Dr. Claire Gordy (left) has always been a writer — in middle school she had a column in her local Oklahoma newspaper. Now she continues to write with support of her fellow SPIRE postdoctoral scholars at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Read on to learn how Claire Gordy got picked up in an interesting vehicle to get to dance class, the importance of taking time to write as a scientist, and hippopotamuses.

Lea: Let’s jog your memory about middle school: Where were you? What was it like? How was it?

Claire: I grew up in Edmond, Oklahoma. I lived there my entire life until I went (a little bit) away for college and then came to North Carolina for grad school. Middle school was pretty good – I was into a lot of different things. I was very busy all the time between academics, school activities, dance, gymnastics, lots of different things. I really enjoyed school – I’ve always loved being a student. Overall it was a good experience.

One major difficulty I had in middle school was that I got very sick during seventh grade. I got, what was likely, mononucleosis. I was sick for half of seventh grade and never completely recovered from it. Seventh grade was a struggle, but the rest of middle school was good.

Did you miss a lot of school?

I missed a lot of school in seventh grade. Even when I went back, I’d go for half a day and then my mom would pick me up and I would lay on the floor of her minivan. I was just so tired that I couldn’t sit up. That was rough.

What was your biggest worry in middle school?

I’ve always been kind of a worrier. I feel like my worries were less specific then than they are now. I was still figuring out what I wanted to do and who I wanted to be. I was doing a lot of different things and thinking about trying to narrow those things down.

What did your parents do? What did they want you to be when you grew up?

My mom was a high school French teacher for many years and just recently retired a few years ago. My dad is still working – he has a lawn care business and does a lot of tractor work and works outdoors.

What was your community like? How did you get to school?

Our address was technically in a suburb of Oklahoma City, but we lived in a more rural area. It’s a lot more developed now. I always felt like we lived in the country but went to school in the suburbs. For elementary and middle school I took the bus and that took 45 minutes to get from home to school. It was nice – big open spaces. Oklahoma is open and flat so you can see for a long way, but we still had the resources in the larger community where we went to school.

I would usually get picked up from school for dance by my mom. But at one point my dance teacher picked several of us up in

[laughs] an old junky brown limousine.  You’d think people would be impressed that we were being picked up in a limousine, but we were actually kind of embarrassed by it. It was not a nice limousine.

You’d think people would be impressed that we were being picked up in a limousine, but we were actually kind of embarrassed by it. It was not a nice limousine.
Did you play outside a lot?

Yes. My parents had about an acre of land so we had a pretty good size yard. I had lots of great friends in the neighborhood and so we’d just walk to each others’ houses and play. There was a farm behind my parent’s house and there was a gate that we could go right through. So we’d go in and wander through the farm and look for cows or horses… whatever we could find.

What were your favorite subjects in school?

Everything! [laughs] I feel like a lot of kids in middle school feel like they don’t like a lot of their classes and maybe struggle to name one favorite class because they don’t like a lot of them… but I was the opposite. I wanted to do everything. I was good at science, but I wasn’t really that into science yet. In middle school I really liked math and English. At that point in time I was thinking I wanted to be a writer.

What was it about math and English that made them your favorite?

I liked math because I liked to answer questions where there was a right or wrong answer. That’s sometimes appealing to a kid that age – it’s not a questionable, subjective thing; it’s right, or it’s wrong. You learn these processes to solve problems and apply them.

I liked English because I liked telling stories. I wrote a lot of short stories when I was a kid and I wrote a column in the town’s newspaper when I was in sixth grade. I loved to write – and I still do.

I wrote a lot of short stories when I was a kid and I wrote a column in the town’s newspaper when I was in sixth grade.
What was your column about?

They selected one student from each middle school in the city to write one article a month about the things happening at their school.

Do you still write now that you’re a scientist?

I do! I’m in a writing group with other SPIRE scholars. Writing as a scientist is very important, but it’s sometimes hard to make time for it, even if it’s something you enjoy. Since the deadlines for my experiments come up a lot sooner and are much more pressing, writing is something that happens on a much longer timescale than what I’m doing in the lab. It’s easy to push the writing to the side and put it off. Fortunately I have friends that I meet up with on Wednesday mornings and we just sit in a quiet place and just write. We hold each other to writing during that time.

