June is somehow here already! But it has brought some stunning weather with it as it is gorgeous outside today here in the south of England! And as we all know by now, a new month means it is time for me to introduce to you another incredible scientist and put them under my spotlight!
And June 2017 is the turn of another of my gorgeous PhD course mates, Sofia M. Sofia is our very own ‘Angel of the North’ coming from Lancaster in the North West of England, but has some of that Italian fire running through her veins as her grandparents all moved here from Italy. Sofia and I started our PhD journeys at the same time but once again took completely different paths as her research looks at studying cell signalling in immune cells using proteomics – so basically looking at how are immune cells communicate with each other my looking at ALL the proteins in those cells! This Northern girl is fun and outgoing, loves a good gossip with her friends and is always keen for socialising!
Tell us a bit about your science journey.
Sofia: I studied Biomedical Sciences at Newcastle University for my undergrad before coming down south to do my PhD. My PhD is in cancer immunology but using proteomics to study protein regulation and signalling in lymphocytes. In particular, I am looking at how Fc receptors; the receptors that bind antibodies, signal and communicate!
Why did you choose to study science?
Sofia: My best and favourite subjects at school were always biology, chemistry and maths, so a career in science was always natural for me. My insporation for doing a PhD came in my final year of my undergrad when I was doing my dissertation lab project. I wasn’t sure what to expect going in but I absolutely loved my project. It was definitely the highlight of my undergraduate degree.
What have you been up to in the lab most recently then?
Sofia: I did a big proteomics experiment earlier in the year so I have been doing lots of data analysis and stats recently – lots of clicking at a computer basically! But I am starting to validate my results with techniques like flow cytometry and Western blotting.
Doing a PhD is different for everyone so tell us a bit more about yours – what’s the most valuable, memorable and unexpected moments of your PhD?
Sofia: My most memorable moment so far would definitely be passing my transfer viva. I had spent so long re-analysing data and writing my transfer thesis that I as so relieved and proud to have finally finished that stage! There aren’t really any guidelines or standard ways of analysing proteomics data so my most valuable lesson so far is learning how to make my own decisions and trusting my own judgement as a scientist. My whole PhD journey has not been what I expected but one thing that comes to mind is that proteomics means far more data analysis and stats than I was expecting and my project has changed quite a bit since the start. But I have definitely loved the journey though!
What advice would you give your first year PhD self if you were going to start this journey all over again then?
Sofia: Be assertive. You could probably look at a list of 10,000 proteins forever but you’d be an idiot if you did. And also, there will definitely be days when you want to just give up but persevere and you will get there!
Outside lab life, what do you like to do in your spare time?
Sofia: I’d like to think of myself as a bit of a foodie. I absolutely love cooking, baking, big dinners with friends and going out to eat in new restaurants. I’m attempting to learn Italian too. It’s a bit embarrassing that I can’t speak Italian to my relatives, plus I’d love to travel round Italy for a month when I finish my PhD. Sometime though it can be difficult to balance a social life with lab life, especially when I’m running samples on the mass spec machine and need to be ready at any hour to go and fix a problem, so I try to keep my weekends free to visit friends and family or go for days out and do all this stuff I love! Because it is so important to have a social life and holidays planned and to look forward to after a long day of data analysis.
What’s next for you after your PhD?
Sofia: Well, I have a placement at the end of the year at GlaxoSmithKline in Stevenage so my goal is to learn as much as I can whilst I’m there. After that I’d really like to stay working in immunology if I can. Hopefully my placement at GSK will give me an insight into working in industry as at the moment I think industry will be my next step.
And finally, where in the world should be my next travel destination?
Sofia: This is so difficult! There are so many amazing places to go! But my top 3 places that you must see before you die are:
Angkor Wat in Cambodia. We went for the sunrise and it was amazing! There are loads of different temples to see, so you can spend all day there! This includes the Tomb Raider temple Ta Prohm which has been taken back by the earth and has trees growing out of it.
Halong Bay in Vietnam. I took the photo below on a crappy digital camera and it still looks incredible! We stayed on a boat overnight in the bay and it was such a great experience.
And finally, Mexico! I have just come back from Mexico and definitely recommend going to Chichen Itza. It is breathtaking! There are a couple of ecological waterparks there too where you can swim with stingrays and barracudas.
Huge thank you to Sofia for taking time out of staring at a computer analysing your data to… sit down in front of a computer and answer some questions I had :p and sharing your scientist life with us!
I am loving your idea of travelling Italy. Another Italian roadtrip is what I want to do too but this time I want to do the North of the country and go from Venice, through the lakes and mountains, to Milan and Turin – so if you go I’ll be asking for some tips! You probably have all the inside info of the best places to go in that beautiful country from your relatives but if you need some ideas then you can check out what I got up to on my mini Italian roadtrip! We should also catch up soon! It’s been far too long as I am awful at balancing lab life and a social life! But maybe we can check out some cool new restaurants to broaden my food horizons 🙂
This is the third scientist that I work with that I have showcased along with Lisa and Jordana, and I am going to keep showing off the amazing people that I work with – because if I don’t, who will 😛
Follow Sofia’s life in the lab and around the globe by following her on Instagram and to check out what culinary delights she has been whipping up and sampling lately. If you have any questions for Sofia about life in or outside of the lab please write them in the comments below 🙂
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.
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.
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 🙂
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.
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.
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!
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!
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?’
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
A brand new month has arrived and the sun is shining here in the UK! And with this new beautiful weather, it is time to introduce to you a new beautiful ‘Scientist in the Spotlight’.
Up until now I’ve featured a lot of scientists from around the world that I have met in the scicomm community across Twitter and Instagram who have inspired me on my science blogging journey and also who’s research and personal journeys I have wanted to know more about and share with you. But for April, I am once again bringing it a bit closer to home and featuring one of my fellow PhD students here at the University of Southampton. Let me introduce to you Jordana G.
Jordana and I started our PhD journeys at the same time but our paths are very different. After studying for her undergraduate degree at the University of Sussex and growing up in a town along the south coast means that she LOVES the beach and was disappointed to find out that Southampton had a dock instead – something that I can completely understand too! Jordana’s research focuses on how we can use monoclonal antibodies to develop stronger and more effective immunotherapies, but when she’s not in the lab she loves spending time with her friends and family, she is ALWAYS smiling and has awesome rapping skills 😛
So, why did you choose to study science?
Jordana: Since the age of 12, science was my favourite subject at school. I found it fascinating and relatively easy – I think maybe I just worked hard because I liked it! And from then it just progressed, it felt natural to carry out a science undergraduate degree because that’s what I found interesting and what I wanted to learn more about, and likewise for my PhD. I wouldn’t say I had an inspiration that led me to science, but more a fascination.
What have you been doing in the lab most recently?
