By Raquel Leifer, Features Editor
Each month, the YU Observer aims to feature a YU faculty member. For the April 2022 edition, the YU Observer is highlighting Dr. Alyssa Schuck, PhD.
Raquel Leifer (RL): Hello. Please introduce yourself.
Dr. Alyssa Schuck (AS): Hi! I am a Clinical Associate Professor of Biology at Stern College for Women. I am also the program director for the Jewish Foundation for Education of Women (JFEW) Scholarship Program. My educational background includes my BA in biology from Stern College for Women, as well as my MS and PhD in microbiology from New York University.
RL: How long have you worked at YU?
AS: I’ve been at YU for almost 16 years.
RL: What do you like most about working at YU?
AS: I like a few things about working at YU. I like that my colleagues and students share a lot of the same goals and values. Even though there is diversity among students and faculty, which enriches the experience here, I think that because we share all certain values, working here has more meaning to me. I also really like watching the students grow. In the JFEW program, I really enjoy watching the students mature, develop, and gain confidence in themselves over the three years here. In the classroom, I love it when students get excited about the same subject matter I’m excited about, and when they see how the information that we learn applies to their daily lives.
RL: What made you passionate about your field?
AS: When I was at Stern, I just loved biology. I give credit to Dr. Babich for the path that I ended up on; he suggested going to graduate school for a PhD. Once I graduated from Stern, I spent a year working as a lab technician and I liked working in the lab setting. In addition, I started to see myself as someone who might enjoy sharing the passion of science with others, which I thought I could do by teaching. Microbiology itself was more accidental; I actually did not actively decide that I liked microbiology, per se. I joined a lab for a few months as part of my graduate studies, and I found that the people in that particular lab were very good educators, “had my back,” and I knew I could learn a lot from them. This lab happened to be a microbiology lab. In hindsight, I’m thrilled that I ended up there, because I think microbiology is an exciting and amazing topic to study and teach. Most people don’t think too much about microorganisms (although in the last two years, everyone has been thinking about it!) But it’s fascinating, elaborate, and it has so much relevance and applications for our day-to-day lives.
RL: Do you have any advice for students interested in a career in your field?
AS: Don’t lose sight of the goal, don’t get caught up in minor setbacks. If there are obstacles or delays—whether those are grades that are not up to your standards, or experiments that go wrong—just re-evaluate. If you still feel strongly that this career is something that you really want to pursue, keep going! You don’t have to be number one. Graduating with a degree and enjoying it along the way is a success.
More generally, for careers in the sciences, I would advise students that, contrary to popular belief :), you don’t have to have a straight-A average. And, you’ll find your place, even if you’re uncertain of your career path right now. It will all fall into place.
RL: What makes your field special?
AS: What makes biomedical research special, I think, is its constant and unending pursuit of knowledge about the natural world. As it is famously said, “The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know.” The same is true in science. As soon as we come up with a theory, and think we’ve figured things out, nature throws us a curveball. Learning about the complexity of the biological world is an incredible intellectual pursuit, but to me it’s also a philosophical or religious one. We are learning about the world that G-d created. The more complex we realize it is, the more amazed we are! It’s beyond brilliant!
RL: If you could bring in any guest lecturer, alive or deceased, who would it be, and what would he/she speak about?
AS: Dr. Barry Marshall. He experimented on himself to show that it’s actually a bacterium that causes a certain disease, which was previously thought to be caused by stress. The experimental model he was working with wasn’t giving results ,so he drank a flask of bacteria himself! When he got sick from the bacteria, he demonstrated the link between that organism (H. pylori) and peptic ulcer disease. I think it would be fascinating to hear not only how he persevered—because the scientific community initially laughed at his idea—but also what his thought process was when he had the crazy idea to drink a flask of bacteria!
RL: What is one thing you want students to know about you?
AS: I have high expectations of my students in terms of academics and character. I think we should hold ourselves to high standards. At the same time, though, I am human! I understand that that life can be complicated and messy, and that there are sometimes things that come up that take precedence over schoolwork. I would absolutely want my students to feel that they can speak to me if they’re having trouble academically (or in any other way, if they’re comfortable).
RL: Is there a particular book you would recommend that everyone read?
AS: Grit by Angela Duckworth and Missing Microbes by Martin Blaser
Photo Credit: Dr. Alyssa Schuck