What a great community – do you think that’s common among scientists?

I think it’s sometimes hard to find a writing group, but it’s very helpful if you can find something like that. We all need to write, but we all tend to think of writing as a very solitary activity. Sometimes I write that way, but it really helps me to have someone holding me accountable.

We all need to write, but we all tend to think of writing as a very solitary activity.
Is there something you learned in middle school that really stuck with you?

Middle school was the time when I learned how to study, how to keep myself organized, and how to be a student. I probably spent a lot more time doing homework and studying than most high school students because I just thought it was fun.

I did spelling bees. I spent a lot of time completely voluntarily practicing spelling. That’s when I started learning how to really focus and achieve a goal.

I did spelling bees. I spent a lot of time completely voluntarily practicing spelling. That’s when I started learning how to really focus and achieve a goal.
Were you in any clubs, have hobbies or any extra curricular activities?

The main one would be dance. I danced a lot: tap, jazz, ballet, lyrical, hip-hop, you name it. I did that pretty much for several hours every day after school. My seventh grade year, the year I was sick, I had a scholarship at my studio where I would teach the really little kids. I was 13 and teaching the three-year-olds how to tap dance. That was my first teaching experience — not in science, but in dance.

Do you enjoy teaching now?
[immediately] I love it!

What do you like about teaching?

I like getting to interact one-on-one with the students. The class I taught last semester was only fifteen students and that was really awesome — to be able to talk with each one of them and help each one of them individually. For me it’s really exciting to see that light bulb go off and something that they hadn’t understood suddenly make sense and it all starts to click.

Did you ever think that you would become a scientist and what did you think that scientists did all day?

When I was in middle school, and even the first part of high school, I don’t think I realized that you could be a scientist. I don’t think I realized scientists still existed. It all seemed very historical – like everything had been figured out. I think I understood that there was such a thing as medical research because people had to test drugs to see if new treatments work. I don’t think that I understood that basic science research existed and that it was a career that you could even have.

I didn’t realize you could be a basic research scientist until my junior year of high school. I was starting to get letters in the mail from all sorts of colleges and I also got some information about a summer research program, the Research Science Institute through the Center for Excellence in Education, that was hosted at MIT and it was free. I applied for it and got in and I went and suddenly realized, This is really cool, I’d like to do this. There were 50 other students who were all my same age, we all lived together in the dorms at MIT, and people did research at a bunch of different universities around Boston. They were doing all sorts of different things – there was so much variety in all of the research projects. That’s what solidified for me that science was what I wanted to do.

I don’t think that I understood that basic science research existed and that it was a career that you could even have.
Now that you are in a place where you can work with students, do you find yourself seeking opportunities to provide those sorts of experiences for other students?

Absolutely, I love working with students. I always have at least one or two undergrads working with me. For me that’s the most fun part of doing research: teaching, mentoring and providing that research experience. Particularly providing that experience to students who might not otherwise have that opportunity. Here in Chapel Hill there are so many labs and it’s very common for the undergrads to do very high level research.

How did you get into science?

I liked science, I did well in my science classes. A lot of it goes back to that summer program at MIT. A lot of the students at the summer program, even though we were only juniors, had actually already been doing research. They had very focused, specific and detailed ideas of what research topic they wanted to work on — like at the level of what you would expect for a graduate student… and I had no idea. I ended up working on an interdisciplinary project between a physics lab and a physical therapy lab. It was nothing related to what I do now, but it taught me how to do science in general and how to set up experiments, write about science, and how to talk about science. I started to realize I was interested in the biological sciences, but not very specific.

I came to my graduate field, which is immunology, after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) my freshman year of college. It was my first semester of college and I had been having symptoms for a few years and I kind of already knew that that’s probably what it was, but it wasn’t until then that I was diagnosed. When I was diagnosed, at that time, people were just starting to fully recognize that it was an autoimmune disease, where your immune system attacks your own brain. I asked my neurologist a lot of questions and was really not happy with the answers that I was getting. Why did this happen? Why does this drug work? Why doesn’t this one work? How does this all work? And he couldn’t answer me. That was no fault of his – there weren’t answers. 

