Fefferman, Nina

Assistant Professor
Areas of Interest: 
Complex Systems, Conservation Biology/Conservation Medicine, Evolutionary and Behavioral Sociobiology.
My Story: 
I knew as a little kid that I really liked science, but I wasn’t sure which area interested me the most. For a little while, I thought it would be chemistry. I read a biography of Ellen Richards which really excited me. My parents were really great and supportive of me and actually hired a graduate student to come and teach me some basics in chemistry when I was ten years old. He was really into the material and was the best chemistry teacher I ever had. He was able to break down the material to the point where I was able to sit in on one of his lectures and understand most of what was being discussed. After a year of private tutoring, he enthusiastically asked, “So are you going to be a chemist?!” And I replied with a hearty, “No!” He was quite disappointed, but it was because of his excellent teaching that I knew that chemistry was not the field for me.

I had family and friends encourage me to work in medicine, but I always knew that research interested me more than practicing. I like medicine – I work studying diseases, which I think are fascinating. Curing people, I always felt, wouldn’t be the thing for me.

It was just luck, really, that resulted in my working in the field of Computer Science. I am dyslexic and needed extra time to finish exams. However, Princeton, my undergraduate university, was not exactly sympathetic to this and being that I did not do exceedingly well on exams, I was not permitted to become a Biology major. I majored in Mathematics instead and worked in cryptography. I came to Rutgers for graduate school, but it did not work out. I wasn’t enjoying it, they weren’t enjoying having me here, and so I left and taught high school for a year. During that year, I researched different graduate programs and had time to think about what I really wanted to do. Somehow, the transition from undergraduate to graduate school for me, seemed automatic. I had received a Bachelor’s degree in Mathematics so of course I would go on for my graduate work in Mathematics as well, but having already left one program, now I had the opportunity to really consider what would make me happiest.

At one point in my undergraduate education, I thought that I might pursue a career as a theatrical technician. This was a far change from math, but I enjoyed working backstage and behind the scenes, operating spotlights and helping with set design and construction. For a few months, I even worked as a combat trainer for Renaissance festivals. I have never limited myself or tried to fit myself into one “type” of person, but have followed my own passions as much as possible.

I was living in Boston with my husband when I decided to start calling different departments of the seventy or so universities in the area to look for an interesting person to work with for my Ph.D. I ended up finding a position working with a conservation ornithologist at Tufts University. We both knew when I went to work with him that I probably wouldn’t end up staying in his field. However, I thought he could teach me some things due to his extensive work with mathematical models in biology. He was a fantastic advisor and teacher and he let me run with what I was interested in. I told him that I had an interest in diseases and asked him who he knew in that field. He pulled up a list of colleagues working in that discipline and asked me who I wanted him to call. It was great. I was interested in diseases, but I didn’t know if it was going to be a good fit for me. I received a grant from the NIH (National Institute of Health) to join an already funded project at the Tufts School of Medicine in epidemiology. I had fun working in epidemiology. Tufts is one of the nicest places I’ve ever worked. I miss it and go back and visit as often as possible. I not only collaborated with my advisor, but also with two other members of the department. It is the nicest, warmest community of scholars and scientists I have ever seen. I really loved the collaboration of different scientists and the added perspectives. 

After a few years in Boston, my husband took a job in New York and I decided to call Fred Roberts and he told me that Rutgers had a special focus on epidemiology and invited me to come visit. After I came to visit for a year, I went to talk to him again and he told me to stay! 

I feel that my family and culture have truly had a significant impact on my career; I come from a Jewish family in and around New York and the value of education has always been stressed to me. All the men on both sides of my family are pure mathematicians and I am a third generation mathematician – I am often teased for being the only applied mathematician. Our family gatherings frequently consist of conversations including the question, “So what are you proving this week?” It is great to have that extra layer of understanding from my family. 

Personally, I think we fail to communicate to undergraduates that you can leave a field without having failed in the field. Following a research interest does not necessarily dictate that a student is required to stay in only a single field. Relationships with graduate advisors and mentors are also important. Some advisors act as the friend-mentor while others tend to be more professional and critical. Students should be aware that they can thrive in both of these types of relationships.

Transcribed from interview with Christina Leshko.