Scientist in the Spotlight

Scientist in the Spotlight. Emma O.

Happy August science lovers! Sorry it has been a little while since my last blog post – I obviously had too much cake and bubbly celebrating my blog’s birthday 😛 But lab life has been very busy lately as I am trying to finish and package some results for my first publication. The problem is each experiment I do to try and wrap it up doesn’t give me the answer I am looking for and just raises another 5! So that is what I’ve been doing recently but with a new month is a fresh start! And also with a new month comes a new Scientist in the Spotlight feature. so I am thrilled to introduce to you Emma O.

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Emma is the very first physicist on my blog. In fact she is an astrophysicist – so she is our very own female Brian Cox who is going to teach us something about space today 🙂 But Emma hasn’t always been an astrophysicist. Her less traditional route into the field saw her complete A-Levels in physics then land a job in car insurance and then selling advertising space. Despite loving earning money and exploring South East Asia – it was time for her to head to uni. After nearly studying fashion at uni, Emma ended up bagging a place on the Foundation Year at University of York and then registered onto a Masters in Physics course and graduated 5 years later! Before starting her PhD, she took a year out when she got married and went on a three month long honeymoon travelling around Central America. Now at the University of Southampton, her PhD research looks at how a type of dead star called neutron stars make gravitational waves by growing mountains!

I only met Emma 3 months ago at a media day for Pint of Science 2017 but I have since loved watching Emma’s scicomm journey making YouTube videos, science postcards and a TV interview! And now it’s time to share this fun, colourful and confident character and her science with you guys.

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Why physics?

Emma: I had a very inspirational physics teacher, but there is one particular moment that stands out for me. One day at school when I was about 14 in physics class, we were talking about the Universe and learning that it was continually expanding. I was curious about this concept. As we continued to chat, my teacher said that scientists had just discovered that the universe isn’t just expanding, but its doing so at an ever increasing rate. The universe’s expansion was accelerating and no one knew why! I remember thinking WOW! I was overcome with desire to know the answer and it was at that moment I decided I wanted to become a physicist! This question is still unanswered today and the driving force behind this phenomena is called ‘dark energy’. I did look at studying dark energy for my PhD, but the gravitational waves projects available just seemed more fun. I love gravity and Einstein’s theory of relativity as it is completely different to what we experience in our daily lives, yet gravity seems so familiar to us as we experience it all the time. I had heard about a phenomena called gravitational waves, which stretch and squeeze space and time, and travel at the speed of light like ripples in a pond. This concept was and still is fascinating to me, so I decided to apply to this research field.

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So, what are these gravitational waves?

Emma: Gravitational waves are ripples in spacetime that travel at the speed of light stretching and squeezing both space and time. They are created by anything that has a funny shape and moves, like humans. The problem is gravity is weak and so are gravitational waves – which makes them incredibly difficult to detect. The first detection came from two black holes, each about 30 times heavier than the sun, over one billion light years away that crashed into each other at half the speed of light to form one big black hole. In the 1/10th of a second in which they collided they released more energy than all the stars in the observable universe. It was quite literally a gravitational wave tsunami! As with science, it was really lucky that this event was even seen as the detectors were only turned on a couple of days beforehand. This was incredible as Einstein who predicted their existence never thought it would be possible to detect them! This is because the distortion they create in spacetime is 1/1000th of the width of a proton – the equivalent of cutting the width of a human hair into a million pieces!! Then taking one of those pieces and cutting it into a million more! And taking one of those pieces and cutting it into yet another million! One of those final pieces is the distance that was measured!!

One of the really cool things about gravitational waves is that the signals we receive on Earth are within the same frequency range as our ears, which means we can hear what colliding black holes sound like. They make a ‘chirp’ sound. Gravitational waves provide a soundtrack to the universe.

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If they are so hard to detect, then what do you do in a typical day?

Emma: I usually arrive at uni about 10am. I sit down with a cuppa tea and read arvix, which is a website that is updated daily with all the latest research papers. I write a to-do list and create a plan of attack for the day. I usually spend mornings reading research papers or adding content to my thesis. The afternoons are spent calculating or coding. My research is theoretical so I use computers to conduct my experiments. Depending on the day of the week, I also attend seminars, group meetings, meet with my supervisor and some teaching.

