Faces of Science: Kayla Barekat

Kayla in the S Marie Curie 2.0 dress

 AmorSui’s “Faces of Science” Campaign features women scientists with their own unique shapes, sizes, and stories to encourage current women and future generations in STEM fields to feel comfortable in their skin and empowered to discover the next big thing.

Today, our feature is Kayla Barekat, PhD candidate in Pharmacology at the University of Pennsylvania. Read more about her passion for uncovering uncharted territories, her drive to make an impact in healthcare, her belief in a science culture where women can express themselves freely, and her love of statement shoes!

What is your research focus?

I study the role of the gut microbiome in gastroenteropathy. I look into how different classes of non-steroid anti-inflammatory drugs interact with the gut microbiome and how that may affect gastrointestinal adverse events.

What attracts you to science?

For me, the coolest part about science is the critical thinking aspect of science. Science allows me to think logically while being creative at the same time. I feel great being at the forefront of discovery in something that nobody else has ever tried to do. Being a scientist is kind of like being a detective. We seek to find answers in our own niche that contribute to helping the community chip away at larger problems.

I especially love the process of scientific discovery. My strength lies in organization, data mining, and persistence, and I love using all of these skills at the bench to create something that nobody has ever tried to do before.

Kayla in the S Marie Curie 2.0 dress

What motivates you to continue to work in science?

The fact that we still don’t know a lot, I think there is always going to be a need for science.

Specifically, my research focuses on understanding the adverse effects of an existing class of drugs that millions of people use daily or chronically and become ill from the side effects of ulcers. To date, we still don’t understand the mechanism by which these ulcers are forming.

I am contributing as a scientist to improve the lives of these people, to help them understand better so we can improve their quality of life.

Knowing the impact of my work, it excites me that I could one day reduce all of the unintended damages of these patients from these drugs. Knowing that motivates me to keep going.

What is your career aspiration? What do you want to do next?

My immediate goal is to obtain my PhD. After that, I see myself transitioning into a role in industry, either in biotech or consulting. Although I think my strength and skillset fit well within academic research, I believe I would make a better impact in industry.

Kayla in the S Dorothy Hodgkin  top

What is the last accomplishment you celebrated?

My second PhD thesis committee meeting was yesterday. It went really well. It is a big relief. I have a lot to do this year, but I think it is starting to come to a definitive direction.

Tell me something you think is strange about you

Although I am working in a field that is male-dominated, I am unapologetically feminine. I don’t fit within the stereotype of geeky nerd woman scientist.

The typical perception of a scientist is really masculine and serious. I think that the norm has to change. It is important that the images and representations of women in science show that we can be taken seriously—that we don’t need to take the masculine form. We can present ourselves as strong women, we can be feminine, and this should not compromise the perceived validity of our science.

I don’t think women should have to hide who we are to fit in.

Kayla in the S Dorothy Hodgkin top and S Rosalind Franklin 2.0 pant 

Could you describe your wardrobe?

My wardrobe is pretty classic. I love wearing a minimalistic dress or fitted turtleneck shirt with a high-waisted pant. I'll usually pair the outfit with statement shoes (ALWAYS statement shoes), and a structured bag as my pop of color. I got the boots I am wearing today at Acnes Studio in the outlet mall. They were already a season old when I got them, but I love them!

Kayla in the S Marie Curie 2.0 dress

Do your outfits differ in/out of the lab?

Yes, that goes back to me trying to fit in a role and to make sure I am taken seriously among male advisors and colleagues. Even though I don’t say it out loud, I often joke with my close female science friends that women are judged based on how we dress. It’s like your male colleagues think your IQ drops 10 points because you take 10 minutes to put on a nice outfit and makeup.

When I am presenting myself among male peers, I make sure I look almost plain. You know, the Elizabeth Holmes look where you only put on the black turtleneck, the sleek black hair, and the minimalistic makeup. It is almost like if you want to be taken seriously, you don’t want to create distractions that will make men make assumptions about you because you look too feminine.

I think that my wardrobe outside of work is very feminine because of this suppression. I will dress fashion-forward, not overly feminine. I make sure I look current, sharp, and of course, wear statement shoes.

When I go home or on vacation, I get my nails done in crazy colors. I'll wear dark purple lipstick and let my hair down more. I’ll also wear dramatic earrings in bright colors.

Do you have a dress code when working in your lab?

Yes, we have to wear closed-toe shoes and pants. I regularly work with fixatives regularly, and I don’t want to compromise my safety. Even though many of my lab clothes are not as cute, I think it is important to comply.

Kayla in the S Marie Curie 2.0 dress

What outfits would you normally wear when you need to look nice for presentations or talks?

I’d wear pointed, closed-toe black shoes. I would usually put on a sleek fitted slack and usually an all-black button-down silk shirt. Yesterday, for my committee meeting, I wore an all-black turtle neck top with a sleek all-black pant, and pointed-toe boots. I try to dress professionally, but minimalistic.

What advice you would give to female scientists to dress more appropriately or professionally in the lab?

I do think that it can vary based on your lab and your advisor. However, we, as women, may at times need to be cautious about how we carry ourselves to keep our professional appearance to be simple to not distracting. I would say keep simple makeup; no dark lip colors, dramatic eyes, or fake eyelashes.

It is all about knowing how to look professional in a certain context and be aware of implicit judgments that might surround you.

I do think, in all honesty, that AmorSui is the right amount of professional with a feminine touch. I can see myself being comfortable and confident in their line presenting in front of my committee of eight middle-age white men.

Follow Kayla on Instagram @kaylabarekat.

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