Scientist in the Spotlight

Scientist in the Spotlight. Sasha W.

I know I must seem like I go on and on about the awesome scicomm community that inspired me to properly get stuck into and properly committed to my Soph talks science blog – I must say it every time I write one of these posts! But I come across new and inspiring male and female scientists across Twitter and Instagram every single day! Each has a unique science story, but the same goal – to make science more accessible to the public. Despite that same goal, every incredible scientist I meet has a different way of trying to achieve that goal and it gives me more ideas of how to get my blog out there more or even just different ways of talking to you about science. I try to learn from them every single day!

My Scientist in the Spotlight for May is no exception. She was not in the first handful of scicomm enthusiasts that I came across on Instagram, but a very close second. Despite this, I am always checking up on her phenomenal page to see what awesome science she is getting involved in and how she is sharing that with the world. And even though we have never met in person and the slight distance problem with her being in Canada – we are often chatting about PhD life and life in general in an attempt to keep each other on this rocky path that is the PhD journey! So, please let me introduce to you the PhDenomenal PhDemale herself, Sasha W.

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Sasha is currently studying a PhD in biochemistry at the University of Toronto where her research asks the question ‘How to train your viral assassin!’ Bacteriophages are viruses that kill bacteria, and Sasha’s research is looking at how they work and grow by assembling specific protein components can help fight infections. But outside of the lab, Sasha is a normal twenty-something alike any other ‘millennial’ trying to learn, explore and do her best! This ambitious and positive gal can often be found advocating for women in science, talking about science or getting creative – or possibly all at the same time 🙂 Her instagram account @phdenomalphdemale is one way that she mixes those three things together and is the one way that inspired me. The first thing that hit me from Sasha’s account was how creative scientists could be, and secondly how glam this 6 foot beauty was even in a lab coat 🙂 So I will continue to spread the girl power and introduce you to Sasha 🙂

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Start off my telling us a bit more about your science journey.

Sasha: I got into research because I liked science! In high school, I excelled in biology, I loved drawing the figures in my notes and using all my coloured pens to emphasise molecular pathways and was quite proud when my classmates wanted to photocopy my notes. This was a fun way for me to grasp the material and develop a greater understanding and appreciation of science. I took sciences in university, which was a bit challenging the first year, but once I got to major in courses I found  interesting, I became more focused, got better grades and became excited for the potential of pursuing graduate school. Today, my PhD research focuses on studying how proteins can regulate the mechanism of bacteriophage assembly so hopefully we can find a way to kill bad bacteria that harm human health. This means I use techniques such as NMR to look at the intricate workings of a molecule. How a protein folds, what it binds to, the temperature it works at and so much more are tiny details that can have a large impact. For instance, the bacteriophage is the most abundant entity on the planet. They are invisible to the naked eye, but if you lined them up end to end, the phage could reach the distance of the moon and back. So it’s incredibly exciting that these small entities and their even smaller protein components can be understood, and in doing so, their applications can have serious positive effects on our health care.

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What have you been up to in the lab most recently?

Sasha: Currently I am in the middle of my 4th year of PhD. Most recently, I have been working through some trial and error, attempting to obtain data on the molecular mechanisms of the proteins working together. As I reach the ‘senior PhD’ stage, I am working more independently to learn about a variety of techniques and experiments to apply to my project. This requires lots of literature searching, lots of long hours actually performing the new experiments and talking to my peers and supervisors for new ideas.

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As a more senior PhD student now, what are your essentials to surviving grad school?

Sasha: Survival skills? Don’t be afraid to ask questions! When I started graduate school, I was scared to ask questions because I didn’t want to seem unwise in the eyes of my peers and my supervisors. However, as I have progressed I have learned that all of us have to start somewhere. It’s okay not to know everything about every facet of science – that is why there are so many specialists in so many fields! However, it’s not okay for someone to make you feel stupid because at one point in time, that person probably had the same question as you. If you feel your question is too elementary, do a bit of preliminary research online first and then approach the ‘big-wigs’ – they truly are happy to help. Graduate school is just that – school! You are here not because you know everything but because you want to learn and grow and apply that knowledge to complex problems in the world. And sometimes asking questions can save you a lot of time if you just knew that assay was supposed to be done at room temperature and not on ice!

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What’s your most memorable moment of your PhD so far?

