Sheela Chandren Never Wanted a Routine Life

Interview with #LiNo17 young scientist Sheela Chandren

This interview is part of a series of interviews of the “Women in Research” blog that features 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 Sheela and get inspired.

 

Photo: Courtesy of Sheela Chandren

Photo: Courtesy of Sheela Chandren

Sheela Chandren, 33, from Malaysia is a senior lecturer at the Universiti Teknologi Malaysia. Her current research focuses on the development, characterisation and application of titania-based photocatalysts in various chemical reactions. Among the photocatalysts that have been successfully prepared are well-ordered titania by using magnetic fields, titania encapsulated in hollow silica shell for organic synthesis and titania on stainless steel for outdoor applications.

 

What inspired you to pursue a career in science/chemistry?

Growing up, science has always been the only field for me. Perhaps it was due to the education system in my country when I was growing up. Science was seen as the field for smart students, for those that were important. So I pushed myself to study hard just so I could get good results and get into the science stream.

 

 

 

Who are your role models?

As cliché as this sounds, one of my biggest role models would be my mother. She is not very educated – she did not even finish her high school studies. But she worked so hard by crossing the borders to Singapore every single day in the week (I live in the most southern part of Malaysia, right next to Singapore), coming back when it is dark, repeating the whole process every single day just so she can send all five of her children to school. How can she not be my role model after what she has done till I am a PhD holder today? The other two role models I have would have to be my supervisor for my master degree, Prof. Hadi Nur, and my supervisor for my doctorate studies, Prof. Bunsho Ohtani. They showed so much faith in me, even though my results weren’t good to start with. They keep on pushing me and guiding me. I owe it to them where I am today.

 

Photo: Courtesy of Sheela Chandren

Photo: Courtesy of Sheela Chandren

 

How did you get to where you are in your career path?

I did not always wanted to be a lecturer in Chemistry (my current job). Teaching has never been my thing. At least that’s what I thought. After finishing my undergraduate studies, I did not want to work in the typical jobs available, like being a chemist in factories. I did not want to lead a routine life. So I decided to pursue my master degree. During my masters, I was exposed to what research is all about. I quickly fell in love with it. Towards the end of masters, I was presented with two chances of furthering my PhD abroad: one at Queen Mary University of London and the other one in Hokkaido University. I am very lucky as I was accepted into both with funding, but after thinking it through, I chose Hokkaido University. I enrolled under the Asian Graduate Schools of Chemistry and Materials Science, under GCOE of Japan. And I have never looked back. I would not have done any of this if it wasn’t for my masters’ supervisor, Prof. Dr. Hadi Nur, who helped me with all the processes and gave me all the encouragement I needed. Many times, as a lady in a foreign country, I wanted to give up. In fact, the first year of my PhD in Japan, all my results were negative. To make things worse, I lost my father due to cancer that year. It was a really tough time for me, as the passing was really sudden. But thanks to my family and my supervisor, Prof. Bunsho Ohtani, I managed to force myself to pull through. My supervisor taught and guided me really carefully till I managed to finish my PhD in exactly three years, while fulfilling all the requirements.

I would really like to be one of the top scientists in my field.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?

The freshest one that I can think of is entering the FameLab Science Communication Competition organised by the British Council, Malaysia, about a couple of months ago. Basically, what the contestants have to do is to explain a scientific concept to a general audience in just three minutes. Going for oral presentations in scientific conferences and seminars may be normal for me. But explaining a scientific concept in three minutes to an audience that is not made up of scientists was something completely new to me. But I thought it will be quite fun to try it out. Instead of talking about something in the field of my research, I decided to talk about something even closer to my heart: the chemistry of cosmetics, as I am a self-proclaimed makeup enthusiast. I have to admit, although it was only three minutes, it was really nerve-wrecking. I took forever to come up with a speech using terms and analogy that a layman can understand. In the end, although I did not get to proceed to the finals, I am glad I entered. It was eye-opening for me and I finally understood how important science communication is. It felt really nice to step out of my comfort zone. So this may not be cool to others, but for someone who has mostly talked about science to either scientists or science students exclusively, it was definitely cool to me.

 

Photo: Courtesy of Sheela Chandren

Photo: Courtesy of Sheela Chandren

 

What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself/your work?

My mother is someone who does not openly show her love or affection. She almost never praised any of us, no matter how well we did in something. But one day, I caught my mother talking to her friends about me. About how I obtained my PhD in the field of Chemistry from Japan and I am a senior lecturer in a public university now. I saw that her face was gleaming with pride and joy. I was so touched and proud that tears actually started streaming down my eyes. So yeah, I guess that was when I felt proud.

