On Thursday, Bowdoin launched the “Meet the Bowdoin Women in STEM” series with its inaugural event, an interview with La’Shaye Cobley ’12 conducted by Sara Nelson ’22. Cobley graduated Bowdoin with a Bachelors in Biology and Africana Studies and continued her academic career at the University of Utah (UoU), earning a PhD in Biology. She now works as an air pollution specialist on the California Air Resources Board.
Cobley spoke to students about her experience as a woman of color in STEM, discussing the impact of her Bowdoin experience in her current academic career. Nelson began the interview by asking about Cobley’s initial decision to pursue a career in the field of biology and how she ended up in her PhD program.
“The idea of grad school was daunting and felt unattainable at first,” Cobley said, “I wound up talking to [UoU Professor of Biology] Diane Petaki and when I was in her lab, I was still not convinced I was going to grad school. It was one night after hours [when] I was working on some R code, and I got really excited. [Petaki] heard me … and said, ‘You should apply to grad school,’ and I did.”
Cobley transitioned directly from Bowdoin into a PhD program at UoU. She initially thought that going into her PhD program, unlike her peers who were pursuing masters programs, would hinder her.
“In the end, I graduated in the same amount of time as [my peers] and I totally attribute that to my Bowdoin education,” Cobley said. “I left Bowdoin having a better understanding of research in a way that led me to be able to go into a PhD program even if I was not confident at the time.”
At UoU, Cobley worked in an all-woman lab, an environment that she described as being supportive and open. However, as the STEM field remains predominantly male, Nelson asked Cobley what her experience is like outside of the lab — and if the STEM field is really more diverse today compared to when she was in graduate school.
“While I was able to find white women to confide in during grad school, I was not able to find people who looked like me in terms of my race,” Cobley said.
Cobley offered words of advice during the final audience Q&A portion of the event to an attendee who had asked her how she navigates imposter syndrome as a Black woman in STEM.
“‘I have a brag book, and every letter of recommendation or probation reports, I’ll save it. On my hard days, I’ll go back and read them. Being intentional and addressing the imposter syndrome head on has been really helpful for me,” Cobley said.
Nelson prepared to interview Cobley with the goal of making sure that attendees could learn about Cobley’s journey to success in the field of academia, in addition to her scientific accomplishments.
“I [hoped] to make it very personal, about her and her story and her career as it pertains to being like a woman that’s interested in urban ecology,” Nelson said. “I [hoped] to make it as relevant to students as I can.”
Nelson was originally put in touch with Cobley through Professor Barry Logan, who has mentored both of them during their respective times at the College. For Nelson, this experience carries a personal meaning as well.
“I have just been super humbled to do this with her,” Nelson said. “I remember reading her papers with my professor. So this was definitely one of those moments where I got to meet someone who’s doing a career that seems aspirational.”
The “Meet the Bowdoin Women in STEM” series is set to have at least three more events throughout the semester.