Jordana: I have currently been carrying out a lot of in vivo experiments. Before any treatment can be put into in-human clinical trials, they have to be tested in animal models of disease. This is the stage we are at currently with our antibodies and we are seeing some exciting results showing how we can use our immune systems to tackle harmful cancer cells!
What’s the most memorable moment from your PhD so far?
Jordana: Definitely passing my transfer viva. It was a half way mark that filled me with confidence and enabled me to come up with more ideas and avenues to explore within my project.
What’s the most valuable lesson you have learnt during your PhD?
Jordana: That I am capable. Many times in my PhD I have felt like I’m not good enough to be here and that I’m not capable. However, my transfer viva and the fact that I am approaching my final year in the lab, I have come to realise that I can do anything I put my mind to and I am good at what I do.
Now you’re nearing the end of the PhD journey, what advice would you give to any PhD newbies?
Jordana: Don’t worry so much! This is supposed to be a fun experience. Yes it is hard and there will be times you want to chuck in the towel, but ultimately we should enjoy this time. After all, it is probably the last time we are going to be students!
What are your 2017 goals?
Jordana: Well, I want to enjoy my last full year here in Southampton, to get involved in more science communication projects and to take at least 2 holidays to balance that out 🙂
How do you balance lab life with a social life?
Jordana: I think one thing I have done pretty well throughout this PhD is keep a good work life: social life balance. For me, having a social life is just as important as doing well professionally so I make sure that I make time for both. I have been known to burn a candle at both ends a little too much with my work hard, play harder attitude.
What do you like to get up to when you’re not in the lab then?
Jordana: I love to practice my calligraphy and lettering in my spare time. It’s something I do that relaxes me and takes my mind away from everything else going on. Reading is also a love of mine. Getting lost in a good book is therapy to me! Also, I love hanging out with my friends and sharing a bottle of wine…..or two!
Has your science journey been what you expected?
Jordana: I have come to realise that I never know what to expect because when I plan things out in my head and give myself a timeline, it never, ever goes that way. I’m very fortunate to have had the journey I’ve had so far and I am really excited about what the future holds.
What does the future hold for you? What is your next step post-PhD?
Jordana: I would like to post-doc in industry as my next career move. Ideally, I would love to go abroad to start of with so I’m looking at international biotech and pharma companies and hoping to go with my sister :). The great thing about science is that you can travel all around the world with it and before I settle down somewhere I would like to explore and experience other places.
And finally, where in the world should I visit before I die?
Jordana: There is a family run Italian restaurant tucked down an alleyway in Florence, Italy. I can’t for the life of me remember the name of it, but I cannot even describe how god damn good the food was! Oh, and the wine! We were also served by the friendliest waiter and the atmosphere in the restaurant was just wonderful. I am making myself want to go back instantly just by writing this!
And that’s another wrap! Huge thank you to Jordana for taking time out from a manic lab schedule to get involved in my blog! I need to make more of an effort to showcase some of the amazing guys and girls I work with and am sharing this amazing PhD journey with – so thanks for helping me out girl! We should have a catch up with a bottle of wine….or two again soon 🙂
Follow Jordana’s life in and out of the lab over on Instagram. And please ask any questions in the comments below! Let’s learn about new cancer treatments together!
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.
How is it March already? Somebody please make time slow down as I feel like my time in the lab is running away from me! Anyone else feel like they blinked and the first two months of 2017 just disappeared? But on a positive note, it does mean that I can say I’m going on holiday NEXT MONTH 🙂 and it does mean that it is time for a new Scientist in the Spotlight.
I have been extremely excited to share this Spotlight interview with you ever since this month’s Spotlight agreed to being a part of my blog. Why? Because we have a mutual love of science and sport, in particular field hockey! I unfortunately stopped playing all the sports I loved when I got to university – one of my biggest regrets! – and science took over for me! But this month’s Spotlight managed to juggle playing hockey and doing a PhD. Now when I say juggle these two things – I don’t mean spend your working days in the lab, then train with your local hockey club once, maybe twice a week, and then play a competitive match every week. Oh no! This month’s Spotlight managed to juggle being a PhD student with being an international hockey player! And he even managed to fit in a trip to Rio and the Olympics last summer with his team!
So, I am so incredibly excited to introduce to you this month’s Scientist in the Spotlight, Ben M.
Ben was born and raised in Vancouver, Canada. Besides playing hockey at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, the 2015 Pan Am Games in Toronto and the Olympics last summer, Ben studied for his biochemistry undergrad degree at the University of British Columbia and stayed there to start his PhD which he has now almost finished! This guy who’s friends would describe him as inquisitive, passionate, humble and easy-going as now retired from the Canadian field hockey team but is often found exploring local mountains, beaches and oceans of Vancouver with the love of his life and their dog named Pilot 🙂
So, I cannot start with any other question other than – You’re an Olympian! Please tell me more about Rio and the Olympics.
Ben: To be honest, it’s surreal to look back upon it now. It almost feels like this really cool thing that happened to someone else last summer. But in one word, the Olympics were unforgettable. Walking into that opening ceremony is a moment I will carry with me for the rest of my life. It was the culmination of a long journey to get there. Our team didn’t qualify for the Olympics in London, and as a result we had a pretty drastic cut to our funding, and so there weren’t many people thinking we could qualify for Rio as only 12 countries get to compete at the Olympics. For our team to qualify, we had to battle against a lot of adversity and self-doubt which really brought us closer together. Walking into the opening ceremony with my friends and team mates was the moment where it all sunk in. We had done it. We were there. And that was such a special moment.
As for the hockey, the tournament itself leaves me with mixed emotions. We were the lowest ranked team in our group, but we had high ambitions that ultimately we failed to reach and that will always be disappointing. Our final game though was against India, who were ranked #5 in the world whereas we were ranked #15. They were a team that Canada hadn’t beaten or tied with in a very long time, but it was the match where we had our best performance of the Olympics and battled to a 2-2 draw. It wasn’t a win but it showed that we were capable of playing with a very good team, and while we were disappointed with our 11th place finish, we could at least be proud of our final performance.
Otherwise, the Olympics were the culmination of years of work and dedication. It had been my dream ever since I was a kid, and when I first made the National team in 2009, it looked like it might be possible. However, injuries and poor form led to me being cut from the program in 2011 so it looked like my dream was then over. I was crushed. But the following year, a new coach came in and gave me another chance, and I was able to get back into the team. So for me, like most athletes I imagine, the Olympics was more than just those two weeks but represented my life’s journey and struggle to get there.
What was it like in the build up to Rio whilst trying to balance lab work too?
Ben: In the buildup to Rio, I did shift my focus more fully onto hockey. The Olympics are the pinnacle of the sport and I wanted to fully prepare for them and have no regrets on that front. Also, our squad was really deep with at least 25 very talented players competing for just 16 spots, so just to make the Olympic team was going to be a fight. For these reasons I was in the lab less than previous years. I’m not sure that I had a typical schedule, which makes answering the question a bit tricky, but I’ll give you a sketch of 2016 which should give you some insight into the year I had.
