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By Martha Furie '74 and Chenab Khakh '20
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We sat down with past and present biology students Martha Furie ’74 and Chenab Khakh ’20 to discuss their CALS experiences, the evolution of biology, and women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields.

Research at Cornell

MARTHA: When I was here for undergrad, we science majors were busy! Can you believe that I had a three-hour chemistry lab at 8 a.m. on Saturdays? My career trajectory was shaped by my work in Dr. Adrian Srb’s lab, studying the genetics of a fungus, Neurospora crassa. I began as a lab assistant to earn money but was soon assigned my own project. This experience cemented my desire to go into biological research.

CHENAB: The biology and society major has been a perfect fit for me. I have always been fascinated by how DNA and evolution connects all life, from the smallest microorganism to ancient mammoths. I also think a lot about how our historical and current societal structures have shaped science applications. I have been exploring this relationship between science and society and learning ways to apply what I learned in my STEM classes to make the world a better place.

Leading Mind of Today

Martha Furie ’74

Martha Furie ’74 received a B.S. in genetics from Cornell and a Ph.D. in protein chemistry from Rockefeller University in 1980. She is currently a professor of pathology, microbiology and immunology at Stony Brook University. Her research has focused on mechanisms of inflammation, particularly in the context of bacterial infections.

Leading Mind of Tomorrow

Chenab Khakh ’20

Chenab Khakh ’20 received a B.S. in biology and society, with a concentration in public health. She feels passionately about addressing health care disparities through sustainable solutions that span biology, public health and community engagement. She is a student member of the CALS Alumni Association and plans to apply for medical school.

A woman sitting at a table with her arms crossed in front of her
A student sitting at a table with her arms folded in front of her.

MARTHA: Experiential learning was possible in my time, obviously, because I worked in a lab, but there weren’t any programs like there are now. We had to be proactive about seeking out the experiences.

CHENAB: The most notable part of my academic experience has been not only the vast breadth and depth of my courses, but also how applicable my education has been to the real world. With Engaged Cornell, I was able to explore biology at a community level in hospitals. And with Cornell Cooperative Extension, I taught nutrition to youth in New York City summer camps. The impact I made with the children, in just a few weeks, was inspiring and a huge reason why I want to continue working with community-based research opportunities. The way I have been able to lead real-world community engagement based off what I have learned in my academic classrooms has been a true highlight of my CALS experience.

The growing combination of technology and biology renders it important to have informed people making the decisions about what is an ethical way to implement technology.
Martha Furie ’74

Bringing biology into society

MARTHA: The opportunity you’ve had at CALS to connect the biology you are learning to society is wonderful. It’s not really a mindset we had back in my day, but it’s so important. The growing combination of technology and biology renders it important to have informed people making the decisions about what is an ethical way to implement technology. We also need effective science communicators to spread the word that these new developments are safe and being handled in a responsible way.

CHENAB: One of our course distribution requirements in CALS is communication. Last semester, I took Science, Technology, Health and Communication, and it was fascinating how most students in the class were not STEM majors. Instead, there were more communication or business students because the ability to accurately communicate about scientific research is so marketable.

MARTHA: It sounds like CALS is doing a terrific job of broadening the spectrum of careers that are available to biology majors. By integrating biology with other disciplines, students can learn how their science training can be used, not just in academic research but also in industry, medicine, law, public policy and more.

Back in my day, biology was a very defined discipline, and the problems we looked at were very fundamental. Today, people still do fundamental research, but there is also a lot of team-based translational research. It used to be that published scientific papers had two or three authors. Now they have 20 or even 30, because that’s the way to truly advance science.

CHENAB: I only see the biological sciences becoming more integrated into a variety of industries as a foundation for further advancement. For example, pharmaceuticals or biotechnology—the people working at the forefront of those industries must understand not only business and economics but also biology and how their product is produced. Now there is biotechnology, bio-consumerism, bio-communication—I see this prefix popping up in many different industries.

I have always been fascinated by how DNA and evolution connects all life, from the smallest microorganism to ancient mammoths.
Chenab Khakh ’20

Women in STEM

CHENAB: To be a female in STEM certainly means forging your own path, working harder to establish your name and going the extra mile to build your community. I am extremely grateful for all of my mentors and for the access I have had to passionate, successful women in STEM, like you, Dr. Furie.

Having benefitted from strong female role models, I feel it is my responsibility to mentor younger girls and encourage them to pursue what they are most passionate about. On campus, I serve as a buddy in the Expanding Your Horizons program, where girls in middle school come to Cornell for a day of science workshops.

MARTHA: I feel blessed that I never felt discriminated against as a woman in biology. I was lucky to land my first faculty position in a department that had several senior female faculty members, which was fairly unusual at the time. They served as excellent role models, especially when it came to balancing career and family. The only glass ceiling I’ve broken happened recently. I am the first female editor in chief of the American Journal of Pathology since its founding in 1896.

It’s also great to see that there is now such a focus on diversity in STEM. It was thought about in my day but not at every level.

CHENAB: I think CALS goes above and beyond in ensuring that there is diversity across the entire community. CALS started the Intergroup Dialogue Program in 2012, and now it’s required for all Cornell undergrads during freshmen orientation. I was one of the peer-facilitators for the project, and I think it shows CALS’ commitment to diversity and the integration and inclusivity of people with different backgrounds—both in lived experiences and schools of thought.

Header image: Martha Furie ’74 and Chenab Khakh ’20 discuss their CALS experiences, the evolution of biology, and women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. Photo by Allison Usavage.

This article was originally published in the CALS Magazine.

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