A gymnast tumbles into Wilson and leaps into analytical chemistry
By Darrach Dolan
Monique Paré Spiers ’11 grew up in Cambridge, Mass., where she was an avid gymnast and a lover of science. When it came time to apply to college, she wanted to live far enough from home to feel independent yet close enough to get home for breaks, wanted a school with a strong science program, and ideally, wanted to be on a collegiate gymnastics team — she’d been a gymnast since childhood.
She applied to numerous schools but was frustrated because she felt like a number to all of them. Then her mother came across Wilson. It had a gymnastics team, was far enough away from home, and had a good academic reputation. Although she hadn’t considered a women’s college, Paré Spiers thought that might be fun.
She filled out the application materials and didn’t think much else about it. “Within a week, they called me and said they were so happy I’d applied and said, ‘You’re accepted, and we have a scholarship for you,’” Paré Spiers said. “I just felt so loved and welcomed right away that it was almost a no-brainer.” And that was before she had spoken with the gymnastics coach, who said she’d be welcome on the team.
“I loved Wilson,” she said. “It was hard because I was very studious and didn’t sleep very much because I would stay up all night doing homework. But I really loved it. I’m really grateful for Wilson.”
Her father, a veterinarian, had passed away a couple of years before she graduated from high school. Paré Spiers wanted to honor him by becoming a vet too. However, after a few pre-vet meetings, she realized that her peers were much more into animals than she was. She considered a biology major but was nervous. “One of the requirements was calculus. I was so scared because math was always a struggle for me. I was like, I don’t think I can do that.”
She took Biology 101, nonetheless. At the end of the semester, her professor took her aside and told her she had one of the high- est grades in the class. “I left that meeting, changed my major [to biology], and said I can do this. When I got to calculus a year or two later, I loved calculus!”
She found “a close group of friends that were really determined and really smart people, and we would study together and have fun.” This group consisted of a couple of her gymnastics teammates and international students from Korea, Lebanon, and Ethiopia. “I go to a small town in Pennsylvania and meet all these people from around the globe. Learning from those women opened my mind to really important things about culture and the world.”
“I’m glad I went to a liberal arts college,” she said. “I think it’s important to learn other disciplines.” She took Spanish and became the president of the Spanish Club. More importantly, fluency in Spanish would lead to her mission on behalf of her church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to Spanish-speaking communities in Colorado. While on this mission, she discovered she was a “western girl” and wanted to live in that part of the country. Today, she and her husband, Kyle Spiers, live in Utah, and their two daughters are enrolled in a school that teaches through Spanish. They are expecting their first son in June.
Mouse Models and Graduate School
In terms of her career, her Wilson education paved the way. As part of her senior research project, she examined the effects of different diets on mouse models of the autoimmune disease psoriasis. The project was close to her heart as she had had psoriasis since age 10. The project was a success, but she ended up with more questions than answers and realized she wanted to know more about the pathways that underlie the skin condition. That meant research at the graduate level.
When she applied to enter a biochemistry doctoral program at Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, she discovered that she had fulfilled all the prerequisites while at Wilson. To her surprise, one of the professors who ran a particularly difficult and analytical lab requested her for his team.
Once again, she questioned her ability to master the high-level math and analysis the lab used. She shouldn’t have worried. While the work was difficult and the professor ran the lab like a drill sergeant, the expertise and competence in analysis that she gained there led directly to her “dream job.”
When she was close to completing her doctorate and pregnant with her first child, she was approached by a commercial laboratory that needed someone to develop methods to analyze the ingredients in their skincare products. Several years and two daughters later, she now works for the parent company of that lab, Rhyz Analytical Labs, and continues to develop analytical methods for a variety of products.
Women in the Sciences
Until the final year of her doctorate, she had been the only woman in her lab. “Luckily, Wilson had helped me to be happy as a woman in the sciences.” She wants all women to feel the same confidence and works with youth and community groups to encourage girls and young women to enter the sciences.
At a recent International Association of Analytical Chemists conference, she suggested ways to support women and parents in the industry, including having childcare available at meetings. Her suggestions are currently under consideration. “It is extremely important to have women in science, and I am a huge promoter of this.”
As for Wilson students interested in entering the sciences, she has some suggestions.
1. “Get as much time in the lab as you can. I wish I had interned at a lab. It would have been easier starting grad school if I’d had more lab experience before going into it.”
2. “Do research and familiarize yourself with that.”
3. “Network. At Wilson, I went to the Pennsylvania Academy of Sciences conference and presented there. I highly recommend you go to conferences, get involved, and talk to as many people in the field as you can.”