Meet Dr. Lisa Vrooman

Written by Pamela Monahan and Dawit Tesfaye in Celebration of Asian Pacific Islander Desi American Heritage Month

In celebration of Asian Pacific Islander Desi American Heritage month, Diversity Committee members Dr. Pamela Monahan and Dr. Dawit Tesfaye virtually sat down with Oregon Health and Science University Assistant Professor, Dr. Lisa Vrooman.

What is your current position, and what does it entail?

I am currently an Assistant Professor within the Division of Reproductive and Developmental Sciences at the Oregon National Primate Research Center at Oregon Health and Science University. My position is similar to most traditional academic research-focused positions. My activities focus on managing and completing my laboratory’s research goals and performing service for my Division and the University. At this time, I have no formal teaching obligations but do mentor trainees.

Can you talk a little bit about yourself, where are you from? What first attracted you to the world of science? And how did you get to be in your current position?

I was born and raised in the San Gabriel Valley in southern California– a highly vibrant and diverse community with beautiful weather. After graduating high school, I was not sure what I wanted to do. I attended Pasadena Community College to figure out my passion. I was pretty sure I wanted to be a writer of some kind. During a semester abroad in Oxford, England, I fell in love with science/biology/medicine. I transferred to California State University Long Beach to major in Biology. I was fortunate enough to join the laboratory of Dr. Kelly Young, who studied ovarian biology in a Siberian hamster model. I attended my first SSR as an undergraduate in 2007 and I was hooked. I knew I wanted to apply to Ph.D. programs and that I was interested in reproductive biology. From there my path was pretty traditional: I chose to attend Washington State University because of their thriving Center of Reproductive Biology and I joined the lab of Dr. Patricia Hunt. My dissertation focused on the effects of developmental bisphenol A exposure on spermatogenesis. I then went on to do postdoctoral work investigating the epigenetic changes induced by in vitro fertilization with Dr. Marisa Bartolomei at the University of Pennsylvania, recipient of this year’s SSR Research Award. I started my lab at ONPRC/OHSU in January 2021 where I continue to investigate IVF procedures and questions relevant to the developmental origins of health and disease utilizing both mouse and non-human primate models.

What impact has the pandemic had on your daily activities and your research?

The pandemic has certainly made an impact. I went on the job market in 2019 and had a verbal offer from OHSU in the fall of 2019. Everything came to a halt in March 2020. I was fortunate enough to return to my postdoc lab by mid-June and continue with experiments while I waited with some uncertainty about when I would be able to start my lab at OHSU. Moving across the country and starting a lab in January 2021 was also an experience. It took several months to get some of our essential equipment and supplies, I made my first hire over Zoom, and overall it was pretty quiet with a lot of people still working from home. Luckily, I have a very supportive Chair and a great group of colleagues at OHSU who have helped any time we’ve needed it.

Have you gained any valuable lessons from life during the pandemic?

I think if anything, it has helped remind me to: be patient, to think ahead, and to do what I can, when I can, as best I can. It has also shown me the best side of scientists as we helped each other professionally but also emotionally during this trying time.

What are you most excited to do over the next year?

I’m really excited to see the lab grow! Right now, it’s just me and my Senior Research Assistant. This summer, we will gain another research technician, a Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility Fellow, an undergraduate fellow, and a high school intern. OHSU graduate students will also be able to rotate in the lab starting in the Fall. There is a unique energy and momentum from having young scientists in the lab and I’m looking forward to mentoring and generating lots of data.

What words of inspiration would you like to share with the future generation of scientists?

These come from my own personal experience and I think they are helpful to keep in mind for any job environment, not just academia.
My list of DON’Ts:
-Don’t let fear keep you from learning and trying new things.
-Don’t give up when things don’t go as you had planned.
-Don’t take rejection or criticism personally.
My list of DOs:
-Do work hard and take advantage of experiences during your training. It will eventually be over and you don’t want to look back with regret.
-Do keep in touch with your mentors and peers. You never know what doors will open for you through your network.
-Do take care of your physical and mental health. We all have pushed it short-term, but long-term, getting enough sleep, eating well, and taking care of health issues are important for a happy, healthy scientist.

Are there ways in which you think your heritage has affected your perspective or career trajectory?

As someone who is biracial, I’ve grown up with an appreciation of different cultures, upbringings, ways of communicating, and values. Unfortunately, I’ve also been acutely aware of the concepts of racism, discrimination, stereotyping, white privilege, and cultural erasure from a very young age. I think my biracial lens has contributed to my being a big proponent of cultural awareness/sensitivity training and my personal opinion that the best science is done by highly diverse teams, from the individual laboratory to the institution level. I knew I wanted to work at a university that valued diversity.

Lisa Vrooman Twitter – @la_vrooman; Pamela Monahan Twitter – @DrPamMonahan; Dawit Tesfaye Twitter – @DtesDawit

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