Lianna from Canada is a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford University, CA, USA. Maintaining the balance between energy storage and usage is crucial to survival and health. While many things control metabolism and the development of metabolic diseases such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, one major regulator is biological sex. Lianna leverages the study of these male-female differences to discover novel metabolic hormones and genes that control how women and men regulate their metabolism differently. This allows them to discover new biology and support the development of new and more effective therapeutics to treat metabolic diseases in all individuals.
What inspired you to pursue a career in science / in your discipline?
I was always a very curious child and loved to try new things. In tenth grade, my best friend and I stumbled on a homemade soap recipe using oil and sodium hydroxide. Our first thought was, “The lab has sodium hydroxide!” So, we approached our science teacher and asked if we could borrow the lab after school for this experiment. We were so fortunate to have a science teacher who was willing to take the extra time and effort to supervise our experiment and cultivate our love for science. Long story short, we successfully (sort of) made soap! This was the first experiment in my life, and I still remember the first time I felt the joy of discovery. While I didn’t recognize it at the time, this is what solidified my love for science.
In terms of my research discipline, I stumbled into the world of sex differences quite serendipitously. I joined an evolutionary developmental biology lab for my undergraduate thesis project. I studied how and why males and females evolved to be different shapes and sizes using fruit flies as a model. I realized that understanding the mechanical cause of sex differences was an understudied niche in research. The field acknowledges that sex regulates many, many phenotypes, but very few people study how biological sex regulates that phenotype. Further, even fewer people study how males and females differ beyond the effects of sex chromosomes and sex hormones.
Who are your role models?
My mom has been both my biggest cheerleader and role model my whole life. She immigrated to Canada from Vietnam as a little girl with nothing to her name, and through her determination and hard work, she built a successful company to give her children a better chance for the future. I am the first in my family to attend university, graduate, and complete a doctorate. All these accomplishments come from watching and emulating my mom as I grew up. She instilled in me the skills and mentality I needed to succeed in an intense career and one that is still largely dominated by men.
My other major role model is Dr. Elizabeth Rideout, my Ph.D. supervisor. I could not have asked for a better supervisor or mentor. Dr. Rideout values her trainees and does all she can to help us succeed, whether that be setting aside time to help us prepare talks or fellowship applications, joining us in the lab to help with experiments or teaching us new skills, introducing us to colleagues, advocating for us, and nominating us for unique opportunities and awards. Dr. Rideout is everything I aspire to be in science: passionate, driven, knowledgeable, considerate, and fearless.
How did you get to where you are in your career path?
In high school, the sciences and math were my favorite subjects. I enjoyed how the subjects combined could explain the human body and how it works. Naturally, I thought this meant I was best suited to become a medical doctor, so I decided to double major in Biology and Psychology, Neuroscience, and Behaviour at McMaster University for my undergraduate degree. Luckily for me, a double major required an undergraduate thesis project, and this was the first turning point in my career. I joined Dr. Ian Dworkin’s lab, where I studied how nutritional geometry, the ratio of macronutrients, affected the sex difference in male and female shape and size using fruit fly wings as a model. This was my first proper research experience, and I quickly became addicted to producing and analysing data. As a direct result of this experience, I decided to pursue a Ph.D. in Cellular and Developmental Biology at the University of British Columbia.
My time as a Ph.D. student was probably the most pivotal experience in my career. I decided to join Dr. Elizabeth Rideout’s lab to study the molecular mechanisms underlying how males and females store and break down fat differently using fruit flies as a model system. Dr. Rideout was the best supervisor I could have asked for. She modeled creative and stringent science, a healthy work-life balance, and how to face the challenges of being a woman in science. While my Ph.D. was overall a big success, it wasn’t without its challenges. My excitement to be doing research full-time led me to say yes to every opportunity, plan too many experiments within a small timeframe, and spend ridiculous hours in the lab. This wasn’t sustainable as six months in, I was drinking 8 cups of coffee a day, falling asleep in classes and seminars, and producing lower-quality work. Dr. Rideout quickly became aware of this and set about to help me prioritise my responsibilities and how to plan experiments longer term. This was the most important lesson I learned because it allowed me to work at a consistently reasonable effort level which allowed me to make huge strides in my project. In addition to learning these tough lessons, Dr. Rideout also taught me to navigate uncomfortable situations. For example, how to respond when some people insinuate or directly ask me how much work I put into my paper because of the 16-person author list, despite being the first author. Or how to respond when people would make off-hand comments about how I would be more successful if I focused on the research and not on advocating for an equitable work environment. Or what to do with the advice that I should not wear my wedding ring to interviews because it wasn’t desirable to hire a young woman who may ask for maternity leave. With Dr. Rideout’s guidance, support, and advocacy, my Ph.D. experience was overall very positive, and the intermingled challenges only helped strengthen me and mold me into the scientist I am today. These are lessons that continue to serve me today as a postdoctoral research fellow at Stanford University.
