Emily Day is an associate professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Delaware. Her lab develops innovative nanomaterials that enable high-precision therapy of cancer and other diseases, and exposes how nanoparticle architecture impacts function by studying nano/bio interactions from the subcellular to whole organism level.
Day discovered an interest in math and physics during high school and came to the University of Oklahoma with the intention of pursuing a career in astrophysics. The open-door culture of physics department faculty helped establish strong mentorship relationships that ultimately led to her deciding to pursue biophysics and ultimately bioengineering.
“I had this plan that I was going to get my undergrad in physics and my Ph.D. in astrophysics,” she said. “I was in the Honors College and took a class called ‘What is Science’ about all these different subfields of science. I found myself really drawn to the biological fields.”
“It was through one of those informal conversations with Mike Strauss, where he said ‘maybe you should be considering biophysics instead of astrophysics,’” she added. “That summer, I applied to research experience for undergrads programs all over the country…I ended up going to one in bioengineering at Rice University in Houston. Once I did research in the lab there that summer, I just fell in love with it.”
While she felt very supported by the department, she notes she was one of only two women in a cohort of around 30 physics students.
“I think that can be intimidating,” she said. “I’ve seen this number quoted where they say for people to feel comfortable speaking up and having a voice, you need to have like a third of the group to kind of match you, so clearly we were nowhere at that level.”
“It was really nice when I went to the visit weekend for grad school and it was 50% women in the department, both at the faculty level and at the student level,” she said. “Having those female mentors…was maybe something I was seeking.”
Even when representation at those levels is not yet present, however, Day said programs that help female students connect with mentors and find community are valuable.
Day said, “I remember the women in my (postdoc) lab were really good about organizing activities for just them to build comradery…so maybe that’s a good piece of advice, to build the community or support you need.”
Now as an instructor and researcher, Day integrates the same open-door policy she enjoyed at OU, and supports undergraduate researchers in her lab.
“I’ve had 11 Ph.D. students in my group and around 24 undergraduates in my lab,” she said. “I’ve been really pro undergraduate students in research because I think it really helped shape the direction I did end up going…oftentimes they end up staying through their entire undergrad career.”
“About two-third of students in my lab have been women,” she added. “I’ve often wondered if it is because people seek out role models who are like them. I tend to get more applicants who are women, and that is my guess for partly why.”
Day said that what is most important for someone considering a STEM field or who may be unsure of what major or career to pursue is, “Don’t be afraid to try new things. In physics you learn how to learn, how to think…with that basic skill set, you can apply it to any field.”