Spotlight: Q&A with Dr. Miriam Ben-Dayan

August 17, 2020 5 min read

Dr. Miriam M. Ben-Dayan just recently completed her Ph.D. after eight years of hard work and long nights in the lab in addition to raising her two children. The subject of her thesis was the effect of two oncogenes (genes that can transfer regular cells to tumor cells) of Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) on two tumor suppressor genes. Due to the situation with COVID-19, her defense took place over Zoom, which she acknowledges was “very strange” but is grateful that they still took place. Ben-Dayan has already had two papers published and also wrote a paper while on leave after giving birth to her second child. 

She is passionate about teaching and helping out high school students and undergraduates who are interested in pursuing STEM. “I absolutely love teaching. Even if I do work in the industry, which I'm looking to do now, I do want to either teach nights or teach at some point. That's really what drove me to do my Ph.D., to begin with just teaching new scientists and paving the way for the next generation,” Ben-Dayan said. 

Additionally, Ben-Dayan is also a beauty influencer, including being a member of the BIOTOC Brand Advisory Council (BBAC). 

Ahead of a weekend after passing her defense, Ben-Dayan spoke toBIOTOC Connectionabout graduate school, her advice for women in STEM and her philosophy on beauty. 

BIOTOC Connection: Congratulations on completing your Ph.D.! How did you decide that you wanted to study science and do you have any advice for soon-to-be graduate students now that you are done? 

Miriam Ben-Dayan (MBD):I actually went to a private high school that didn't stress academics or college. I ended up going to community college first— they are all very happy to hear that I finally got my Ph.D. I was going to do nursing because that was just a very typical path that people in my community did. But when I started my community college, I quickly found that I was a little squeamish about actually seeing patients—real people that were sick— and that really bothered me because I'm a little bit of an empath, so I couldn't really handle that so much. 

But I really did enjoy science and I really enjoyed my Intro to Bio classes. I developed a very close relationship with my professors. I became friends with the Chair [of the Biology Department] and I was very involved with tutoring other students. I also started research, which, you know, I instantly fell in love with. I focused on genetics and very early on I really felt a strong connection to genetics and genetic research. For my four-year school, I chose biology and anthropology—I did a double major and was very involved in both departments and joined a genetics lab. While I was in undergrad, still, I got very involved in genomics. I learned a lot of bioinformatics and coding and that really helped me get into my graduate program. 

Now when anyone calls me trying to get into grad school from undergrad, I tell them, learn some coding, learn genomics, learn bioinformatics that really makes your application stand out because it's such an emerging field right now. Every grad school wants to have a student who knows these things because it just makes them better in the lab. 

That’s great advice and insight. Do you have an idea of what work you would like to do in the industry? 

MBD:I really want to do bench science, so I want to work at a pharmaceutical or biotech startup, just a company that needs scientists at the bench designing experiments. I don't mind the more administrative as long as I could still do some of the benchwork because I really do love the benchwork. I am looking into mostly genetics or microbiology. My background, I was in the pathology department, so I did cancer biology, so mostly genetics for head and neck cancer. I went to medical school for grad school, so we were very heavy on the translational research.

Earlier you mentioned some great advice for graduate students, do you have any advice specifically for women who are interested in STEM? 

MBD: There are actually a lot of women in STEM right now, especially biology. The problem that I find that I struggled with the most in grad school, was starting a family as a woman. I found that men even though they've had children, it's just not the same, they don't have the same understanding of pregnancy, being sick, giving birth, having issues after birth, dealing with a newborn. We're just not as available. And I find that starting a family is really where that difference is.

I think it's important if you do want to start a family, if you're at that point in your life, to find women mentors, within your school, your program, or your department—really find those people to help navigate the challenges that you'll face. Because there are many challenges and without guidance, it's hard to figure out what to say to your superior and how to negotiate your time. So I was lucky I had a great mentor. 

In addition to being a scientist, you are also a beauty influencer, so I was wondering what “beauty” means to you and how those two things are related to you personally? Does being a scientist have any influence on your approach to products? 

MBD:So beauty, I feel is how you feel, you know. So I feel self-care is a very big part of beauty. How you view yourself is a very big part of beauty. You have to be happy in your own skin. So if that means treating it well, looking your best whether that even means putting on some makeup, just to feel confident and feel like your best self. That's really what beauty is to me.

I do focus a lot on skincare, mostly because you have to have a canvas even for makeup, right? You have to have a smooth canvas, something that you're not really trying to cover. Ingredients are very important to me as a scientist, I want to see innovative and effective ingredients and real results. I do enjoy nice formulations and skincare that's formulated well, skincare that highlights ingredients that are actually in there in the correct concentrations to see results from it. I really do look at ingredients, first and foremost. You really have to find what ingredients work for you and what your skincare concerns are. 

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

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