24 The Circle of Life
For our fourth episode of Season III, I spoke with Dr Sharla White, Vice-President of Research and Development at ClearLight Bio—a company founded in 2015 by Professor Karl Deisseroth—which specializes in 3D tissue clearing and immunohistochemistry.
We begin our laughter-filled conversation by diving into the first moments of her childhood when she, encouraged by her parents, realized how much she loved the puzzle-like nature of science and scientific experiments. We then discuss her academic trajectory, starting at Washington University in St Louis for her Bachelor's in Chemical Engineering, then onto the University of Illinois at Chicago for her PhD in Pharmacognosy, after which she completed her postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford University. As we discuss the life lessons she learned from her parents, I was struck by the full circle nature of Dr White's desire to foster her own children's budding excitement for science, just as her parents did for many years. As such, this episode is titled ‘The Circle of Life’.
The transcript of our conversation has been prepared for accessibility purposes, with minor edits for clarity and brevity.
Dr Sharla White: I want to help you avoid any of the pitfalls that I found myself in. Like, let's intentionally try to make sure that you don't go to college and you feel alone. I don't think knowledge should be hidden, and I don't think it should be a secret.
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Dr Asma Bashir: Hello world, and welcome to Her Royal Science. Thank you so much for joining us for today's episode. Today, we'll be chatting with Dr Sharla White, the Vice-President of Research and Development at ClearLight Bio. She previously completed her Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering at Washington University in St Louis, followed by her PhD in Pharmacognosy at the University of Illinois at Chicago, then a postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford University, where she focused on Vascular Immunology. I am excited, beyond excited, to chat with Dr White today about her ongoing work on improving CLARITY, a clearing technology used in research labs around the world, including my own, while I was doing my PhD. But let's start from the very beginning—Dr White, what's your story?
SW: I have always loved puzzles. Not necessarily physical puzzles, but solving [a problem]. And so, my earliest memory is—I was probably maybe five or six—my dad, in the summer, to keep me and my older sister on top of our mental game, we would have these books, you know, the little summer workbooks. And at that point, my dad was doing drafting, too. That's the drawings part of buildings and the structures, [and] putting things together. Building things was so much fun, like, 'Oh, if we put it here, then that's going to help it stay there. And this is how it works. And then, now you've got a table!' My dad encouraged that in me, so that love continued to grow.
So, it went from math to science, so, 'here's an equation, with math it's two plus two equals four, and love that! There's always a rule, and I can figure out tricks, and I can do it faster!’ So, I'm competing with myself, and then you start competing with others, but you're really competing with yourself. And then you get into the sciences and doing the experiments. And I'm like, 'This is great! This is really wonderful.' I'm taking as many science classes as I can, especially when high school rolls around. At one point, I went to a high school where human anatomy and physiology was a class where I was like, 'I need to take that!' We're doing the dissection and people are going, 'Ooh, gross!' and I'm like, 'I love coloring these sheets and seeing it in real life!' And chemistry, 'let's actually do the experiments. And these are the rates!' And 'Ooh, I really want to judge that.' And biology... it was just as interesting, but it's not as physical. And then physics again, you can see it in action, but then it starts to get nuanced in a different way. Like, I still enjoyed it, but I'm like, 'Ooh, I'm going to take these classes. I'm going to take the advanced classes. I'll do it all!' <laugh> That just kind of stayed with me, so then when it was time to go to college, it was like, 'how do I keep doing all of this? I think I want to be a doctor!' Well, okay, med school is its own separate thing, so what's going to be the major? I'll do Chemical Engineering! I get to do math. I get to do chemistry. It's got a little bit of everything.
