Making Connections: Spotlight on Rebecca Pollet

Nov. 7, 2023

Rebecca Pollet, Ph.D.
Source: American Society for Microbiology
For Rebecca Pollet, Ph.D., a professor of chemistry at Vassar College, one of the best parts about being a teacher is helping students make connections between science and their day-to-day lives. Throughout her career, she has learned that cultivating scientific connections includes more than understanding the applications of research; it also means forming relationships with scientists one can identify with—and making it easier for others to do the same.

Growing up on a farm in Oklahoma, Pollet was exposed to science in “the real world” before she received any formal training in the subject. Her family routinely discussed plant science, the chemistry behind fertilizer application and more. “Science [was always] around and very accepted and talked about in my life,” Pollet said.

However, she credits a high school biology course with planting the seeds for her deliberate pursuit of a scientific career. Thanks to her “really great” teacher, Pollet got hooked on understanding complex biological mechanisms and why they matter. “I started to see the connection of [how] I could do science and make a difference in the world,” she said. Pollet developed a particular fascination with protein biochemistry after learning about the importance of proteins in cellular functions, and how a simple tweak in the DNA sequence and structure of a protein could lead to disease. 

This fascination accompanied Pollet to the University of Tulsa, where she received a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry. As an undergraduate, she also picked up 3.5 years of research experience (and a first-author publication) working with Robert Sheaff, Ph.D., whose lab studies the biochemical basis of various diseases. Pollet reflected on Sheaff’s role in teaching her lab techniques, while also helping to hone her science communication and teaching skills—all of which would be put to good use as she became a mentor herself, both in the lab and in the classroom.

After graduating in 2011, Pollet pursued her Ph.D. at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill in the structural biochemistry lab of Matthew Redinbo, Ph.D. Her doctoral work focused on characterizing microbial proteins involved in antibiotic resistance, as well as β-glucuronidases (enzymes that break down complex carbohydrates) in the human microbiome. This was Pollet’s first brush with microbiology—and she was floored. “I got really interested in not just looking at proteins as these isolated things, [where] we pull out the sequence [and] look at the structure, but more about how they were contributing to the whole organism, and to the larger microbiota as well,” she shared. When it came time to look for a post-doctoral position, Pollet wanted to continue to couple her newfound intrigue with microbes with her long-held passion for biochemistry.

And that’s exactly what she did. Landing a spot in The Koropatkin Lab at the University of Michigan, which studies the degradation of fiber and polysaccharides by the gut microbiome, Pollet’s work centered on characterizing polysaccharide transporter proteins (TonB-dependent transporters) in the gut bacterium, Bacteroides thetaiotaomicron. “Bacteroidetes are really prevalent in the microbiome,” Pollet explained. “They're beneficial to us when they're breaking down polysaccharides, but they also can become pathogenic.” Understanding these transporters could help scientists develop targeted tactics for promoting growth of the beneficial Bacteroidetes and inhibit the less desirable species. Pollet has continued this line of work at Vassar, where she’s been teaching on the tenure track since 2020.

While Pollet is without a doubt a microbiologist, it took some time for her to accept—and embrace—the title. “I had a bit of an identity crisis halfway through my postdoc, where I was like, ‘When I come into the lab, I am doing microbiology. But do I call myself a microbiologist?’ I had to come around to the fact that I do know enough about microbiology to consider myself a microbiologist, in addition to being a biochemist,” she said. In some ways, diving headfirst into the field without any prior training in things like microbial genetics or anaerobic culturing was useful. It motivated Pollet to delve into how and why assays worked to design robust, well-controlled experiments. She also had some incredible colleagues, both within and outside her lab, who were willing to mentor her every step of the way.

Pollet understands this willingness and desire to share scientific knowledge with others, given her own passion for teaching. Her path to Vassar was punctuated by various teaching roles, from mentoring students in the lab to working as faculty in the Citizen Science Program at Bard College—which aims to devleop students’ personal science literacy through hands-on, real-world coursework and projects—where she taught a general science course in 2019. As part of that program, Pollet recalled the fun of making scientific concepts applicable to the lives of her students. “I love making those connections, [both] for myself and for my students,” she said, noting that she especially values the learning that takes place in the laboratory. “Working with students [and] having them talk through why we are doing [an] experiment and how it relates to what [they] did in class is by far my favorite part.” 

Making connections in science is more than academic—it is personal too. Many scientists, particularly those from historically underrepresented groups, emphasize the need for cultivating community and building a support network. But finding scientists one can identify with can be challenging, as Pollet, a first-generation college student and enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation, has experienced firsthand. During graduate school, she struggled to find Native American scientists whose work was “literally anything tangentially related” to her own. “Certainly, there were a handful of Native scientists, but they weren't doing things that I could identify with,” she said. “And so, I was like, ‘It's great that you're a scientist, I can talk to you about general things.’ But it's not the same as a role model kind of connection. It really wasn't until I was a postdoc that I found some Native scientists that I could identify with.”

Pollet highlighted that while she spent a substantial amount of time looking for connections, forming those relationships was critical for her growth. “[They] made me more comfortable as a scientist [and] also motivated me to be vocal about my identities, so that students that are looking for that kind of role model will hopefully find them.” She has similarly sought out other first-generation college students from rural areas—an aspect of her background that has, at times, made her feel “alienated and uncomfortable."

These days, Pollet is dedicated to increasing the visibility of scientists representing diverse backgrounds and identities. As part of these efforts, she co-founded and coordinates Diversify Microbiology, an online list of Ph.D. scientists who are women and/or from historically underrepresented groups. The site serves as a resource for people to, for example, find a speaker for a seminar or identify a scientist to nominate for an award. “I hope that Diversify Microbiology, and some of the other stuff that I do, helps make a wide range of scientists more visible and helps undergraduate and graduate students go on to this list and find people that share whatever identity and whatever scientific interest they have.”

When asked what advice she has for early career scientists, Pollet drew from her own experiences as a researcher who has a proclivity for multiple fields. “It’s very useful to be able to come at things from a multidisciplinary perspective. I encourage my students to take a wide variety of classes. If they work in my lab for a little while, and then want to go work somewhere else to get different experiences, I really encourage that,” she shared. Pollet also emphasized the importance of embracing all pieces of one’s identity, noting that it’s okay to turn down an opportunity if it doesn’t provide the space and support for you to bring your whole self to the table. Because, at the end of the day, “having those different experiences and being able to bring all your knowledge and personal identities into your work can really strengthen the research you’re doing.”  

Author: Madeline Barron, Ph.D.

Madeline Barron, Ph.D.
Madeline Barron, Ph.D. is the Science Communications Specialist at ASM. She obtained her Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology.