Meet ASCB’s New Executive Director: Erika Shugart, PhD

 If this is August, it must be Iceland. Erika Shugart with her husband, Joseph Brzostowski and their children, Chaerin (in pink) and Pascal (in camo) at an Icelandic hot spring last summer. Photo courtesy E. Shugart

If this is August, it must be Iceland. Erika Shugart with her husband, Joseph Brzostowski and their children, Chaerin (in pink) and Pascal (in camo) at an Icelandic hot spring last summer. Photo courtesy E. Shugart

The road that Erika Shugart took then was definitely the less traveled. At the time, mentors were concerned about her decision. In 1997, you didn’t take your PhD in molecular biology and willingly walk away from an academic research career choosing instead to seek an alternative career path, perhaps something do with science policy or with science outreach to the public. That search turned out extremely well for Shugart who found a path into science policy and communications, a start-up science museum, and then Director of Communications for a large scientific society. Today, June 1, her path takes another turn as Shugart steps into office as ASCB’s new Executive Director..


“I was in graduate school in the mid-90s and this was pretty early on in the ‘alternate career’ modality,” Shugart recalls. “I was a fairly early PhD to make that transition and so what I did—and to be honest, it was discouraged in my department —was not the typical path.” It was, however, typical Shugart.


She was born into a scientific family and grew up in a scientific town, Oak Ridge, TN, where her father was an environmental scientist at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. “I lived my first 13 years in a national lab town. Growing up in a science town definitely had an influence on my outlook,” she says. When Erika was 13, the family moved to Charlottesville, VA, after her father, H.H. “Hank” Shugart, a noted systems ecologist, joined the Environmental Science department at the University of Virginia (UVA). Her mother, Ramona Shugart, began working at Thomas Jefferson’s historic estate, Monticello. “My mother is a historian who worked for many years at Monticello, Jefferson’s home, first as a tour guide and then in the Education Department. I think my career combines my father’s love of science and my mother’s love of education and helping people understand topics. I think I’ve melded that together in a lot of what I’ve done,” she says.


“I always knew that I wanted to be a scientist. It was just a question of what type,” Shugart recalls. She was the “science person” on the academic team in high school, went to summer science camps, and took her undergraduate degree in biology at the College of William & Mary. She worked in labs in the summer and earned her PhD in biology at UVA, working on transcriptional regulation of growth during adipocyte differentiation using a murine tissue culture model system. Bench work was fascinating. She vividly remembers how the red dye would pick out her target cells, turning all the tiny dollops of fat into strings of bright red pearls. “They were very pretty fat cells,” she recalls.


But the lab world didn’t seem to be enough, Shugart says. “The crisis came when I realized that I didn’t want to stay at the bench, doing research science. However, there was no question that I would be involved in science, which I view as the central understanding of our world.” By personality and by interests, Shugart felt she was better suited to a different sort of science career, one with a more direct and wider impact on society. The best way to find that kind of work, she decided, was to ask people who were already doing it.


“It was also the time of the early web so I went out and did interviews with scientists in different fields—people in policy, in tech transfer, in writing,” says Shugart. “I wrote them up and built a website that was all about different alternate careers you could have in science. Nowadays we would call this a blog but then—and this is really dating myself—blogs didn’t exist then.”


It was one of the first web sites about alternative careers in science. Shugart credits the sheer novelty of her site for getting her an internship at the National Research Council (NRC) at the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). “I think the reason I got the internship was not because I was a PhD in biology but because I knew how to do HTML on a website. They needed a website for a meeting.” Prospects for PhD scientists beyond academia and industry have expanded enormously since then, says Shugart. Today she still makes a point of speaking to grad students and postdocs about nontraditional science careers but always emphasizes the need for contemporary “additional skills.” You need to make you or your resume stand out, she tells them.


Her NRC internship turned into a fulltime communications job in 2000 in the NAS Office on Public Understanding of Science (OPUS) in which she rose to the level of director. In 2003, Shugart assisted with thinking about a new NAS project, the Marian Koshland Science Museum, endowed by the Koshland family in her memory and led by a steering committee that included former ASCB president Bruce Alberts and Marian’s husband, Daniel Koshland. The museum was to be a nontraditional reimagining of a science museum that would use the latest electronic and communications technologies of the day to create an exhibit space for exploring the many intersections between science and society. Climate change, safe drinking water, infectious disease, DNA technology, these were a few of the hot topics that the Koshland Museum would address. Shugart quickly realized that this was her kind of project. Stepping out of her OPUS office, Shugart recalls, “I literally walked down the hall and said, ‘I’m thinking about switching jobs. Do you have an opening?” We sat down and wrote up a job description.” The opening of the Koshland in April 2004 was one of the finest evenings of her professional life, a mix of great accomplishment and great relief, Shugart says.


