come up with hypotheses and explanations for the weird, unexpected things we see in the lab. Then the scientific method comes in to check those hypotheses and keep us honest.”

I did always want to be a scientist. I liked the way science let me think about the world. I remember once during class, a teacher popped on all these horrible things that could happen to your DNA — it breaks apart, a letter falls off, it sticks to itself in the wrong way, it mutates. Then he explained the different kinds of carcinogens that make your DNA go haywire. And oxygen — as in the thing we breathe to live — was one of them! It just made me think what?! How are we not dead when everything around us is trying to kill us?! Then he explained DNA repair machinery (because obviously we’re not all dead so there has to be some way to explain that). Just thinking about all the things I learned in biology class and how they happen inside me and allow me to study them is what really got me hooked on science in school, and keeps me going now. It’s a little goofy, but it’s true.”

Can you think of a specific time when you found science or pursuing science challenging?

“All the time. Something they don’t teach you in school is that a lot of time in the lab is spent failing. There’s a lot of troubleshooting, silly mistake making, and head scratching in our day-to-day lives. But the small victories definitely make up for all the failures because you’ve done something that should be impossible: come one teeny tiny baby step closer to understanding the way the world around us works. It’s almost crazy that our experiments and hypotheses pan out as often as they do! Science demands optimism, but it’s not always easy to be optimistic.”

If you could give one piece of advice to young scientists or students, what would it be?

“I’ll give two.

Science isn’t what you read in textbooks. It’s about hunting down the gaps in our knowledge — the things that will wind up in textbooks 10, 20, 30 years into the future. That takes creativity and not memorization, so don’t be discouraged if you can’t remember everything you read in class.

Science is also not a body of facts that a bunch of brainy old white men discovered after dreaming up a perfect experiment. Science takes groups of people working together to tackle a problem. Scientists are humans who have their own set of biases and blind spots. So it works best when you have diverse points of view in the room so you can tackle that problem from all possible angles.”

Tell us about yourself outside of science. How do you spend your time outside of lab? 

“I love to write, though as I near graduation, I have less and less time for it. For a while, I was keeping a steady blog about the intersection between art and science called ArtLab, where I chose art pieces I really loved and talked about the science behind them. These days I’ve entered the podcasting world with a show called Science Soapbox I host with a couple other Rockefeller students — Devon Collins and Avital Percher. We talk about the many ways science intersect with society through policy and advocacy, which has been a fantastic way to meet great thinkers like CRISPR whiz George Church and women in science advocate Congresswoman Jackie Speier. I’m also a longform podcast addict, exercise fiend, and cat mama. So a generally well-rounded human.”

If you hadn’t pursued science, what would you have done instead?

“I always wanted to do science, but I’m very envious of investigative journalists and documentary makers. They can take really deep dives into a particular question and make something really gripping and immediate and compelling out of it. I suppose they’re a lot like scientists in that way — just without the jargon!”

Why did you decide to come to NYC?

“I came to NYC for college for all those cliché movie reasons. I grew up in a New Jersey suburb outside of the city and didn’t feel much like I belonged. I had a small group of friends that shared my weird sense of humor but for the most part was pretty shy and kept to my books. So when I graduated, I went to NYU looking for more diversity and all that weirdness NYC promises. Sure enough, I found my niche and (except for a quick stint working in the Middle East) have been here ever since.”

What is the funniest/strangest thing you have seen in NYC?

“I was coming home from one of Prospect Park’s summer concerts last year and saw a man bathing on the subway platform. The most curious part of the scene, though, was how he got a bucket filled with water down to the platform.”

If you were a lab animal/model organism, which would you be and why?

“I’d be a bacteriophage, a virus that “eats” bacteria. They were discovered around 1915 and are super simple bugs made up of a protein coat that encapsulates its genome. But even though we’ve been studying them for over a century, we still don’t know a whole heck of a lot about their biology and diversity. So I think they’re a great reminder that scientists should always stay humble.”

Maryam Zaringhalam is a graduate student / molecular biologist at The Rockefeller University. In the lab, Maryam tinkers with parasites and computers to understand how small changes to our genetic building blocks can affect how we look and function. Maryam also created Science Confessionals, an open-yet-anonymous forum for scientists to let it all out & Artlab, a series that pairs scientists with artists. Because she’s that good, she also podcasts with Science Soapbox, exploring science and policy. Maybe you saw her articles on science diplomacy & biological nonproliferation in Mali

Through Scientists of New York (SoNY), we hope to change the stereotypical perceptions of what a scientist looks like and highlight how scientists come from a huge variety of backgrounds.

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