Scientist in the Spotlight. Alex D.

In today’s world, social media influencers and YouTube personalities are basically celebrities. So, I am thrilled to announce then that I have a celebrity on the blog today… and she’s a scientist with over 25,000 subscribers on her YouTube channel!!!

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This month’s Scientist in the Spotlight is a science vlogger and shares her videos on YouTube to teach you about lab life, science-y things and more with a stellar and joyous personality! So, let me introduce you to Alex D. Alex is a native East Coaster but is currently working on a Californian Genetics PhD. She is driven in science, and life, as there is so much to do and see and she just wants to do everything; I feel your pain girl! Years ago, her friend described her as having a wealth of ‘motividrill’ – her amalgamation of ‘motivation, drive and skill’ and it is something Alex is determined to live up to everyday. Besides her love for science vlogging, her PhD research looking at how levels of different genes affect disease and development in the heart, Alex has a not-so-secret love of marine life! Anyone that follows my blog or Instagram knows that I am starting my own YouTube science vlog soon so as Alex is a big inspiration for some of my ideas, I had to share some aspects of the chat we had in case there is any inside knowledge that others what to know. Plus she is a super cool scientist so why wouldn’t you want to get to know her more??

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Tell us a bit about your PhD research?

Alex: I’m currently in my fourth year of being a PhD student in the Genetics Department at Stanford University working on Cardiovascular Genetics. I study a disease called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy or HCM. It affects 1:500 people and is one of the leading causes of death in young adults. HCM is often caused by changes in the genes involved in the cardiac sarcomere, the smallest contracting part of your heart muscle! You get two copies of every gene – one from your mother and one from your father – and often in HCM these disease-causing mutations are only found in one copy. The goal of my research is to use small DNA and RNA molecules to turn off the bad copy and leave the healthy copy of the gene behind and hopefully relieve the disease symptoms. Since I can’t study and test this in humans, I work with induced pluripotent stem cells. We take skin or blood cells from patients and turn them ‘backwards’ into stem cells that I can then use in my research. This way we can study the genetics of the patient safely and efficiently without having to work on the patients themselves.

Here is a video of my induced pluripotent stem cells that we have turned into cardiomyocytes – or simply heart cells – and they beat all on their own in the dish! In essence, we took skin cells from an adult patient, turned them into stem cell, and then turned them into heart cells! It is pretty wild and it amazes me every time I see a new batch start beating!

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

Alex: I’ve actually been travelling ‘in the lab’ which has been super cool! I spent six weeks working in a lab in Helsinki that studies endothelial cells rather than my cardiomyocytes or heart cells, so it was super cool to get a chance to work with new people and learn about a new cell type and system. I feel like I get stuck in a routine in lab, especially with cell culture where I spend hours a day just trying to keep my experiments alive! So, it was great to shake that up a bit and do some new things in a whole new lab and country.

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What is the most valuable lesson you have learnt so far on your science journey?

Alex: The importance of saying ‘I don’t know’. Often in science we feel like we need to know all the answers, but the whole point of doing science is to find out new things! Saying ‘I don’t know’ means that you’re willing to learn new things and do the work required to truly make scientific discoveries. Similarly, some of my very best videos have come from the times where I’ve said ‘I don’t know… let’s find out together!’ That process of discovery is one of my favourite parts of science.

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So, you mentioned your videos. Why did you start your YouTube channel?

Alex: After college, where I got both a biology degree and a film degree, I went to work at a media company for a couple of years, making videos and interactive exhibits for museums. I loved my job, and learned so much from it, but I also really missed talking about science. YouTube seemed like a great way to merge my love of science and my love of making videos, and allowed me to talk to the whole internet universe about science.

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What goes into making a YouTube video and what do you use?