 

What is a “day in the life” of Sheela like?

I wish I have something exciting to write about but my day is usually filled with very academic stuff. I will start my morning by giving some lectures in the field of Inorganic Chemistry, usually followed by some admin meetings. Then I will see a few of my students to discuss about their research, pop by the laboratory to check on some students, then proceed to sit in front of the computer replying emails, preparing lecture slides and admin paper works. My work day will usually finish around 10 p.m.

 

What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?

Although this may seem a bit far-fetched for now, I would really like to be one of the top scientists in my field. To be able to continue doing what I love, while being recognised for it.

 

Photo: Courtesy of Sheela Chandren

Photo: Courtesy of Sheela Chandren

 

 

What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?

As we already have to read so many journals and academic books every day, in my free time, I enjoy reading books that do not require me to think too much, such as romantic literature. I am also a big, big fan of Harry Potter.

 

What advice do you have for other women interested in science/chemistry?

I guess the most important thing is to know what you want and just go for it. I think the world is changing and the taboo of women in science is almost disappearing. So they should be no more limitations for women to go as far as possible.

It felt really nice to step out of my comfort zone.

In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in science/chemistry?

This is a tough question. I wish I really knew so I could be the one making the breakthrough, but what I wish would be the next great breakthrough would be something that, instead of curing cancer, can prevent human from even getting it. This is of course my bias opinion, as I mentioned above, I lost my dad to cancer. And we see so, so many people suffering from cancer. Not to mention how more and more articles are popping out every day about how almost everything can cause cancer. After all, prevention is always better than cure.

 

What should be done to increase the number of female scientists and female professors?

Providing a working environment and facilities catering for women. Such as nurseries and feeding-rooms. I know many places have started providing these, but even more have not. Extra incentives for women would also be great because I believe in equity, instead of equality. So perhaps, more research grant or funding specially for women would be great.

The Breakthroughs Make It More Than Worthwhile, Says Shiran Barber-Zucker

Interview with #LiNo17 young scientist Shiran Barber-Zucker

This interview is part of a series of interviews of the “Women in Research” blog that features 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 Shiran and get inspired.

 

Photo: Courtesy of Shiran Barber-Zucker

Photo: Courtesy of Shiran Barber-Zucker

 

Shiran Barber-Zucker, 29, from Israel is a PhD candidate in the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. The cation diffusion facilitator (CDF) protein family has a critical role in maintaining the homeostasis of divalent transition metal cations; hence, they are important for normal cell function, as revealed by analysis of mutant CDF proteins that were found to be associated with severe diseases, such as skin lesion in infants, Parkinsonism and type-II diabetes. Shiran uses diverse structural, biochemical, biophysical and computational methods to study the relationship between the structure and function of these proteins and, more specifically, to understand the role of their regulatory domain and their metal selectivity mechanism.

 

What inspired you to pursue a career in science/chemistry?

I am fascinated by the complexity of living organisms and amazed by evolution from childhood. When I was studying biology and chemistry in high school, I became interested in the interface between these two worlds – and specifically on how seemingly ordinary molecules in one situation can constitute life in another. There are so many fundamental questions that still need to be answered in the broad field of biochemistry, and ever since high school, I knew I want to be part of the effort to understand them.

 

Who are your role models?

If I have to choose one person who inspired me the most, that must be my father. He was injured in his military service when he was only 20 years old, fought for his life and after a long rehabilitation he learned how to talk and walk again. Ever since he constituted a fulfilled life and was the one who taught me to never give up and always strive to the top.

 

How did you get to where you are in your career path?

I feel as if I always knew I wanted to practice science. Before high school, I wanted to study medicine, but once I started to study chemistry and biology I knew that this is what I want to do in life – solve problems that relate to these fields. I started studying chemistry at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel and as an undergraduate student I found many different biochemistry aspects fascinating. I wanted to explore different fields and types of biochemical and biophysical research and worked in three labs, each using very different approaches, before finding the right place for me. In my current lab, an X-ray crystallography lab, where I am doing my PhD, I am free to use whatever methods needed to answer my research question. My supervisor, Prof. Raz Zarivach, believes in multidisciplinary research and wide collaborations in order to get a broad perspective on the topics we study, which is something I much appreciate. This is how I get to practice today many (but really, many) methods and to collaborate with researchers from very different fields from around the world.

Science is one of the most fulfilling occupations one can have.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?

It has to be one of my current projects. We study magnetotactic bacteria in the lab, Gram-negative bacteria that biomineralize iron-based, nano-sized magnetic particles that enable them to sense magnetic fields. One of the projects that I am involved with is using genetic manipulation to change the magnetic properties of the magnetic particles and to utilize these new magnets for different biotechnological applications, from heavy-metal contamination removal to MRI and cancer treatments.

