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Women Scientist Profiles

Karen E. Nelson, Ph.D.

Karen E. Nelson, Ph.D.

Dr. Karen E. Nelson is the president of the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI) and the head of the microbiome program at Human Longevity, Inc. She received her undergraduate degree from the University of the West Indies and her Ph.D. from Cornell University.

Dr. Nelson has authored or co-authored more than 150 peer-reviewed publications and edited three books, and she is currently editor of the journal Microbial Ecology. She also serves on the editorial boards of BMC Genomics, GigaScience, and the Central European Journal of Biology. She is a member of the National Academies Board on Life Sciences, a Fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology, an honorary professor at the University of the West Indies, and a Helmholtz International Fellow.

Dr. Nelson’s career has focused on microbial ecology, microbial genomics, microbial physiology, and metagenomics. She has led several genomic and metagenomic efforts, including the first human metagenomics study, which was published in 2006.

How has mentorship (either as a mentor or mentee) shaped your career?

I always sought and relied on good mentors and would not have been successful without them. I suspect that many scientists, especially women, may be reluctant to ask for help because they are concerned they will look weak. But one of the great parts of being a scientist is that you are surrounded by more experienced people who can make a positive impact on your career.

In addition, it’s important to be open-minded and realize that there are many great mentors outside of science who can serve as wonderful role models for life in general. Since mentoring was so influential for me, I have also made it a priority for JCVI. Our internship programs are an important example of how we contribute to training the next generation of scientists, starting with students in high school.

What are some characteristics of a successful scientist?

Science can be a difficult field, and not just because of the technical knowledge. Research can be slow and disappointing, and we are often exposed to a lot of rejection (grants being rejected after working on them for weeks or months, manuscripts that have been submitted to journals, the promotion process, failed experiments). To be successful as a scientist, one has to be able to get past those setbacks, and that takes focus, drive, and determination.

What is the career achievement of which you are most proud?

I am very proud of the human microbiome paper my team and I published in 2006. Now, the microbiome is this new, hot topic that the media mentions all the time, but back then it was an unexplored research area. The work we did was the first of its kind and launched a major field of research. Sometimes it even amazes me how large it has grown, and it’s still growing.

Microbiome research could hold the keys to so many major human health concerns, from cancer to diabetes to mental health concerns. I’m glad to have been there at the beginning and excited to see where else the field may go in the next few decades.

What is the life achievement of which you are most proud?

Becoming president of JCVI is my crowning achievement. JCVI is, in my opinion, the most cutting-edge genetic institute in the world. Our legacy includes sequencing the first microbial genome, the first human genome, and the first human microbiome and creating the first self-replicating synthetic bacterial cell, just to name a few accomplishments.

To be here, at the center of the genomic revolution, and as a woman in a field that can tend to be male-dominated, is something I wouldn’t trade for anything.

What are the barriers to women in science?

One of the barriers is that women are often seen as less capable than men. This type of environment can discourage girls from pursuing science, even those who have scored well on science and math tests. Lack of confidence can be another barrier that holds women back, and when they have those doubts, they look around to see if there are other people who look like them succeeding—and there are not that many. So another potential barrier is lack of female role models in science. And even women who have succeeded in science may find themselves being asked to prove themselves over and over again for the duration of their careers.

This page last updated: June 10, 2016

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