Rising To The Top As A Woman In Medical Research With Dr. Deb Kelly

by | Jun 13, 2024 | Podcasts

Speakers Who Get Results | Dr. Deb Kelly | Women In STEM


Join us in this episode of “Speakers Who Get Results” as host Elizabeth Bachman welcomes Dr. Deb Kelly, a trailblazer in medical research and a passionate advocate for women in STEM. Dr. Kelly shares her journey through the male-dominated field of science, offering insights into her groundbreaking research and the importance of diversity in STEM. Discover how she navigates challenges, mentors the next generation, and stays motivated by her passion for discovery. Tune in for an inspiring conversation that highlights the power of perseverance and the impact of representation in science.

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Rising To The Top As A Woman In Medical Research With Dr. Deb Kelly

Lessons For Women In STEM

I have something of an unusual guest, but before we get to the conversation with Deb Kelly, let me invite you to see how your presentation skills are doing by taking our free four-minute assessment at SpeakForResultsQuiz.com. That’s where you can see where your presentation skills are strong and helping you and where perhaps a little bit of support could help you get better results and the recognition that you deserve.

My guest is someone that I met and I immediately liked her. I thought, “She’s so interesting.” One of the joys of hosting a show is I get to interview interesting people. That was great. Her name is Deb Kelly and her academic resume says that she completed her PhD in Molecular Biophysics at Florida State University and her post-Doctoral training in Structural Biology at Harvard Medical School.

During this time, while she was still a student, developed technical breakthroughs in the field of cryo-electron microscopy. That is using an electron microscope as a cryonics. It uses cold to see at a much deeper level than a regular electron microscope. These breakthroughs are now being used in the communities that do material research.

Research for building new materials and creating new things like the chips in our phones and such. As interest in high-resolution imaging has skyrocketed in recent years, the Kelly team has been on the leading edge of adapting these tools for biomedical applications. We’ve involved human viruses and cancer. You’ll hear me say in the interview that she said she’d like to find a rapid test for cancer as we developed for COVID or a pregnancy test. You should be able to figure that out. Not there yet, but that’s what she’s working on.

Dr. Kelly is a Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Pennsylvania State University, where she holds the Huck Chair in molecular biophysics and directs the Center for Structural Oncology. This center aims to combat the molecular actors that cause human disease by finding out where are the hidden vulnerabilities in the molecules.

She told me once that up until now, science has looked at molecules the way you would look at a forest when you’re flying over it. What she can do with these new electron microscopes is look at the inside of the molecules akin to the difference between flying over a forest and walking through the forest at ground level to see which trees are healthy and which ones are not. Deb Kelly is such an interesting person. We’ve had a little bit of an issue with the sound because the WiFi in her hotel room didn’t work, so she had to go find a café but the content of what she said was so interesting. I know you’ll enjoy it. On to the interview with Dr. Deb Kelly.

Deb Kelly, I’m so glad we managed to pull this off. Welcome.

Thank you so much. It’s a pleasure to be here and to speak with you.

As I said in the intro, you’re calling from a café because of the WiFi in your hotel room because you’re at a conference and all that good stuff. I’m glad we were able to squeeze in a little time. Before I get started talking about your very interesting life and what you’re doing, who would be your dream interview? If you were going to interview someone who’s no longer with us, who would it be? What would you ask them and who should be listening?

I did think about this. I would interview the great Rosalind Franklin. If you’re a scientist, you know who that is. It’s the woman who’s credited for discovering that DNA is in the shape of a double helix. I would ask her what that moment of discovery was like when she first had the realization of the architecture that gives life to all human existence.

She has the first snapshot to view how our genetic code is arranged then you can start to infer how cells are arranged and how molecules are made in the body. It’s the true first moment of discovery in life sciences in the 20th Century that gave rise to everything in the entire biomedical research industry. I would want to know what that first moment of discovery was like when she first realized, “It’s a helix.” I’m a microscopist. I look at things. I use microscopes.