It was interesting because when you get to college—so I went to a PWI, a predominantly white institution—you get into engineering, [and] you end up having some classes with people that are on the pre-med track, but there's a distinctive difference in how you approach things. So, for engineering, the first class you take that you have to pass before you can do anything else on this major track is physics. But if you're pre-med, physics is what you hit in your junior year; that's your make or break. And so, you've got these other older students that are, you know, trying to prepare for that. And you're like, 'well, I don't understand what you're talking about. Like, I'm new to college and I've got to pass this class.' And then you're taking biology and organic chemistry, and for engineering, it's an ongoing thing. We've got problem sets that are due. We've got a lot of commitments upfront that you have to get done. And there's not as much flexibility in your schedule... I would say probably not as much enjoyment establishing the college experience, but what I was noticing as I got older was, I think some of these classes would make me more Type A than I already am, which I'm pretty sure my family would already say was enough, <laugh> didn't need to be exacerbated! But even personally, I was like, 'I don't know that I want to become more of this kind of person.' And at that point in time with a Chemical Engineering degree, it was like, 'Work for big oil!’ Or, you know, 'go work for a pharmaceutical company or something else.' And that just wasn't as appealing to me. And as somebody who likes to have a plan, and a backup plan, and a backup plan for the backup plan, it was an interesting experience for me to be like, 'I think I'm going to take a year and just really kind of figure out what it is I want to do and where I want to go next.'
So, I had already had a job. It was decent paying, so I can do that. And I'm going to actually, you know, think about it. 'How do I pivot? How do I make this plan?' You know, you're still interviewing for jobs, because that's what you're supposed to do. You got your degree, you should use your degree for what it's for. But I ended up deciding that I think I need to go to grad school, primarily because it would be the more efficient way to pivot fields, especially if that's not what your degree is in.
So, I go to grad school, which was eye-opening—the same way undergrad for some is eye-opening—grad school was even more so eye opening. When people ask me if they should go to grad school, the one thing I always try to caution people about is like, 'heads up—undergrad is more of a nurturing type environment for the most part. Grad school isn't that!' I was in my third year, I think I was getting ready to wrap up and had that moment of, 'You know what? I don't know that this and my personality are going to work out!' And I don't mean the personality part from a science perspective. I mean the personality part of me of like, 'what I'm not gonna do...' <laugh> So then, I've got to run the numbers. I'm like, 'Well, okay... My program, doesn't give you a Master's on the way.’ And I'm pretty sure they do that for a reason...
AB: Oh, wow. So you felt a little locked in?
SW: Well, yes and no. It was one of those, 'Okay, I need to get my thesis [ready]. How long will it take me to do what I need to do to hit the thesis benchmark? Well, that's another year. Okay. So, four years for a Master's... I probably should've hit this point a little bit sooner... Or I can double down, focus, and shoot on getting my PhD in five years. I mean, I've already put three years in. I can do another two and then I'm done,’ and later on, it's not a, 'Ooh, you know what? I really do want my PhD.' No, no, no. I'm gonna get it. We'll be done. We'll move on. <laugh> So, I did that. I will say that having a supportive network is essential. It's essential as a person in general to surviving the grad school experience because it is a survival, in my opinion.
So, [then] I did the post-doc. I ended up getting on a training fellowship program that they had with the Cardiovascular Institute at Stanford. That was also helpful; the things that they make you participate in, but also that they expose you to, and the other people that you meet from different departments and labs was, was really groundbreaking. And Stanford had a lot of other groups that they made available. There was like a 'Postdoc Women in Science' group. I would attend a lunch group there and you just get a lot of insights, and it's supportive. That was the first time I had heard about imposter syndrome. You're learning more about yourself along the way, and then eventually you realize that, you know, a post-doc, this is a training position. I am not going to be here for the rest of my life. So, it was time to move on!
Then, that was the foray into industry, where you spend a lot of time trying to convince people that 'yes, though I was in academia, I can handle what we do in industry. I'm still a scientist!' <laugh.> And so I did this stint at Genentech, which I thought I was doing a lot of cell culture... just the volume that I was doing was a lot, and got a new education on what a lot is!
AB: <laugh> Really?
