Robin Armstrong

Robin Armstrong is a PhD candidate within the UNC Curriculum in Genetics and Molecular Biology and a graduate research assistant in the Duronio Lab. Using fruit flies as a model, she researches how chromatin structure influences DNA replication programs.

a girl in a lab looks at a test tube full of fruit flies
October 25th, 2017

When you were a child, what was your response to this question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Describe your research in five words.

“DNA copying by fly-ing proteins.”

For as long as I can remember, I have really enjoyed helping people — anything from a project around the house or a skill in a sport or at school. I think I got those qualities from my mom. Growing up, I would get really frustrated tackling a difficult task on my own, and I wanted to make those situations easier for other people. I thought that becoming a teacher would be one of the most satisfying careers because I could help people get past those frustrations. In a sense, I’m fulfilling my childhood aspirations — as a scientist, you get to be both the teacher and the student.

Share the pivotal moment in your life that helped you choose research as a career path.

When we first get to graduate school, a lot of people warn us about “imposter syndrome.” I definitely experienced it off and on throughout my first three years at UNC, and it made me question where my career was headed. I recently attended a conference in New York, and my impression of myself and my future as a scientist completely changed. The first day, there was an amazing series of talks on my exact field of research. Later that night, many of the experts in the field (and people I look up to) who had presented during that session viewed my poster. They showed the same interest and excitement for my research that I had felt earlier that day during their talks, and something in my brain clicked: You’re finally a part of this “science thing,” I thought. After, I was so giddy and full of energy — despite the fact that we just had a 13-hour science day!

It’s hard to put my experience into words, but attending this meeting finally made me feel like I was a member of a community and not simply an outside observer. Cold Spring Harbor provided me with a sense of clarity I didn’t think was possible.

In 2014, Armstrong and one of her friends adventured on a llama trek across New Mexico's Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

In 2014, Armstrong (left) and  friend adventured on a llama trek across New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

What’s an interesting/funny story from your time doing research?

I also worked in a fly lab as an undergraduate researcher at Tufts University. My last semester at Tufts, I had a fairly severe allergic reaction to the flies (yes, you can be allergic to flies), and my eye swelled to the size of a golf ball! I told myself I would never work in a fly lab again.

When I arrived at UNC, I spoke with my current mentor, Bob Duronio, about this amazing new histone replacement system in flies and was presented with the dilemma of amazing science versus extreme allergy to flies. Needless to say, I have been in the Duronio Lab working with flies answering exciting scientific questions for three years now (allergies and all!) and don’t regret my decision for a second.

What advice would you give to up-and-coming female researchers in your field?

Surround yourself with mentors during your time in science and beyond. Mentors aren’t necessarily your superiors, though. I consider my primary mentors to be my fellow graduate student friends. There’s a really unique perspective that your peers provide because they understand what you’re going through and they know you in a context that a faculty member never sees. Do I completely rely on advice from my friends? Of course not — but I definitely consider their opinions with high regard.

UNC Research is proud of every scientist on this campus, but we are especially excited to promote our female researchers in 2017. Each week this year, we will publish a short Q&A feature on one of them — whether she is an undergrad, PhD candidate, or full professor. Please click here to make a recommendation.