From Microbiome to Life in Sacramento: Q&A with Fellows Alumna Pajau Vangay, PhD

December 12, 2019 |  

Q&A: From Microbiome to Life in Sacramento with Pajau Vangay, PhD (2019)
Left: Pajau Vangay in graduate school at the University of Minnesota with her advisor Dan Knights, Associate Professor, College of Biological Sciences / Credit: Clinical and Translational Science Institute, University of Minnesota
About Pajau:

Originally from central California, Pajau received her PhD in Bioinformatics and Computational Biology from the University of Minnesota. Her research focused on the human gut microbiome with respect to chronic disease development and specifically in US refugees. Prior to graduate school, she worked as a software engineer in San Francisco and received degrees in Computer Science from the Colorado School of Mines and Food Microbiology from Cornell University. As a 2019 CCST Science and Technology Policy Fellow, she was placed with Assembly Committee on Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials with Chair Assemblymember Bill Quirk. She is currently a Scientific Community Engagement Manager with the National Microbiome Data Collaborative at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

What were your expectations about living in Sacramento and/or living in California in general?

When I lived in San Francisco before grad school, I only thought of Sacramento as the city between the Bay Area and Tahoe. I remembered it being gray, industrial, and quiet. However, when I moved here for the Fellowship, I was really impressed to find out how much Sacramento has to offer. I have heard so many stories about the city’s transformation from locals, and I’ve now, in just the year I’ve been here, seen so many amazing changes to the city and also share in the excitement about its future. (We just got an MLS team!)

Where did you move from and what was it like there?

I moved to Sacramento from Minneapolis, Minnesota—the coldest five years of my life. There, it was normal for winter to drag to April, but that just made the summers even more glorious. The Twin Cities had great food and craft beer, the best state fair in the nation, and bike lanes galore (yes, snow tires on bikes are a thing).

Pajau exploring ice castles during graduate school at the University of Minnesota.
Pajau exploring ice castles during graduate school at the University of Minnesota.
What kind of activities do you and the other Science Fellows do together, work or non-work related in the Sacramento area?

Our cohort of CCST Science Fellows is extremely close-knit. CCST does a fantastic job with the selection process. We regularly meet up to catch up over drinks or food, and when we haven’t seen each other for more than two weeks, we get major withdrawals! I cannot imagine going through the Fellowship and the interviews for post-Fellowship jobs without having the cohort to share experiences with and get advice. We’ve invited each other over for home cooked meals, have played in kickball leagues, and explored the latest food/film/you-name-it festival together (There are so many festivals in and around Sacramento!).

We’re there for each other not only through the highs and lows, but also the more mundane, everyday moments like afternoon chocolate cravings and weekend movies. It felt like I moved to Sacramento and immediately inherited a circle of really close friends.

Pajau at Sacramento's free concerts in the park.
Pajau with 2019 CCST Science Fellow Chanel Matney (left), Pajau’s partner Eric Sotto, and 2018 CCST Science Fellow Amy Gilson (right) at Sacramento’s free concerts in the park
What makes Sacramento a good place for doing science policy?

Many people will say that Sacramento is a great place for science policy because of California’s leadership in energy and environmental policy or the scientific innovations of California’s institutions and companies. That being true, I think it is often overlooked that these achievements are a result of California’s amazing diversity. I’ve been really lucky to have made a diverse group of friends, both scientists and non-scientists, who have a foot in the policy/government world. They are smart and passionate do-gooders who are leaders in their respective communities. They have shown me that California’s important and innovative policies are not necessarily reliant on legislators or staff who know science—although we did have one elected official who is a scientist who I was fortunate to be placed with—but on the hard work of diverse individuals who are passionate about improving their communities and who are willing to work together for the good of California.

Pajau with Assemblymember Bill Quirk at CCST's S&T Week.
Pajau with her ESTM Committee consultant mentor Josh Tooker, Chair and astrophysicist Assemblymember Bill Quirk, and Assemblymember Quirk’s Legislative Director Miranda Flores at the 2019 CCST Science & Technology Week reception
Do you have anything else you’d like to share with prospective applicants about your experience?

During my initial interview trip for the Fellowship, I was able to drive around Sacramento to scope out my potential future home. I remember calling my partner and sharing some disappointment, because Sacramento wasn’t as bustling as I expected. However, I’m glad that feeling didn’t deter me from taking the Fellowship.

Sacramento is not a city for the quick to judge. Many of the restaurants and stores in Sacramento that are now my favorite places were easily overlooked during that short visit. The best Southeast Asian and Mexican food requires you to leave “the grid” (downtown/midtown) and venture off further south. The Goodwill in Midtown is surprisingly well-kept for fun finds. Old Sacramento is touristy, but nothing beats that walk to the river. Gunther’s Ice Cream always has a long line for good reason. And that hidden Asian farmer’s market is totally worth the four tries it took me to find it.

Pajau with Assemblymember Quirk's office.
Pajau celebrating with the office of Assemblymember Bill Quirk following her recognition on the Assembly floor, honored for her service in the California State Legislature.

Learn More about the CCST Science & Technology Policy program.

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