EducationHealthcareHigher EducationResearchSTEM / Engineering

Katie O’Neill: Ph.D. candidate

Company: University of Colorado

Title: Ph.D. Candidate

Industry: Science

Function: Cancer research


BS in Neuroscience, Northeastern University, 2011

Ph.D.-University of Colorado, Anschutz Medical Center, cancer biology program

Katie (left) in the lab with a co-worker


EHC: What is your daily schedule like?

My day typically runs from about 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. plus some weekend work at the lab. Work days are all kind of the same. I’d say the breakdown is about twenty percent meetings (seminars, grad program stuff) and eighty percent lab work.

EHC: What is your favorite part of your job?

I get to do science every day!

EHC: What were the steps you took to get your job?

I got a lot of research experience in academic and industry labs. This started when I was an undergrad but continued after I graduated. Then, I applied to grad school and got accepted.

EHC: What is your best piece of advice for girls interested in this field?

You should get as much experience as you can. Find something that you’re genuinely passionate about. If you’re gonna be a scientist, it needs to be your number one thing. So find that passion, and you’ll go far.

EHC: What inspired you to pursue this career?

The ability to become an expert in something that I really love is my inspiration. I love that I can learn everything there is to know about something, and people will be interested in collaborating and sharing that knowledge. I also like the mentorship aspect. It’s pretty cool to teach other people and encourage their passions.

Career Snapshot

As a biomedical research student, Katie spends most of her time conducting experiments about cancer cell biology in a lab. She also gets to travel and attend industry conferences where biomedical scientists gather to learn about the research being done around the world. These events allow her to share her progress and cultivate relationships with like-minded people who may become collaborators on future projects. Before she knew she had a passion for cancer cell biology, Katie worked in two very different labs. The first lab was interested in the zebrafish from Antarctica, and the second examined the Epstein-Barr virus and why it can sometimes cause cancer. This showed her that she really enjoyed discovering how cancer cells work, and that knowledge helped her forge a career in biomedical and cancer studies.

Being a woman in science can seem daunting, but at this early stage in her career, Katie says that she has experienced a reasonably equal number of men and women. Many senior-level positions are still occupied mainly by men, but Katie has been lucky to find great senior-level women who have become mentors to her. These women have overcome a lot of obstacles to build a system that allows Katie to have a fulfilling career equal to her male counterparts.

Working in a lab as a postgraduate student

Even though Katie is technically a student, the lab she works in provides her a salary and covers her tuition fees. During the first year of a Ph.D., you might spend half of your time in classes and the other half trying different research labs before you ultimately pick the one that suits you best. That lab becomes your thesis lab and is the focus of your Ph.D. research (and the one that pays you a salary and provides your tuition fees). There are lots of different research focuses, so trying out the various options is essential. In addition to labs like the one Katie works with, there are some dedicated to all aspects of the sciences such as testing traditional Chinese medicine, nanomedicine, and migraine pathology.

A huge disappointment about working in the sciences is that much of the population doesn’t trust researchers. For Katie, it is upsetting to hear people say that drug companies are hiding a cure for cancer or other similar accusations. To her, scientists are ordinary people with families, and if she knew of a treatment for cancer, she’d never hide it from her loved ones.


If you live in a town with a college, you should start emailing professors who teach in the area you are interested in. Even if it is a small university, there is probably someone doing research that loves talking to students who are interested in science. You can sometimes get internships as early as high school, and professors are a great place to start your search even if they don’t have space for you in their projects. Katie suggests that you begin taking science classes as soon as you can and get as much research experience as possible. You will be asked to do the basic tasks like washing dishes and making big tubs of buffer chemicals. It might not be very exciting, but you learn about how a lab works and start to meet people in science.

Also, there is a lot of self-confidence and perseverance needed if you decide to pursue a Ph.D. Katie said you must have faith in your own abilities because there is a lot of negative feedback and critique that comes with the territory, but it is so important and necessary for becoming a better scientist.