You’re a microscope geek or expert.

I’m a microscope geek. I look at things using high-powered microscopes to see down to the level of precise atoms. Being someone who’s very visual and looking at things for the first time that no one else has ever seen. For me, I get this rush of discovery when I see these things. I wanted to know what it was like when she first discovered that like that moment of discovery like, “It is that.” It’s fascinating to me, that moment of discovery. That’s why many of us do science.

We want to discover something. We want to see something differently or we want to be able to understand things that give rise to disease or cause complications like SARS-CoV 2. Imagine if we didn’t have these first images of what that virus looked like. How would we be able to combat it to help make the world a better place? That first true moment of discovery, it’s good to see how other scientists react to that.

I’m curious. You’ve been through this. You’ve got a bunch of patents and discoveries that you’re credited for. Do you think it was a perfect a-ha moment or do you think she’s like, “That’s interesting,” and looked again, “That’s interesting?” It finally crystallized in her brain and she said, “I wonder if I could prove this,” then looked for a helix, a double helix.

I like how you use the term crystallized because she determined that it was a helix by growing crystals of the DNA. When you get large enough crystals of the DNA, the thing you can shoot X-rays through it. It makes different patterns that give rise to the medical properties to infer that it’s a helix. It’s interesting. Your term there is so spot-on without you realizing it.

It’s Good To Doubt Yourself

At first, for me, you get those, “That’s interesting. What does that mean?” You get the spark of, “I’m seeing this and no one else has ever seen this?” It’s like you have the first snapshot of a natural secret in the world. You want to share it by doing lots of experiments to follow up and see what these things mean. It’s good to doubt yourself at first. I like for my students to come with me to their ideas and we discuss them. We’re like, “What if it means this? What if it means that?”

I doubt them and myself until I can prove myself right or wrong to avoid confirmation bias then we go back. We can try to follow up and read what others have done. If you read too much upfront, then you might bias yourself into thinking to prove your ideas right or wrong. It’s good to doubt yourself and then try and prove yourself evidentially. When you have enough evidence, then you start to write up your results when you publish them.

You share them with the community then others can publish and add on or refute. That’s the nature of publishing in academics. Our main job as professors, I feel like, is to mentor and raise the next generation of scientists and also pay them to do the work. What we do is we write a lot of grants in order to get the grants. We publish a lot of papers. The scientific process of discovery, though, is what drives me. Seeing something no one has ever seen before and trying to understand.

That’s what keeps you coming back.

It’s that moment of discovery, like, “Looks like that no one else has ever seen this,” then you’re fascinated by it. You had to know more and more. Driven by that natural curiosity. That curiosity is what keeps you going because a lot of times, most of what you do in science experiments doesn’t work. You have to find a way to make them work.

You have to troubleshoot and the learned ability to troubleshoot and go back and learn what this result means. What does that result mean? A lot of times, when you get a negative result, it’s not what you expect. You might be sad but it’s interesting. You’re like, “What does it mean if it’s not this?” That’s a cool moment in science, too. Trying to understand and put all the pieces of data together to the story of what you’re looking at.

I’ve often thought about that famous Isaac Asimov quote, where he said, “Most discoveries don’t come with an a-ha or eureka.” It comes with a huh?

That’s weird. What does that mean?

A Woman In Medical Science

For our non-English speaking list, Isaac Asimov was a very famous scientist and science fiction author in the 1950s and 1960s. He wrote some of the seminal works of science fiction. Since I read a lot of science fiction in fantasy, I love that phrase. Deb, I’m curious. You are well-established. You’re a senior tenured professor now and you are a name in the field of medical science, microscopic. I probably can’t pronounce it all but what was it like as a woman, as a scientist, how did you get into a field that doesn’t usually have women?

