Microbiologist, teacher, writer, and mother, Liz Heinecke has built a career in science on her desire to help make science fun, engaging, and simple for kids. Her blog, Kitchen Pantry Scientist, aims to share easy, everyday experiments and activities that parents can do at home to make science a regular and enjoyable part of their kids’ lives and daily routines. Heinecke has done that and more, and her blog has become only a single fraction of her remarkable story.


In part one of her interview, Heinecke starts us off by shedding some light on her personal, educational, and professional life prior to the start of her blog. She shares the roots of her passion for science, her experience working in labs, and the motivations behind her ultimate decision to give up lab work in favor of becoming a stay-at-home mom.


MUIPR: Your work is all about making science fun and easy for kids. So to start us off, what was your own experience with science as a kid? Did you always have an interest in it growing up?

LIZ HEINECKE: Well, I was really lucky. My dad’s a physicist so [even though] he never pushed science on us, he kind of taught me how to look around and ask questions. I was always collecting rocks, you know, and I had an insect collection. He sometimes would take us to his lab at the university, and we would get to play with some of the physics experiments. We played 20 questions all the time. It was always fun, you know? It was never work. It was always part of life and part of going outside and just my whole experience as a kid.


MUIPR: It’s so interesting to look at your educational background, though, because despite this interest in science from early on, you didn’t decide to study it in school right away. Instead, you have your B.A. in arts, and from there went on to get your M.S. in bacteriology. It’s quite the jump from one to the other. What caused this shift for you, and what inspired you to pursue science in your graduate studies after starting on such a different path during your undergraduate studies?

Starting off her career in science doing hands-on lab research, Liz Heinecke ultimately made the decision to put the formal research aside to become a full-time stay at home mom (scilogs.com)

Starting off her career in science doing hands-on lab research, Liz Heinecke ultimately made the decision to put the formal research aside to become a full-time stay at home mom (scilogs.com)

LIZ: You know, I always loved science, and I actually started off college in music and biology. At the time, I wasn’t that interested in the science classes I was taking. That was really me; it wasn’t the classes’ fault. But I was just really drawn to music and art. I went to Paris, and I saw the Picasso museum and I fell in love with art. Then in college, I started working in a research lab; a lot of my friends went to medical school and some of them who were delaying for a year would work in a lab before going off to med school. So I thought, “Okay, you know what, I’ll go work in a lab.” And through that experience, I got to really see applied biology. I got to go to seminars and hear people talk about their experiments. I got to do hands on science. I got to start doing molecular biology, which I really liked, [and] eventually, I ended up in a microbiology lab. I think that, through going to these seminars, I saw science as more of a narrative. I heard people’s stories and about what they were trying to do, and I had some insight into how that was being accomplished. And I honestly found [microbiology] fascinating! It’s like this war between our immune systems and microbes. I fell in love with that, and that’s when I went back to school.


MUIPR: So it definitely had a lot to do with the differences between the classroom experience versus real world experience for you.

LIZ: For me, personally, yes. But that might just be my learning style.


MUIPR: Of course, everyone is different. So you went on to spend ten years working in labs and doing medical research. You talked about it a bit already, but could you elaborate a bit more on the kind of work you did there?

LIZ: I worked in several labs; I think my first job was studying diabetes, which was interesting. I had to do some work with rats, though, and I didn’t like working with animals. Then, I went to work with a great lab at the University of Iowa — Richard Smith’s lab — studying inherited hearing disorders, and we were doing that by doing linkage studies, so using molecular biology to look at that. I ended up eventually at Madison in Jon Woods’ lab studying hiptoplasma capsulatum, which is a fungal pathogen — an opportunistic pathogen. It’s a big problem for AIDS patients. It’s a fungus many of us have actually living in our bodies, but it doesn’t cause a problem unless you become immunocompromised. So I managed his lab, and I sort of learned to teach there because I was often training graduate students and medical students on how to do experiments and how to run the equipment. That was kind of my first teaching experience, working in labs.


MUIPR: That sounds so fascinating! You ultimately made the decision to stop working in labs to become a full-time stay-at-home mom to your three kids, though. What was it that prompted that decision for you? Was it something you had been considering for some time, or did it come about rather spontaneously?

LIZ: It was sort of just different factors in my life at the time. We moved to Minneapolis for my husband’s job; the research job I had at the time, I wasn’t that interested in. I just wasn’t that well-connected to [that] job, so when I started having kids, it seemed like a logical move to take a step back from the science I was doing. Research really is a full-time job. I mean, often you’re growing cells, [and] you have to be in the lab doing experiments — you can’t just leave and come back when you want to. So I decided, rather than do something I didn’t like part-time, that I would fully stay home with my kids and just see where it led, and it was fantastic.


Next week, Heinecke talks to us about her decision to start her blog, Kitchen Pantry Scientist, as well as the other projects she has taken on since making the decision to leave the formal world of science research, including her latest accomplishment: writing her own Hands-On Family book, “Kitchen Science Lab for Kids.”


If you are a woman working in STEM and are interested in being featured in our ‘Women Leaders in STEM’ series, shoot us an email at blog.muipr@gmail.com or tweet me @tamarahoumi