 

What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself/your work?

Every time I give a talk in a conference I understand the importance of my work. I think that students sometimes feel as if our everyday work is very repetitive or boring and that we are studying a very niche subject – only the tip of the tip of a much broader scientific question. When I build my talks, I understand how all my different results gather to a whole picture, and when I present it, get positive responses from the audience and people are asking questions and are interested in my study, I feel satisfied and know that my persistence and long hours of work are definitely worth it.

 

What is a “day in the life” of Shiran like?

Since my work is versatile I don’t have a “common day in the lab”. You can catch me growing cells, purifying proteins, trying to crystallise proteins or scan protein crystals, which are all things I am doing in my home lab. You can often see me working on the computer, either for reading recent literature, running some computational studies (programming, data mining, etc.), solving crystal structures or analysing results of different experiments. You can also find me running experiments using different biophysical equipment in different labs in the university or quite often in other institutions running experiments with collaborators and sometimes measuring protein samples/crystals in synchrotrons abroad. I am also devoting a large part of my time to teaching during the semesters: preparing laboratories, exams, frontal teaching and meetings with students. All of that is usually accompanied by music and at least by two coffee/tea breaks with my lab colleagues when we exchange knowledge and consult each other on scientific matters (well, we actually usually just talk nonsense issues…).

 

Photo: Courtesy of Shiran Barber-Zucker

Photo: Courtesy of Shiran Barber-Zucker

 

What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?

I always tell my husband that I married an engineer just so he will bring the money and I will be able to do whatever I like, and I think I am quite successful doing that so far. Being a cliché, my biggest accomplishment would be if I wake up every morning and be happy to go to a work I enjoy. No matter what format I will choose, I have no doubts that I will practice science, and I would be more than happy to impact society using the skills I achieved in academia: on a personal level by mentoring younger scientists, but mainly on a global level – to see that my research leads, directly or not, to the creation of a new, helpful product.

 

What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?

The first answer has to be eating – I am a real foodie and I love exploring new dishes, either by going quite often to restaurants or by cooking. To justify all the calories, I play basketball and beach volleyball. And, although I don’t do it quite often, I really love hiking and extreme sports (skydiving is the best!).

Once girls naturally strive to the top, I am sure that they will easily get there

What advice do you have for other women interested in science/chemistry?

Just do it! Science is one of the most fulfilling occupations one can have. It is not easy to be a scientist, I can promise that. The road is usually bumpy, full of failures, nervous breakdowns and there is a lot of politics involved. It is true that funding is not trivial, and the research positions in academia and industry are limited. Yet, when you are doing research and coming to a breakthrough in your studies you feel as if the long road was more than worth it and that you really achieved something significant. Also, you get to travel quite often and meet intelligent, fascinating people from around the world and make friends for a life, which is a nice bonus.

 

In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in science/chemistry?

Two different topics, climate change and cancer research, have been extensively studied in the past few years. Both problems were increased by modern society so, hopefully, modern society will be able to find effective solutions for them. As a lot of funding is devoted to these topics, and as their impact is global, I want to believe that the big scientific breakthrough will be from these fields. Personally, the big scientific question that I am the most fascinated about is the question of the origin of life (the field of abiogenesis), and I hope to see a great breakthrough in this field.

 

What should be done to increase the number of female scientists and female professors?

It’s all about education. Parents, teachers, schools – they all should encourage young girls to be more individualists, to be curious, to explore the world and to follow their dreams. Once girls naturally strive to the top, I am sure that they will easily get there; it is true to every aspect of life but specifically to academia, a system which is sometimes more family-friendly than others.

Thao Ngo Inspires Future Scientists (Starting with her Nieces)

Interview with #LiNo17 young scientist Thao H. Ngo

This interview is part of a series of interviews of the “Women in Research” blog that features 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 Thao and get inspired.

 

Photo: Courtesy of Thao H. Ngo

Thao H. Ngo, 26, from the United States of America is a PhD candidate in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She studies the changes in structure and composition of hydrogen fuel cell catalysts using in situ characterization techniques including in situ liquid transmission electron microscopy and in situ x-ray absorption spectroscopy. This topic of research is important because researchers can use in-depth knowledge of the catalysts’ evolution to design catalysts with improved performance and durability for commercialization.

 

What inspired you to pursue a career in science/chemistry?

