STORIES

Abby Cullen

As a young girl, Abby always had an interest in science and a dream to one day work for NASA. Now, she is a postdoctoral scholar in the UO College of Arts and Sciences conducting research on Alzheimer's disease.

Title IX is most known for its effect on women’s athletics, but it also protects individuals from gender-based discriminatory practices in all federally-funded institutions, programs, and activities. In fact, one of the biggest focus areas to increase opportunities for young girls and women was Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM).

Flash forward to today, and we see how opportunities for young girls and women in STEM have increased tremendously. Scientist Dr. Abby Cullen, a postdoctoral fellow in the UO College of Arts and Sciences (CAS), is conducting research in human physiology as a part of the Aging and Vascular Physiology Laboratory. 

Abby didn’t have the most straightforward journey. While she had an interest in science at a young age and a desire to one day work in NASA (having four aunts with careers in science certainly helped develop her curiosity), her path from then to now is one full of twists and turns.

“There are a lot of females in my life who are scientists. When I was little, I went with my aunt who worked at NASA, and I got to see how to grow plants in a hydroponic growing system. That’s one of my first memories of science in an application setting.”

At Florida State University, Abby initially majored in physics her freshman year before switching into the biochemistry field. Her long-term mentor, Dr. Cathy Levenson, who is director of the graduate program of biomedical sciences and a professor in the neuroscience program at FSU’s College of Medicine, eventually opened Abby’s eyes to graduate school. She enrolled in FSU’s graduate program within the College of Human Sciences, where she earned her PhD in exercise physiology. She then started research in a laboratory to study the impact of gravity on human physiology, a subject in line with the track that would lead her to NASA.

Unfortunately, Abby’s time in the lab was short-lived due to circumstances involving discriminatory practices that eventually pushed her out. Looking back, she wishes she had known more about Title IX and the protection that the law offered her, but like many in these situations she was afraid of saying anything that could jeopardize her career.

“I knew a little bit about Title IX, but the problem was I didn’t know if I qualified, if what I went through was discrimination. I wasn’t educated enough to know where to go and what all the options were for me… But I think if I could do that again, I would have gone and talked to someone.

“I think Title IX is that protective layer that we can go to, especially for women. Had I known that was what [the law] was for and that I could go talk to them without having some of those repercussions, I would’ve done it in a heartbeat.”

Some in the younger generations aren’t as familiar with Title IX or the obstacles that others had to endure to fight for gender equality. But even as opportunities for women continue to increase and barriers continue to be broken, it’s important for people to understand what Title IX is and the protection it gives them.

Luckily, Abby had a support system to pick her up during that dark time. “Women in STEM really have each other’s backs,” she said. “My most recent doctoral PI, Dr. Gloria Salazar, she was in my corner for the whole thing and really helped me handle that.”

As a woman scientist, Abby acknowledges the importance of having representation in the field and female role models in her life.

“I never felt like I couldn’t do it, because I’d seen other people like me do it. And I think that just grew as I got older. More and more people that I admire and look up to came into my life.”

After Abby finished her PhD under Dr. Salazar’s guidance, she decided to continue pursuing her dream to work for NASA. Once she discovered that the University of Oregon had several labs in the human physiology department that facilitate NASA-funded studies, she applied to work as a postdoc in one and moved 3,000 miles across the country in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

She’s worked in two different labs at UO so far, and while her current projects divert away from her original NASA dreams, she’s grateful for her journey and how everything turned out.

As of now, Abby is studying large artery stiffness in relation to Alzheimer’s disease, which looks at the impact development of the disease in aged and young models and involves both the cardiovascular system and the cerebral vascular system. While she has accomplished a lot in a short amount of time, her biggest feat in her eyes is a no brainer.

“My proudest accomplishment to date is getting my PhD. I will never not say that as my proudest accomplishment, but it was not something that I did entirely on my own,” Abby said. “I had a lot of help…but I did 90% of the work on my own, and I know how much I struggled. And the volume of work that went into the project is one of the more robust studies that have been done in that department.

“But mostly, I’m proud because there were so many nights where I was up until 4:00am sobbing and saying I can’t do it. And I’m just so proud that I didn’t let myself get in the way of accomplishing something that I could do.”

In addition to Dr. Salazar, Abby relied on support from another graduate student and her group of friends during those hard times.

“[The graduate student] helped with running the experiments and times when I needed to go home to see my family. I always knew I could count on her. And I made some of my very best friends during that time. We had girls’ nights where we would talk about everything and figure out what we’re doing with our lives.

“The support at work, and then also the emotional support from your peers, that is what saves you from all those intrusive thoughts of ‘I can’t do it.’”

Just as Abby once looked up to her aunts, she knows there may be young girls who may need role models to pursue a career in science. To them, Abby offers some powerful advice.

“It takes a lot of very diligent work, and you do have to put in the time. It’s not something that happens super early or easily. It didn’t come naturally to me, so I would say if it doesn’t come naturally to you, to keep working on it.

“It’s about what you can endure. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, and if you can endure and keep pushing and keep going, whether your grades are perfect or not does not matter. As long as you are putting in the effort and showing up and doing what you can to learn, you will succeed.”

Besides learning how to put in the work and pushing through the hard times, Abby also encourages women everywhere to recognize when they need help and not be afraid to ask for it.

“You have to be an advocate for yourself. You have to admit when you need help and when you are struggling. And that will make your life a lot easier in the long run.”

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Title IX this year, Abby stresses the importance of both honoring the trail blazers before us and striving for more in these next fifty years.

“Women have not always had the opportunity to ‘Go Do Anything’. And while there’s still a lot of inequities now, I think we’re at a very unique point in time where we can go do our best…we should take advantage of this and put ourselves in the shoes that we want to be in.”

Whether someone reads this story and decides she wants to one day develop a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease or is inspired to study the biochemistry changes of space flight, Abby wants them to know that she believes in them.

“Everybody’s path is going to be different, but you just have to keep working towards your goal. And I think that a phrase like ‘Go Do Anything’ is something that will ground you to your goals and tell yourself you can do it.”

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Thanks to our partnership with the College of Arts and Sciences and the Knight Campus, Women In Flight is honored to shine a spotlight on UO’s women scientists and their incredible research. As we celebrate the 50 year marker of Title IX on June 23rd, a law that empowers women in both STEM and athletics to Go Do Anything, we invite you to support our campaign in honor of women everywhere.