Tell us about your family:
My husband, Patrick Hayden, and I are both from Pelham, Alabama. We both attended the University of Montevallo for our undergraduate work and we are both chemists. We currently have one son, Wesley, who is 3 years old and constantly keeps us on our toes!
What is your profession?
I am an assistant professor of chemistry at Birmingham-Southern College. I currently teach biochemistry, medicinal chemistry and advanced biochemistry. In addition to my courses, I mentor students in their own research, and help to coordinate internship experiences within the sci-tech industry across the state.
I am also a co-founder and director of research for Blondin Bioscience. Our focus at Blondin is on developing better diagnostics to help patients beat cancer. Currently, we are working on a blood test that oncologists can use after a patient starts treatment in order to better understand whether or not the treatment is working effectively. If the treatment is not working effectively, both doctors and patients can make better decisions on how to get to the optimal treatment pathway faster. This test will allow us to save precious time for patients, which could ultimately save their lives as well as save money by switching sooner from unnecessary treatments that are not effective.
What made you choose this profession?
By the time my father was diagnosed with brain cancer in 1997 following a seizure at work, his disease had progressed so rapidly that his prognosis was only two months to live. Following surgery and multiple rounds of radiation treatment, he managed to cling on for 17 months and passed shortly after my 16th birthday. At 20, I was diagnosed with very early stage cervical cancer, had a pretty routine and mild surgical procedure and have been cancer free since then. It was at that point that I realized the difference between my dad losing his battle to cancer and me surviving was because we are able to routinely screen for cervical cancer in order to catch mine in its earliest stages. I think that was when I decided that I wanted to get into cancer research, specifically diagnostics. In my opinion, the only cure to cancer is early detection, and I make it a personal mission to ensure anyone around me takes advantage of the few routine cancer screenings we have available.
The revelation that I wanted to teach at the college level came much later in life while I was at UAB working on my Ph.D. During that time, we were required to teach undergraduate lab courses as part of our appointment to the school. It was through these experiences I discovered that not only did I have a passion to help young adults further their own knowledge and skill set, but that I really enjoyed teaching. I also find the process of learning and the research behind how students process, learn and apply knowledge to create new and innovative solutions to be really fascinating.
How did Montevallo affect your career path?
My undergraduate education at Montevallo was pivotal in my career. Not only did it provide me with a diverse foundation of knowledge for which a liberal arts education affords, but it also equipped me with the tools and skills I needed to grow as a lifelong learner. In addition to the challenging and rich classroom experiences, my undergraduate research experiences with both Dr. Mike Hardig and Dr. Cindy Tidwell revealed my desire and aptitude for scientific research. Both were very different projects; however, both demonstrated clearly to me that in order to come up with creative solutions to our existing problems, a scientist must draw upon an extensive set of critical thinking skills and strategies, and must utilize a broad array of diverse perspectives; and I found that aspect of research fascinating.
What awards/honors have you received?
Because I had to pay my own way through college with no family support, the Freshman Leadership Scholarship from UM was by far the most significant award/honor I could have received. Without it, I would not have been able to afford such a high-quality undergraduate education.
In the past few years, I have also been honored as a “Rising Star in Healthcare” by the Birmingham Business Journal (July 2016), as an “Innovator Changing the South” by Southern Living Magazine (April 2016), received the Graduate Fellowship award in 2014/2015 from UAB and was recognized for “Innovations in Chemistry Instruction” award by UAB in 2013.
What is the best advice you have received?
Not to focus on the result of a project, but on the process. As scientists, if we were to only fixate on a perfect end result, then we may miss some really interesting insight unveiled by the research process itself.
What is your favorite Montevallo memory?
I think it is a toss-up between working in the swamp during my work with Dr. Hardig, or traveling to my first professional conference to present my work with Dr. Tidwell. Both experiences allowed me to bridge both the creative and scientific aspects of my educational background. And who doesn’t like to explore Ebenezer Swamp during the summer months?
Please tell us about your educational foundation:
As a child, we moved a lot growing up, nearly 10 times. There were multiple years in which I attended three different schools in just one academic year. While this presented obvious challenges, it also allowed me to live in a wide array of different communities, to meet and learn from people from all sorts of different backgrounds and also gave me countless opportunities to learn how to adjust and adapt quickly. Eventually, my family ended up in Pelham where I finished high school and was awarded the Freshman Leadership Scholarship to UM.
While at Montevallo, I started out as a biology major. During my third year, I decided that for me, studying chemistry helped to further elucidate the questions I had about the physiological processes of the cell and I decided to double major in biology and chemistry. While this change required me to add an additional year to my studies, I knew it would be worth it, and it has been. In addition to my studies and research in school, I also worked more than 30 hours a week at various jobs in order to make ends meet. This experience allowed me to quickly learn how to balance work with life; which is invaluable to someone who is now an academic researcher, educator, entrepreneur, consultant, wife and mother.
After Montevallo, I took a few years to explore my options while working at Avanti Polar Lipids as an analytical chemist, and quickly decided that I enjoyed analytical method development and validation, which is at the heart of molecular diagnostics. I then went to UAB for my master’s and Ph.D., where I studied under Dr. David Graves to probe the structural and thermodynamic properties of non-helical DNA structures. This research, in collaboration with our colleagues at the UAB Comprehensive Cancer Center, is eventually what led to the discovery and development of the technology being further developed and commercialized at Blondin Bioscience.
What is your secret for success?
Simply put, find something that you are passionate about for the right reasons and set an endgame career goal. Once you have the correct motivation and goal in mind, it is easy to map out the steps you need to take in order to meet that goal. While this motivation needs to be intrinsically driven (meaning coming from within yourself), you also need to surround yourself with people who will support and respect your choices while actively helping to foster your growth.
At the same time, however, you must maintain an open mind by allowing yourself to be open to new and unexpected experiences, and you must be critically reflective of the various aspects of your life. There are often times I surprise myself by drawing on my less conventional life experiences while navigating my career.
Do you have a favorite motto? If so, what is it?
“Failure keeps us humble.” As scientists, we must become proficient at handling failure and learn from it; otherwise we will sink.
What are your hobbies?
To earn some side cash throughout undergraduate and graduate school, I also worked as an “un”professional photographer. I really enjoy getting to help friends and family archive their memories through pictures. I also knit, love to read fiction (specifically fantasy and horror) and am an avid horror movie buff!
What is new?
Becoming a parent! Getting to watch my son learn and experience life has been such an awesome adventure! And I love having an excuse to act like a kid again myself!