From catcher’s glove to lab gloves: A former student-athlete reflects on her first year as a career scientist

In a #WhyIScience Q&A, research associate Annie Apffel, from the Broad’s Proteomics Platform, explains her work in “interactomics” and talks about the value of mentors to emerging scientists

Research associate Annie Apffel.
Research associate Annie Apffel.

Last spring was a busy one for Broad research associate Annie Apffel. A catcher for the ‘17 Amherst College softball team, she traveled with her fellow Mammoths to Oklahoma City for the Division III Championship tournament. (Where they earned a fifth-place finish—the highest in program history!) She also graduated with a BA in biology and, shortly thereafter, joined the Broad’s Proteomics Platform for what would be her first job as a full-time scientist.

As part of Monica Schenone’s team within the platform, Apffel helps conduct experiments that elucidate how proteins work in the body, in health and disease. The platform’s collaborative model gives her the opportunity to work with labs both inside and outside of the Broad to solve a range of scientific mysteries. As a result, she's being exposed to research on many different disease models, and is meeting scientists from a variety of scientific backgrounds—an ideal situation for a young scientist pondering the next step in her research career.

Apffel spoke to us about her work on protein networks and the influences that led her to a career in biomedical research, in a #WhyIScience Q&A:

Q: Could you describe what you do at the Broad?
I work in the Proteomics Platform as a research associate here at the Broad. Specifically, my team does what we have dubbed “interactomics.” We look at protein-protein interactions and protein-small molecule interactions using Liquid Chromatography - Mass Spectrometry (LC-MS) and quantitative proteomic methods to help reveal the function of particular proteins. Sometimes we refer to this as a “guilt by association” method. Basically, if we see a protein that seems to be implicated in some way in a certain disease model, whether it’s a druggable target or just an interesting bit of biology, we can study what it interacts with to help us form a hypothesis as to what it actually does.

Q: What, would you say, has been your biggest scientific accomplishment?
I think one of the fun parts about being a young scientist is knowing that I haven’t had my biggest accomplishment yet. Right now my biggest accomplishments are simple things like successfully running a protocol, presenting my research at a lab meeting, or finding a new and interesting approach to a specific data set. It’s exciting to know that there’s a whole world of science that I haven’t even been exposed to yet. I’m at the point now where I am learning something completely new on a regular basis and being able to make the connections between what I’ve learned in school, what I’m doing in the lab, and what I’m reading has been really rewarding.

Q: Who inspired you, as a young scientist?
: My dad was a huge inspiration for me. He is an analytical chemist and works as a research scientist in an industry setting. Growing up, he showed me the science in everything around me. He made numbers dance, he turned the soil in our backyard into experiments, and even made the kitchen feel like a lab when cooking dinner. His love of life-long learning and dedication to innovation really sparked the science bug inside me.

Q: Have you had other mentors who were particularly helpful in shaping your career trajectory?
I have been really fortunate to have some amazing teachers and mentors, most of whom were women. My first mentor was my mom. She was a scientist by training and she showed me that, through hard work and persistence, there was no goal too big. In college, I had a couple of science professors—Jill Miller and Alix Purdy in particular—who really got me excited about the breadth of science on a macro (evolutionary) scale and a micro (microbiology) scale. Outside of the science world, my college coach, Jessica Johnson, really helped me develop my self-confidence.

Christina Hartigan, Monica Schenone, Annie Apffel, and Caroline Stanclift (l-r) of the Proteomics Platform.

Here at the Broad, I work on a small team of all women led by Monica Schenone, which has been an incredibly empowering opportunity. Directly working with these smart women all day has made me aware of some of the difficulties facing women in science, but also extremely optimistic about the future. I think mentors are important because they know what it’s like to be in your shoes, and they give you a chance to bounce ideas off of them—they know from experience what works and what doesn’t, so they can save you time or guide you through your frustrations. I also think representation is really important; seeing so many successful women in my field, and outside of it, really inspires me day-to-day.

Q: What are important characteristics that you look for in leaders in science?
I think one very important characteristic of a leader in science is a strong commitment to diversity. Science is all about problem-solving, and people from different backgrounds have different approaches to solving problems. The wider the variety of approaches we take the more likely it is that we can solve a problem. In the future I would like to see leaders focus on broadening that diversity. Hand in hand with that, I think good leaders have to be willing to listen to those diverse opinions and approaches. I really respect both the head of our platform, Steve Carr, and my manager, Monica, because they are outspoken and confident in their decisions but also, importantly, they trust and listen to the members of their team.