We started off 2016 with a 4 week training tour to South Africa. As has often been the case throughout my PhD, I used the hockey trip as a deadline for some experiments, in this case submitting ChIP-seq libraries for sequencing. So the week before was full of long days and nights, with libraries finally pooled and purified in the middle of the night before my flight. The trip itself was intensive, often with multiple sessions a day, and 11 games in total. It was an absolute grind of a trip, designed to physically and mentally push us to our limits, and while I did some reading and responded to emails, I did next to no work while away.
In February and March we were centralised in Vancouver and was probably the most ‘normal’ stretch of the year. Here we were training on the field 4-5 times and in the gym 2-3 times a week. Outside of that I would have a practice session and a game with my club team, and the rest of the time focus on lab work. We had a lot of mid-morning training sessions, and so if I was growing cells I would often start experiments early in the morning, head to training (with travel a 4-5 hour break), and then come back in the afternoon to finish the experiment. If I needed a longer uninterrupted span of time then I’d start in the early afternoon after training and stay late. So through this time I was still working in the lab, but maybe not to the same extent as normal.
In April we travelled again, this time for a tournament in Malaysia. A tournament setting is different than a training tour in that the workload is more manageable. So with a lighter schedule and more frequent off days I was able to post up occasionally in a coffee shop and work on bioinformatic analysis on my laptop.
While in Malaysia I strained my right hamstring, which meant that when we returned to Vancouver for a 6 week training block my schedule was significantly busier. Even if injured you still come to practice and are part of the team, but now I was also going to physio 3 times a week, and I was also running on an underwater treadmill once a week on the other side of the city – an hour and half each way by bus. The injury also gave me a real scare. It was far enough from the Olympics to have time to recover but also close enough to be a real risk that it would affect my chances of going to Rio. However, I was still in the lab running experiments – just with some creative scheduling for fitting in experiments when I could.
We were away for three weeks in June which was our last tour before team selection. The team was then pick in early July, and most of the month was busy with pre-Olympic things in Vancouver. We had several lovely send off events and the Canadian Olympic Committee made a video of our team selection, with a helicopter ride and Olympic jacket presentation which you can watch here. We hosted a test event against the USA and had a training camp on Vancouver Island. I wasn’t in lab much through July, but I still did a few experiments and was back and forth with my supervisor on a paper we were submitting.
So, the build up was quite varied. No two weeks were the same, but I was still conducting experiments this whole time. It was challenging but I wouldn’t have changed it for the world!
What sparked your love for hockey in the first place then?
Ben: My parents are from England and so I started off as a soccer player initially and field hockey is in a lot of ways similar. In Vancouver, field hockey is played in the soccer off season, so my older brother had tried it our and liked it, so I decided to follow in his footsteps. Once I started playing, I just loved it, it is such a fast and skillful game that it quickly replaced soccer as my favourite sport. So, I guess I have my family to thank in many ways for my love of hockey.
So Rio is over, what was it like returning to the daily grind of lab life?
Ben: Again, it was a bit surreal, and obviously an emotional let down. The Olympics were such a high and coming back to real life afterwards is always going to be an adjustment. But I loved it. The year up until that point had been very heavy with hockey training and travelling, which was incredible, but it meant that progress in the lab was slow. After the Olympics, I was able to focus on science. I could give it my undivided attention and that was just great!
Tell us a bit more about your PhD research and your science journey.
Ben: My science journey probably started when I was a child. I was home-schooled from grades 5-10 (ages 10-15) which was for a number of reasons. But it meant that my education for this time was question based and inquisitive in nature. I had a lot of latitude to decide what questions I thought were interesting and then go and research them and learn about them – which really is a lot like scientific research. While at this age I didn’t know that I wanted to be a scientist, it did instill in me a questioning curiosity of the world around me. I returned to public school for my last two years at high school and then to University of British Columbia for my undergrad.
Throughout most of my degree, I didn’t think I would go on to do research. I was more focused on field hockey. But I decided to take an optional upper level lab course and that was an important turning point in my life. It was the first lab course I had taken that was structured and more like research than a course, and the professor Dr. Scott Covey treated us more like researchers than students. It was by far my favourite course up until that point and for the first time I seriously thought about research as a next step for me. In hindsight, I think part of why I loved research is that it shared many aspects of the types of learning that I loved and which I was familiar with from my time as a home-based learner. The questioning, curiosity-driven approach and the self-directed, self-motivated aspect were all central to my early education. Research though had one additional component which I loved most of all. You get to discover new knowledge! I don’t think I can emphasise enough the thrill that comes with trying to answer a question that no-one knows the answer to. I was immediately hooked and jumped head first into research and haven’t looked back!
Now I study chromatin and transcription in LeAnn Howe’s lab at the University of British Columbia. My research tries to understand how gene expression happens, as well as how cells remember what they are over time. For an analogy, think of a cookbook. To make a meal – the recipes you make are as important as what the cookbook contains. Similarly, your DNA (the cookbook) contains genes (the recipes). Gene expression controls which genes are expressed in your cells.
What have you been up to in the lab most recently?
Ben: After Rio, I was working on revisions for a paper studying how an enzyme regulating chromatin structure is targeted to different regions of the genome, which just recently came out in the journal Genetics – which you can read here if you’re interested.
If you want more of an idea of the experiments I was doing, I have a timelapse of me performing qPCR on ChIP samples – the second part of an experiment looking at where in the genome the enzyme I was studying is targeted. I had to do this 33 times to generate the qPCR data for Figure 3 in the final paper.
Currently, I’m working on hopefully the last few experiments to finish up my main PhD project before writing it up to submit for publication and also writing my thesis, which should make for a busy spring!
Why science and not hockey then?
Ben: I never planned on being a scientist. When I was younger, I thought I would be playing hockey full time, but then I got a taste of research and I couldn’t not do it! I was lucky to have the support from both my coaches and mu supervisor LeAnn so that I was able to manage both, but I chose science because I loved it and I couldn’t not do it. But that’s not because I love science any more than hockey. It’s just the path I saw myself taking.
What has been the most memorable part of your PhD so far?
Ben: Definitely having my first 1st author paper accepted! It was a really cool moment! It was the first paper I’d been a part of where I was the one doing the writing, so I was quite attached to it. Then I received the email from the editor informing me the paper was accepted in the afternoon on December 23rd – so just in time for Christmas! The perfect Christmas present!
As you’re nearly finished with your PhD, what’s the next step for you?
Ben: I love research, and so next for me is a postdoc. I’m still trying to discern what area of chromatin and transcription I’m most drawn to as there are so many fascinating questions to study. I’m likely looking to leave Vancouver for this in early 2018, so if you know anyone awesome let them know that I’m interested 🙂
Is there any advice you would give to someone who was choosing between a career in sport and a career in science?
