Published 27 June 2018 by Ulrike Böhm
Women in Research at #LINO18: Lisa Nicholas from Malaysia
This interview is part of a series of interviews of the “Women in Research” blog that features young female scientists participating in the 68th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting to increase the visibility of women in research (more information for and about women in science by “Women in Research” on Facebook and Twitter).
#LINO18 young scientist Lisa Nicholas, 34, from Malaysia, is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Metabolic Science, University of Cambridge, UK.
We know that having an unhealthy (higher) body weight when you are pregnant can program a higher risk of both obesity and diabetes in the child, which can persist into adult life. How this happens is not entirely due to simply a transfer of “defective” genes from mother to child but rather exposure of the developing fetus to an obesogenic environment whilst in the womb. Lisa’s research is focused on defining the changes in insulin-secreting pancreatic β-cells of offspring exposed to maternal obesity that causes it to function improperly. She also wants to find out if these changes are the same or different between male and female offspring exposed to maternal obesity to determine if one sex is more at risk than the other. Enjoy the interview with Lisa and get inspired!
What inspired you to pursue a career in science?
Science has always been a natural fit for me and as I progressed through school I developed an interest in mammalian physiology and consequently pursued a biomedical science degree. During my undergraduate studies, I was inspired by a series of lectures by Prof. Caroline McMillen on developmental programming, i.e., how poor developmental experience, for example, in terms of maternal physiology and lifestyle can have a profound and long-lasting impact on the health of offspring. Something inside me lit up and I was hooked! Consequently, I pursued an Honours degree and then a PhD with Prof McMillen. One thing has led to another and I still find myself loving my job and I am good at what I do so I am sticking with it! This field of research continues to motivate me, and I hope that my contributions are making a meaningful difference no matter how big or small.
Who are your role models?
I do not have particular role models. I am inspired by people with a strong work ethic, who are relentless in their pursuit of answers to important questions and who do this to make the world a better place.
How did you get to where you are in your career path?
I believe that hard work, perseverance, great sponsors and serendipity is how I have gotten to where I am today. I had a successful PhD under the encouragement and sponsorship of Prof Caroline McMillen. In addition to my research, I won a couple of prizes for science communication, was awarded two international awards, presented at numerous international conferences and secured funding for a research visit to the University of Cambridge. I ended my PhD on a high but was soon faced with the struggle of securing my first job. I started out full of confidence, but this was slowly dwindling with every rejection when I did not even hear back from anyone, which was usually the case. Consequently, I had to broaden my geographic horizons and decided to also apply for positions outside of my home country of Australia. I eventually landed a position in Sweden working on pancreatic islets in a knockout mouse model. Although I had no experience at the time in working with both mice and in islet research, Prof Hindrik Mulder, the PI of the lab was willing to take a chance on me. I also have a very supportive wife who was willing to make the move with me from Australia to Sweden in the middle of Swedish winter! I spent the next two years working very hard to prove to Hindrik that his instincts were right about me. During that time, I published three papers and was successful in obtaining a couple of small grants. It also became clear to me that I would like to focus my research career on studying islets in the context of developmental programming. In order to be able to do this and to drive my own research, I applied for and was successful in obtaining a fellowship from the Australian Health and Medical Research Council to work with Prof Susan Ozanne at the University of Cambridge on her mouse model of maternal obesity. Although this meant yet another move, this time from Sweden to the UK, I have so far had a happy and successful two and a half years in Cambridge. This has also been made easier by the fact that my wife has also been able to develop her own career in the UK. Being far away from family, however, still remains a challenge.
What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
Working with sheep has definitely been one of the coolest things I have done in research. During my PhD I worked on a sheep model of maternal periconceptional obesity. Consequently, I spent a lot of time in a farm setting, taking blood from new born lambs, performing glucose tolerance tests etc. I also got to be involved in embryo transfer experiments from donor to recipient ewes working with scientists who were involved in producing Australia’s first cloned sheep, Matilda!
What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself or your work?
That has to be when I was awarded a C J Martin Fellowship from the Australian Health and Medical Research Council.
What is a “day in the life” of Lisa like?
I am an early bird so my day at work starts early, usually before 7 am. I love this time of day when it is quiet in the lab/office before the hustle and bustle of the day begins. I usually spend most of my time either in the lab or in the animal facility. If I have any reading and writing to do, I usually set aside whole days to do this rather than to split my day. I find that I work better this way.
What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?
To be a successful scientist who is able to maintain a healthy work/life balance!
What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?
My two joys in life are cooking and traveling.
What advice do you have for other women interested in science?
Go for it! Be brave and persistent, stay positive and find a good sponsor who is willing to speak up about your strengths to others.
In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in physiology or medicine?
I think the next great breakthrough in medicine will be the clinical use of human pluripotent stem cells for regenerative therapy to treat diseases such as diabetes.
What should be done to increase the number of female scientists and female professors?
I think universities and institutes should make a conscious effort to hire and support talented female scientists. I think fellowships geared towards scientists returning after a career break or that offer the flexibility of combining work with other commitments such as caring responsibilities are also invaluable. These will be especially useful for female scientists who have taken time off work to start a family. I also think it is important for promising younger researchers to be actively sponsored by members of the faculty. It goes a long way when someone who is well established vouches for you.