Welcome to Madam Ambition, if you want to just tell me about your childhood and where you’re from, and anything you want to tell me about your early life.
Growing up in my childhood, my family was always surrounded by people who were from other parts of the world so I think that sparked real curiosity in my siblings and me. I have four siblings. I grew up in North Carolina. I was actually born in Northern Ireland and spent my very early years in France. I feel like where I was born in Ireland had a unique shape on who I became.
Both my parents are from Belfast, Northern Ireland. My dad is Catholic and my mom is a Protestant. At the time there was a lot of social strife between the two groups. They lived in separate areas of town so it was very rare that anyone from one side would marry someone on the other side.
How did they meet?
They met through a mutual friend. The story is that they met on a bus and one friend introduced the other and just thought that they would be a good match but nothing became of that until they met again a few years later in the early 70s when my dad was finishing up his PhD. At a time in Northern Ireland, people who were Catholic did not have as many job opportunities as people who were Protestant. It’s actually one of the reasons he moved to France.
When did you move to North Carolina?
Well my dad was offered a visiting professorship position. My parents knew very little about North Carolina. They had both traveled in the U.S. but they saw North Carolina as a fun adventure for a few years, they always assumed that they would always go back to Europe where their families were. They also had two young children. I was four and my sister was one. But the weather is so much better in North Carolina than in Northern Ireland and Northern France and quickly they found a community that felt like home in the town of Cary.
What was your schooling like?
I went to a private episcopal School and then the last two years we switched to Catholic school but for university, I went to a local public school.
So did you like school? Were you academically driven?
I did like school. In the first private school, I think I was just average. I didn’t feel like I was a particularly smart person but I managed. It wasn’t until I switched to the Catholic school that I was no longer average. Within that group, I joined the National Honor Society and stood out more. I really loved science and math. I always struggled a bit more with reading, literature, and history.
And outside of school did you like to have any strong interests?
I loved soccer and field hockey. I love the camaraderie of the sports teams. I also did a little bit of Springboard diving as well in high school.
So speaking of high school – when you were in high school did you have any goal or desire for your adult life that you were working towards?
I don’t think I knew what I wanted to do. I liked science but I didn’t have a very specific idea of what I wanted to do.
So when you were applying to college, what were you looking for?
For our family, cost played a big factor so the choice was always one of the local public universities. We have excellent universities in North Carolina so there was never a question of would I go anywhere else. It just made the most sense for financial and logistical reasons. I remember applying to the two top public universities in the state and I got into both of them. I was very excited to go to the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.
What did you major in?
I became a biology major. I knew I didn’t want to become a doctor but I knew I still wanted to be involved in science. Beyond that, I couldn’t really formulate what it was that I was particularly interested in. I enjoyed life sciences, biology, and molecular biology, but one of my other favorite classes was avian biology and comparative anatomy. I think it all interested me and I was waiting to find the path that would help guide me to what I should do.
Did you find any part-time work or internships while you were in college?
I was really interested in marine biology and so I wanted to train whales ever since I was a little girl. I loved dolphins and whales so I decided to apply for a job at SeaWorld. I interviewed at SeaWorld in Orlando and had to endure a rigorous swim test in the extremely cold pool that the dolphins swim in unfortunately did not get the job but I kept in touch. A few weeks later I got a call saying that they actually had a position for me. I’m not sure if they just created an internship position for me because I was bugging them so much or if something fell through with another person but I do believe persistence and not giving up played a role.
My second internship was working up at Mystic Aquarium. In college, I think I was leaning more toward marine biology as a career path because it included environmental sciences, conservation, and just animal biology. So the summer after I graduated, I was able to find a volunteer position down in the Florida Keys working with the coral reef for the first part of the year. I was hoping that would give me some experience to see if I wanted to go to graduate school to study marine biology. I learned that it was interesting but I wasn’t passionate about it.
What did you do next?
I interned with the AmeriCorps and one of the volunteers there told me about this job further up the Florida Keys, a part of the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute. We were working with a protective species called conch. We were trying to find ways that we could bring back up the conch population. Here, I was introduced to a lot of research techniques. I saw this opportunity as a way to help me decide if I wanted to go into academia because if you want to be a marine biologist, you need to get an advanced degree but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do it. As my AmeriCorps internship was wrapping up, my good friend’s boyfriend was leaving his position in a genetics lab at Duke University. I had learned about genetics in seventh grade and knew it was also a subject that fascinated me. We were doing work to try and identify genes that lead to the development of the brain.
Tell us about that experience?
A year after I graduated from college I became a research technician in a lab at Duke University and it was fascinating to work. I remember at one point saying to the principal investigator at the lab, Andy Peterson ‘we get all excited when we see these embryos with a brain defect because we’re one step closer to finding out what the gene is that causes this brain defect but this happens in children as well this happens in people’s families and it’s not just a cool finding, it’s their hopes and dreams for the future.’ He recommended going into genetic counseling. Genetic counseling is not only the interesting scientific aspect of finding answers but also the emotional side of it. So through my work at this Duke research lab and with this mentor, I pursue it.
My first response was ‘oh, that’s going to be way too hard I would probably have to get an MD and a Ph.D. which seemed far more than I wanted to do. He assured me it was just a master’s degree of two years so I geared up for graduate school. While I was working in his lab I was able to also take a couple of other courses at North Carolina State. I took a human genetics course that I had not taken before and I took an Introduction to Counseling course and then I had to go back and take a biochemistry course as well which was super challenging, it was probably the hardest thing that I had to do to get into graduate school.
Where did you apply to go to graduate school, the same lab that you were working in?
You know, what was interesting is the genetic counseling field was still really small and there was not a program in North Carolina so I started looking everywhere but my lab was moving to California. Being young in my early 20s, and single, I thought ‘great, why don’t I go to California for six months I helped coordinate the lab move. Once I was in California, this was the height of the dot com era, the 2000 everybody had just moved to San Francisco and it felt like what I would imagine the Gold Rush era was like. It was a really fun time to be in San Francisco and so of course once I was there I knew I couldn’t leave, I decided to apply to UC Berkeley and I got in.
So after you were able to work in your lab while you studied for those two years?
I took out a student loan and was able to work some evenings in the laboratory doing genome, genotyping, genetic testing on a Saturday, genetic testing genotyping on the mice, and just run certain lab studies that you could then start and run over the night. The second-year was clinical rotations so I did not work. I both did rotations in the wintertime and I ended up being hired while still in graduate school by the place where we did our last rotation. So my last clinical rotation was at UCSF in cancer genetics and I have been there since. Last week was my 20th anniversary.
If you have any words to tell your younger self about the future that you would be living, what would you tell young Nicola?
Trust the journey and to enjoy the moment. I think sometimes we’re so busy looking forward and thinking what’s the next accomplishment or what’s the next goal without taking the opportunity to look back and appreciate the accomplishments that you’ve had.