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Fortuna Decimus on STEM Career Exploration in the Lab

What did you want to be when you were a kid? Sometimes the answer to that question gravitates around a feeling more than a career. Fortuna Decimus always knew she wanted to make an impact. She just didn’t know that her route to creating change would come through the sciences. Fortuna’s journey through the Forsyth Student Scholars program and now at UMass Amherst leaves no doubt in our mind that she will achieve her dream.  

Q&A with Fortuna Decimus

What is your hometown/neighborhood and which high school did you attend?  

I was born and raised in Brockton, Massachusetts, and the high school I went to was Brockton High School.  

Can you tell us about your experience at the Forsyth Summer Internship?  

I was really hesitant about joining the summer internship program. I remember telling my science teacher, “I don’t want to be stuck in a lab all summer.” I was very interested in science, but I was disillusioned in high school, and everyone told me that you’re going to be a science teacher, or work in a lab. At first, I liked lab work as a student, but I used to think that lab work in the actual lab setting was so boring.  The internship at Forsyth completely changed my view on lab work in general, on the career path of it, and it inspired me to want to go into the biotech field. 

Who did you work with/what projects did you work on?  

While I was there, I worked on cathepsin D and salivary glands and Sjogren’s syndrome patients with what I like to call the German squad. All my mentors were German. I worked under Markus Hardt, Maren Teichmann, and Felicitas Bidlack. Sjogren’s syndrome patients have an autoimmune disease and we worked on trying to find why they lacked the inflammation that is supposed to happen after you have issues in your salivary glands.  

What are you doing in your career now?  

Currently, I work in the Bartlett Lab under Erin Patterson. I work in Plant Biology now. I’m not 100% sure if I know this is exactly what I want to go into but, a lab is a lab. My current project I’m working on, there’s this little thing that’s connected to the part of a plant called and awn and, on some plants, when you when they’re exposed to dirt or water, the awn is on the seed, and it spins to help it to burrow itself further in the ground. So, our research that we’re doing is to see if we can add awns to important agricultural pursuits like barley or wheat. It’s found in most grasses, but not all of them. So, we’re looking to see 1) if we removed the awn can it still bury itself as deep and 2) if there is still awn on it can you add it to other plants species to have the same effect? 

What kind of impact did the FSS program have on your career path?  

I always thought I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up since I was a kid. When I was in middle school, I talked a lot and was very argumentative so everyone said, “You should be a lawyer.” I used to always have passion for science, but I was disillusioned. I kept thinking, “I don’t want to be a science teacher.” The idea of being a science teacher to me was terrible and I was like “I refuse, I’m going to have no options.” So, I thought, if I go to a different path, maybe I will have more options. But I had a wonderful science teacher, his name was Dr. David Mangus and he suggested that I go to Forsyth. 

Forsyth is very diverse. I loved it. In my idea of women in the lab, I didn’t expect to see representation of myself, but I feel like I did. I saw a lot of strong women in the lab, a lot of work being done. I felt like I could change the world like me personally. Everyone talks about cancer research or other research, but I feel like just research in general, any type of research changes anything like on the smallest level and has a trickledown effect. 

Ever since I was a kid, I thought whatever I do when I grow up, I want to do something that’s impactful. My name doesn’t need to be anywhere but even if I change a second of someone’s day, I want to be impactful. I feel like I’ll never know where our research will go on the salivary glands make ups in the Sjogren’s syndrome patients, but the idea that maybe 50 years from now, my one summer can have an effect on somebody being able to live their life just a little bit better made me feel empowered. After that I really started looking into science programs and looking into being a bio major. Right now, I’m a bio major but recently I found out my school has a micro bio degree, so I’m kind of thinking I might be changing majors. 

Where do you aspire your work to be in five years?  

I’m still on the path of figuring out but I think I’m almost 100% sure I want to go to grad school. You can do a lot with just a bio undergrad degree, but I’m going to open more doors for myself. Although I don’t know 100% what type of research I want to do even though I’m into genetics research, I want to keep my doors open. I want to join the workforce after undergrad and go to grad school while I’m in the workforce. I don’t know how that’s going to work yet, but in my head, it’s going to work. I was 100% on the doctorate before I got to college. I’ll see about that. It depends on what path I end up on.  

I want to say I feel like people don’t talk a lot to students about so much that you can do with your science degree. Now I’m at my school realizing all the things that I could be doing with my life. With my bio degree, after finishing my prereqs and the basic science classes, I’m starting to realize I lean very strongly towards biotech, like intensive courses. And I want to go to grad school. I don’t know where yet. Fingers crossed somewhere in Boston or DC.  

Do you have any advice for high school students considering STEM education tracks? 

I would tell them to do it. In my experience at college, a lot of students who go on the STEM path either don’t pick it for themselves or they pick it for the paycheck. But, if you genuinely have an interest in STEM, you should at least try. Everyone says being a bio major is so hard and a lot of kids, go in thinking “I don’t know if I can be a bio major, it’s a time commitment.” To me, I mean, it is grueling. I was up till 5am last night doing a study guide, but I feel like they should take the risk.  

If I didn’t have Dr. Mangus to push me in that direction and Megan and all them to like to give me the opportunities that I had I would never have been on the track I am. I was scared. I was terrified of the idea of commuting to Boston like an adult every day. I thought “Oh my goodness, I’m a kid. There’s no way like I’m going to take the train every morning and wake up at 6am.” For me, the whole experience was life changing.  

I think if they have the opportunity to do anything STEM related, even if it’s just in the classroom, or even taking STEM classes while they’re in high school, they should explore it before they knock it.  A lot of people say that STEM is just too hard, and you want to go into a degree like business, you’ll always have a job with business. If you’re passionate about STEM, whether that be science or engineering or math, you should do it. If you know that you can hold yourself to it, you should try it. Not every student is going to have somebody that’s going to push them in that direction. So, if they want to do it, just try it. At the end of the day everyone’s career path is so different. Some of my great science teachers didn’t even start off on the science track. I feel like a lot of kids our age are afraid of messing up. I feel like you can’t mess up. It’s just going to point you like better in the right direction. 

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