The first chemistry class I took was in 8th grade in Vietnam (I was born and raised there). We mostly learned theory and did not get our hands on any lab experiments as my middle school in Vietnam lacked the funding to provide its students with lab equipment. So when my family moved to the US in 2005, I started high school, took chemistry again, and got to perform chemistry experiments. I remember a particular experiment in which the reaction was releasing a lot of heat, so much heat that it felt hot even through the heat resistant gloves that I was wearing, but I foolishly held on to the beaker, thinking that my experiment’s results were way more important than a minor burn. I did suffer a minor burn that day but my experiment results were saved! I guess that’s when I knew I really love chemistry. In 12th grade, some friends and I participated in a local science fair and won Grand Prize! I think that’s when I knew for sure I wanted to pursue a career in science and so I went on to study Chemical Engineering in college.

 

Thao and her mum. Photo: Courtesy of Thao H. Ngo

Thao and her mum. Photo: Courtesy of Thao H. Ngo

 

Who are your role models?

My role model is my mom. She and my father divorced when I was eight years old. After that, she worked so hard to provide for me and my sister, making sure we never missed out on summer camps or lessons that we wanted to take. When our family moved to the US, things were especially hard for my mom because she did not speak or understand any English nor did she have a professional degree. I remember my mom working three jobs to provide for our family. She then went to cosmetic school and obtained her license to operate as a nail technician in a year. My mom is a role model to me because of her perseverance and dedication to her children. She taught me values that have made me become who I am today.

 

How did you get to where you are in your career path?

I knew I wanted to study chemical science when I was in high school, specifically after I won the Grand Prize in a local science fair. But a career in research started for me when my first mentor, Prof. Lenore Dai at Arizona State University, offered me an undergraduate research position in her lab at the end of my freshmen year. She gave me the chance to work on very exciting projects including one on the recycling of printed circuit boards using a supercritical fluid process. I worked for Prof. Dai until I graduated with my Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering, and I publishing three peer-reviewed papers with her. In the summers, I participated in Research Experience for Undergraduates programs at university laboratory across the country. Through these programs, I met and worked for Prof. Keith Hohn of Kansas State University (summer 2011) and Prof. Dibakar Bhattacharyya of the University of Kentucky (summer 2012). I would say that I am very lucky to have met all my undergraduate mentors, who had provided me with guidance, encouragement and support and without whom I am not sure if I would be performing research in graduate school right now. I also have to give my current mentor, Prof. Hong Yang at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, a shout-out. He has been there for me since the day I started graduate school.

 

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?

This is a tough question to answer as I love all my projects. But I think my current project is probably the coolest project I’ve worked on. It is already quite amazing to me that scientists have the ability to look at nanoscale, and sometimes even Angstrom-scale, materials using the transmission electron microscopy (TEM). However, because the TEM uses electron as an illumination source and electrons are easily scattered by air, TEM samples have to be ultra-thin and dehydrated so they can be used in an ultra-vacuum environment. With the recent advancement in TEM technology, I study nanoscale materials that are in a dynamically changing environment. I get to flush liquid or gaseous chemicals through and watch how my nanoscale materials are changing.

These moments made me realise that I really need to be more confident in my ability.

What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself/your work?

There are a few moments that I could recall but the ones that stand out the most are the moment I received my first graduate school acceptance and the moment when I was awarded with a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. I got my first graduate school offer about a week after I submitted my application. It was unbelievable as it was also my top-choice graduate program. I have confidence in my work and ability but never had I imagined I would be a top choice for any programme—there are just so many highly qualified candidates out there. At that moment, I knew that I was on the right path. The second moment when I felt immense pride was when I was awarded with a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Program. I applied for it during my last year in college and wrote a research proposal for the first time. Obviously, I was very nervous and was mentally prepared for a rejection as I knew the fellowship is highly competitive. The day I received the award letter, I was on cloud nine. Again, I just couldn’t believe it — I, of all candidates, was chosen to receive such a prestigious fellowship. These moments made me realise that I really need to be more confident in my ability.

 

Photo: Courtesy of Thao H. Ngo

Photo: Courtesy of Thao H. Ngo

 

What is a “day in the life” of Thao like?

I typically get up around 6:30 am and start my day with 15 minutes of yoga or meditation. After that, it’s breakfast time and then off to work. I try to get to my lab at around 8 am. My workday varies depending on whether I have an in situ experiment scheduled. When I do, I would carry my equipment from my lab to the TEM room and stay there for the whole day. Because the TEM is typically operated in a dark room, I often work in the dark and by myself. When I’m not scheduled to perform an in situ TEM experiment, I would spend my day preparing for my upcoming experiments or analysing the data that I recently acquired. There are days when I’m in the lab all day and there are days when I’m at my desk all day, it really depends. I typically take a one-hour lunch break to catch up with friends or emails and daily news. Then it’s back to work. One thing I really enjoy about my lab is the occasional chit-chat with my lab mates. Around 5 pm, I go to the gym for a dance fitness class. Upon returning home after exercising, I cook and enjoy dinner (I cook almost every day). After dinner, I would try to read at least one scientific publication before heading off to bed with a book at around 11 pm.

