Interview with young scientist Karen Stroobants
This is the beginning of a new series of interviews of the “Women in Research” blog that will feature young female scientists participating in the 67th 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). Enjoy the interview with Karen and get inspired.
Karen Stroobants, 29, from Belgium is a Postdoc at the University of Cambridge, UK and one of the young scientists that will participate in the 67th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting dedicated to Chemistry. Karen’s current group has established that membrane proteins of mitochondria, the powerhouses of our cells, are likely to play a role in the pathways of neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease. She is investigating the misfolding behaviour of such proteins, and the way the cell responds to it, with the goal to identify potential new targets for therapeutic purposes.
What inspired you to pursue a career in science/chemistry?
I always had an interest in science, and biology in particular as it was more accessible as a kid (I had a toy microscope and ‘devised’ a cardboard box to take ‘röntgen’ scans of my stuffed toys). I however only realised I would pursue a career in science when I had my first lessons in chemistry, in the third year of secondary school. Studying chemistry throughout high school was very playful and enjoyable for me, and I noticed it wasn’t for everyone. I helped out several classmates with revising before tests, and I felt I had identified a strength that could well be worth further pursuing. Four years later, I started my bachelor in chemistry with the same enthusiasm and I have never regretted that choice since.
Who are your role models?
One of the key moments in high school that without doubt has further supported my interest and enthusiasm in chemistry was the class that thought us about the discoveries of Marie Skłodowska-Curie. I have been intrigued by her life path and accomplishments from the first time I heard about her, and she remains my most important role model today.
I further have encountered amazing women along the way. Important role models to me are Professor Tatjana Parac-Vogt, my PhD supervisor, who is an amazing chemist and has shown me that there is no need to adapt to male behavior to pursue a career in science, Professor Dame Athene Donald, the Master of Churchill College (where I am a By-fellow), who is not only a brilliant physicist but also has a profound interest in science policy and Professor Dame Carol Robinson, who became the first female chemistry Professor both in Cambridge and Oxford, after having taken an eight year career break to take care of her children.
How did you get to where you are in your career path?
The key word in my career so far is ‘persistence’. I have always had goals in mind, and I have worked very hard to reach them. I knew that I wanted to go for a Master in chemistry from the third year of secondary school, that I wanted to do a PhD from the second year at university and that I wanted to do a post-doc in the lab of Professor Chris Dobson at the University of Cambridge from the third year of my PhD. Once my mind is set on something, I work towards that goal.
I have been very lucky to always receive the full support of my parents, who have financed my full education, from primary school all the way to university. When I decided to do a PhD, I immediately received support from Professor Tatjana Parac-Vogt, who also was the supervisor of my master thesis. Tanja encouraged me to write a proposal for the Research Foundation Flanders (FWO), and, with her help, I received a fellowship before even finishing my master. During the PhD, I collaborated with a group at ULB in Brussels, where I met a former post-doc of the Dobson group. She gave me the support I needed to grasp this potential opportunity. I sent at least five e-mails to Chris before I received an invitation for an interview in Cambridge. When I pointed this out to him later, his response was to the point: ‘Persistence is a good quality in a scientist.’ Fair enough :-).
What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
I would say it is my current one. Over the past seven years, I have worked in the fields of cardiovascular disease detection (during my Bachelor), artificial enzyme development (during my Master and PhD) and neurodegeneration (now, as a post-doc). The common denominator has been my expertise in spectroscopy and other biophysical techniques, whereas the topics and applications have spanned fundamental chemistry as well as the life sciences. My current project is on the role of mitochondria, mitochondrial proteins in particular in neurodegenerative diseases. One could say that I have moved away somewhat from the basic chemistry I studied towards biochemistry and the border with biology even. Maybe I have touched ground again with the science that had initially sparked my enthusiasm as a kid? My drive for this project surely further is related to the stories my mum used to bring home. She works with people with dementia; some of the situations she encounters are devastating. I aspire to contribute to the establishment of effective therapies for these conditions in some way.
When have you felt immense pride in yourself/your work?
There are two moments of extreme pride that I can point out without hesitation. The first one is my public PhD defence. This final presentation in Belgium goes hand in hand with a public event where family and friends are invited and it was one of the best days in my career so far. One of the reasons is without doubt the festive element to it, but, more importantly, it marks the successful finalisation of several years of, sometimes very exciting, sometimes quite frustrating, hard work.
The second moment was the day I was informed by the European Commission that I had successfully secured a Marie Skłodowska-Curie post-doctoral Fellowship. I had compiled my first application for this prestigious fellowship that is associated with the legacy of my ultimate role model, two years earlier, but had failed to secure it in this round. I tried again one year later, taking on board the feedback I received, and my persistence allowed me to reach another goal. The research proposal I had put forward to secure the grant has meanwhile brought me to Warsaw in Poland, the birthplace of Marie Skłodowska-Curie.
What is a “day in the life” of Karen like?
I try to be at the department around 8.30 (although I probably arrive at 9.00 as often), and usually know what to start on in the lab. At the moment I am working with S. cerevisiae or baker’s yeast cells, and their growth and needs in part define my schedule. Today I got in and immediately checked how they had been growing overnight. It was a good day, they had behaved as expected and I could start my experiment. I added a compound in their nutrient solution to initiate the production of a specific protein, and let them grow for another few hours. In the meantime, I prepared a discussion on model organisms in neurodegeneration for the day after, and skimmed through my e-mails. At this point, I was the one craving nutrients, so I texted my colleagues to go for lunch.