I started reading everything I could find. The Internet was around, but it was before you could just go and “Google” something and find all this information. I was reading about MS in encyclopedias, textbooks and medical books. Through doing that I got interested not just in the disease, but in the immune system. I found that the way that all of these different cells interacted with each other to protect you from infection and then hopefully avoid attacking your own body was absolutely fascinating. That’s what I ended up starting to do some undergraduate research on and continued to study immunology in grad school.

I came to my graduate field, which is immunology, after being diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) my freshman year of college.
That’s an incredible story. Would you be willing to offer some advice to a young person diagnosed with MS?

The disease is so different for every person; I don’t want to try to generalize. There are the physical parts, there are the cognitive parts (which is the scariest part for me) and emotional and psychological parts as well – some of which are caused by the disease itself, and some of which are from you trying to adapt to having the disease. Everyone is very different, but for me what I find most helpful is having a big group of friends who also have MS who have a wide variety of experiences to learn from. There are lots of support groups and some people find those very helpful, especially if you find a good support group of like-minded people. I do the MS Challenge Walk, which is a 3-day, 50-mile walk, the Bike MS, the MS Mud Run back when we had that here. I’d meet a lot of people who do those events; those are the people who are really actively trying to do something – to make a difference or make a change by finding a cure and finding new treatments. Those are the people that I like to surround myself with and what helps me the most.

How does your research in immunology relate to MS?

I have never done research that is specifically MS-related because I feel like I’m too close to the subject to be able to effectively do that. As a grad student I did some research on how the body selects  T cells that can recognize a bacteria or a virus and not attack your own body. I did some research on other cells in the body and how they respond to inflammation. Neither of those are specifically related to MS, but they both have an impact on it – the research is related to a variety of autoimmune diseases as well as infectious disease. Through that I got interested in how cells respond to stress. Now at UNC I don’t study the immune system in mice anymore, I study how cells respond to stress using yeast, which is a really good model for our cells. It turns out that a lot of these processes that we think of relating to just human health actually occur in something as simple as baker’s yeast.

It turns out that a lot of these processes that we think of relating to just human health actually occur in something as simple as Baker’s yeast.
If you could give your middle school self some advice, what would it be?

I’d say, “Slow down.” I was always very busy. I did a lot of fun stuff, whether it was school or various activities, but I was always thinking about the future. It was always, Well, what’s going to happen in high school? What’s going to happen in college? Sometimes not focusing enough on enjoying being a kid, though I definitely did enjoy being a kid. Take time to really focus on the moment.

What do you think your middle school self would be most surprised about, considering your life?

As much as I thought about the future in middle school, I had a very hard time imagining myself as an adult. I think the fact that I actually grew-up and have a house and a husband and a job would be very strange for me to think about as a kid.

Are there any mementos that you’ve kept from your childhood?

I have my first pair of point shoes from when I was dancing. I can’t wear them anymore, but I have them.

When did you go to your first concert and what band or artist was playing?

I don’t think I went to my first concert until college. My best friend and I went to an Ani DiFranco concert.

Did you play any instruments? Did your parents force you to practice or did you practice on your own?

I played the trumpet for one year in sixth grade. I was not terrible at it, but I got braces in sixth grade and it became very painful, so I did not continue. I practiced voluntarily. What I remember was practicing in my room with the door closed and hearing my mom across the house yelling, “Please close the door!” because it was so loud.

When you were a child, what did you imagine becoming one day?

At one point I wanted to be a firefighter and a dentist, but then decided I would be a dentist at a fire station — which makes perfect sense. That was when I was really little. Later I wanted to be a writer or a dance teacher. The writer morphed from a fiction writer to a journalist — I did journalism in high school on the school newspaper. That lasted until I decided I wanted to be a scientist. Other than being a dentist in a fire station, the rest of the things were all things that I still do. I’m still involved with dance, I write a lot, and I do science. I didn’t have to give anything up.