Sasha: Getting into my PhD was a big one. Since I transferred from an MSc, I had to do a big oral exam and was pretty, well, terrified. But then, when I got accepted – it was like ‘okay, someone believes in me, I can do this’. Another one is winning ‘Best Oral Presentation’. Although this may be a small feat for some, for me, public speaking was something I was terrified of in elementary and high school. So as a graduate student, I took a class at university, specifically orientated to graduate students who similarly struggle with public speaking. That class opened my eyes to a lot of tips for public speaking and more importantly, to the fact that other graduate students are similarly not confident about public speaking. So, after completing the course, when I went out to do my next presentation – in front of about 200 of my peers and faculty – and I won ‘best talk’, I was very proud. It was a way to say I had conquered something I was fearful of – basically my Elle Woods getting into law school moment!

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So, outside of the lab, what sparked your interest in starting your Instagram page @PhDenomalPhDemale?

Sasha: My Instagram focuses on women in science who are just as awesome in their own unique way. Having so many discussions with my peers, students, and family and friends about being a female scientist made me realise that this is something I want to talk about and help change the stereotype. We all know the statistics about women in science, and in my own way, I wanted to serve as a small part to encourage girls to be interested in science and motivate women like myself to stay in science. I thought, ‘if I am already lucky enough to be inspired by some kick-ass female scientists, then why not share their stories and tell as many people as I can about them so they can be inspired too?’

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You mention some kick ass female scientists, but who are your science role models?

Sasha: You – Sophie! My PI and faculty at the university, my lab mates, Science.Sam and all the other awesome science bloggers!

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Coming back to your Instagram posts, how do you decide what goes into a specific post?

Sasha: Every PhDenomenal PhDemale is unique, just like every woman is unique. It’s 2017, so we don’t have to abide by any rules dictating what it means to be a woman or a scientist. That being said, I like to highlight one PhDenomenal PhDemale a month, showcase her science, her experience and her hobbies. When I started in science, I couldn’t find a woman out there who I could relate to! And now? With this awesome growing community of females in STEM and an increased willingness for and acceptance for diversity of women in STEM, I now feel like I have many women with who I can relate to. So that’s what I hope to share through the stories of the PhDenomenal PhDemale and my own scientific life – that these women who are real people are people that girls can look up to and who women can relate to.

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What other scicomm related activities are you involved in?

Sasha: A big one coming up is the first ever Soapbox Science event here in Canada, being held in my city Toronto. I am, along with 11 other female scientists from different fields, going to literally stand on a soapbox in the biggest square in the city and talk about science. Stay tuned on how it turns out!

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Why is scicomm so important to you?

Sasha: To me, scicomm is important to bridge the gap between scientists and everyday life. To me, scientists are alike any curious person, except that they will have spent time indulging in that curiosity in a formal manner. A scientist’s greatest asset is the ability to communicate – only in this way can we effectively educate others, share our message and learn from our peers.

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Okay, so besides science whether that’s in or out of the lab, what else do you love doing?

Sasha: I like to let out my creative side. If I have time off, I usually like to try a new recipe or restaurant, listen to live music or get creative with fashion or make up.

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So, where do you see yourself after your PhD?

Sasha: Well, if Bill Nye ever retires… I’m only joking! Sophie! You’ve asked the one question that most grad students don’t want to hear! I’m not sure honestly. I’ve done quite a bit of work trying to figure out what I like to do both personally and scientifically. Maybe I’ll be wearing a power suit making decisions, maybe I’m pipetting with a furrowed brow or maybe I’m still shouting on a soapbox in the streets about science! I’m confident that there are roles out there that will suit me – I just ask that it is one that is exciting, challenging and keeps me happy. After all, someone once told me that your idea of ‘success’ changes over time, so I try not to plan too much in advance, but to just stay focused and pursue whatever it is that keeps me excited about science and happy.

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And finally, where in the world should be my next travel destination?

Sasha: Visit the small islands of Croatia. See the stars at night and the fish in the day, and wonder how, in this great vastness of the world, can something so simple be so brilliant.

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Thank you Sasha so much for agreeing to get involved with my blog. You truly are a phenomenal female and I am going to love following your science journey through your Instagram account 🙂 There were so many other quotes from our interview that I wanted to share but didn’t want to make the interview too long. But they have truly inspired me. I hope that one day our paths will cross and we can actually meet instead of just supporting each other by messaging. But for now, stay strong gal and keep doing that science!

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Please don’t forget to keep up to date on all my new blog posts, all the latest news and more! Find me and Soph talks Science on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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