Ben: Gosh! It’s tough to know. One is to make sure you follow your passion – cheesy, but true! My supervisor has always told me to live without regrets and not to pass on an opportunity that you would spend the rest of your life regretting – which I think is great advice! However, before diving into something, if someone is faced with this sort of choice, I would ask yourself these questions:
1) Why do you want to do science? And why do you want to do sport? These sound simple enough but unpacking these questions and coming to an honest answer can be harder than it seems. I know for me it was really important to try and understand why I wanted to do these things to realise how much I valued them.
2) What are you willing to sacrifice to achieve this, and do you see it as a sacrifice? We often get asked the sacrifice question as an athlete and it’s one that I actually quite dislike. If you love what you’re doing then you won’t see it as a sacrifice and you should see it as a privilege to get to do what you do. The second part of this question then is telling if you see the things in your life that you will have to give up to follow sport/science as a big sacrifice, then you should question if it really is the right path for you to choose.
For some people though it may not be a choice between sport and science. For me, I was largely able to do both and given the right circumstances that may be a possibility for someone in that position. You need both your supervisor and coach to be supportive, and the logistics of your research have to somewhat mesh with the sport schedule. It’s not for the faint hearted, but if you’re passionate about sport and science, then you can find a way to make it work.
And finally, where should my next travel destination be?
Ben: Vancouver! I’m biased, but I love my city! The city itself has great restaurants, beaches, walks etc and you’re so close to everything outdoors! The mountains for hiking or skiing and the ocean for swimming and boating.
As I’ve mentioned time and time again, one of my main aims for this blog is to break down the stereotypes that are associated with being a scientist. Now I feel thanks to this Scientist in the Spotlight, we have shown that scientists are not just old men with grey hair and glasses – they can be Olympians in their spare time too 🙂 A huge thank you to Ben for taking the time to be a part of my blog and share your experience with us. I’m sure if you have any more questions about Ben’s research or hockey he will be more than willing to answer them for you.
I loved sports before, but reading about someone’s sports journey whilst being a scientist too is really making me want to dust down my hockey stick that is in my cupboard at home and get back out on the pitch, and making me regret even more not continuing to do sport at university. My hockey spark has definitely been re-ignited. But my younger self had to decide between two very different career paths – one being science obviously, and the other being another of my passions that is languages. I always assumed that I could only have one or the other – and for languages and science that may have been the case – but it is so refreshing to see that if you do have two passions in your life, you may not have to choose between them. If you are determined to do both, it can be done and you can achieve your wildest dreams in both fields.
Is there anyone else out there who is an athlete and a scientist? Or maybe you juggle being a scientist with another passion? I would love to hear about your experiences too so please contact me or comment below 🙂
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.
Anyone that knows me will know that I love three things – science, talking about science and travel! I do obviously have loads more interests and hobbies, but these are three that I share with this month’s Scientist in the Spotlight. Let me introduce to you – Catia B.
This morning I’ve woken up in my post-Super Bowl daze after stayed up and watched (nearly to the end!), but this month’s Scientist in the Spotlight had her first opportunity to watch it live in the United States. Catia is a proud and driven Portuguese gal and originally from Lisbon, but right now as you read this interview she is trying to stay positive and survive the cold in Boston, USA after touching down after the big move a mere 72 hours ago! Catia writes an awesome blog called ‘A Pulgarita’ – you might have seen the interview Catia did with me on her blog recently! The name of this blog stems from her childhood nickname where ‘pulgarita’ means ‘little flea’. She was a very active child and very interested in travel and jumping. These traits have followed Catia through to adulthood where she blogs about travel and her PhD journey – and she is obviously still jumping around the world with her recent transatlantic move!
Catia and I connected over our shared interests in stem cell research – although we still do very different things – and our love to travel, where much to my disappointment Catia has been far more successful than me fitting small trips in around her PhD research. But both Catia and I both like to collect postcards from the places that we have visited – you can see my collection on my sister blog Soph talks Travel here. So I jumped at the chance to share Catia’s research and PhD journey with you where her research aims to improve stem cell manufacturing and commercialisation through process, economics and reimbursement modelling.
Tell us a bit more about your science journey.
Catia: I did an Integrated Masters (BSc and MSc) in Biomedical Engineering at Instituto Superior Tecnico, University of Lisbon which I completed in 2011. During my degree, I had a part-time experience in a lab that were working on hydrogels for drug delivery and I did my MSc thesis on interactions of anesthetics with artificial cell membranes. I also had the opportunity to complete a semester-long Erasmus exchange period at the Czech Technical University in Prague. This marked the end of my lab work and I transitioned into computational work. I worked for one year on malaria transmission modelling, two years on computational modelling of tissue engineered cartilage growth and in 2015 I started my PhD in Bioengineering from the MIT Portugal program. We had some professors from the MIT teach us classes, either via conference or in person, and this program has a strong innovation and entrepreneurship core. After one year of classes, I started my PhD thesis. I have a co-supervisor from MIT too, so right now I’m starting my time there. Wish me luck!
Why did you choose science?
Catia: I have no idea! Well, I always wanted to help people. My goal was to make people healthier, so I had lots of interests. At some point I also wanted to be a journalist, which not seems to have crossed my mind again with the blog. I thought about becoming a doctor but I didn’t want to be in the forefront of healthcare, but instead more in the back developing things. I also thought about becoming a psychologist since I have an interest in mental health issues too and a biochemist to research cells and molecules. However, I was once told about the Biomedical Engineering degree and I was really amazed at how many things and technologies you could use to help people. So I went for it and don’t regret it at all!
After finishing my degree, I wanted to take one step further to help people, but this time by analysing data and modelling behaviours. I don’t recall a single lesson in this – it was just a fascination for seeing things that can impact people’s health and how I could help make those better! Every step is a very little step towards something good and there are many factors in play to turn research into a product.
What’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learnt during your PhD journey and do you have any advice for newbies?
Catia: I would say be very cautious with progress. Whenever I felt things were going well too quickly, I was about to find out something was wrong and had to take some steps back. Just be mindful that a little progress is the best, and celebrate it!
My advice to someone starting science research is be excited with it! Find a topic you love and believe in it, but also be resilient. At first, from reading papers, you have no idea how much work and failures come before something is published, and how many revisions of journals and rejections are involved and so on. But most of all, keep your optimism and learn to know when to stop. We all need a rest!
What do you like to do in your spare time?
Catia: I try to work out as much as possible. I used to work out six days a week for about half an hour per day, but recently I’ve been slacking a bit and reduced it to 10 minutes. Running in particular is an awesome stress reliever and sleep inducing activity, with which I have a love-hate relationship. I also workout to YouTube videos at home and don’t pay for a gym membership. I also like to be with family and friends whilst trying to explore new cosy cafeterias nearby.