 

What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?

After graduate school, I want to continue to pursue my career in research as an industrial R&D researcher. For most of my relatively short career in research, I have spent most of my time in academic laboratory. I am now working at Argonne National Laboratory under a guest graduate research appointment, but I really want to branch out and try the industry next before deciding where I want to be for the long run. The one element I would like to keep constant in my career though is the theme of my research — I would love to continue working on renewable energy-related topics regardless of where I end up at.

 

What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?

When I’m not working in the lab, I enjoy cooking and exercising. I learned to cook in college when, for the first time in my life, I was away from home and desperately missing my mom’s cooking. I used to think cooking is such a drag but I love it now. I think this might be because the process of cooking is so much like conducting an experiment — there are specific steps to follow and exact quantities of ingredients to use. But unlike doing an experiment, I almost always succeed in producing a reasonably tasty dish every time, which is why I think cooking relaxes me. Of the different types of exercise, my most favourites are dance fitness and yoga. With dancing, I get to let loose and push myself to the limit. Meanwhile, yoga helps me to control my thoughts and relax my mind.

I believe it is important to encourage young girls when they show interest in science at an early age.

What advice do you have for other women interested in science/chemistry?

My advice to other women interested in science/chemistry would be: “Be confident and trust yourself.” This is probably an advice to myself too as I suffer from imposter syndrome from time to time and even now, I still have some doubts. There were times when I felt like I wasn’t progressing or didn’t know what I was doing with my research. There were even times when I seriously consider quitting my PhD. But every time I am faced with doubts, I thought to myself, “why are you here in the first place?”, and the answer has always been because I love what I do and so I persevere.

 

In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in science/chemistry?

Another tough question. I guess I can only answer this question with regard to my field. I am hoping to see fuel cell cars being driven nationwide. But the infrastructure is not there yet so this might take a while longer.

 

What should be done to increase the number of female scientists and female professors?

I believe it is important to encourage young girls when they show interest in science at an early age. This can be done via encouragement from parents and teachers, programmes such as science fair or workshops at local colleges and mentorship programs that connect female scientists with young girls. I was never discouraged by my mom or anyone from a career in science, so I was lucky in that way. In high school, my teachers encouraged me to enter science fairs and in college, multiple professors gave me the opportunity to work in their research groups. Now, I try to do the same for younger female students by volunteering to mentor middle school students who show interests in science. Additionally, I have two young nieces who are very curious. So for their birthdays and on holidays, I would send them boxes that contain materials for a science project; they made their own night lights with circuits and paper lanterns last time I sent them a box. I am hoping to groom my nieces into future scientists!

Women in Research: Apply for That Dream Job, Says Katherine MacArthur

Interview with #LiNo17 young scientist Katherine MacArthur

This interview is part of a series of interviews of the “Women in Research” blog that features 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 Katherine and get inspired.

 

Photo: Courtesy of Katherine MacArthur

Photo: Courtesy of Katherine MacArthur

Katherine MacArthur, 28, from the United Kingdom is a postdoctoral researcher at the Ernst Ruska Centre for Microscopy and Spectroscopy with Electrons, Forschungszentrum Juelich, Germany. In her research, she is trying to push the limits of characterising catalyst nanoparticles in the electron microscope. If we can understand their structure better then we can relate this back to their catalytic properties and try to make better catalysts. Can we really count the atoms and determine their atom type and how does that relate to the particles catalytic properties?

 

What inspired you to pursue a career in science/chemistry?

I have always been interested in understanding why things work the way they do. I’m very much an applied scientist/engineer. I like to be solving a real world problem. I remember doing a lot of miniature science/craft projects at home with my mother, for example, growing salt crystals, and clay modelling. I would often dismantle things to see how they were made. Physics and chemistry were always my favourite classes in school. I particular liked the chemistry practicals and mixing chemicals together for different results. I think a lot can be said for exceptional school teachers who make the subject engaging as starting point towards a specific career in that subject.

I fully credit my careers adviser at school for helping me choose which science degree to study. She was the first to suggest Materials Science to me as an option. In particular, the course at Oxford University which had a French language option looked the best option. This is because it combined as many of my A-level subjects as possible (at the time these were Maths, Chemistry, French, Product Design and Theatre Studies). Ok, it didn’t containing anything to with Theatre Studies, but all the other four subjects were covered. In an effort to find out more I booked onto a Materials Open Day in Oxford. A day which I thoroughly enjoyed. There was a vast array of practicals which demonstrated simple materials properties, all of which had a real connection to real world problems that thoroughly appealed to my practical mind set.