After lunch, my yeast cells were ready to be harvested, by spinning them down at a high speed. The procedure to do so, and collect them in batches relevant to my experiment, took me most of the afternoon. In between, I planned out the experimental work for the next day, and prepared the necessary solutions and yeast cell cultures to get going again in the morning. Before going home, I usually have another look at my inbox and take time to answer e-mails that I had just skimmed over earlier in the day. In the evening, I either spend most of my time in the kitchen, or go for a gym session or run along the river Cam (in which case my lovely housemate Lily Chan provides dinner). My runs are not entirely science free, as they usually allow my mind to drift and come up with new ideas, some better than others admittedly.
What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?
While my current project has again sparked my enthusiasm for the science itself, and is at a stage where new ideas pop up during every run, I have for a while now played with the idea of leaving the path of an academic for a full-time career in science policy. Where I have in every previous step known well in advance what I wanted to do, this is probably the first time that I am not so sure…
As a scientist, my research has brought me to the study of our energy production pathways and the organelles related to it in the context of neurodegeneration. Would I be happy to further expand my knowledge in this direction, and push the border of our understanding through my own ideas? I certainly would, and I know I enjoy supervising students, editing articles, writing grant proposals and teaching as well.
As a science communicator, I feel the science community has a lot to learn in terms of effective communication, with policy makers, industry as well as the general public. Would I find as much satisfaction in taking up a role either as policy advisor, in a learned society, or supporting researchers in their communication strategy? I probably would, in fact there is only one way to find out…
And there are even more careers to consider. With the right balance between science and policy initiatives, I keep my options open for now. The future will tell.
What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?
I have already mentioned my pleasure in cooking and exercising on week evenings. Whereas my runs often stimulate my brain to wonder about new ideas, cooking for me is the ultimate form of relaxation. While I work with my hands, my mind is completely distracted, or rather fully occupied with assessing the type of pasta to go with a specific sauce or the quality of the seasoning.
One evening a week, and part of my weekends, is devoted to extracurricular endeavours, mostly related to science communication and science policy. I am currently Head of workshops for the Cambridge University Science Policy Exchange initiative, an organization that aims to provide insight into the process of policy design and portray the communication difficulties commonly experienced during science-policy exchanges to fellow University staff. I further am involved in the Global Shapers Hub in Cambridge, the policy work group of the Marie Curie Alumni Association, and the policy challenges initiative of the Cambridgeshire County Council. These initiatives indeed take up some of the time that I could otherwise further spend on my science. I however hope that these efforts will be as valuable as they might contribute to re-installing the importance of evidence-advised policy in a world currently ruled by ‘alternative facts’.
What advice do you have for other women interested in science/chemistry?
My most important piece of advice to anyone pursuing a career in science would be: ‘Be persistent’. This probably is applicable much broader, for reaching life goals in general. I do believe this characteristic has brought me where I am now, and where I anticipated being a few years ago.
For women more specifically, I have two more pieces of advice. First, do not underestimate yourself. There are plenty of studies showing that while men tend to overestimate themselves, women tend to do the opposite. Just remembering this basic fact does encourage me to present myself more confidently and I am sure this has made the difference at a number of occasions.
Second, define your own work-life balance and communicate clearly about it to superiors. Scientists are in general very passionate about what they do, which can result in a seemingly endless enthusiasm to work long hours, weekends and bank holidays. If one enjoys this, that is perfectly fine, however, I felt very early in my career that I need time to go for a run, meet with a friend, go on a weekend away, all on a regular basis. In addition, I have committed to spend part of my time to science policy initiatives. Of course I have an occasional late night or weekend in the lab, but I make a point of taking very conscious decisions on how I want to spend my ‘out-of-office-hours’ time, as I realise how precious it is.
In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in science/chemistry?
The hardest question last :-). I imagine I would answer this question differently on a day-to-day basis depending on what I just read, or what occupies me at the moment. I think very generally in science, we, the human race, have a number of huge issues to address, including growing inequality, climate change, and healthcare. I believe breakthroughs can be expected in the fields of renewable energy and antibiotic resistance fairly soon. The fight against inequality is a different matter. Social scientists are certainly delivering evidence for the expected success of a basic income for everyone, but I fear we will have to wait longer for the practical implementation of such solutions.
In my own field, I feel great progress is being made as an accumulation of a vast amount of ‘small steps’. The brain remains one of, if not the most complex organ to understand. I always feel entertained by this irony: ‘Will the human brain ever be able to fully understand its own complexity?’ Although I obviously cannot answer this question, I do feel we are answering one small question at a time, and continuously move closer to that anticipated understanding. Both in terms of fundamental processes, and disease mechanisms, great work is being done, and I expect this to lead to breakthroughs in the field within the next decade.
What should be done to increase the number of female scientists and female professors?
Although a lot of programs have been set up within institutions and universities to address the gender imbalance in academia specifically, I believe more general societal changes will have a larger impact. First, I believe most governments still underestimate the key role of teachers, from kinder garden to university, in shaping individuals and with it the next generation and its thinking. Good teachers, that share their interest in the world around them and are accessible for all children, are of vital importance to motivate youngsters to take up studies in the sciences. Female teachers, as role models, in addition can further stimulate girls in particular to see the feasibility of pursuing a STEM career.
Second, changes that contribute to a more gender balanced society more generally will result in an increased number of female scientists. The girl – boy mentality gets fed to our children from a very early age, with gender specific toys, activities and behaviour. I believe there are huge opportunities for behavioural scientists to address many of these issues. One example I immediately think of in later life is the issue of parental leave. It has been proven that allocating part of this leave to the male parent by default would have profound effects on the work-life balance of both parents in the long-term. Many more recommendations in this respect are out there already, waiting to be implemented.