This week on #MeetAScientist, get to know Dr. Lexi Moore Crisp, a biologist and 500 Women Scientists leadership team member. Many of you may know Lexi as one of the international pod coordinators, working to connect our network of pods around the globe. She's also co-founder of the Philly pod and is working to transform how we think about mentorship within our community. In this interview, she chats about everything from burrowing animals to the need to feel comfortable with failure.
When did you first identify as a scientist?
When I started in science, it was a means to an end for me. I wanted to do some kind of intellectual work with animals. Animals fascinate me and, as an undergrad, I thought the only job where you got to work with them was as a veterinarian. I already had 3 majors but I added on pre-med (science) classes to my studies about halfway through. I graduated and worked at a vet clinic. I applied to veterinary school 3 times and failed each time. Eventually I had to move home to pay the bills. There I started a master’s program in biology because maybe that would help me get into vet school on my 4th application cycle.
I met my master’s advisor (Dr. Michael Butcher) after he gave a talk about opossum locomotion. As I started working on my Masters research project that fall, I started to wonder what would happen to my project if I got into vet school. Fortunately, I didn’t have to worry about that, because I was rejected again. On the day I got my final letter, I had scheduled a meeting with Mike. After talking for about 20 minutes, he asked me what was wrong, and I broke down and explained everything.
On that very bad day, Mike said what was possibly the best thing he could have said at that moment, which was: “Maybe this is a good thing. Maybe you’re supposed to be a scientist. I think you might be bored as a vet.” Whether he was saying that because he needed master’s students and the papers they produce, or because he really believed it, that was the first time I identified as a scientist.
You've done quite a bit of field research working with animals. What's a particularly memorable experience you've had?
As I was developing my dissertation research on burrowing biomechanics, other scientists would ask me how I would get the animals to dig. My standard answer was that as burrowing animals, they would probably think the lights and sounds of the lab were unpleasant—given the chance to burrow to a new locale, they would gladly take the chance. This was just a hypothesis, but I thought a pretty good one. The first time I saw an animal actually do what I predicted, I stood there with my mouth agape, amazed at what I had done.
One time we were trapping desert pocket mice in the Las Vegas wetlands, which combine the heat of Las Vegas with the humidity of Florida, resulting in a unique kind of misery. I had convinced a grumpy collaborator to help set the traps, and our expedition hadn’t been particularly successful. We’d only caught one mouse of the right species from over 100 traps. As we were preparing to leave the wetlands, we discussed our plan to catch more mice in a few days, and commented that at least I had one mouse to start with. Then, because I was really excited about this mouse, I peeked inside the trap to check on it. The mouse jumped out of the trap onto my collaborator’s shirt, where he actually caught it for a moment. But it jumped from his hands to the ground, where it quickly ran into some grass, never to be seen again.
You're one of the pod leaders in Philadelphia and are currently serving on the 500WS leadership team. How did you get involved with 500 Women Scientists and what are you hoping to achieve with the group?
I got involved with 500 Women Scientists because I saw the letter after the 2016 election. I was heartbroken that the US had taken a turn toward racism, sexism, and authoritarianism and a turn away from everything I thought we valued, including science. I also felt guilty that I hadn’t done more than vote and make a few phone calls to prevent it. A few months later, I was at the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology meeting (SICB), and Alison Luger held a conference meetup where we talked about difficulties facing women in science. It was the first time I felt heard when talking about the struggle of being a woman in science. After that, I signed up to join (aka create) the Philly pod of 500WS. About 6 months later, Jane and Kelly recruited me to the leadership team.
My goal with 500WS is to transform what we think of as “mentorship” and “networking” in science. I think our definition of a mentor is too narrow. No matter how great an official research or postdoc advisor is, they cannot and should not be the only mentor that we have as early career scientists. We should consider anyone and everyone who is willing and able to help us as mentors, and we should be willing and able to help our mentors or to future mentees. Even if someone is not above us on the ladder, there is something to learn from them, and something we can teach them.
Networking sounded really scary to me for a few years, until someone remarked on what a great network of young scientists I had at a conference. It struck me then that networking is just making friends with people who are really into the same stuff I am. Now I think I’m pretty good at networking!
What is the best piece of advice you've received during your career—whether from a scientist or otherwise?
“Failure is okay” was a rule at Friday Nite Improvs, an all audience participation improv show at the University of Pittsburgh where I met many of my dearest friends as an undergrad. The point of the rule was to give audience members permission to try and fail at improv. I rarely performed because it’s more anxiety-inducing than fun for me, but I took “Failure is okay” to heart, giving myself permission to try new things. For me, reframing failure as something acceptable gave me permission to try something new, fail at the new thing, and work hard to be better. Science was a new and exciting thing I tried because failure is okay.
When you're not doing research and leading at 500WS, what do you do to unwind?
My favorite activity is sitting around with friends talking, preferably with some kind of boat drink in my hand. (I think that’s everyone’s favorite activity, although drinks may vary). Audiobooks and podcasts are essential for me because I can do something else while I listen, which prevents my mind from wandering too far. I am usually making something while I’m listening, whether it’s cross-stitch, watercolor, or dinner. I listen to a lot of history and biographies, particularly anything by Ron Chernow. I love sci-fi and horror too. Right now I’m working my way through Margaret Atwood’s bibliography. I also love cuddling with my cats Harry and Henry. My brain is a never ending stream of Hamilton lyrics and I don’t mind. Occasionally it’s interrupted by new Kesha songs. My husband and I watch Jeopardy! together every night. I also like TV shows where people try to survive in ridiculous situations, like Naked and Afraid and Alone.
Dr. Lexi Moore Crisp earned her PhD in May of 2018 from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She moved to the Philadelphia area in 2015 to analyze data, write, and be with her husband. Lexi earned her master’s degree from Youngstown State University, where she studied the muscle architecture of American badger forelimbs. As an undergraduate, Lexi studied philosophy, psychology, and history and philosophy of science at the University of Pittsburgh.