But of course, I love to travel! For me travelling doesn’t only mean going to another country. There are plenty of nice things around you that you never notice. This year I tried to explore more of the area I lived and was pleasantly surprised and made me question why I had never been before!
Since starting my blog which occupies a significant amount of my free time, I read a lot more blogs, mostly travel ones, but I’ve learnt so much. I try to watch a comedy series episode per week. I find it very hard to take time to watch movies. Speaking of things to watch, I love watching sports competitions. I am an avid figure skating fan and I follow the season. It’s on my US bucket list to go and watch my first live competition. I also like watching athletics and cycling.
As you mentioned your blog ‘A Pulgarita’, why did you start writing your blog and how did you choose what to write about?
Catia: I felt I could help others incorporate more travel into their lives despite how busy they are – an penniless to an extent! I started the blog in March 2016 and it has been doing pretty well! I only post about travel and PhD life with some other event reports occasionally. Recently, I’ve been doing interviews to showcase other bloggers in the field of travel and research.
My initial idea was to blog about travel, local discoveries like cafeterias etc, challenges and PhD life. These are all things that made me smile and also that could be of interest or inspiring to others. I pivoted only to travel and PhD life. I thought of writing only about travel, but my most read posts were all the PhD ones, so people must have enjoyed them! In fact I also like writing about my experience, so I kept both topics.
Why is scicomm important to you?
Catia: If there was no scicomm, I would have never heard about the beauty of science and research as a child. I think there is not enough scicomm going on, or not with enough clarity. In Portugal, and I’m assuming the rest of the world is the same, PhD students and researchers are seen by many as people who don’t have real jobs, are spending public funds on useless things and so on. It’s our duty to give value to our work and explain it in a very accessible way so that others can recognise the impact it has. Someone tols me to ‘pitch your thesis like you would to your mum and dad’. But there are wonderful innitiatives out there like PubhD where PhD students give a 10 minute presentation about their topics in a bar – which are opportunities we need to take advantage of.
What other scicomm activities are you involved in then?
Catia: Before my PhD, I had a voluntary scicomm feature on a local online newspaper, p3. I only made two interviews, but my idea was to research any article from Portuguese researchers in Portuguese universities that came out that month and explain them in a clear way, including interviews with the authors of course!
Not exactly a scicomm activity, but in October I went to a hackathon in Lisbon at Pixels Camp. I managed to gather a team to work on a project related to my PhD project. I pitched my project in 90 seconds to an IT audience who knew nothing about stem cells. But there was a parallel activity there, the Presentation Karaoke, where you had to present slides without knowing anything about what you were going to talk about. I won the contest in the end and went through two rounds of trying to hustle between the slides about tech. I think something like this should be applied to science!
As you love to travel, have you managed to travel much during your PhD?
Catia: Since I started in January 2015, I’ve been to 4 countries outside of Portugel – Italy, Spain, Norway and Belgium. Now I’m in the US, I expect to travel quite a bit too. I also managed to go to two music festivals in Portugal and I always tried to invest in day or weekend trips in Portugal. They can be cheap and rejuvenating!
More on how I manage to live a double life as a PhD student and a traveler in my guest blog for Soph talks Science- coming soon!
So, where is the next step for you after your PhD?
Catia: I am really open to the future right now! I finish in late 2018 and hope to be a doctor before I turn 30 in 2019! I would like to have an experience outside academia for a change but I don’t rule out progressing to a post-doc. But whatever I do professionally after, I hope I’m fulfilled and doing something really aligned with my values in a positive environment. I also hope my blog keeps going!
And finally, where in the world should be my next travel destination?
Catia: I’m going to say Portugal because I’m a proud Portuguese girl! This country never ceases to amaze me and we have such diverse architecture and landscapes between regions despite being a small country. I just cam back from a rail trip in a quite unpopulated region that I had never been before and it has stunning natural beauty and history. And you’ll always have great food here!
However, outside Portugal, from the places I’ve been, I’d say going to Rio de Janeiro is an intense experience. A mix of natural beauty, their laidback-ness and also some shock about the various social problems there. For natural beauty, Norway is the best country yet and I’m totally in love with the fjords and cosy houses. Iceland would probably be a more unique experience with all the thermal activity and it’s on my travel bucket list! For history, I’d say visiting Spain is very interesting with the mix between Moorish and Christian architecture – in particular both Andalucia in the south and Asturias in the north were my faves! For party life, Budapest has a quite interesting scene with the bars in degraded houses and weird decor. I hope there’s some good travel tips to start you off, but I feel there’s so much in the world yet to see. Maybe in 5 years I’ll have even more tips to share with you from other continents – at least I will from the USA!
A huge thank you to Catia for taking the time to answer my questions especially in such a stressful time recently when you’re thinking about moving to the other side of the world nearly! I wish you luck with your new venture and I am looking forward to seeing all your US travel tips so I can plan my trips stateside! Also, I hope we can continue to send each other postcards to help our collections grow 🙂
Watch this space for more collaborations between Catia and I coming soon!
But if there is one thing you should do today, it’s follow Catia’s blog. Whether you’re a new PhD student looking for advice, or a traveler looking for a great restaurant to visit in the latest city you’re visiting, then Catia’s blog will probably have an answer for you!
I hope the January blues haven’t been hitting you too hard. So far I’ve managed to avoid them by focusing my efforts on things like blogging or planning new science articles. My transfer is FINALLY out the way so now I can get back into a routine and get organised again with my blogs, my meals and my exercise – and of course lab work as soon as the cells are ready.
But a new month, also, means a new ‘Scientist in the Spotlight’. As I’m sure you all know, one of my main motivations for writing about my PhD life and sharing science with you all is to inspire a younger generation and get them interested in science! And more importantly, I want to show everyone that being a scientist doesn’t mean you are a old man with glasses working in a lab doing 9-5 every week! Over the past few months, I have ‘met’ some of the best scicomm-ers out there, and this month’s Spotlight features one of the first amazing scicomm-ers I came across on Twitter whose work and activities really inspired me to get committed to writing a science blog.
So, let me introduce you to Karen R.
Karen was born and bred in California. Naturally, with the beautiful Californian weather, Karen loves to be outside – be it running, rock climbing or simply reading! She loves to dine out eating delicious food – some of her favourites are salmon, kale and pizza – hopefully not together 😛 But one thing she does love is cranes – the mechanical kind, not the bird! It’s a self-confessed obsession that she cannot seem to explain, but every time she spots one – and there are a ton all over San Francisco – it’s time to stop and take pictures until she realising she’s drooling! With the dream of operating a crane as a side job, I do wonder how there is any time for science 😛
Karen has done her time in the lab finding a way to genetically reprogram skin cells into brain cells that could be used to model neurological disease, and now works for the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) on their communications team and has a passion for scicomm and teaching the world about stem cells and science – and showing us that not all scientists work in a lab!
