Karin Ardon-Dryer: an Inspiring, Successful, Motivating Scientist

A few months ago, I happened to stumble across this article , which discussed an ongoing study investigating mask effectiveness in the face of COVID-19. I’ve always valued interdisciplinary work, and the intersection of health and atmospheric science is one close to my heart since I also studied it while in graduate school. I decided to reach out to the atmospheric scientist on the panel of researchers, and I am so glad that I did! Dr. Karin Ardon-Dryer was an absolute delight to chat with, and I cannot wait to share her story with you all. She has a radiant personality that makes talking with her feel like talking to an old friend, and she truly cares about being a champion for women and minorities.

Where her story began

As with several others I’ve talked with, Karin’s path to where she is today was “kind of weird” as she put it (I feel like we can all relate!)…she didn’t even know she wanted to be a scientist originally. Karin is from Israel, where army service is mandatory for all citizens there once you turn 18. Although she says she probably would have tried combat had it been available to women then, she served as a travel guide in the army. Through that experience, she fell in love with nature and decided to pursue geography in college. As the first female in her family to go to university, she didn’t originally set out to go into academia. However, the more she learned, the more she wanted to learn, and she decided to pursue her master’s degree.

While working on her master’s degree, she noticed that all of her master’s work was in dust storms, so she decided to look into PhD programs that would allow her to study those. After graduating with her master’s in Geography and Environmental Development, she enrolled in the Department of Geophysics, Atmospheric and Plantary Sciences and the Porter School of Environmental Studies at Tel Aviv University. While studying at Tel Aviv University, she had to go back and take all the pre-requisite mathematics and physics courses that are necessary for atmospheric scientists. She continued to fall in love with the discovery of science while studying how dust particles formed ice and clouds, while working with an amazing advisor.

She then decided to look into a post-doc (a temporary position that allows someone with a PhD to continue their training as a researcher and gain skills and experience that will prepare them for their academic career), and decided to make the journey from her home in Israel to MIT, where she led two research projects over three years. From there, she moved on to a post-doc at Harvard Medical School in Boston, where she conducted research on the effects of atmospheric aerosols (such as within dust storms) on health. This led to her authoring a paper on the effects of dust storm particles on single human lung cancer cells (I’ve linked the abstract here, but if you would like to see the full article, please leave a comment and we can share it with you!). This innovative study was the first to investigate a single-cell approach linking the cells and aerosols!

While Karin loved the snow (but maybe not all of the New England weather) during her time in Boston, she felt especially grateful to her advisor at Harvard. She credits one of the coolest experiences in her life to coming to the United States and being able to discover something completely new. Watching the cells explode like popcorn further stoked the flame of scientific discovery for Karin…something she says likely wouldn’t have been possible without her advisor giving her such autonomy. Furthermore, while studying at Harvard, she also heard some of the best advice she’s ever gotten from her advisor. She was a new mom, her daughter was in the NICU, and she was ready to give up…until her advisor encouraged her to believe in herself and reminded her not to give up. There is something so motivating about someone who believes in you enough to let you design your own research projects, and also sees you through some of your toughest times.

Hello, Texas!

Once she wrapped up her post-doc at Harvard Medical School, she made another big transition – this time to Lubbock, Texas, where she currently lives and works as an Assistant Professor in the Atmospheric Science Group within the Department of Geosciences at Texas Tech University. She loves being in Lubbock – especially since it is the perfect place for someone who loves researching aerosols and dust storms! Not only that, but her colleagues and students are great to work with as well. Similarly to when she was at Harvard, she has the freedom to research what she’s interested in, and her aerosol expertise has opened many doors for her in research as well – such as a study that she recently concluded with someone in the music department, investigating aerosol flow with flautists.

In fact, her interdisciplinary work is what led me to her in the first place. A few months ago, she received a call from someone in the engineering department who was looking to create a study on mask efficiency in the wake of COVID-19 and needed someone with expertise in aerosols. She was thrilled to get the call and join the team, especially since she knew that contributing scientifically would be the best way to give back to her community since her family has to be especially cautious during this time to avoid exposing her daughter to the virus. The team jumped to work quickly to design the experiment, taking different mask materials and exposing them to aerosols, determining the efficiency of each (a concept similar to the study she did at MIT, with a new design and different materials). They studied the mask efficiency for an extended period of time, as most masks’ efficiency starts higher and degradates over time. Once the study is officially published, I’ll update the blog to include a link to it!

A question I love asking in these interviews is what a typical workday is like, but the pandemic has flipped most people’s routines completely out of whack. Before COVID struck, Karin would spend most of her days in the office or lab and worked late around two times a week. She also teaches three classes that rotate each year. Now that we are all sheltering at home, Karin and her family are doing the same, although the transition can be extremely challenging to get any work done for those with children, especially women. Karin has started working to 2:00 AM regularly to keep up, continuing to try to publish and get grants, especially since she is on the tenure track. She is also cognizant of the fact that she is responsible for acquiring funds for her students and wants to make sure that they are taken care of, both monetarily and mentally.

Giving back to the community

As much as she is a champion for her students, Karin also aims to be a champion for women and minorities. She worked with others in academia to publish this paper last month, which highlights the need for higher education to fully acknowledge gender inequities as they are being intensified by the current pandemic. She serves as a member of Texas Tech University’s (TTU) Climate Science Center, TTU First Generation Transition & Mentoring Program, and TTU STEM Center of Outreach, Research, and Education. She has also created workshops for high school girls because she recognizes how important it is for students to see people who look like them. When studying science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects in school, having role models that look like them enhances students’ perceptions of careers in those fields and boosts their confidence in studying for those subjects. Karin’s energy and passion for education and diversity were both electric and contagious, and I feel that this might be some of her most important work.

Her life experiences have taught her a lot, and I think that contributes to making her a great role model. For example, when discussing mistakes, Karin talked about how any experimental project makes mistakes – and that’s normal. The important thing is to learn from them and be open-minded because sometimes mistakes lead to great inventions…such as the time at MIT when she once put something away, noticed it wasn’t behaving normally, ended up designing a new experiment from it, and now has a published paper…all from that “mistake.” Although this was my first time chatting with Karin, I look forward to meeting her in person one day – once we can all travel and meet again!

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