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Ep. 32: Professor Liz Alter Becomes the Female Role Model in Science She Didn't Have

"I didn't think that I could be a scientist, as crazy as that might sound today. But neither of my parents were scientists, I didn't have any female role models growing wasn't until I was out of college that I really thought to myself, I need to give this a try since this is really what I'm passionate about."

Lacking female role models in science as a kid, Liz Alter didn't see becoming a scientist as a realistic possibility. But she decided to give her passion a try and has become a role model for other women in the field. She is a biology professor at CUNY and the head of the Alter Lab. Together with a female role model she found late in her career, she even discovered a new species of fish in the Congo River, naming it after the Obamas!

You'll get inspired and learn about her exciting career path, the importance of female role models and mentors, how being a mother has improved her career, the leakage of the female pipeline in academia, making sure your days aren't just consumed by tiny tasks, and how she finds her joy by taking time to herself to make bread.

"I started asking myself...if I don't do this, will anyone else care? And a lot of times the answer is no."

In this episode, you'll learn:

  • Liz is a Professor of Biology at City University in New York
  • Her specialty is fish biology and genetics. 
  • In 2011 Liz discovered a new species of fish in the Congo River and named it Teleogramma Obamaorum after the Obama's.
  • In 2008 she completed her PhD at the same time as having her first child.
  • After being unsure about an academic career Liz spent some time working at an environmental non-profit as the science advisor.
  • She moved back into academia and connected with an ichthyologist at the Museum of Natural History who worked on the Congo  River project.
  • Liz flew out to the Congo to study human impact on fish populations.
  • This lady became her role model and was her first female role model in academia.
  • Most role models in academia are male so Liz works hard to be a good mentor to her young female researchers.
  • On the Congo project she works with in-country collaborators to financially support higher education for young women, especially within ecology.
  • One of Liz's career highlights has been building her own lab so that it's a cross between a mini-business and a family.
  • The female pipeline in academia is leaking in the middle, around the post-doc time when many women are starting a family.


  • Make sure that the way you're spending time is aligned with your goals; It's easy to easy to get bogged down in daily crisis and life etc.
  • Track your time; it's annoying to do at the time, but very useful. Liz realized she spent so much time on the train so now she studied Spanish to use the time productively.
  • Get better at letting things slide, for example - letting go of guilt of things that haven't been done like not sorting kids' old clothes.
  • Liz makes bread to show herself that she has spare time and to give herself a sense of peace 
  • Find your keystone habit which is the one habit that once it's done everything else follows, eg running in the morning.