Did you collect anything when you were younger?

Hippopotamuses. [we both crumple into laughter] I think it started when I got a hippo wearing a tutu at a dance competition. I thought I was going to be collecting animals wearing tutus, but instead people started giving me hippos. It never stopped. Some of them are at my parents’ house; some of them are in North Carolina. I have a ridiculous number of hippos.

Do you have a favorite hippo?

I think the first one I got with the tutu.

Have you ever had a professional crisis and wanted to throw in the towel?

I don’t think I’ve ever really felt like changing my path and throwing in the towel. There have certainly been stressful times when I’ve wondered, How am I going to get through this? But I never really felt like actually giving up. There were some times in grad school with some difficult situations. Even last summer I had to change labs because the lab I was working in here at UNC moved to Michigan; I was questioning what I was doing and how I could make it work. It was stressful, but not worth quitting over.

How many of your discoveries were due to chance?

A lot. Even when it’s not fully chance, it’s always at least partly chance. Even when you have a good hypothesis that you think you’re testing and you think you’re going to prove your idea right, a lot of times at least part of whether or not it works comes down to chance and luck.

What fascinated you as a kid?

A lot of things – I was always fascinated by questions related to human health: understanding how the body works, how different diseases work. Middle school science was a lot more general — like having to make a Styrofoam model of a cell, like everyone does. Trying to think about how all of these parts and organelles are inside of something so small, and how there could be that many in my body and how that could make sense.

What were some of your favorite books growing up?

I loved Roald Dahl books. My favorite was Matilda. It came out right around the right time for me to read it – it was a brand new book.

Who were your adult role models?

My parents and my grandmother; my mom and grandmother were both teachers. My grandmother became an elementary school principal. My whole family was very big on education; they never pushed me into one particular career track, but it was very clear that education was very important. I always had a lot of people to help me study. I had those spelling bees and both my parents would willingly sit with me and read me words and let me spell words for hours at a time.

Do you have any siblings?

I have a younger sister.

Did you often feel bored as a kid?

I feel like I remember being bored sometimes in the summer. I read so much that if I felt like I was getting bored I could go grab a stack of Baby-sitters Club books and spend the whole day reading through a set of those. I always had friends in my neighborhood to play with. I may have complained about being bored, but I don’t think I actually was bored.

Did you ever feel that you were somehow different from other children?

I think so – not necessarily in a good way or a bad way, but I think maybe everyone feels that way in middle school. Like they’re different and nobody quite understands them.

Did you want to expand on that?

I think I felt more different when I was sick in seventh grade. I was sicker than people realized and I remember feeling apart from a lot of my friends and they didn’t understand what was going on with me at that time.

Did you ever get into trouble when you were in school?

I got into trouble at home. The one time I got into trouble at school was the one time I got lunch detention in sixth grade. It happened in math class, and I remember this specifically because you had to be in your seat when the bell rang. I had my book in the little wire basket on the back of my desk and I kind of stood up to be able to get the book out [she demonstrates leaning slightly out of her seat] so it seemed like I was standing when the bell rang. That’s as much trouble as I ever got in while in school.

My sister is three and a half years younger than me so we would fight at home, so I’d get in trouble at home for that.

What is a discovery that you have made that you think your middle school self would find interesting?

I’m trying to think of a discovery that my middle school self would understand. What I did in grad school was very specialized. I’m not sure, I’d have to think about it.

If you could have any superpower what would it be?
[almost immediately] Photographic memory. People actually have that, so maybe that’s not technically a superpower, but particularly as I worry about cognitive changes with MS, memory is something I think about a lot. I wonder how much I am reading I’m actually retaining, not just in terms of reading scientific literature, but keeping myself organized and remembering what I’m supposed to be doing, it would be very helpful not just as a scientist but in life.

Dr. Claire Gordy is a SPIRE postdoctoral scholar in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics at the University North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a visiting assistant professor of Biology at UNC Pembroke. In her free time she likes to train for the MS Challenge Walk and garden. Her students used Instagram to post pictures of their art/science depictions of developmental biology. Follow her on Twitter @drclairegordy.