SW: Yeah! But you get a lot more insight and you start to understand why there's this hesitancy to hire academics or postdocs out of academia into industry because the pivot is real, and we're about great science, but we're also about not wasting too much time to figure out if it's worth pursuing or not. And so, that was educational in that regard. But when you're working in industry and sometimes when you're at larger places, you usually have a certain focus, and while I felt like I was doing great science and great work, part of the reason we get a PhD so that we can have a little bit more say, [because] we feel like we've learned enough to have value. And so that's how I ended up at ClearLight! They were showing CLARITY and they showed these brain images and I was like, 'Oh wow, that's so cool! I could totally see applying this to cancer. And this seems exciting. I would love to be a part of being at the front page of innovation!' because for me, that's what we're supposed to live for as scientists. I want to say that I was a part of making that happen. So, I came on board! Obviously, I enjoy a challenge in puzzles because I've been here for about five and a half years now. At the end of it, I still have the one thing that I think we all search for, which is, I genuinely love my job and I enjoy what I do.
AB: That's amazing! You've bounced around quite a bit. You were [in] St. Louis, Missouri, and then you were in Chicago, and then you were in California. Was there a reason why you chose to go where you went or was it all happenstance and kind of choosing to enroll in certain degree programs that were aligning with what you wanted in life?
SW: So, I grew up as a military brat—both of my parents served in the Air Force—and so moving around was kind of par for the course. We had gone back to Japan, and that was about the time I was starting to look at colleges. I just remember being in the library and I'm looking up where I want to go, because initially, in my mind, I was like, 'Oh, I'm gonna go to an HBCU!' I'm looking at Hampton, looking at Spelman, and I'm putting together my list. And while I'm looking, I stumbled upon Washington University. The upside is it's in St. Louis, Missouri, which is where my mom's from, and so this'll be a new experience because I will be in a place near my extended family. So, 'Hey, it'll be new, but there's still family in place and this'll be okay!'
And then we happened to move! We actually happened to move to St. Louis where I finished out high school. And so, I was in high school and I had this counselor who I told I was interested in going to WashU. And she was fantastic! This woman was all about making this happen for me. She was like, 'I signed you up for this book award,' and I ended up winning this WashU book award, and it included a tour of the campus. I go to the campus and something about this campus just really spoke to me. And I was like, 'This is where I'm going. This is my ultimate goal. I'll apply to a couple other places, but this is what I'm working for.' And so, I get in, and I'm excited, then you get that financial aid letter and you're like, 'Whoa!' I remember talking to my counselor about this, because she was like, 'You got in! You should be happy!' I'm like, 'Yeah, but we can't afford this...' I don't know who they thought was applying for this thing! And this woman was like, 'Look, I know Bill [inaudible],' who was the head of financial aid at that point. He was already coming to our school to talk about financial aid to the juniors and the seniors of the class.
There's just this whole other world to applying to colleges, especially about financial aid that if you know the right people, there are some other things you can do to help you along. I didn't know the right people, but my counselor did! And when I tell you that she made that happen so that it was possible for me to attend WashU, that's exactly what happened. In my experience, I just had never had a school counselor that was that dedicated, you know? And she must've seen something in me.
And then when I was applying for grad school, I was a little more conscious. I had looked into the different programs, and this was the time when there were pharmaceutical commercials on TV left and right, but then at the end, they would speed through all these different side-effects. I didn't love that. So again, I find these programs where they're looking at like natural plant products and stumbled upon medicinal chemistry and pharmacognosy, which thankfully, in the US, has grown a little bit more. But at the time, I think Ole Miss (University of Mississippi) had a program, University of Illinois, Chicago had one. The faculty that had initially started the department there had come out of...was it somewhere in Pennsylvania? Either Pittsburgh or Philadelphia... I'm drawing a blank on it now, but they were considered some of the forefathers of the field, [and] they were at Chicago.