 

Who are your role models?

My mother has demonstrated how fruitful life can be juggling a career and family life, she is an inspiration. Otherwise I tend to get small inspirations from many of the people I interact with in my daily life. The variety reminds me that there is no specific route one should take to a permanent position in science. For that reason there is no one person who I can look at a say, ‘I wish I had their career’. Instead, I just look at what aspects of someone’s career I am inspired by.

 

How did you get to where you are in your career path?

The first hurdle in my scientific career came right at the beginning when I chose Materials Science as the degree I wanted to take but realised they recommend Physics A-level which I did not have. I was very fortunate that my school allowed me to take complete the Physics A-Level in one year by taking 1st year and 2nd year courses in parallel, adjusting the timetable completely so that I was able to manage my new set of courses. I got my offer from Corpus Christi College, Oxford and I got my 3 A’s in Physics, Chemistry and Maths. Later on my College Tutor who interviewed me said he is still yet to accept a candidate without Physics A-level, so it was clearly worth the extra effort. I found Oxford both enriching and immensely challenging at the same time. It is difficult to be in such an environment surrounded by some of the best minds without developing some sort of inferiority complex. You have to learn to re-evaluate what you classify as good results, and keep reminding yourself that just because the people you spend your day to day life with are immensely clever, does not diminish how clever you are. Unfortunately, I developed an illness known as IBS which is made considerably worse by stress, and I completed my final exams on quite a lot of painkillers. Now I manage the condition but it flares up occasionally, e.g. if I have a impending deadline that I’m not ready for.

[…] the idea that it is possible to image individual atoms was simply astounding […]

For my final year masters project I chose to specialise in high resolution electron microscopy, the idea that it is possible to image individual atoms was simply astounding. I spent many, many hours imaging gold nanoparticles after different heat treatments and was enjoying it so much I already knew that I wanted to do a PhD in Microscopy. Although I researched many options I actually ended up reapplying to Oxford. However I did change supervisors in order to work with Professor Peter Nellist (my college Tutor), Dr Sergio Lozano-Perez and Dr Dogan Ozkaya. The project was sponsored Johnson-Matthey and so had an industrial focus on the catalysts which I like as a link to real world applications. My PhD in Oxford was rather different to my undergraduate degree. Having three supervisors meant there were always at least 3 branches of the project I could work on at any one time. I thoroughly enjoyed this aspect particularly as I find it stops me getting too focused and stuck on any one avenue of research. Towards the end of my PhD (some time in my 3rd year) I began to feel a crisis of confidence, I still wanted to be a scientist but I began to feel like I wouldn’t be good enough to have an academic career. I had been jointly working with two or three other people and I began to worry that there wasn’t anything that I could point at as distinctly my contribution. It also didn’t help that I was still the most junior person in the research group as it consisted of me and two postdocs. They both made me feel like research required a real amount of bravado to convince people that your ideas are the best (at least to get successful funding applications). There was a hunger to survive in research which I saw in them that seemed essential for a career in scientific research and which I felt I lacked. I now believe differently, I think you can be a lot quieter and humbler and people will still notice if you have interesting and worthwhile results. After long discussions with all my supervisors (Dogan help in particular because he was able to explain to me why he left academia for industry) I decided to try out a postdocs position before I made my decision about staying in academia or not.

The coolest project is normally whatever I’m working on at the moment.

The place I’m at now (Forschungszentrum Juelich) was actually chosen slightly at random. I’ve heard one of my colleagues describe it as a Venn diagram approach. My husband and I both spoke to our supervisors and sent out a whole lot of emails to find out the availability of postdoc positions in research groups we liked. We each attached the others CV to our emails with a note asking if they knew of any groups in the area which would have a suitable position for our other half. From that I drew up a list of places I liked and he the places he liked. We ended up with a choice of two places in Germany, Juelich-Aachen or Stuttgart-Karlsruhe. Juelich has 5 top end electron microscopes where most places have only one, making it a fantastic hub of research in microscopy. Unfortunately they didn’t have any money to actually employ me but encouraged me to apply for a Helmholtz postdoctoral scholarship, making it the more risky option but would be fantastic if it worked out. Although it was rather nerve-racking at the time, I started in Juelich on a 3 months contract before I found out if my funding was successful or not. Thankfully it was and I’m now in my second year, thoroughly enjoying science again and having just come back from a 2 month research stay in Australia that I never thought I would do two years ago. I even have it in my sights to try and apply for a tenure track position next year.

 

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?