When I started in my PhD, there weren’t a lot of senior women to look up to. There were a handful and I thought they were amazing scientists. Some are still working in the field. I was drawn to the work of my PhD advisor. I thought he was doing a lot of groundbreaking science. When I interviewed for graduate school, I wanted to join his team and learn from him. He’s a very eminent scholar in microscopy.

When I joined his team, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. It sparked me to want to do microscopy for the rest of my life and understand how molecules look and act. Take that into how they’re different in disease and what we can do to understand this process used differently. Seeing few female role models, I had an undergraduate major in Chemistry, then my PhD is in Molecular Biophysics. I was used to not seeing a lot of female role models, to be honest with you.

Having strong male role models is also important. Not all women are going to advocate for other women in the workplace in the field. Not all men are against women in the workplace and the field. You have to find those individual champions who’ll stick by you and help mentor you and support you. Being in a male-dominated field, I didn’t start to realize there were difficulties until after graduate school and into my further training, let’s say in career development.

I never had difficulties in my PhD. I did have some difficulties in the work I was doing during my postdoc because it’s a very demanding field. I was in a very demanding environment and that’s when I started to see a lot of different things in academics the true side of academics. Everyone struggles male and female to make it to the academic ladder. I’m not the only one who’s been in struggles, but one only sees on a CV the successors.

On the resume and the CV.

For every award you get or an accomplishment, there are ten things you don’t get properly. To see lots of highlights means there are lots of things that didn’t work out along the path. I don’t know when that everything works out the first time, particularly in science with experiments. Why being in a male-dominated field? I was used to that coming through the academic brain. It wasn’t unusual for me until my current position. I was the first senior tenured female in the entire department in the history of Penn State.

Speakers Who Get Results | Dr. Deb Kelly | Women In STEM

Women In STEM: For every accomplishment or award you get, there are ten things you didn’t get properly. To see lots of highlights means there are lots of things that didn’t work out along the path.


I felt that a bit striking and odd but it is a young department. That was an honor to take on that role and be a role model as such. In my current position and roles through the Microscopy Society of America. It’s the national organization for all things related to microscopes and academic science related to microscopes.

I’m guessing that the microscopes that you work with don’t look like the standard picture of the tube and the slide on it that you move the dials.

Some of them do and some of them look like a plain 20-foot tall box full of electronics. The size of a city bus to standing up vertically in a room. You’re in a command center off-site using this high-powered microscope that can see down to the level of atoms. We use everything from the tube ones that you used in high school or different stages.

I certainly used them in high school.

You can imagine what the emoji looks like on your phone from a microscope all the way to something that looks like a city bus turned on its side that’s vertical in the air and 20 feet tall. It runs a gamut. The society that I was elected to be president of runs a gamut from the emoji to the city bus. It was in that role that I started to see a lot of the good and the bad in the fields. People in the field are wonderful. You have a small fraction like any population who aren’t.

That was also parallel to what I was seeing in academics. A lot of people are wonderful. It’s almost like a Gaussian curve distribution. That means the majority of people are in the middle then their fringe is on both sides. We’re highly great and some are not so great. You have to learn to be yourself, believe in yourself, and stand up for yourself. Fight every day to be your best.

To keep the funding because I know. I have scientists in my family, so I’ve heard lots of these stories to fight for funding. I’m curious, you’ve said that you’re looking to find a rapid test for cancer. It was breast cancer that got you into the field in the first place. Tell us that story. What was it that got you interested in breast cancer and figuring out what the atoms were doing?

Advancing Technology

When I say I want to make a rapid test for cancer, it means I want to advance technology such that like we had done for COVID, everyone had done the nasal swab. That’s easy to get at because that’s where the specimen would be available then you test at home. We had done some work in that space and I was also doing cancer research. I was thinking why isn’t there a rapid test for cancer? Could it be something similar to a pregnancy test that you could do at home or rapid tests you could do for COVID? It’s still in the formulation stages. We’re far from having that but shouldn’t we have such big grand goals at trying to understand clinical diagnosis where you can do something at home for preventative medicine and trying to personalize the way in which you can take your healthcare into your own hands? That would be a great goal.

