From Belarus To Brookline To Tampa Bay

Her reason for coming to the United States may not sound original ("the American dream"), but what Alla Epshteyn has gone through to pursue that dream is anything but dull or ordinary.

When the young scientist isn't pursuing her graduate degree in materials engineering at the University of South Florida, she's hard at work at Tampa's Draper Laboratory, studying cell metabolism and micro-fluidic platforms that mimic the environment in which a cell exists. She lights up at the possibility that her work could lead to further development in drug discovery and regenerative medicine.

"Technically, it's really challenging because every day, between work and school, I'm learning so much all the time," says the 22-year-old. "I get to meet with top experts in their fields and work with biologists, chemists and other engineers. And it's so cool to know that what I'm doing is going to directly help people."

When Epshteyn was asked to help launch the new Tampa laboratory last summer, she says she was excited at the opportunity and knew there was so much more she could learn. "The best advice I ever got is that you really need to find a mentor at work -- someone who's going to advocate for you, give you good advice and who you can continue to interact with."

For Epshteyn, one such mentor is Philip Hipol, operations manager at Draper and someone who immediately saw great promise in the young professional. "Alla impressed me as an enthusiastic and ambitious individual with outstanding communication and interpersonal skills," he says. "At first I thought she had very lofty and perhaps overly optimistic career goals, but after working with her, I am convinced that she will achieve them."

Being A Quick Study

Big goals and even bigger dreams are nothing knew for Epshytyn. The youngest of three, she was fascinated with the images of America that she saw as a child, particularly the hustle and bustle of people walking confidently down Wall Street. She vowed that someday she would be one of those busy people. Like many families living in Belarus, the Epshteyns longed to move to the United States for its potential and for safety.

"We're Jewish and so many people leave Belarus because of the anti-Semitism there," she says.

But before the family was able to make the big move, an unexpected event changed the course of their lives: Epshteyn's father died as a result of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant explosion in Ukraine, leaving her mother with the difficult task of raising three young girls on her own. Still, the dream of relocating to America remained, and there were just two requirements of their new home: access to good schools and public transportation. When Epshteyn was 10, the family finally made the move to America, changing her perspective on life forever.

"I definitely came from a humble background but I have a very close family and that's always stuck with me along the way," she says. "Anything that might have been a challenge in the past has put me multiple steps further because I'm not afraid of any other challenges."

Growing up in the Boston suburb of Brookline, Mass., Epshteyn found that a natural talent in sports helped her integrate with peers, and she quickly overcame the language barrier, studied hard and applied to many of the area's most prestigious colleges, including Tufts University. After seeing her impressive math and science scores, an interviewer from the school encouraged her to change her application from liberal arts to engineering, and once she learned that Wall Street frequently hires engineers to join their teams because of their problem-solving skills, she became convinced to pursue an engineering degree.

Epshteyn became actively involved with the Society of Women Engineers and interned with Draper Laboratory in nearby Cambridge, an opportunity that led her to her current position at the Florida extension of the lab located near the USF Tampa campus.

Taking Downtime In Tampa Bay

When she's not working in the laboratory, Epshteyn can usually be found in running shoes trekking around Tampa Bay. After relocating here last July, she took up the hobby, even joining a South Tampa running club that meets once a week to complete a 5K and socializes at a local pub afterward.

"It's a lot of fun. Everyone who participates believes in living a healthy lifestyle and working out, and they're all professionals who come out here to run after putting in a hard day's work," she says. "All day I'm really challenged intellectually, so it's great to be able to physically challenge my body, as well."

Epshteyn has been training for her first half-marathon which she'll tackle this month  and says once she sees how her body reacts, she'll decide if a full marathon is next on her list of goals. This determination comes as no surprise to Hipol who marvels at her commitment. "Alla is constantly driving and pushing herself to achieve results," he says.

Though she never tires of her intellectual pursuits, she admits that there are definitely moments where downtime is needed or as she puts it, "days that I just go home and put on my Gossip Girl and Melrose Place when I just want to watch good-looking people say silly things!" She's found going to the beach as one favorite way to relax in the Bay area as well as exploring the eclectic mix of restaurants and places to exercise.

"I enjoy venturing out and discovering new places. And I love cooking and inviting people over," she says. "The weather here really does make you more of an active person, so it's a different type of lifestyle than in Boston."

Epshteyn points out that the area's cultural diversity makes those from out of town feel surprisingly connected and welcomed.

"Like every great city, Tampa has everything. You just have to learn how to navigate around," she says. "The great thing is that every kind of person is here -- people from all over the country, a lot of young people, and people with such different backgrounds -- so it's not a hard place to adjust to at all."

Chris Kuhn is a freelance writer who lives and works in the 'burbs of Tampa with her husband and 11-year-old dachshund-Chihuahua (aka her assistant). Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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