Tell me a bit about your science journey.
Karen: My science journey began in the womb. Both my mom and dad were science majors in college, and they raised me to love math and science from a young age. My dad loved to take me hiking and to keep me entertained. He taught me all the names of the trees and plants we passed and explained why they lived in that environment. My dad was also a scientist at a Biotech company, and he would take me to his lab occasionally to hangout and help him with experiments. I didn’t know it then, but he had be running ELISA assays! His passion for science and learning inspired me to study science.
Karen with one of her science role models – her dad 🙂
Fast forward ten years later, I majored in molecular biology at Pomona College in Southern California and then went to UCSF for a PhD in biomedical science. During my PhD, I focused on cellular reprogramming and neuroscience research. This was followed by a two year postdoc at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging where I worked on stem cell models for Huntington’s disease. That brings us to the present day where I now work at CIRM in science communications.
Most people think scientists just work in the lab, so tell me a bit more about your job in science communications?
Karen: I’m the website and social media manager at CIRM. It’s a state agency whose mission is to accelerate stem cell treatments to patients with unmet medical needs by funding promising stem cell research in California. I work on the CIRM communications team, and our job is to promote our agency’s mission and educate patients and the public on our progress. My specific job involves updating the content on our website, managing our social media channels, which include Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and writing for our Stem Cellar blog.
Because we are a small team, I also have a few other jobs I’ve taken on. I regularly attend scientific conferences to talk to researchers about CIRM and our funding opportunities. I also go to patient support groups to help patients understand how stem cell research could benefit them in the future.
But my favourite part of my job is directing the SPARK high school internship program. This program gives under-represented students the opportunity to do stem cell research in an academic lab during the summer. SPARK students complete a six-week research project, attend lectures and learn about the patient side of science. I also ask them to document their internship by posting ‘in the lab’ photos on Instagram and writing a blog – check out the hashtag #CIRMSPARKLAB or visit the @CIRM_stemcells account! At the end of the summer, they present their research at the SPARK conference in front of scientists and their families. It’s a spectacular program. These students are beyond talented and very motivated about their research. I’ve stayed in touch with a few of them who have told me that they plan to pursue science in college and as a career. That really is the icing on the cake for me!
What have you been doing in your job most recently?
Karen: I launched a really cool campaign this month on social media, challenging people to make stem cell resolutions. My goal is to raise awareness about the importance of stem cell research by getting scientists, patients and the public to share their resolutions on social media using the hashtag #StemCellChampions. The response has been great on Twitter so far, and we also have had some participation on Instagram and Facebook. I’ll be promoting the campaign during the month of January and at the end, I will blog about the most inspiring resolutions and the people behind them.
My next goal is to spend more time on our website. I recently updated the CIRM homepage with new pictures and content, and would like to show more love to some of our other webpages. Our website has a lot of useful content for scientists and patients, but it’s very text heavy and tends to make people’s eyes glaze over. I’d like to make these pages more engaging and visually appealing by adding graphics, interactive charts and videos – so watch this space!
What was it like transitioning from the lab into scicomm?
Karen: At first it was weird! I was culturing stem cells in the lab one week, and the next I was sitting in an office in my own cubicle blogging about stem cells and learning how to manage a website.
I think my mistake was not taking a vacation in between jobs. I had a big Europe trip planned in the Fall and wanted to get a head start on my role at CIRM during the summer. So there was no time for me to decompress and reset after my postdoc. But my team at CIRM was very supportive and after a few weeks, I felt much more comfortable. It’s like learning to drive, at first it’s super awkward and you’re terrible at it, but eventually it becomes second nature. After a few weeks, I found my routine of writing blogs, doing social media, and updating our website. Now it feels like I’ve been doing this stuff for ages, but it’s only been a year and half.
What advice would you give to someone considering transitioning into science communication after doing a PhD/postdoc?
Karen: My advice would be to take a stab at science writing or other forms of science communication while you’re still doing your PhD or postdoc. While you’re working your ass off in the lab, you still have a more flexible schedule than desk jobs like me. If you’re experiment decides to fail, you can take a break and read your favourite science blog or write one of your own! It’s pretty easy to get into science communications, you just need the motivation to start, a support group to cheer you on, and the persistence to keep up your good work.
My other advice is that you need a portfolio of work to show that you’re qualified for transitioning into science communications. For example, you probably won’t get hired for a science writing job if the only things you’ve written are scientific publications and your thesis. Build up a portfolio of blogs, writing, and other communications experience so that when your perfect job comes around, can easily prove that you’re qualified.
Why is scicomm important to you?
Karen: It’s important to me because there are a lot of people who don’t understand science and how vital it is for improving people’s lives and keeping our planet healthy. There are also people who care about science but don’t fully understand the stories they hear about in the media. My goal is to help my friends and other people understand the science, what’s real and what’s hype, so then they can make their own educated conclusions and opinions.
And you want to achieve this goal through your Instagram account?
Karen: I blame @science.sam for my scicomm Instagram account :). When I met Sam at a conference last year, we bonded over wanting to get more involved in scicomm. She told me that she recently started an Instagram project to show people that scientists are normal and that women can love beauty and fashion and also be very talented and smart. This experiment introduced her to an amazing community of science women on Instagram. When she told me this, I realised that a supportive group of women scientists was exactly what I was missing and desperately needed after leaving academia. Sam also asked me why I didn’t have an Instagram account to talk about the cool things I do in my job and all my scicomm projects. I didn’t have a good answer for her, so I started my account in October and have been having fun with it ever since!
I decided to focus my posts around three topics. For #MotivationMonday, I talk about what or who motivates me to do science communications. Next up is #WorkWednesday where I post about my job. I get lots of “what do you do at CIRM?” questions from people who want to transition into scicomm, and Instagram is the perfect place to explain that in a fun, interactive way. My final topic is #CasualFriday. This is my favourite one because I talk about anything I want. I’ve posted about my love of climbing, photos of me outdoors, and also out with friends. I like doing these posts because my followers have said that they enjoy getting to know me on a more personal level aside from my scicomm persona.
Are there any other scicomm activities you are involved in?
Karen: I have so many scicomm side hustles that it’s hard to keep track!
One that I haven’t mentioned yet is the podcast I record with my Twitter friend @DrMikeographer. We like to talk about intriguing science stories (see our episode on plant-based burgers), share tips about how to improve your scicomm skills, and interview interesting scientists and communicators.
Outside of social media, I help organise a scicomm meetup group in San Francisco. We do happy hours and sometimes have guest speakers. I’m also getting back into science writing. I have plans to write a book chapter about the importance of public engagement and science communication in stem cell research. I’m also writing a children’s book about stem cells with Thomai Dion who you probably know as @TDtheScienceMom on Instagram and Twitter. She is a super talented artist and science writer for young minds and I feel very lucky to be able to collaborate with her on this project!