People say that finding a rapid test for cancer is too big a goal. I don't think so. Shouldn’t we always have big goals? Share on X

How do we get there? If this is your grand goal, let’s say that was one of my goals. How do I get there? You do a lot of research to get there. My breast cancer interest was sparked when I was first interviewing for my job. My first faculty position at Virginia Tech. My grandmother, who was a breast cancer survivor, passed away during my job interview, and I’m originally from Virginia.

I thought, “It would be nice to be closer to my family in my first faculty position. Should I need to go home or deal with anything?” I accepted the job at Virginia Tech. It was an outstanding director and outstanding facilities. Virginia Tech is a wonderful place. I had a great career there and five years ago moved to Penn State. That’s been wonderful, too.

That’s the Penn State University, for our non-US readers.

At Virginia Tech, I was working on some scientific experiments. As part of that, we had this a-ha moment where we were able to identify a breast cancer-related gene product in some of our experimental preparations. I had the idea, “That seems important. We should start to work on that if we’re able to get these proteins and answer some questions related to why it’s different in individuals who are more susceptible to breast cancer than other individuals.”

I was looking through a public database of many different mutations, genetic mutations, meaning things that are changed in people’s genes who have breast cancer versus those who don’t have breast cancer. The information of where some of those mutations are errors in the genetic code where a parent. I realized we’re doing a lot of screens for genes and we can know where these problems are but then what do we do about it once we know what the problems are? How would you fix it? How would you understand how the problem translates to issues that give rise to disease?

In order to look at the problem and dream about even fixing it, you have to look at it, and to look at problems with proteins, you need to use high-powered microscopes. One of my research missions was to start to look at and use microscopes, to look at these problems giving rise to these genetic mutations in breast cancer. That led to the launch of our entire research program related to breast cancer now into pancreatic cancer and brain tumor research.

The types of cancers that are highly intractable to treat but are also deadly and cause the most issues in the body. You have to work on hard things that are important, I always say. If we could even make some progress at understanding how these proteins and problems in the genetic code look and operate to give rise to disease. That’s new information no one’s ever seen before because we had a visual component to it.

We should work on the hard things, the hard, important things. Share on X

That’s how it all started in my lab space. I had a wonderful team. I had the right support. I had a wonderful administrative unit. As I said, a wonderful executive director who supported me. We were able to get funding to do the projects, which makes universities very happy as well as me. It just started the entire cancer program that I was working on.

Representation Matters

Let me ask you a couple of other things about that. Deb, this is interesting, all the things that you’re doing. You’re making a huge difference in the world. How have things changed in the time that you’ve been since maybe you first walked into a science class when you were twelve or something and said, “This is cool.” How have things changed for those of us who are not in the majority, not the straight white men, was always one’s idea of a scientist?

A colleague of mine who’s very shrewd always says representation matters. For younger people or younger women to see someone like myself with the LGBTQIA background, that is changing. There are still very few of us in the field but it is changing. I don’t know if people are more comfortable expressing their identities or not, compared to the demographic of older Caucasian gentlemen. When I was growing up, my field was still dominated by that demographic, let’s say, but when we think about looking back on the day of Rosalind Franklin, she was faced with the same demographic. It still exists in my field where it’s heavily male-dominated in STEM.

Whether that demographic has changed or not, some of the attitudes that these people have changed quite a bit that I’ve seen throughout from my PhD to now. There’s still a lot of misogyny. Misogyny can be expressed by people who identify as male or people who identify as female. That doesn’t go away. It’s a complex factor in society that it’s always a struggle for everyone.

Speakers Who Get Results | Dr. Deb Kelly | Women In STEM

Women In STEM: Misogyny can be expressed by people of any gender identity. It’s a complex and persistent factor in society, making it a constant struggle for everyone.


