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About our STEM Role Model

Dr. Misha Leong is a Postdoctoral scholar who studies insects at the California Academy of Sciences. She is currently involved in a “7 Continent Study” which is a project that explores the arthropods that live in our homes on each continent. She is also involved with informal science education activities at the museum. We asked her a few questions about herself and her STEM career to get to know her and her work a bit better before her live event.

What are your favorite hobbies or activities you do for fun?
Playing basketball, mushroom hunting, gold panning, Disneyland, learning/trying new things.

Do you play any musical instruments?
In 4th grade I played the trombone, but it ended there.

Do you play any sports or do any athletic activities?
Basketball, running, ping pong.

What is your favorite non-science book, magazine, or blog?
I love the Harry Potter books and National Geographic.

What song do you listen to the most?
California Love by 2Pac.

How do you describe yourself?
Curious, sensitive, joyful.

Who do you look up to and admire?
People who pursue their passions, don’t get too caught up in worrying about what others will think, and stand up to bullies.

Highest degree attained
PhD

Schools attended
Thornhill Elementary, Montera Junior High, Bishop O’Dowd High School, UCLA (BS), San Francisco State University (MS), UC Berkeley (PhD)

Favorite classes/coursework in elementary school, middle school, high school, college    
Elementary School – Science and Computer Lab; Middle School – Math and English; High School – Computer Science, Biology, Math; UCLA - Herpetology, Marine Biology, Animal Behavior, Asian American Studies; SFSU – Entomology and Science Education; UC Berkeley – Plants of California, Earth Sciences

What educational accomplishments are you most proud of?
Getting my first research paper published!

What kinds of challenges did you overcome during your education?
People in positions of power underestimating me.

Employer
California Academy of Sciences

Official title
Postdoctoral scholar in entomology

“Layman’s” title
Insect Scientist

Years in this organization/position
1

What does your organization do?
We are a natural history museum that has one of the world’s largest specimen collections.  We have a public floor with exhibits, science educators, and researchers.

What is your role in the organization?
I am one of the scientists.  While I conduct research most of the time, I also get to be involved with informal science education activities.

Describe your work environment
I have a really comfortable desk in the wet lab portion of the entomology department. I have a dual screen monitor set-up and all of my books just above.

What tools and/or techniques do you use in your job?
I spend a great deal of my time on a computer, but when I’m doing lab work I generally use a microscope, light source, forceps (like tweezers but with sharp points and used for handling specimens), and EtOH wash bottle.  For field work I use a head lamp, knee pads, magnifier loop, tiny paint brush, soft forceps, and have lots of vials.

Describe a typical day in your job
Revising papers and doing analyses on my computer

Describe an atypical (but notable) day in your job
Exploring houses to look for arthropods

How is the work you do important to society?
For a lot of city dwellers there seems to be a disconnection from the natural world.  People assume that you have to travel far to experience nature, when in fact exciting ecological dramas are happening everywhere, even in peoples’ backyards, in their homes, and on their bodies.  I like paying serious attention to this kind of nature because it’s important not only for science but for helping connect people with ecosystems.

What accomplishments are you most proud of in your current role?
The amount of attention the “Arthropods of our Homes” work is getting from the public.  Some of my favorite science writers like Ed Yong and Gwen Pearson covered it. It’s been exciting for me to do the work, but it’s really rewarding to see other people enjoying it too.

What projects or goals are you currently pursuing?
We’re in the middle of our “7 Continent Study” to study human-associated arthropods around the world!

What are the biggest challenges you face in your work?
Because we work closely with people, it’s important to be able to clearly communicate what we’re doing, which is not something I was trained to do in graduate school.  So while it’s been challenging, I feel like I’ve been learning so much.

What is the most exciting, most amazing, or scariest thing that has happened to you during your work?
When I was an undergraduate student, I did field work in Cameroon. In order to access the field site, it was an 10-hour drive on dirt roads to a rural village near the park entrance. Then we had to hike in with all our gear through the rainforest for 20 miles.  The remoteness and isolation could be scary (so far from a hospital if any emergency occurred!), but I saw so many amazing things. My eyes weren’t yet trained to fully appreciate all of the botanical and entomological diversity, but I loved experiencing that forest. 

