March is Women’s History Month, a time when women who have challenged—and continue to challenge—traditional roles are celebrated. In part four of our series, we introduce you to Karyn Hamilton, PhD, a professor in the Department of Health and Exercise Science at Colorado State University. (Read part one, part two and part three).
What is your title/role?
I am co-director of the Translational Research on Aging and Chronic Disease Laboratory at Colorado State University.
What’s your area of research?
We study aging—particularly the role of stress resistance, resilience, mitochondrial function and proteostasis in delaying aging and increasing health span. We have a deep interest in skeletal muscle aging, though we make measurements in many other tissue types.
How did you become interested in science? Were there women scientists who influenced you/you admired?
My first real interest in science started with food. Food was always a focus as a child, an athlete and finally as an undergraduate student in food and nutritional biochemistry. I never really noticed that women were underrepresented in science during my undergraduate training, probably because women have always been at the heart of food science and nutritional sciences. One example is Agnes Fay Morgan (1884–1968). Dr. Morgan, an influential scientist at UC-Berkeley, made important contributions to current knowledge about vitamins and health. She showed that pantothenic acid (vitamin B5) is essential for normal coloring of hair and skin by demonstrating that a diet deficient in the B vitamins resulted in depigmentation fox hair. This led to the graying pattern of the then-fashionable silver fox furs. When Dr. Morgan presented these data and accepted the Garvan Medal of the American Chemical Society in 1939, she wore two fox stoles: one from a control animal, which had a deep lustrous shiny black coat, and another dingy gray pelt from a vitamin-deficient animal that was half the size of the other!
I also admire a number of modern-day women in my field. Drs. Wendy Kohrt, Esther Dupont-Versteegden, Charlotte Peterson and Sue Bodine all serve as role models for me. Their rigorous approach to science, influential discoveries in the field of skeletal muscle physiology, and leadership and advocacy for women in science set them apart—not just as women in science, but as leaders in scientific excellence.
What do you like most about your job?
Three of my favorite parts are:
- Collaboration: Pooling individual strengths into larger collaborations with greater resource availability, problem-solving, creativity, techniques and analytical approaches is vital and leads to discoveries with greater impact.
- Innovation: It’s an important aspect of scientific inquiry, and the innovative approaches we develop in our lab foster paradigm-shifting research and drive new collaborations.
- Teamwork: A “party of one” is far less enjoyable than a group sharing enthusiasm for a common goal.
What are your biggest challenges?
Juggling many responsibilities—all of which I want to fulfill to the very best of my abilities—and keeping the research team happy and cared for. Learning to mentor and respond to individual student needs is both challenging and rewarding.
What would you say to young girls with an interest in science/physiology? How would you encourage them to pursue their studies?
Girls [should] never learn that they have less of a chance of success in STEM compared to boys—or compared to their potential achievements in other fields. They should be free to choose what they find most interesting. Helping young people engage in fun STEM activities at an early age is important. Male and female mentors in the sciences are critical.