Men have to deal with other men who are misogynistic. Women have to deal with other women who are misogynistic. It’s unfortunate. I see a shift in the way people are more comfortable expressing themselves in terms of their identity and standing up for themselves in terms of their identity. Whether those demographics have changed or not, some of the attitudes have improved to be more accepting and belonging in the academic workspace.

The Double Helix

You said something about when Rosalind Franklin discovered the double helix model for DNA. Somebody else got the Nobel Prize for it.

She had passed and colleagues Watson and Crick were awarded the Nobel Prize for the discovery. James Watson and Francis Crick were credited for the discovery of the double helix. She had obtained the original data. The data gave rise to the theory of there being that a form of DNA exists in cells. The consensus in the scientific arena is that she discovered it but could not receive the credit for it because the Nobel Prize isn’t awarded to those who have past. It’s a prize to individuals who are alive.

Maybe she would have gotten the Nobel Prize if she’d still been alive.

Everyone speculates as though she would have, as do I. It’s thought that she would have.

A quick question. I don’t know if there’s a quick answer to this but why does knowing the model that looks like a double helix, why does that matter? Why do we care?

Why is it important that we care about that? It gives all insights into how our entire genetic code is arranged. That gives insights into how everything in biology functions. The way in which you’re placed in your body, the way in which your hair falls, and the way in which you look. All of those are called phenotypes, which is an expression of how things look and where places go to give rise to the body based on how that DNA code is arranged.

That DNA code when it’s replicated or copied to give rise to new cells has to open up and breathe, then genes have to be activated to give rise to all the functions in the cells. It was the cryptic message of how cells are made and how molecules are made. It gave rise to the entire dogma of molecular biology, which wasn’t even called molecular biology at the time. It was called maybe genetics or something to that effect. The term molecular biology means all of biology works down at the molecular nitty-gritty scale of things. It gave rise to this.

Now you can see the molecules.

You can see the molecules. You can understand how genes are arranged. You can understand how genes work and operate to give rise to every molecule in your body.

Would it be fair to say that if you know the way it normally looks, then when something is not in that pattern, you can say, “Something’s wrong here, let’s figure out what’s going on?”

The mutations that give rise to breast cancer or other diseases. Cancer is a genetic disease. A lot of people don’t realize that but that means there’s a problem in how the DNA is arranged or there are injuries in the DNA itself. DNA can get injured like if you cut yourself. You need to put a Band-Aid on it. How do we come up with those molecular band-aids that will heal the genetic code? Can things go back to being in a healed way, if you do have a disease? It gives rise to all of our fundamental knowledge of how cells are made and how we exist. It was one of the most fundamental discoveries.

You could ultimately extrapolate that into problem and solution in terms of this will get the DNA back into the double helix where it’s happiest.

The right way in which it has to be arranged to properly function. It has to open up to turn things on and off in the body. We always say in our field that structure equals function. The way something is arranged dictates how it’s going to work. That’s also a central dogma in the scientific field of biology. It was one of the most fundamental discoveries in the century for life sciences. Can you imagine, you’re the female scientist who’s sitting there on that discovery trying to convince yourself, “Is it what it is or not?” You do have a eureka moment then you share it and others are trying to claim credit for it.

That still happens in the academia, too. That hasn’t changed.

If someone doesn’t agree with you, they can complain all day about it and try and drive you down. Things like that happen in academia, too. It’s a very cutthroat industry. You wouldn’t believe it. You would think that we’re all together trying to make discoveries to make the world a better place or trying to cure medical diseases. It’s often not like that. Everyone now has the same tools and there are so many open questions. People work on the same questions with the same tools, and try and claim that their way of doing something is better than others. Which may or may not be the case. Sometimes a lot of the boys win. It’s not the person who’s accurate or right and that’s not cool, too.

Which is the same in any group of human beings. I help my corporate clients work with.