Alex: YouTube videos start off with an idea, often from some cool thing I myself have just learned about in science. From there I do a lot of research and script writing to figure out what to say about it, and more recently videos have also involved interviewing the scientists actually doing the work, which has been super cool! From there I’ll film the video. I’m lucky enough to have a Nikon DSLR that I use for most of my filming, as well as a couple of nicer microphones. Once I have all of my footage, I edit using Adobe Premiere and make any additional animations I need in Adobe After Effects before uploading to YouTube! A single 10 minute video can take up to 40 to 50 hours of work, and often takes months to go from idea to published video.

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What opportunities have you got from starting your science vlog?

Alex: I have had a number of amazing opportunities that have all resulted from my YouTube channel and the amazing community that supports me. I’ve been able to meet an astronaut, work with amazing, science-supporting companies like Google, work with animators, travel to labs, meet amazing scientists, and so much more. I really feel lucky because all I want to do is talk about science and talk with the scientists doing it, and somehow this little YouTube channel has allowed me to do that on a bigger and grander scale. I enjoy making these videos and going on science communication adventures so much that sometimes I feel a little guilty and selfish from all the fun I’m having.

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It sounds like a huge commitment, so how do you balance lab work and YouTube stardom?

Alex: Balance is something I definitely struggle with in grad school! I go through periods where I’m very good at it: I get up early, go for a run, work a normal day in the lab, and then come home to work on some videos. I also go through periods where I am terrible at it: working 12-14 hour days in lab, not sleeping and working on videos at 2am. I’m trying to be better lately, and sticking to a defined schedule of when I wake up, when I’m in lab, when I go to bed etc which has been helping me to balance everything and stay on track.

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Why is science communication so important to you?

Alex: Firstly, because I just love talking about science. It’s a selfish reason, but communicating science just makes me happy. I love sharing the things I love with others. But I also feel that science communication is important because science affects every bit of our daily lives, and understanding it better can help everyone make better choices about everything from their diet to their health to their hobbies. Also, I think scicomm has a unique opportunity to remind people that science is fun and that science is more than memorising facts in a textbook; and also more than just mixing vinegar with baking soda in the kitchen. I don’t think that there are a lot of great examples of what life as a scientist is like out in the media, so I hope that my vlogs help to portray both the exciting and the normal aspects of life in the lab.

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What do you do in your spare time outside lab?

Alex: Most of it is dedicated to outreach and communication in one way or another. I work as an Oral Communication Tutor on campus at Stanford and I absolutely love getting to help other students, both grads and undergrads, communicate the work and research that they do to others. I also spend a lot of time working on my videos – filming, script writing, editing etc as I mentioned earlier. But when I’m not doing that, I’ve really been trying to take advantage of the lovely Californian outdoors lately by going running, going on short hikes, and trying to be outside as much as possible. Getting to do one fun outdoor thing a week makes me feel much happier and more human.

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So, where after your PhD? What’s the next step?

Alex: My current goal is to graduate in the summer of 2018 and then become a full time science communicator. I’m working now on forming my own small production company where current employee numbers are 1; me! My ideal goal would be to make science videos both for me and the outside clients in order to fund my own projects. I want to take the videos I’m making now and turn them into a full time job talking to the scientists I want to talk to about the science I want to talk about!

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

Alex: This is such a hard question! I’m going to have to say the Arctic, partly because I was just there recently and partly because it was so unlike anywhere else I’ve ever been! I started in Finland and drove north into Norway and it was crazy to watch the environment around us change from forests with big trees to very small trees to sticks and then finally nothing but low shrubs and big broad rock faces by the sea. Also, there were reindeer. Who doesn’t love reindeer?

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Huge thank you to my favourite YouTuber for taking the time to sit and answer the questions I had. I’m super excited to get filming my own now vlogs now especially if I can potentially get awesome opportunities like this. Plus I want to work in your lab and for your new company 😛 Please pick me to be your intern! Keep creating amazing videos! I look forward to watching them ALL! And keep being an inspiration! Good luck with all your future projects girl and I hope we stay in contact 🙂

Go and subscribe to Alex’s Youtube channel, Twitter and Instagram here! And do it now! Get lost in a YouTube video abyss but I guarantee you will learn something in every single video you watch!

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Science love.

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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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