The Koshland was up and running when Jeanne Braha joined Shugart’s staff in 2011. Braha, who now works in Public Engagement for AAAS, recalls that a new Koshland exhibit was in the works, part of the museum’s Life Lab theme, to be called “Living Through the Life Span.” It was to be about lifestyle and health decisions, covering everything from human development to food production to nutritional supplements. Braha’s early fear was that the exhibit would be too broad with too many topics to be coherent. But over the next year, Braha watched Shugart carefully pull it all together. It would be a museum exhibition without many artifacts or texts pasted on walls. Instead the “exhibits” would go on screens (and online) for visitor interactions and where the contents could be updated to stay current with new science. Shugart’s office became a warren of white boards, post-it notes, and stacks of testing cards from evaluation focus groups. “There was a moment,” Braha recalls, “when we realized that if we had this many screens, we would need a thousand more fuse boxes or something. We were an awfully small staff and we did it all from soup to nuts. Somehow Erika made it all work with her spreadsheet magic.”


Shugart’s appetite for topic research also carried them, says Braha. “Much of this material was not her field of (scientific) research but now she knows everything there is to know about nutritional supplements. And fuse boxes. I learned so much from her about all aspects of this work.”


In 2009, Shugart moved to the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) becoming Director of Communications. Compared with ASCB, ASM is a giant with 47,000 members, a staff of 180, and publisher of 18 scientific journals. Shaping communications strategies for such a large and multi-faceted organization as ASM required Shugart’s considerable talents at collaboration and synthesis, according to Marina Moses, who is the Director of the American Academy of Microbiology, the honorific leadership group within the ASM. Moses says she and Shugart met at the NAS but did not truly work together until Moses joined ASM in 2014. Since then, they worked together on promoting ASM Academy outreach projects about next generation sequencing and the microbiology of the built environment. The way Shugart handled the communications aspects left Moses impressed. “She’s a pleasure to work with,” says Moses. “First of all, she’s a genuinely nice person and she’s very open to listening to many different points of view. It’s not that she always agrees with you but Erika is a consensus building type of individual. I think you guys (at ASCB) are really lucky to have her.”


Shugart thinks she’s very lucky to take the reins as ASCB Executive Director. ASCB’s smaller staff size (currently 20) doesn’t bother her. “There’s a sweet spot working with a smaller team. You can make things happen. You can make change happen if you need to.”


Like all scientific societies, ASCB has challenges ahead, says Shugart, from the changing needs of members to the future of scientific meetings. “People need to broaden their understanding of what ASCB is,” she says. “People come in saying, ‘I’m a molecular biologist’ or ‘I’m a neurobiologist’ but they’re all using the same fundamental unit, the cell, and that’s what we have to make people realize.” Cell biology should be both a specialized discipline and a broad platform for collaboration. “There are more and more calls for people to work across disparate sciences and I don’t just mean biologists but also computer scientists and bioengineers. That is what’s wonderful about the umbrella societies like ASCB—you can get an overview of all these spheres.”


Finances are a concern. Modernizing its operations in 2014, ASCB ran a substantial deficit. That was cut almost in half in 2015, which shows excellent stewardship, says Shugart. But cutting expenses is only a short-term response. Nonprofits like ASCB are in the business of doing good, Shugart explains. That’s laudable but doing good everywhere is not a strategic plan for ASCB especially when our science and our society are changing so rapidly. ASCB needs to prioritize its “good work,” she believes. “Where are the places where we’re going strong? And where do we have a lot of potential? Where are the places where we’ve been doing good work but maybe it’s just not the good work we should be doing at this moment?”


For the moment, Shugart intends to do a lot more listening, especially to ASCB members. “The membership of ASCB is just so amazing. There are so many high-powered, creative, smart individuals.” One of the briefing documents that greeted Shugart in her new ASCB office was the list of 31 ASCB past and present members who have won Nobel prizes in chemistry or in medicine. “That’s an incredible number,” she says, for such a relatively small society.


It’s also been an incredible journey for Shugart to reach ASCB. In graduate school when she let the deadline pass for postdoc applications, eyebrows and concerns were raised about her talk of alternate science careers. “Looking back, it was risky. But I had a lot of support particularly from my husband.” She met Joseph Brzostowski in grad school and once Shugart announced her decision, he immediately focused his postdoc search on NIH. They both figured that whatever career path Shugart would discover, it would likely wind through the DC area. Besides, Shugart says, they figured they could live on beans and Brzostowski’s NIH stipend until she found her way.


Today Brzostowski is the Chief of the Imaging Facility for the Lab of Immunogenetics at the NIH National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases and an ASCB member. They have two children, Pascal, who is 10, and Chaerin, who is “almost” 8. “My outside interests are my kids,” Shugart says. “Both my kids were adopted from Korea and so my whole family is very active in the Korean adoptee community in the DC area.” Shugart and Brzostowski are on the board of a small non-profit called ASIA Families that supports cultural and leadership opportunities for adoptees.


They love to travel as a family, having visited Korea, Costa Rica, Austria, and, last summer, Iceland. Both kids and parents were delighted by their 10-day driving tour, which took in geysers, volcanic geology, glaciers, glacial lakes, hot springs, black sand beaches, and a vast treeless heath strewn with boulders on which grew a riotous cover of mosses and lichens. Being a science family, the Shugart-Brzostowski party pored over the lichens and bryophytes, delighting in their astounding diversity. “There’s a whole world right there,” Shugart reports.


About the Author:

John Fleischman was the ASCB Senior Science Writer from 2000 to 2016. Best unpaid perk of the job? Working with new grad students and Nobel Prize winners.