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What is it like to be a female studying physics?

Emma: Being a minority in the subject of my choice was something I never really thought about. It wasn’t until I started university and people were talking about it that I realised the full extent of the problem. I don’t feel that my experience has ever been different to that of my male colleagues. I think the problem stems more from society and the expectations placed on people because of their gender. Quite often people are told that science is ‘hard’ as a suggestion that something being hard is a bad thing and that they shouldn’t pursue a career in science. STEM subjects do need to increase their diversity as it is very much dominated by one demographic, and the problem arises as one demographic can potentially have a very similar mindset which is not great for trying to push the boundaries of human knowledge. After all variety is the spice of life!

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Outside science then, what do you like to get up to?

Emma: I like to cook mainly! I developed this passion as I have a real love for eating! I like to make copper plated jewellery and clothes and customise nearly everything in my wardrobe too, but I don’t have much time for this at the moment. A lot of my spare time is now taken up with various outreach projects. So when I get actual down time I like to do as little as possible, which usually includes hanging out with my husband, taking our dog for walks and visiting friends and family. I’m also really good at cutting hair!

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Let’s talk about these outreach projects then. You started a YouTube channel recently. Tell us a bit more about that.

Emma: Ah yes! My YouTube channel. This is the real reason I don’t have any spare time now. It all started in March 2016 when I took part in a competition called ‘I’m a Scientist Get Me Out Of Here’. This competition was great fun as you get to chat with school students and answer their questions online. It’s spread over two weeks and in the final week they vote for their favourite scientist. I was honoured to be voted their favourite and I won £500 to fund an outreach project of my choice. I originally wanted to visit some of the schools that participated and build a table top gravitational wave detector together. Unfortunately this was proving difficult to do due to time constraints, so instead I thought it would be fun to start a YouTube channel that describes the ideas from Einstein’s theory of gravity, as this isn’t usually taught until the last year of physics degrees at university. By doing this I would also reach a larger audience. The videos are aimed at GCSE students and above, so around 14 years plus. They are less than 2 minutes long and are animated. I make them completely on my own, although I have received some invaluable advice from some very knowledgeable people.

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And did I see that you did your first Science Showoff recently? What is that?

Emma: Science Showoff is a London based event where science communicators can do stand up comedy about science. I found out about it via Twitter and a couple of friends of mine had done it before so I thought I would give it a go! After signing up I thought ‘What have I done?’ I had never done anything like this before. I like to think that I’m funny with my friends, but stand up comedy is a completely different beast. They say that magic happens outside of your comfort zone. Now I’m not sure magic actually happened but I did thoroughly enjoy myself. The crowd was amazing and people said to me afterwards that they really loved it. I didn’t put many jokes in due to a lack of confidence but I have since signed up to do another set and I will certainly put more jokes into my next one!

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What other scicomm activities have you been involved with?

Emma: I have been a speaker for Pint of Science, Southampton’s Science Room and Winchester Skeptics, demonstrated at Cheltenham Science Festival and the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition. I have also been on local TV and radio promoting Pint of Science and chatting about my research. I have been involved in science and art collaborations too which has been great fun as I love exploring different mediums for communication. Picking a favourite though is tough as they are all so varied. I love creating the imagery of my YouTube videos, I love hearing everyone’s questions when I give talks and I love being put on the spot like in Science Showoff.

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Why is scicomm important to you?

Emma: Because I absolutely love science and find physics incredibly fascinating and I just want to share it with as many people as possible so they too can gain the same enjoyment I do. I feel that in our culture it’s not cool to like science, but science is really cool! I feel that by making science as accessible as possible that its one way I can break down this perception. Also we need to broaden the diversity of people within the scientific community. The more people that come from different backgrounds, ethnicities and genders then the more different ideas and approaches we will have for more productive science. If I can inspire just one person to study science who felt that it might not be for them, due to social conditioning, then that would be amazing!