In your opinion, how can we as scientists do better at communicating science?
Karen: I could talk FOREVER on this topic but I’ll keep it short. We can do better by listening to our audience and tailoring our communications to meet their needs and concerns. We also need to step outside of our bubbles and reach out to communities that don’t have much exposure to science and figure out the most effective ways of engaging those people in an effective way.
That is ALOT of scicomm you get up to! But where would we find you when you’re not inspiring others?
Karen: I like to climb, run, eat good food, hangout with friends, go hiking and camping, and read science fiction and fantasy novels. My favourite sport is rock climbing. I discovered it four years ago and climb a few times a week with friends at the gym. I also love dreaming, as in the sleeping kind. My mind takes me on really crazy journeys when I’m unconscious and it never ceases to entertain me.
If there is one thing I am truly excellent at, it’s having a healthy work life balance. Even in grad school, I made sure that I didn’t slave away at all hours in the lab. For me, exercise and having a social life are just as important as doing well in my career. If I work too much, I get unhappy and feel unbalanced. It’s not worth it for me, and it’s a decision I’m comfortable with. Plus you have to think long-term – you won’t be working forever! When you retire and you’re old is that really the time you want to carpe diem and climb machu pichu?
So I’ll reference Nike; I “Just do it”.
Has your science journey been what you expected?
Karen: Not at all! I thought my path following my PhD was a research job in industry, but it didn’t turn out that way. Science communication snuck up on me and all-of-a-sudden, I realised that it was my next career move. I didn’t know much about science communications in grad school – it wasn’t something we were trained in. When I started writing more during my postdoc, I realised that I was more passionate about communicating science than actually doing experiments. Now that I am in communications, I know it is the right path for me. I am happy every day doing what I do and I didn’t always have that feeling when I was doing research.
I’ll end with a secret. I’ve suffered from imposter syndrome off and on during my career. I battled it when I was a postdoc wondering if I would succeed in landing a science job in industry. I battled it when I started blogging and doing social media worried that people wouldn’t like my writing or my ideas. To overcome these feelings, I had to train myself to act confident even when I didn’t feel like it. ‘Fake it till you make it’ is a really good motto and it worked for me. If you ever feel that confidence is a real issue for you, I suggest talking with friends and colleagues in your field. Open up to them about your concerns and frustrations. Usually you will find that you aren’t alone and other people have experienced similar feelings. Having that support network will allow you to see things from a different perspective and will help you to come up with new strategies to move forward with your career and your life.
And finally, where in the world should be my next travel destination?
Karen: You should visit Basque country and take the Train de la Rhune. It’s a mountain in the Pyrenees on the French-Spanish border and it has breathtaking panoramic views. My fiance and I went in the fall a year ago and stayed in Biarritz – also a lovely place to visit – on the coast of Southern France. While we were there, our friend told us to visit La Rhune. At the base of the mountain is an old train that winds up through the herds of sheep to the top of the mountain. But there’s also a hiking trail so we opted for the exercise! It is a hardcore hike with steep trails, but the view is beautiful the entire way. When you get to the top, there’s a restaurant and bar that serves delicious beers to tide you over until it’s time to take the train back down.
Once again, these featured ‘Scientists in the Spotlight’ have inspired me! I do not know how you all fit everything in! Thank you to Karen for getting involved in my blog – I have thoroughly enjoyed getting to know more about all the scicomm things you’re involved in. It’s definitely given me some ‘food for thought’ on what else I can get up to. I will definitely be in touch for more info! And I think I might have to take up hiking if it means I get to see unbelievable views like those in the photos above! Feel free to ask me or Karen any questions – it is great to get some reader feedback 🙂
Happy December everyone! Which means it must be time for another ‘Scientist in the Spotlight’. This month’s Spotlight post has a bit of a ‘health and fitness’ feel about it (which will all become clearer as you read on!) which seems like a good fit as 2017 gets closer and closer, and the thought of making a New Year’s resolution or two starts to creep into your mind.
I’ve only been seriously committed to writing my science blog for about 6 months or so and still feel like I’m practicing my writing style, wondering what to actually write about and fighting to get all those views and followers whilst wondering if anyone other than my family is actually reading my blog posts! But a few weeks ago, I received an email from someone who wanted to start their own blog and wanted my advice :O !! Whilst I definitely feel under qualified to dish out that sort of advice, we had a chat about all things blog related and hope I gave them some inspiration, but it definitely gave me a boost to think that other people in the world are getting hold of my blog and enjoy reading it! Then I had a light bulb moment and thought there is no better person to feature on my Scientist in the Spotlight feature than someone who reads and enjoys my blog and I was very excited when she agreed to be a part of it. So let me introduce to you, Lisa J.
Lisa is a final year PhD student here at the University of Southampton. This gal, who is originally from Bristol, has been running around the lab like a crazy person for the last few weeks to try and finish her PhD but is (somehow!) also managing to train for a 24 km weighted hike across Pen-Y-Fan in January – that’s the highest peak in South Wales! Lisa is a massive lover of all things fitness and food which probably reflects in her PhD research which asks the question – ‘Are you what your mother ate?’
Tell us some more about your PhD research.
Lisa: My thesis is looking at the influence of early life vitamin D deficiency and high-fat diet on offspring skeletal muscle development, structure and function, hence the question ‘Are you what your mother ate?’ 😛 I’m basically interested in how we build strength in a low vitamin D or high fat world. I decided to take on this as a PhD as I loved my 6-month lab project during my Masters in maternal and fetal health and the University of Manchester.
What made you choose to study science?
Lisa: I actually went into my A-Levels thinking I was going to study graphic design at university (the complete opposite end of the subject spectrum!) and biology was a ‘why not’ subject. But I found a love for biology during Sixth Form whilst also realising that to get the high grades in graphic art was all about annotating and explaining my ideas and creations – obviously a true scientist at heart with the analytical skills! During A-Levels and my degree, I found it fascinating to learn about the human body and how amazing it is! I loved all the reproductive modules in my degree and that’s what lead me to my MRes and so my PhD. Being in science, I am always learning new things and that’s what keeps it exciting!
As you’re finishing your PhD, what advice do you have for any Grad School newbies?
