Karen A. Schindler, PhD
A Life Defined by Eureka Moments
Reproductive biologist Karen A. Schindler’s life as a scientist has been marked by the kind of eureka moments that alter futures and change fortunes – instances that are only possible when the person is predisposed to find the awe in the mysteries of science.
A powerful combination of serendipity and determination have made her an early-career researcher who earns praise for her laboratory work and wins the affection of her students and post-doctoral fellows for wise and generous counsel.
Schindler is a genuinely hip, contemporary, and funny person. She’s active on Twitter, and a frequent award winner. She’s also staked out an impressive reputation for innovation and collaboration in her field of reproductive biology and as a creative and enthusiastic instructor.
“I’m definitely an educator at heart,” says Schindler, who favors variety in her work life to stave off boredom. “I really like it when you see people actively interested in what you’re talking about, and I like to see that lightbulb pop on in their eyes when they finally get it. It’s very exciting.”
Schindler isn’t bored much these days. Along with being an Associate Professor in the Department of Genetics at Rutgers University–New Brunswick, her scientific manuscripts are widely published. And her well-funded lab explores how meiosis in females is regulated and why it is so prone to chromosome segregation mistakes.
FASEB selected Schindler for its 2020 Excellence in Science Early-Career Investigator Award due to her distinguished research on the causes and consequences of female infertility, and her devotion to mentoring her undergraduates, graduate students, and postdoctoral fellows.
Schindler’s dedication to mentorship may stem, in part, from her own casual introduction to science. She hadn’t even considered science as a career until she took an advanced placement biology class in high school. “Early on, something just clicked,” she says. “I found it amazing to discover how things worked in the body.”
The infatuation was sealed when Schindler spent the summer between her junior and senior years in high school working as a lab intern at the National Cancer Institute at Fort Detrick in Maryland. “At that point, though, I really thought of science as medical school, and I didn’t realize there were whole other areas of science that existed and that you could specialize in,” she says.
It wasn’t until her sophomore year in college that the laboratory work started to sync up with what she was learning in class. “I was thinking, ‘now, I get it,’” says Schindler, who received a BS in Biology from Loyola University in Baltimore, and a PhD at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. She completed postdoctoral training at the University of Pennsylvania.
“For my PhD, I worked in budding yeast labs and did a lot of yeast genetics,” she says. “I found it fascinating about how little was known about meiosis in human gametes and how important that is when you’re thinking about fertility and IVF [in vitro fertilization] clinics.”
Another fortuitous choice, Schindler says, was her decision to attend Frontiers in Reproduction (FIR), a six-week course offered by the Marine Biology Laboratory at The University of Chicago. During that time, she experienced one of those eureka moments due to the rare opportunity FIR gives scientists to focus on a single subject.
“From that point forward, I was really hooked on this field of reproductive biology. I wanted to be in it. I loved how complicated it was, but also how essential to our lives,” says Schindler, who has been a lecturer at FIR since 2015.
Making a Personal Connection
Schindler’s own life experience helped shape the work she so diligently oversees in her lab. The mother of 5-year-old twins, she and her husband, Brendan Maher, went through IVF, and faced some of the same challenges as the women who often talk with her about their own infertility issues.
“I have a personal and a professional connection to it,” she says. “It’s a fascinating field. Hopefully, we can keep it funded, and more people will realize how important it is.”
Schindler’s lab studies meiosis with the overall goal of understanding why this process is inherently error prone in humans. The focus is understanding how Aurora protein kinases regulate meiosis by using mouse knockout models. Recently, she began collaborating with an IVF clinic and a computational biologist to analyze human gene sequences. While she loves basic science, she says she’s found her work with the clinic to be equally rewarding.
“We do the wet lab part of it,” she says. “Without putting those three big pieces together, this project would never happen. We’ve learned so much from each of our different colleagues. It takes a little longer to work like this because you have to have a lot of discussions before things click and make sense.”
Schindler says her lab may be able to contribute to developing precision medicine in reproductive biology or to better inform patients of their fertility treatment paths. The other area she hopes to study more is reproductive aging.
“Getting a genetic snapshot of what your reproductive aging picture looks like at an early age would be very helpful for young women,” Schindler says. “A woman could plan to preserve her gametes now for when she might need them 10 years in the future. It really is well documented that if you put reproductive biology in women’s hands, a lot of good can happen.”
Paying It Forward
A lot of good can also happen when principal investigators provide helpful counsel and support to their students and postdocs. Schindler has carried forward the mentorship from her past to her current students, going so far as to help them secure funding for their own labs. “I’ve found that you take little bits from every mentor,” she says, “and it’s all helped shape who I am.”
She believes mentors can open up new avenues for research, provide more practical knowledge, such as improving presentation skills, or even advice of a more transformative nature. The assignment of Richard Schultz, PhD, as her postdoc advisor was one such case. He recognized early on that she wanted to stay in academia, and he was instrumental in giving her flexibility in setting up her lab project and acquiring funding.
“I was given independence right away, but I still had a support system behind me,” says Schindler, who adds that it brought a level of confidence that was essential when she was awarded her own lab at Rutgers. “It helped me get off the ground and get running quickly. It felt natural. I already had the skill set.”
Being a good mentor is as much about listening to questions as answering them, she says. Schindler especially feels the acuteness of her role when coaching female students. The science profession hasn’t done as much as it could to encourage more women to enter the field, she notes. As a member of the Society for the Study of Reproduction (SSR), Schindler is a member of a committee to support the training and careers of women in the Reproductive Sciences (WinRS).
“If you look at the number of women we’re training as postdocs, those percentages are not reflected in our faculty,” says Schindler, who won the 2018 SSR Virendra B. Mahesh New Investigator Award for the research she completed within 12 years of receiving her PhD. “It’s certainly getting better. The question is where are these women going? Do they have other interests in science-related disciplines, or does it reflect a problem? The data suggests we’re not doing all the things we can to support them.”
That’s why teaching has taken on such an essential role in her life. She’s hoping to inspire the next generation of investigators to those eureka moments by upping her teaching game, which explains her fondness for the active-learning instruction method. Each semester, the class experience is distinctive, so that means the layout of the room or the lesson plans could be different.
Last fall, she tweeted a photo of a colorful tambourine on a classroom desk. It was a classic Schindler tweet, interlacing both her humor and passion. “When you teach in an active-learning room, you need strategies to get the class back to listening. Here’s mine.”
“I’m always looking for ways to inspire my students,” she says. “I feel like I have a responsibility to pass on the same opportunity for discovery and awe that first hit me in high school and changed my life.”