Name: Dr Cynthia “Cindy” Fast
From: America – I’m originally from Michigan but my husband and I claim Los Angeles because that’s where we feel at home
Also lived in: US and Tanzania
Job: Head of Training and Innovation at APOPO.
How did you end up working at APOPO?
The short version is that I was enrolled in a kind of professional/social networking community for researchers called ‘research gate’. They occasionally tell you about job openings that meet your profile. Usually I ignore these but for some reason I opened this one that happened to be for the Head of Training and Innovation at APOPO and I actually only had one day to apply. I had heard about APOPO five years before and my husband and I had discussed that this might be my dream job. So I applied and had a Skype interview about a week later and I was here in Tanzania within two months. I had been working as a Post Doctoral Research Fellow at Ruckers University in New Jersey before we came out here.
What did you study?
Psychology with a concentration in neuroscience. I was a non-traditional student at a liberal arts college, without a scholarship. I took classes in psychology, philosophy, biology and chemistry so I have a broad base and then I got my masters degree and PhD at UCLA in Psychology and Behavioural Neuroscience.
When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
From when I was very young I wanted to be a jockey. By the time I was in secondary school I wanted to work with prisoners and the criminally insane – learning from what went wrong to prevent others from going down that same path.
What was your favourite subject at school?
Art – I also really liked maths but I didn’t really look forward to it in the way I looked forward to art.
Do you speak any other languages?
I am only fluent in English but I speak a bit of Spanish French and Swahili. And I know a few words in Italian but not anything that would get me by.
What are your hobbies?
Since secondary school I have been attracted to the arts and I still do lots of arts and crafts; I use lots of this creativity in my work too. I also love riding my motorcycles and as well as horses. My husband is a musician and I like to get involved in that as a hobby – drums, guitar and keyboard. Now that I’ve got a son, to be honest lately my free time isn’t really free and I spend a lot of time chasing my little man around. I love animals and I spend time teaching my chicken’s new things.
Who has been inspirational in your life?
When I was really little and wanted to be a horse jockey and my hero was Julie Krone; she was the first successful female jockey. The more I learned about her and the things she advocated for, like equality, justice and fair treatment for animals, the more I admired her. We have actually connected on Facebook and we are friends. One of the most incredible moments was when she advertised a post I wrote about APOPO and called me her hero. It was surreal.
I also had an incredible mentor during my undergraduate studies. He invited me to join his research lab where he was studying learning, memory and behavioural research with rats. I actually thought I was going to infiltrate the lab and free all the animals. But I actually was taken aback with how much he and his team cared about the animals and really looked after them. This experience really changed the trajectory of my life. With animals you are able to actually learn about things that would be way too complicated to learn about in people. I realised I have always been interested in understanding how your brain uses your experiences and memories to guide your decision making. He said that my ethical concerns are the thing that will make me a good person to research with animals because I will be really careful with the precious little lives and not treat them like furry beakers.
When I was growing up I found it hard to just accept the things that were being taught to me but when I got to college and met my mentor he was fundamental in helping me nurture this questioning quality and see it as something highly valuable.
“Nobody in my family or my village had been to college, but that doesn’t mean that I couldn’t do it.“
What do you consider to be your coolest achievement?
The one thing that still gives me goosebumps is my PhD dissertation won a national award across the whole of the US in a three year period. Even UCLA considering my dissertation to be sent into this New York academy of sciences competition was amazing. The coolest thing was that I didn’t set out to do that, I set out to do my research to the best of my ability and I really drew on my diverse history to build a broad thesis. I showed that lab rats have imagination and the brain parts that are involved in this process. I drew a connection between rats and the human brain regions involved in certain diseases.
Nobody in my family or my village had been to college, but that doesn’t mean that I couldn’t do it. Being open to opportunities is really key. When I was younger I didn’t even know that PhDs existed, I just built on each thing step by step.
Can I have an interesting fact about you please?
I grew up in a working class family with a stay at home mom and my dad was a mechanic and a welder. I learned a lot about engines from an early age, and when I was 18 I spent the summer rebuilding my Ford Bronco engine and bodywork, so I’m actually also a mechanic.
Tell me something important to you?
Something hugely important to me is having a mentor, and so I volunteer to be a STEM mentor.
I find that the most successful scientists are the ones that come from a wide base of experiences and who are most open to opportunities.