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What is the next step for Emma after your PhD then?

Emma: That’s quite a tough one! I would love to stay in research, but there are more PhD positions than postdoctoral opportunities, so I am keeping an open mind. I love doing outreach, so I will at least continue with that. Otherwise, who knows? I’m very open to the opportunities that will come my way when the time comes.

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And finally, where in the world should I visit next?

Emma: Ooo, I love this question! I would have to recommend Morocco, particularly Marrakech. It is a beautiful country that is quite close to the UK but incredibly different. Each time I visit it’s like stepping into a whole new world. It’s like walking into Disney’s Aladdin. The food is amazing! The best food in the city in my opinion is at Marrakech’s night market which is also great for just sitting there and soaking up the atmosphere. The architecture is stunning and the weather is great too! I recommend going to Essaouira – a coastal town about 2 hours from Marrakech but easy to day trip to – as you can feast on seafood and get involved in watersports. They also have beautifully clear nights which are perfect for stargazing, especially in the Atlas Mountains. It’s my favourite place and I highly recommend it to you!

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Huge thank you to Emma for sharing your science journey with us. It just goes to show that you don’t have to do the ‘traditional’ route to become a scientist! I was always fascinated by physics at school but gave it up as my teachers just couldn’t help me understand most of the concepts. But now I am finding more and more awesome scientists like Emma who are explaining these concepts in a fun, engaging and most importantly memorable way that my fascination for space is being reignited. I love what Emma is doing for science outreach and I hope you have got a flavour of it in this post, so much so that you could be seeing a collaboration between Emma and I soon. Yes that’s right – a collaboration where stem cells meet gravity! Intriguing right? So watch this space!

Emma is such an enthusiastic scicomm-er that she already has many dates booked in but her next one is at the Science Museum in London. She will be at a late session of a gravitational wave exhibit on 30th August so if you’re in the area please go and say hi and learn some more about gravitational waves 🙂

But if you’re not in London please follow Emma on her science journey through her YouTube channel, her Twitter or her Instagram. Feel free to ask her some questions about her research, spacetime, jewellery making or even travelling through Central America. I am sure she would love to hear from you guys!

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Also this is the last scientist in the spotlight before my big announcement so here it goes – September on Soph talks science is going to be ‘Spotlight September’. I love this feature of my blog so I will be sharing the stories behind even more awesome scientist with you rather than just your usual one post a month. I have some really exciting scientists lined up for you so hopefully you’ll enjoy what I have planned.

Science love.

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Scientist in the Spotlight

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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Scientist in the Spotlight

Scientist in the Spotlight. Sofia M.

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!

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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Halong Bay Vietnam

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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 🙂

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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 🙂

Science love.

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Scientist in the Spotlight

Scientist in the Spotlight. Sasha W.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What other scicomm related activities are you involved in?

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

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Why is scicomm so important to you?

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

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

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

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So, where do you see yourself after your PhD?

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

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

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

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

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

Scientist in the Spotlight

Scientist in the Spotlight. Jordana G.

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.

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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 😛

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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 🙂

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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!

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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.

Scientist in the Spotlight

Scientist in the Spotlight. Ben M.

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.

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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 🙂

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Exploring the beautiful landscape of Vancouver

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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.

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Scientist and Olympian!

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.

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Ben and his Red Caribou team mates at the Opening Ceremony of Rio 2016

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.

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Ben playing in that final game at Rio

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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!

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Who doesn’t love a lab selfie? Ben back to lab life after the Olympics

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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!

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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 🙂

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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.

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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.

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Ben sporting one of his many Red Caribou hats and this time exploring Vancouver from a different angle

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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 🙂

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Scientist in the Spotlight

Scientist in the Spotlight. Catia B.

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.

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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!

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A glimpse into Catia’s daily science life – code, code and more code with occasional visits to the lab to consult with colleagues

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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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!

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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!

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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!

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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!

Find her blog A Pulgarita here and follow Catia and her blog on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and more!!!

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If you have any questions about anything mentioned in this interview or anything else to be honest, please do not be afraid to contact either Catia or me!

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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