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Dr. Elizabeth Thomas | Where Are They Now?

Dr. Elizabeth Thomas starts her career as chemistry professor at Morehead State University.

B.S.-Science Education, Chemistry, University of Kentucky (U-Grad Research, Arthur Cammers); M.S.-Chemistry Organic Synthesis, University of Louisville; Ph.D.-Chemistry Nucleic Acids, University of Kentucky (Stephen Testa).

This interview is part of a series conducted by the department called, "UK Chemistry Alumni: Where Are They Now." This interview was coordinated by Dr. Arthur Cammers.

Arthur Cammers: In early September (2022) running around UK Arboretum, I met a former student running in the other direction. She turned around and ran with me, we talked, and at some point, we decided to do one of these Student Spotlights. UK A&S Chemistry publishes these spotlights to give new students an idea about the varied career paths that previous chemistry students have taken.

Beth, you have a unique career path to working as a professor. Going from a STEM Chemistry Education Major to Chemistry PhD is impressive. What were the main challenges on the way?

Elizabeth Thomas: Art, looking back to when I first started college, and trying to decide which major I should pursue, I didn’t quite know what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I knew more about what I did not want to do. It seemed to me that everyone in my classes knew what they wanted to become and most of those professions were health professionals. I am grateful that I continued to pursue chemistry. I wish that I had more confidence in my abilities to understand and apply the chemistry concepts outside the classroom. I have since learned that confidence comes with experience. Learning how to read and interpret spectra and working in a research laboratory was probably my biggest challenge. I did not know that being a graduate student in chemistry was an option when I was an undergraduate student. This was perhaps a turning point for me. I was provided an opportunity to work in a research laboratory full time for a living stipend while my tuition was covered. This provided me the skill set, experience, and confidence to synthesize drug molecules in a research setting.

Arthur Cammers: What role did your industrial experience play in your career?

Elizabeth Thomas: When I was an undergraduate student, I remember being in the classroom thinking how wonderful it would be to be a professor of biology or chemistry. I thought these people were intelligent and amazing. Even though I made A’s on my classroom exams, I did not think I had what it takes to be one of them. But I liked chemistry, and I liked the idea of working in a laboratory. I felt that working in a laboratory was something I could be good at doing. I found working in the cancer therapeutic area fascinating, but I was not sure what the path was to become a researcher in the cancer area. I did not understand how to design drugs, synthesize them, and interpret the data to then revise and repeat this process (structure activity relationship). Working on my master’s degree in Louisville, Kentucky I learned a part of this process and then took that experience onto Eli Lilly and Company in Indianapolis, Indiana. At Eli Lilly, I started my research experience in neuroscience and in combinatorial chemistry. There was quite a learning curve. After two years, a research opportunity opened in cancer therapeutics in drug discovery. I spent my next four years working with a team of scientists to design prostate cancer therapeutics. It was a fun and invigorating process that I thoroughly enjoyed!

Arthur Cammers: You have an impressive broad chemistry/ biochemistry skill set. Since you have so many brushes to paint with it is often a challenge to figure out which one to pick up. Do you wrestle with this perspective?

Elizabeth Thomas: Interesting question. I did leave the research chemistry labs at Eli Lilly that I will address in the next question. The two things that I missed the most at Eli Lilly was interpreting NMR spectra and working with my colleagues. Ironically, I feared NMR as an undergraduate student but once I understood how to interpret NMR spectra, it became very exciting to see a compound that I designed on the whiteboard and synthesized in the flask was in fact, the compound. This was very rewarding as a scientist. Pursuing a PhD in academia, I chose to study DNA. I felt like this was an opportunity to learn something different than organic synthesis. I now teach my students how to design specific colorimetric reactions for DNA detection and identification. This seems to be a good undergraduate research project that merges organic chemistry and biochemistry in aqueous solutions. Ultimately, I would like design and synthesize novel colorimetric probes.

Arthur Cammers: After motherhood you are still in amazing form and still running. Tell us about the challenges in work life balance.

Elizabeth Thomas: Thanks for the complement. I have found the two-body challenge is real (i.e., trying to be in two different places at the same time doesn’t work). This was never truly an issue until my daughter was born. Although I worked for an amazing fortune 500 company that was rated top in the country for working women, it was still challenging to synthesize compounds, meet deliverables, and pick up my daughter from daycare whenever she was ill. It seemed nearly impossible to get through an entire week without getting a phone call from daycare sometimes. I tried to work part-time but part-time laboratory research has its own challenges. I took a three-year family leave and relocated to Lexington Kentucky. This was also in part because that is where my daughter’s father is from; he was not happy living in Indiana. I remember walking to the University of Kentucky’s chemistry department asking if they had papers to grade for some extra cash. That is when I was offered an adjunct teaching position to teach general chemistry. I was very excited; this experience led to choosing to apply to graduate school for my PhD. I am now on a tenure track teaching position at Morehead State University and my daughter is a freshman at the University of Washington. This new career path offered more flexibility for my schedule, albeit less money. My answer to work life balance is to be flexible. I must be flexible with time and my expectations. Sometimes showing up and operating at 70% is better than not showing up at all. There are times when the weeks seem long and nearly impossible but then there are weeks that are wide open with opportunity and time. I try to give myself 5-10 hours each week, even during the impossible weeks to exercise and socialize (friends and family) regardless. It is important to pay yourself first in all things because if you don’t have your health, you have nothing. Without health and happiness, what’s the point?

Arthur Cammers: What are your thoughts and plans to keep your teaching fresh and not get crushed by the next generation of forever-young students?

Elizabeth Thomas: I try to look for ways to engage the students. The concepts, principles, and skill sets in chemistry have not changed much in the last several decades. This is quite different in the booming biomedical field, however. I find that what may work with a group of students for a 3–5-year period doesn’t seem to work the next 3-5 years. For example, reading the textbook is probably the best learning engagement activity a student can do but today it is rare. I implement process-oriented guided inquiry learning activities which seem to work for some. This process provides a model and then asks questions that help students build the concepts in their minds. I make videos but I think students are less interested in learning from watching videos post pandemic era. Currently, my most engaging activities are having the students work questions using a whiteboard and having open discussion about how to solve the problem. But as for me, I chose to teach because I want to give back to the students and encourage them to learn chemistry. Chemistry has been good to me, and I find it empowering and fascinating. I let the students know that I am excited about teaching them what I know, and I hope they will find life a little more interesting too!