The coolest project is normally whatever I’m working on at the moment. I never have the inspiration to work on something unless I think it’s cool. That being said there is one project which has just been written up into a first paper that I think has real potential. Essentially, we were able to determine the 3D atomic structure of Pt nanoparticles from a single experimental image. Being able to determine a structure from one image (normally requiring 20 or more) means we can get the atomic structure of several particles in the time it took to get one, leading to higher throughput. It also means we are damaging the particles less under the electron beam the structures we get will be more accurate.

A simulation group in the University of Southampton has now done some modelling calculations on these structures. This is an important step for several reasons; firstly, it’s never been done before. Prior to this modelling has always been carried out on ‘perfect’ or ‘ideal’ structure with atomically perfect particles in their equilibrium shape. In reality catalyst particles are never going to have ‘perfect’ structures, there will always be kinetic effects in the synthesis or impurities which affect the shape and structure. Therefore to understand real catalysts we need to model real structures. As with most materials science challenges is often the deviations and defects from a perfect crystal structure which actually end of controlling overall materials properties. Therefore being able to characterise and model such defects is essential to understanding exactly what is happening down at the atomic level.

 

What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself/your work?

The first time I ever tuned a microscope by myself to resolve atomic columns. I was so excited I took a picture on my phone and sent it straight to my boyfriend. I think it might be a bit like when you’re groping and fumbling around to find your glasses. You finally find them and put them on and can suddenly see everything clearly again. It’s as sudden as this in the microscope and it’s beautiful. I love that moment every single time, when your visibility suddenly improves and you can actually see atoms. I still send my (now) husband a picture if I find a particle that is just too pretty and I have to share it with someone.

 

What is a “day in the life” of Katherine like?

Photo: Katherine MacArthur

Photo: Courtesy of Katherine MacArthur

I normally get into work 8-8:15. I pour myself a cup of peppermint tea and check my emails. In 90 percent of my days I will spend all day at my computer. Setting up simulations, analysing data taken on a microscope, writing software or reading/writing papers. I normally get a microscope session once every couple of weeks and it takes me that long to understand the images from a previous session. I have a quick packed lunch and then a group of us go out to play Boules if the weather is nice. When I am on the microscope I will work from 8 am through until I get too tired or until I’ve collected everything I think I can get that day. Therefore if the microscope is working well, I have been known stay well until the middle of the night, because the data coming out of the machine is so beautiful. Plus if you are collecting data after normal working hours, there’s normally no-one around to slam doors or run loud machines and carelessly mess up your data.

 

What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?

I think the way that the scientific community is structured makes it very difficult to have long term goals. My contract only lasts for two more years and each funding application is typically a 3 year timescale. In that time you need to have real results to prove you’ve achieved something which was worth funding. Personally, things have been a little shaken up with the Brexit vote. My husband and I had planned to do 3-4 years in Germany before moving back to the UK. Now I think we are already seeing a drop off in scientific funding options and I think there will be fewer jobs available in research. Therefore we’ve had to come up with a new plan rather quickly. I have a plan to apply for a large 5 year funding grant. If I’m successful with this then my husband and I will be staying in Germany, if we’re not successful then we’ll be looking to move somewhere within the EU. Ideally, I would like to end up in a permanent position linked with a university where I’m also able to do some teaching. I really enjoy sharing my scientific knowledge with other people and really enjoyed my time spent tutoring at Oxford. However, I’m a long way off that just yet so it’s easier to think it short-term goals.

 

What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?

When I’m not doing research, I’m normally cooking/baking. I normally cook a meal completely from scratch every night. With my IBS I have to avoid ready-made sauces and ready meals. This means I have learned how to make a lot of different things including: currys, pizza, sweet and sour sauce, and various pasta sauces all from scratch. My herb and spice rack is rather extensive for this reason. I find it helps me to relax and unwind from the day I’ve had. Some nights I just throw things into a pan for a quick stir-fry, but other nights (if I have time) I go for something much more complicated. I don’t always have time to cook something extravagant as I have German classes, Bible study and dancing most nights of the week.

I would recommend […] always applying for a position you like the look of even if you worry that you might not fulfill all the criteria.

Of those activities my main passion is the dancing. During my time in Oxford I learned to dance Latin, Ballroom, Salsa, Rock and Roll among others. Now I just limit myself to acrobatic rock and roll twice a week. There’s nothing quite like being thrown upside down to clear your head! Plus I learned during my time in Oxford where the motto is ‘work hard, play hard’ that after a mentally tiring day you sleep an awful lot better if your physically tired as well.

 

What advice do you have for other women interested in science/chemistry?