What would a teenager find interesting about what you do?
The travel!  Last year I got to go to the Peruvian Amazon, Sweden, and the Rocky Mountains all for work.

What’s the coolest part of your job?
Getting to talk to people about insects. 

What are some of the perks of your job?
The flexibility and being surrounded by smart passionate people.

What are the downsides of your job?
The commute. My postdoc salary doesn’t allow me to live in San Francisco.

If asked to “sell” this career to someone, what would you say to convince them to pursue it?
I wouldn’t try to sell this career too hard—it’s risky and low paid. But if you really love insects, it’s completely worth it.

What’s something that most people don’t know about your job/work?
There are so many insects that most entomologists can only focus on one group, like beetles (Coleopterists), ants (Myrmecologist), or flies (Dipterists).

What are the biggest misconceptions people have about your job/work?
That in a natural history collection, all the scientists to is describe species and give them names. A major part of the job is studying the biology, ecological patterns, and science communication.

What personal traits make you well suited for the work that you do?
I like learning new things and talking to people.

What career-related awards or other forms of recognition have you received?
Scholarships and fellowships.

Previous employers and positions that have lead to your current role
UC Berkeley grad student and educator.

Other positions not necessarily related to your current career
As a high school student and undergrad I’ve had the following jobs: florist, bank teller, concessions stand worker, tour guide, putting books on tape for hearing-impaired students, janitor, and receptionist.

Best job you’ve ever had and why
At UC Berkeley, I loved having a fellowship where I worked with Oakland elementary school teachers to train them to think like scientists.

Worst job you’ve ever had and why
I’ve learned valuable things from all my jobs, but putting books on tape would make my voice hurt.

Biggest career “break” or notable moment
Meeting Michelle Trautwein, and getting to join her lab as a postdoc at the California Academy of Sciences.

Proudest career accomplishment
Getting my first paper published!

What were you like as a kid?
Consumer of junk food

What were your favorite books/shows/movies when you were a kid?
Saved by the Bell, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Goosebumps

What did you think you were going to be when you grew up at age 12? At age 15? At age 18?
I always knew I was going to be a scientist.

When did you know you wanted to pursue your current career, and what drove you towards it?
I first declared I wanted to be a scientist when I was 11. Having science and math classes that I enjoyed and felt like I was good at pushed me further in that direction.

Who inspired you on this path?
Growing up in the Bay Area, my parents took me to the Lawrence Hall of Science, Exploratorium, the California Academy of Sciences, and zoos.

What did you believe about this career before entering into it that proved to be different once you were in?
I thought I would make more money and it would be easy to find jobs.

If you weren’t doing what you’re doing now, what other career(s) might you have pursued?
Teaching.

What advice would you give a student interested in pursuing your career?
Everyone thinks that everyone else is smarter. That’s impossible, and whoever is the smartest doesn’t matter anyway. What matters is that when you have inevitable setbacks that you rebound back from them.

What advice would you give students in general?
After years of being in school, my best strategy for classes was to find the most interesting bits and pay the most attention to those. I usually would wind up learning what I originally thought were less interesting in pursuit of better understanding the things I was really into.

What are some interesting places you’ve traveled?
Internationally: Cameroon, Estonia, Finland, Sweden, China, Japan, Mexico, Costa Rica, Peru, France, Italy, Spain, England, Canada.

What question should we have asked you but didn’t?
"How did you meet your husband?" I met my husband while doing sea turtle conservation work in Mexico.

Additional Resources
Here are some of my open access science publications: 
https://peerj.com/articles/1582/
https://peerj.com/articles/1141/
http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0086357

Here are some YouTube videos I’m in:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=unl9Ui650_8
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lUcOAYiQVu8

How to Participate

LIVE EVENT DATE & TIME:
April 14, 2016 at 1:00pm Eastern

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