Lisa: I have a top five tips to surviving a PhD. Number 1 – you must have a good work/life balance. I know I work hard but I also know that having ‘me’ time is incredibly important for my wellbeing. I make sure I go to crossfit every weekday evening and also plan evenings/weekends with friends. Admittedly, this is not always possible due to the animal studies I do, but if I can I will always make space for other non-work related activities. Number 2 is get a diary. First year is more chilled but by second year the more pieces of work you have to juggle due to the more studies you are part of and it gets more intense in final year, it gets overwhelming! I have a diary and write what I’m going to do each day and tick it off. It keeps me on track but also makes you feel good and productive. Number 3 has got to be caffeine! A crucial essential for the endless long 18 hour lab days (and I have had plenty!). Number 4 is a support network! PhDs are not easy and knowing where you can get support is vital. My friends in the lab have been there for me during the tough times and I also have a mentor (an academic unrelated to my PhD) and she has been a saviour in times of need. Finally, I would say confidence! Believe in yourself and the hard work that you put in. Supervisors don’t always know best believe it or not, so over time I have felt more comfortable to put my opinions across and try to lead my research project. Having the confidence to say no to your supervisor and stick by your opinions is a scary, but good thing!
What was the most valuable lesson you learnt during your PhD?
Lisa: That it’s okay to say ‘this is too much’. There were months at a time I’d be doing extremely long lab days, week after week due to important animal studies. During this time I was also expected to write my transfer thesis and train a load of students! It got to a point where it was too overwhelming, so I sought out help from the university and with my mentor and supervisors we came up with a new plan to get the work done whilst still being able to cope. That was a hard time mentally, so don’t suffer in silence if it gets too much!
So, would you say your science journey has been what you expected?
Lisa: To be honest, I didn’t really know what to expect. I never actually planned to do a PhD! One day I saw the advert and though ‘oh that sounds pretty cool’ and applied. Two months later I was moving to Southampton and dissecting mouse hind limb muscles on my first day. It’s been more of an emotional rollercoaster and mentally challenging than I could have anticipated – but I have come back stronger from that. It’s been extremely rewarding and I have learnt an incredible amount – both scientifically and personally.
Who would you say are your science role models?
Lisa: I always admired my Masters supervisor. She had worked hard to set up her lab group but also knew how to enjoy life! My friend Emma at work is also a big inspiration! I’ve never met someone so dedicated and hardworking, yet ridiculously positive! Those traits are definitely good ones to be surrounded by!
Other than science, what are your main hobbies and interests?
Lisa: All things fitness really – crossfit, road cycling and a little bit of running here and there! Crossfit is my main interest though! I absolutely love it. It’s amazing for fitness and there is a great community! Crossfit is a combination of weightlifting, body weight exercises, gymnastics movements and endurance all mixed together to create some intense workouts. I love the feeling of getting stronger! I also decided to buy a road bike this year and did my first sportive (54 miles) and fell in love with it! I have a goals board in my room with all the fitness goals I want to achieve. I think it is great to having other focusses other than PhD work and for me exercise is a great way to unwind and clear the mind, especially when the lab life is so intense.
As a PhD student who wants to get more exercise into the hectic PhD life, what advice would you give?
Lisa: Hmm.. I would say if you haven’t already, find something you enjoy and try different sports/classes until you find something you love! PhDs are a lot of work and very stressful, so exercise needs to be a way to de-stress and have fun and not something you are forcing yourself to do because you feel you should. Number 2 – you must find a time that works for you! Ask yourself – when are you most productive at work? What is your PhD schedule like? I tried the 6am Crossfit classes and then struggled to function for the rest of the day. I also know I am more productive in the mornings so I generally start at 8am, do a day’s work and then head to the gym about 6pm. Then I can go home have dinner and chill out. Maybe do a little work if really needed, but I advise just chilling out 😛 Finally – be creative! Sometimes experiments can mean long days but that doesn’t necessarily mean no exercise! Admittedly when you’re in the lab for 12+ hours exercise really isn’t the first thing on your mind… but even squeezing in a short run, or doing a mini body weight circuit at home (e.g. burpees/squats/press-ups/sit-ups) is always a possibility. A little of something is better than nothing!
How do you balance lab life with your social life?
Lisa: If I can I also try to plan my lab work around socialising…. after all that is more important 😛 !! If I have plans to see friends in the evening I’ll come into work a bit earlier or make up the time later in the week. Too many PhD students spend all their time working, but I’m a believer of work hard, play harder. Social life is extremely important and having time off helps with productivity.
So, let’s talk about your new venture – your science blog.
Lisa: I’ve actually only just started my blog ‘In a Science World’ – but my plan is to post about my PhD research, how I do it, as well as useful tips and tricks all students need to get through a PhD! I also plan to include news headlines associated with my research area to help others learn. I’m so excited to see where it leads!
Scicomm is so important to me because I think it is so important to communicate the complicated scientific research to the public in an engaging and effective way and importantly, that’s easy to understand! I love the idea that I could inspire others to get involved in science. Also, many students thinking about starting a PhD want to know about what life as a PhD student is like, and when I was at that stage there was very little information around – so I like the idea of documenting my PhD experience could be of use to others!
What other scicomm related activities have you got involved with?
Lisa: I’ve done ‘Meet the Scientist’ events where I teach secondary school students about my research and why I do it. I absolutely love doing this – the questions the students have are hilarious! For example, in one session we were talking about how a high-fat diet is bad for health and I then went on to explain how the diet of the mother during pregnancy can affect her baby’s muscle strength in later life, to which one boy’s response was ‘oh no, I have no hope! My mum said she just ate loads of McDonalds!’ Kids make me laugh! I also teach undergrad students in human physiology practicals (ECG and spirometry) which I absolutely love doing!
As this must be your last week in the lab, what’s next for you?
Lisa: Go somewhere sunny! I’ve not had a break from the academic life at all, so I think the completion of my PhD and finally becoming Dr Jones (yes, I know the song!) is worthy of a little bit of travelling and absorbing some sun rays to unwind and get ready for the next chapter of my career. I’m not sure what that will be at the moment, we will see where things take me – but maybe a career in scientific/medical writing as that will combine science and be my creative outlet. Or potentially I’ll brave it and try out a postdoc!
You never know – maybe I’ll be a super strong crossfit goddess doing some scientific writing on the side!
And finally – where in the world should I visit next?
Lisa: This summer I decided to go away by myself to Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands as a break before the final push in the lab. I went alone and stayed in a surfer’s hostel called Surf Riders. It was one of the best weeks of my life and I highly recommend it if you’re by yourself. I met loads of amazing people from all over the world and learnt to surf (well attempted to surf!). I’ll definitely be going back!
And that’s a wrap! Huge thank you to Lisa for getting involved in my blog and good luck with finishing the PhD and your blog. You’ve definitely inspired me to get more active around my PhD studies and I will 100% be taking a few of those tips and advice on board 🙂 Please feel free to ask any questions to Lisa or me or just get in contact – its great to gear from readers and get some feedback!
It’s also a wrap on 2016’s ‘Scientist in the Spotlight’ posts so thanks to Lisa, Sophie and Jess for kick starting what is probably my favourite blog feature! Here’s to introducing some more incredible scientists to you in 2017 🙂 🍾