A Voice In The Academics

That is one of the most important things in all of academics is that you can help women who don’t have such a voice in academics. The other private question is what would I say to younger women? Stay strong, keep pushing, and do not weaken. That is a direct quote from Grace Burke, who’s a senior fellow at Idaho National Laboratory. Someone who I’ve used as a personal mentor and always looked up to in our field. Also, for more presidents of the same microscope society that I led. She’s a wonderful role model. That’s a direct quote from her when I was feeling down related to some things going on in my career. I took it to heart and I keep standing up for myself.

Stay strong. Keep pushing. Do not weaken. - Prof. Grace Burke, Idaho National Labs Share on X

When you get stronger pushback, when you stand up for your stuff, you know you’re doing something right because people don’t like when you stand up for yourself oftentimes. They try to get into some aggressive contests or power games. That’s the best way to say it. I wouldn’t have had to say it otherwise. My life coach says that you’re on a team of gladiators. You just have to have the better gladiators on your team to fight the other gladiators who are full of it. Power games and power struggles dominate every industry. They dominate academics as well.

Everywhere you go.

It’s horrible and you don’t learn that as a young professor. You only learn that as you climb through the ranks. As you become more well known, more goods stumped on you. I can’t imagine the woman who won the Nobel Prize for the COVID vaccine discovery. She speaks very openly about all the negative things that have happened in her career. She followed that phrase by Grace Burke exactly throughout her career. She speaks very openly about it, “Stay strong, keep pushing, and do not weaken.”

When Grace said that phrase to me, it resonated with me. I was like, “I will stay strong and not weaken.” When I encounter challenges, I might be depressed or sad about it. It’s so hard to do. It’s easy to say those words. It’s so hard to do and believe in yourself enough to do it. It’s difficult. You have to have the right people on your side.

I have a wonderful department head in my department in biomedical engineering. I have a wonderful Dean. She’s amazing. I can’t imagine the struggle she has been through to rise to the rinks to get at her professional accomplishments, as well as my department head. Everyone has their own struggles. It’s particularly difficult for minorities and academics. Be it whatever your heritage or background is. I don’t like to say skin color. I would like to refer to people’s heritage, who may not be imprisoned as Caucasian males, let’s say. It’s not that they haven’t had to struggle as well. Everything’s a struggle.

There’s always a reason to look down on someone else.

Those are people who you don’t want to be around. You want to not be around or stand up for yourself and it’s hard to do. Sorry, I’m getting off of it.

We are out of time, and I could listen to you for hours but I know that you have to go back to your conference. They’re waiting for you.

Thank you so much. I appreciate your time.

Let’s end with this phrase, stay strong, keep pushing, and do not weaken. I love that.

I love it, too. Thank you, Grace, for bringing those elegant words into my life.

Deb Kelly, thank you so much for having been a guest. This has been Speakers Who Get Results. If you enjoyed this conversation and you want to hear more, please subscribe to us, whatever app you’re using. Subscribe to us on YouTube and tell your friends. This has been Elizabeth Bachman, and I will see you on the next one.


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About Dr. Deb Kelly

Speakers Who Get Results | Dr. Deb Kelly | Women In STEMDr. Deb Kelly completed her PhD in Molecular Biophysics at Florida State University and her post-doctoral training in Structural Biology at Harvard Medical School. During these pursuits, she developed technical breakthroughs in the field of cryo-Electron Microscopy (EM) that are now also being used by the materials research community. As interest in high-resolution imaging has skyrocketed in recent years, the Kelly team has been on the leading-edge of adapting these tools for biomedical applications involving human viruses and cancer.

Dr. Kelly is currently a professor of Biomedical Engineering at the Pennsylvania State University, where she holds the Lloyd and Dottie Foehr Huck Chair in Molecular Biophysics and directs the Center for Structural Oncology (CSO). The CSO aims to combat molecular culprits of human disease by revealing their hidden vulnerabilities.