And when it came down to it, I was balancing the options of, do I want to go to Ole Miss or do I want to go to Chicago? And I was like, gut-check, ‘I don't want to go to Mississippi!’ <laugh> And Chicago seems like a real cool city to live... of course, I didn't know anything about Chicago winters. I was like, 'We're just going across the state!' But it was great motivation for finishing up. By the time I hit my fifth year, I was like, 'Gotta be done because I'm not doing another Chicago winter! Gotta go, gotta go!'
AB: <laugh> And that why you went to California?
SW: Well, I was I was planning on getting married by the time I was finishing up grad school, and the agreement we came to was if I had a job offer before that, then I could go where I got the job offer. But if I didn't have concrete plans, then I would relocate to California, where my spouse already was gainfully employed <laugh> and I could figure it out from there!
AB: Oh, that worked out really well then! You got a position that worked really well for you.
SW: It did. While I occasionally have missed the seasons, <laugh> and I don't know that I'm as excited to be this far away from our family and everything, but I actually like the area. It's nice, minus the whole cost of living thing and all that other stuff. I actually enjoy California!
AB: I am very, very happy to hear that. You mentioned that your family was nearby when you were at WashU. What do you think the closeness of your family did for your undergraduate experience? Did it change it at all, do you think?
SW: Yes, and part of that is when you're undergrad, you ended up broke a lot! <laugh> Couldn't afford to do laundry on campus! Once I got my own car, I definitely packed it up and been like, 'I'm here to do laundry! I'm here to eat.' But usually what comes to mind for me when I think about that, because of the family that I have and how we are, would be the friends and the connections that I was making it in undergrad. It was definitely a, 'Oh, you're not going out for Thanksgiving? Come on over to my house! My mom's always willing to feed people.' Once we got past freshman year and I had my own car, it was, 'I can give you a ride to the airport’ or ‘I can help you move this.' And so, by being local and not heading out, I felt like I could offer more to my friends if they weren't able to go back home, like, 'Hey, I got a spot. Family's crazy, heads up, but you're welcome to come through,' that kind of thing. And I think that that helped further build some of the friendships and relationships that came from undergrad as a result of that.
When my older sister was in town—because she had gone to college before I did—it was, 'Hey, come and hang out!' And you get to kind of share this moment where normally, because we didn't go to the same schools, it would have been a little more disconnected. And my younger sister—this was of course before cell phones were really popular—but she would call my freshmen room and leave a voicemail message about how kindergarten was! <laugh> And so it was always fun. Now, I've got these friends from college and they're like, 'your sister's how old now? Man, we're getting old!' 'Oh, I know, because she was what, five or six, when you met her!'
AB: Wow! That is quite the age difference. I hadn't realized it was basically over a decade.
SW: Yes! There's over a decade between my younger sister and me and my oldest sister. Me and my older sister are much closer. And I would say that we probably have... Well, it's a lot of love now, but when we were growing up because we're so close in age... But we were constantly moving around, [so] it was like a love/hate relationship. Like, 'I'm really tired of being around you all the time, but also you're the only person I know, please don't go anywhere!' <laugh>
AB: <laugh> Is there anything that you've taken from your parents in the way that you parent? I know you mentioned that you have some little ones of your own.
SW: I do. I have two little ones that are hellbent on destroying our house! <laugh> Patience is welcome, but to some degree, the fundamental basis of parenting is, I'm not here to be your friend. I'm here to help prepare you for the world. And me and my husband have used that same line. 'I don't need to be your friend. You don't have to like me, but you will do what needs to be done because I've got to prepare you for the world that's out there for you.' Umm... Lots of laughter. Lots of music. I think both me and my husband both grew up in a house where music was always in the background as a fundamental part of it. But yeah, I mean, patience. Sometimes, you just have to know when to let your kids grow and do what they're going to do, foster whatever it is that they're into, because that's definitely, as I told you, something my dad totally did. And my mom was a big fan of that. So, my oldest is currently into doing scientific experiments, which part of me is like, 'Oh, this is so great.' But then the other part is, Have you ever tried to do scientific experiments with somebody that is not as litigious or as rigorous in their methodology as they need to be? That's the part where I'm like, 'Oh my goodness, I don't know if I have it in me to teach you.' <laugh> We just try to go from that point. <laugh>
AB: Yes! I think it will be exciting to see what they're like and what they're interested in as they grow up. If you don't mind, we can kind of circle back to work because so many of the people who listen to the interviews that I do are junior trainees in the academic space. Could you tell us what a day in the life of your work is actually like?