As corny as it sounds I would say believe in yourself or find someone who believes in you. Whenever I have a small crisis of confidence or worry that things aren’t going to come together in time, I have a wonderful husband who reminds me of all the things I have achieved and so why would this situation be any different. I would recommend thinking positively and always applying for a position you like the look of even if you worry that you might not fulfill all the criteria. In all my discussion on gender issues and why there aren’t enough women in high ranking positions, there was one statistic that stood out for me. It said that most men will normally apply for a job even if they only fulfill 60 percent of the criteria, whilst most women will wait until they fulfill 100 percent of the criteria before applying for a position. If this statistic is true there are lot of women out there who take themselves out of the running of top jobs by not even applying in the first place.

 

In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in science/chemistry?

In the field of electron microscopy I think the biggest breakthroughs come through in instrumentation. For chemistry this has come in the form of new holders which allow the in-situ flow of gas or liquids around the sample whilst still being able to image with the electron beam. This is still an expanding area of research and currently has made a lot of pretty videos but is a lot harder to understand the exact processes going on. Getting real catalysts in under microscope in reactive conditions, I think will be essential to really understanding the catalytic process and how to improve it. I think I lot more can be done in terms of quantification. Can we measure the exact ratio of the gases going in and coming out (this is tricky as very small volumes are involved)? Can we track compositional changes with time and understand particle degradation processes? For Fuel-Cell catalysts there has been a lot of success in developing better catalysts than those commercially available, but the problem is over time the particles degrade and activity is lost. We need to understand and prevent these degradation mechanisms in order really achieve more efficient Fuel-Cells.

 

What should be done to increase the number of female scientists and female professors?

Personally I think it’s still more an issue of cultural expectations than anything else. I don’t think we’ll ever be close to reaching gender equality until it is just as socially acceptable for a man to change his surname after marriage as it is for a woman. Far too many people had an opinion on what I was going to do with my surname when I got married. This was an issue which was entirely mine as it was completely assumed that my husband (also a scientist) would keep his name exactly as it is. It may sound like a trivial thing, but I think about it: scientific achievement is measure by how many papers and citations you have. If you choose to modify your name you need to do it carefully so that all your papers can still be attributed to you. Otherwise you are losing out just because you changed your name.

I don’t think we’ll ever be close to reaching gender equality until it is just as socially acceptable for a man to change his surname after marriage as it is for a woman.

I think the ratio of female to male really drops of during the postdoctoral years. Spending your time on limited 1 or 2-year fixed termed contracts doesn’t really provide a great deal of stability financially. I think women worry about this more, especially if they’re looking to start a family. Also as I said above not enough women are applying for the top end positions, so they may be moving from postdoctoral positions to permanent positions later in their career. In Germany they try to actively combat this issue with positive discrimination. For example, they have a professorship funding option available only to women and some of their lower level funding specifies that at least 40 percent of the awards will be given to women. I still haven’t decided if I agree with this practice or not, but if it does succeed in encouraging more women to apply then it could be a good approach. However, it might leave some people believing they only got the position in order to ‘fill a quota’.

“Persistence” – #LiNo17 participant Karen Stroobants’ key to success

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.

 

Photo: Courtesy of Karen Stroobants

Photo: Courtesy of Karen Stroobants

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.

 

Photo: Courtesy of Karen Stroobants

Photo: Courtesy of Karen Stroobants

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’.

 

Photo: Courtesy of Karen Stroobants

Photo: Courtesy of Karen Stroobants

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.

Sporty Science: Activities for Young Scientists at #LiNo17

Physical exercise makes your brain work better – evidence-based fact. Besides, it is known to have a splendid social aspect that brings together people of all kinds. Enough reasons for us to get active this year!

 

Morning Workouts

For the first time ever, we will offer sports activities for young scientists in the mornings of the 67th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting dedicated to chemistry. From Monday to Thursday, young scientists may join a 45-minute workout from 7.00–7.45 a.m.
To ensure that there will be something for everyone, we plan to have four different sports activities – from cardio-workouts to more relaxing formats.

 

Sports activities at the Lindau Meeting. Photo: iStock.com/ FatCamera

 

Preparation for the Day

This new highlight in the meeting programme offers young scientists the chance to get to know each other in an informal setting.
Along the way, they can enjoy the beautiful surroundings of Lindau Island: Lake Constance and the Swiss and Austrian Alps on its southern shores. The morning sports are a great way to prepare for the day’s lectures, panel discussions as well as all the other thought-provoking activities of this year’s programme.

 

Lindau_Gero

Lindau Island in Lake Constance. Photo: Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

 

All selected participants of the 67th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting may register for the sports activities as part of the Session Registration in mid-May.

We are very much looking forward to it!