What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
I’d have to say that the coolest project I’ve worked on is my current research project, where I am working on identifying novel hormones that control how females are protected from developing metabolic dysfunction. Typically, after just seven days on a high-fat diet, males develop glucose intolerance and insulin insensitivity, but females remain metabolically healthy. I discovered that if males on a high-fat diet received a daily dose of female circulating factors (i.e., serum), the males were metabolically healthier. Thus, something in the female circulation protects individuals from developing metabolic dysfunction. I’m currently working to discover what those specific factors in circulation are, and whether we can harness them as therapeutic treatments against metabolic diseases.
What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself / your work?
I actually have two moments that I’m the most proud of. Without a doubt, one of them was when I finished writing my Ph.D. dissertation. I remember the day I sat down to begin writing my dissertation and felt overwhelmed. Where do I even begin to summarise five years of work? How do I adequately discuss how my work impacted the research field, and where should the field go from here? I felt I owed it to my research to ensure anyone reading my dissertation could easily understand its importance. I didn’t write a single word for over a week before I decided, “if you don’t write anything, you’ll have nothing to improve on”. And so I just wrote – I didn’t analyse what I was putting on the page and just wrote whatever came to mind. I later went back to edit, condense, and refine my thoughts until I had a dissertation I was proud of.
The other experience I’m the proudest of is when I was given the honor of presenting the Larry Sandler Memorial Lecture at the Annual Drosophila Research Conference in 2022. An independent committee had decided that my dissertation made the greatest impact in the Drosophila field that year, and I was given the opportunity to present my Ph.D. work to an audience of almost 3000 researchers. The sense of accomplishment of finishing writing my dissertation and the realisation that I had actually made a significant impact on the field combined to make this my proudest moment.
What is a “day in the life” of you like?
I think mornings are my favorite – the quiet and peace before a full day of activities. I love starting my day with a hot yoga session – it helps me to wake up and start my day with something good for myself, regardless of how the rest of the day goes. After breakfast and a matcha latte, I’m in the lab for the day, doing a mix of writing, wet lab work, analysing data, and mentoring. I try to model a healthy work-life balance to my mentees because I firmly believe that the best science gets done when one is mentally healthy. Thus, I aim to be out of the lab by 5 pm and teach my mentees how to organise their experiments to minimise coming into the lab on the weekends. While I try to minimise work at home, inevitably, work comes home with me because it is one of my passions. So, I will keep up to date with publications in my field by reading them to unwind at the end of the day.
What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?
I have two major goals in my career. The first relates to my love for learning and discovery – I simply want to follow science and continually discover new biology, and grow our understanding of how cellular processes are regulated. On the other hand, I want to be a role model for the next generations of female scientists. I’ve faced several challenges being a woman in science, but my path has already been smoothed out by the amazing female scientists that have come before me. I want to be in a position where I can demonstrate to young girls that there is space for them in this career and that they are needed and wanted. I also want to pay it forward and help reduce the challenges that these future female scientists will have to face.
What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?
I really enjoy crafting. My long-term hobbies are knitting and crocheting, but I love trying out new crafts such as macrame, cross-stitching, and soap making. I enjoy being able to create with my hands. I also recently started collecting plants but keeping them alive, and thriving has been more difficult than I thought… especially with a cat who thinks plants are equivalent to treats!
What advice do you have for other women interested in science / in your discipline?
In the simplest terms, you do you and don’t listen to the naysayers. Throughout my science career, I have been told that sex differences are not important to study, that I would be more successful if I didn’t waste my time advocating for underrepresented groups in science, or that my work has no real-world application. The best piece of advice I got from Dr. Rideout was that no one would care about or know about your research as much as you, thus, you must be your own biggest advocate. Particularly in the sex differences field, I am routinely having discussions about why including both sexes is necessary and whether investigating both sexes actually adds anything to research (it is, and it does!).
In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in science / in your discipline?
I may be biased, but I think that by studying sex differences, we will learn so much more about fundamental processes from a range of disciplines. The value of investigating sex differences has been more appreciated in the last ten years. There are so many sex differences beyond energy metabolism, such as how cancer develops, how we respond to exercise, and how our microbiome affects our health. If we can use this naturally occurring dichotomy to identify new mechanisms and biology, we will significantly expand our understanding of fundamental biological processes. Ultimately, this will motivate the development of new and more effective treatments and therapeutics for a wide range of diseases. The mechanisms underlying sex differences are largely a black box that is waiting to be opened – we can learn so much from studying why two groups are different. Why not investigate what makes males and females different beyond their sex chromosomes and sex hormones?
What should be done to increase the number of female scientists and professors?
This is such a difficult question to answer because the reason why there are significantly fewer female scientists / professors is multifaceted. The first step is to increase visibility – hire more female professors, have more female professors in positions of power, such as department heads or committee leads, and demonstrate to the upcoming female scientists that there is space for them at the top. That being said, many female scientists are forced to make difficult decisions between their personal life priorities and work priorities. We need better resources that help female scientists stay in their careers, such as better childcare and improved maternity leave. But the biggest thing that needs to change is the mentality of current scientists. For example, I’ve been given advice not to wear my wedding ring to interviews so that my potential supervisors won’t have to worry about me taking time off to have a family. While there are laws against this kind of discrimination, that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening behind closed doors. We need the scientists currently in power to also advocate for female scientists and to push forward the necessary changes for an equitable field.