SW: So, I work for an early-stage startup. When I first came in, I was a scientist [and] was doing a lot of the hands-on lab work. We're still a startup, and so I still do a lot of lab work, but now, at the level that I'm at, usually my day is parsed out with going to meetings that need to be attended. Sometimes they're potential customers that are interested in trying CLARITY, so we're talking about that, what that could do for their research, what they might expect from us. If they engage us in a project, there will be follow-up meetings for customers that we've already had. And here's your data. This is what it looks like. And now we want to discuss it. What are our next steps, what does this data mean? It's 3D IHC (immunohistochemistry) and imaging in those three dimensions is different from the standard that's out there with looking at 2D slices. And so, there's usually a level of education that kind of ties in with that. And then, of course, you have, 'has everything gone right? <laugh> Is the software acting like it's supposed to? Did something crash? Are we missing anything?' So, there are all these different aspects. I still very much keep a lab notebook that is behind to date, as I'm sure so many can relate to!
AB: Absolutely! <laugh>
SW: The fundamental basis is still there. I think the biggest difference from me being a scientist is that I can't wholeheartedly dedicate all of my attention to that. I am a manager of people now, which grad school does not prepare you for. When I was a post-doc, a friend of mine who was in the education sector, worked for a program called College Track and he was trying to convince me to do tutoring for East Palo Alto. And I'm like, 'Eh, I don't know about tutoring. I don't know if I have the patience for teaching,' that kind of stuff. But he eventually convinced me, and I ended up doing that for, I think, the majority of the time that I was doing a post-doc. I would do it in the evenings. And these were all first-generation—or they would be first-generation—college students. And so, you start to have this interaction with another generation, and these conversations kind of let me know what actually [I] kind of want to do. I want to help you avoid any of the pitfalls that I found myself in. Like, let's intentionally try to make sure that you don't go to college and you feel alone, so when you go, look for these resources, you know, whatever's going to work for you because these can be supportive communities to help you navigate, when it feels like times get tough. They might have some insights. You find out about old notes or study groups or, you know, resources, 'Hey, you want to join this group because they'll help you find an internship,' for whatever it is you want to do. I don't think knowledge should be hidden, and I don't think it should be a secret. I think, in undergrad, that's not the case, but I think being able to find the resources that help you know that that's not the case can be a problem, especially if you don't have anyone in your family or know anyone that can tell you about those options.
In grad school, I found that that was the case where, yeah, you get to the point where you're doing the research, but [in] the classes I was taking, they've got articles that they put at the end and the professor never says, 'You should read those articles because those questions are to show up on the test!' Or, 'We also expect you to do all of these other things, even though nobody has said them and they're in 10-point font on your syllabus.' I think that there's power in being able to pass on that knowledge and helping prepare people. And if I'm teaching, be it a course or tutoring, or just explaining and teaching what we do here at the company to somebody that's new, or explaining a new area for them, I think that that can help empower you, that you become more confident in yourself, but also that's going to allow you to do better.
I enjoy my job. You don't have to love it, but I would love for you to like it because that's why we're here. We want success. We want to do better. And I just try to keep that philosophy.
AB: Well, I'll say thank you! And I can't wait to continue speaking with you in the future. I think I might just call you every once in a while, for your advice and your wisdom.
SW: <Laugh>I try! I've got stories. I try, though. Thank you so much.
AB: Thank you!
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