Holly Lavoie, PhD

University of South Carolina School of Medicine, SEBM Member since 1996

SEBM  What is your position and what do you do?
HL  I am a Professor in the Dept. of Cell Biology and Anatomy at University of South Carolina School of Medicine.  I teach and do research and do a variety of service inside and outside the university.  Outside the University this service is mostly peer-review of grants and scientific journal articles. 

SEBM  Did you always wish to be a scientist in academia (industry) (government)?  What else did you want to do?  If you didn't do what you are doing now, what else do you think you would do?
HL  Before I went to college I thought I want to be a physician.  In high school, I volunteered at a hospital.  This made me realize that I did really not want to work with patients, yet I still wanted to do something medically relevant.  I realized when I went to college that there were other options like teaching and research.  I got the opportunity to be a teaching assistant as a graduate student and loved it.  I became very interested in Endocrinology and Reproduction.  I loved the feedback loops and signaling cascades and chose to pursue this line of study and set my goals on becoming an academic researcher and teacher.

HL   I can’t imagine not doing science.  However, if I could not be a scientist in academia, I would teach at the University level.  If I wasn’t in academics I could see myself pursuing art, farming, or fiction writing.

SEBM  What path did you take to get where you are today?  What did you do right?  What did you do wrong?  Did you have any periods of time where things just didn't work out?  What did you do about them?  How did they affect your career?
HL   As a senior in college I like so many areas of study:  endocrinology, microbiology, and genetics.  I stayed at my undergraduate institution to do a Master’s degree to give me the time to decide what area I wanted to focus on for my Ph.D.  Some people think that as Master’s degree is a waste of time, but it was a good decision for me.  I learned how to analyze data and became very computer literate at a time when the personal computer was just becoming commonplace. This experience made me much better prepared to complete a Ph.D.  I made good decisions about my doctoral and post-doctoral training.  At the end of my post-doctoral period, I was feeling great about my research and really wanted an independent academic position so I could pursue independent funding.  I took the first job I was offered, which was a mistake for me, even though my colleagues at the University were wonderful.  It was in the North (and I was from Virginia), had more teaching than I had expected, and not enough time for research.  I thought my research career would go down the tubes.  A colleague of mine suggested that I apply for another job and I decided to apply for several.  I got this job at the University of South Carolina and it has been a good fit for me. I have been working here for 16 years and was promoted to Full Professor this year.

SEBM  What people can you point to who significantly helped you in this entire career path?  How?  Were there important people along the way who didn't help you at all?  What did you do about that?
HL   All my research mentors during training have helped me.  Mostly my doctoral mentor and post-doctoral mentor helped me prepare for an academic career.  My post-doctoral mentor taught me about grant writing.  During my post-doctoral training I benefitted from mentoring of other female faculty, such as by participating in their lab meetings.  It benefited me to see other women succeed in academics despite their struggles.  My first Chairman at USC has always been very supportive of my career in part because of our common research interests.  I can’t say that I recall anyone that intentionally did not help me along the way or has tried to hinder my advancement.

SEBM  What advice would you give to a person, say, in college thinking about going into a career similar to yours?  What about someone in graduate school?
HL   You have to really want to do this.  You have to grow a thick skin because there will be a lot of rejection along the way in the form of grants not getting funded, papers not getting accepted the first time, and being turned down for jobs because they hired someone else (usually with more experience or grant money).

SEBM  What do you really love about your position?  What do you hate?
HL  I love teaching new students and simplifying complex ideas so that get excited about them.  I love discovering new things that help fill in the big picture of reproductive biology and ovarian function.  I like the freedom to choose what I research.  I hate writing 10 grants to get 1 grant.  I hate the uncertainty of future grant funding.  I hate not having enough funding to retain or hire more excellent staff in my lab.

SEBM  What is your laboratory (office) like?  How many people do you supervise?  Describe a typical day (week).
HL  My office is connected to my laboratory, so that I am in constant interaction with the people in the lab.  I usually have 3-4 members in my lab.  There include mostly graduate students at the Masters and PhD level.  I have 1-2 additional undergraduate, graduate, or medical students rotate through my lab annually.  When I am not teaching or writing, I like to work in the lab.  I do a lot of training myself now, since I don’t have a technician.  Days in the lab usually involve cell culture and RNA or protein work.  I review the results with the students in my lab on a daily basis. 

SEBM  How are you guiding the careers of your mentees/students?  What are you doing to help those who are not thinking about following in your particular career path? 
HL   One way I mentor students is helping them with data analyses and getting them to present their work in front of others.  I also try to lead by example like showing them how to present papers at journal club.  I take time to sit with all my students to discuss their career goals and go over the steps they will need to take to meet those goals.  I actually encourage students to get jobs outside of academics.  I encourage students to get the training they need to be competitive in industry or medicine field.

SEBM  What do you feel are the most important aspects of your position? 
HL  The most important is the responsibility I have as a faculty member for the training of our students and delivering the high quality education they deserve.

SEBM  Do you feel that you have a good work-home/life balance?  What do you like to do for fun or when you are on vacation? 
HL  Now yes.  In the past, no.  I think it takes a while to find this balance.  It also depends on spousal support.  For fun, I like to read fiction, do fun things with my son, and travel to fun places with my family.

SEBM  As a scientist, what do you feel about educating the non-scientific world-at-large about what you do and about science in general?
HL  I think it is so important to educate the public about what we do---in a simple way.  I also feel that when we do this education the facts need to be accurate. 

SEBM  What do you hope to be doing when/if you retire from your current position?
HL  I would like to have a small farm, explore art, and try writing fiction.

SEBM If you had to do it all over again, are there any radical changes that would you have made?  How do you think it would have made a difference in the way your life has turned out?
HL  I would not change a thing.  Each step has been a learning experience that has made me a better person and who I am today.