Where are they now?

March 29, 2013

Ayano Kohlgruber (Download Image)

Where are they now?

Linda A Lucchetti, lucchetti1@llnl.gov, 925-422-5815
The following is the first in an occasional series of stories about students and interns who have worked at the Lab in previous years and gone on to pursue successful careers in science.


She may not have realized it at the time, but graduate student Ayano Kohlgruber is convinced that working at the Lab as an intern after high school was an important part of her academic journey.

In 2007, Kohlgruber graduated from Livermore High School and received the Lab's Teller scholarship, named for Lab co-founder and renowned physicist Edward Teller, and awarded annually to local high school seniors who excel in science. At that time, recipients of the scholarship also were awarded a one-time summer internship at the Lab.

"It was my first time doing any type of research and I found myself enjoying the Lab environment, interacting with coworkers, and doing hands-on experiments," Kohlgruber said about her internship. "In the end, I worked for about 3.5 years at LLNL, commuting from Berkeley and working part-time during the school year and full-time during the academic breaks."

Studying at Harvard

Kohlgruber went on to earn her bachelor's degree in molecular and cell biology and immunology and pathogenesis, as well as a minor in chemistry from UC Berkeley in 2011.

She is currently a first year graduate student in the immunology department at Harvard Medical School in Boston, starting her second semester of coursework.

At Harvard, Kohlgruber is learning a great deal from her classmates and professors and is happy with the challenging coursework and her decision to pursue graduate school.

"Immunology enables me to tie both basic research with human pathology and disease. It's such an exciting time to be in the field right now; there are so many research advances and avenues to pursue that could have important therapeutic impacts in the future for patients with immunological diseases. Knowing that your work may benefit the clinical bedside is a rewarding incentive," she explained.

About being a woman in science, she doesn't dwell on that much, she says, but rather believes she is "an individual working hard to earn the respect of her peers within the scientific community."

"I think if you work diligently, honestly and improve yourself as a researcher, male or female, people will value your work and your opinions. I've had so many wonderful role models during my time both at Berkeley and at LLNL -- they are the ones who I owe thanks to for guiding my academic path and for shaping me into the confident female scientist I am today."

Pursuing science

Kohlgruber is thankful for the Teller scholarship. "It was because of the Teller award that I was able to gain a foothold at LLNL and delve into research; I was able to visit other scientific institutions like Brookhaven National Laboratory and SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and learn from many brilliant scientists along the way. I established wonderful friendships and picked up new hobbies through events featured on the myLLNL Web page, to further enrich my life."

"I didn't know it at the time, but it was a pivotal point along my academic journey, and I definitely wouldn't be where I am today had it not been for the Teller award. "

Kohlgruber also attributes the annual Expanding Your Horizons (EYH) career conference and the Tri-Valley Science and Engineering Fair for inspiring her to pursue a science career.

"I attended one EYH conference as a high school junior and then volunteered a few years later as a group chaperone," she said. As a volunteer, she was amazed at the quality of the enrichment modules and the number of students attending the conference.

"I think participation, especially at the end of one's middle school years, is a great way to engage interest in the sciences going into high school. High school gives you the freedom to try out different classes, so going to EYH may make the course selection process easier for girls who are thinking of tackling the sciences. Everyone is enthusiastic and helpful at the conference, so I would definitely recommend going to at least one during middle school or high school."

During her senior year of high school, she participated in the Tri-Valley Science and Engineering Fair (TVSEF) because it was mandatory for advanced placement environmental science students. "TVSEF provides a good way for student's to start thinking about research and tangibly execute their ideas to questions they ask. If you can find a good mentor, I think TVSEF is a great initial stepping stone into conducting hands-on research. "

Advice to students

"I think the most important thing about anything that you decide to do in life (whether it's related to sciences or not) is that you fully enjoy it," she said.

"Chase what's exciting to you and go with your gut if you're unsure of something. I'm a total geek when it comes to science; I've always liked learning why and how things work in biology especially in the context of human disease.

"Don't be afraid to ask questions, make lots of mistakes (just remember to learn from them), and enjoy all the experiences life gives you," she recommends.