New Principle for Cancer Therapy: Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology 2018

Today, the Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet awarded the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine to James P. Allison and Tasuku Honjo for their discovery of cancer therapy by inhibition of negative immune regulation.

2018 Nobel Laureates James P. Allison and Tasuku Honjo. Ilustration: Niklas Elmehed. Copyright: Nobel Media AB 2018

From the press release of the Karolinska Institutet

“Cancer kills millions of people every year and is one of humanity’s greatest health challenges. By stimulating the inherent ability of our immune system to attack tumor cells this year’s Nobel Laureates have established an entirely new principle for cancer therapy.

James P. Allison studied a known protein that functions as a brake on the immune system. He realized the potential of releasing the brake and thereby unleashing our immune cells to attack tumors. He then developed this concept into a brand new approach for treating patients.

In parallel, Tasuku Honjo discovered a protein on immune cells and, after careful exploration of its function, eventually revealed that it also operates as a brake, but with a different mechanism of action. Therapies based on his discovery proved to be strikingly effective in the fight against cancer.

Allison and Honjo showed how different strategies for inhibiting the brakes on the immune system can be used in the treatment of cancer. The seminal discoveries by the two Laureates constitute a landmark in our fight against cancer.”

Read more about the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Learn more about the possibilities of immunotherapies in our topic cluster. 

Medical Innovations for Developing Nations

Press Talk chaired by Alaina Levine with Nobel Laureate Peter Agre and young scientists. Photo/Credit: Julia Nimke/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

 

I had the occasion this week at #LINO18 to moderate a panel specifically for journalists in attendance. The focus of the press talk was on medical innovations for developing nations, and featured an all-star team of one Nobel Laureate, Peter Agre, and three young scientists. It was a fascinating experience, as not only did it provide insight about the critical issues surrounding medical innovations in the developing world, but it also helped the journalists better understand the issues and tactics for reporting on this important subject.

As a freelance science journalist, I had two reasons I wanted to be involved in this panel. One was that I wanted to share with my fellow journalists strategies for writing on and sharing stories associated with medical innovations in the developing world – more on this below. The other reason was that I was eager to share with the audience different ideas about projects that are taking place in multiple nations. There is no one way to “do” medical innovation, nor is there a “one size fits all” mechanism to deliver medical innovation solutions. Diversity reigns. Whether it is the type of medical research and invention being developed and tested, how it is actually delivered to benefit humanity, how communities are involved, or the country in which the solution is being deployed, each project and each community it touches are absolutely unique. Every project has to be customised for that locale, and where one intervention may be perfectly suited for community X in this corner of the world, the same type of solution may not be able to be delivered in the same way in another corner.

Young scientist Jeerapond Leelawattanachai at the 68th Lindau Meeting. Photo/Credit: Julia Nimke/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

Between the current Nobel Laureate and the future Nobel Laureates (!!) on the panel, I think we, as journalists and those stakeholders in science communications, were not disappointed in hearing stories relating to the above. Peter Agre, who received his Nobel Prize in 2003 for aquaporins, the water channels in cells, has since devoted his life to channelling his energy towards combatting infectious diseases typically in Africa. The young scientists amazed the crowd with their own exceptional achievements, combined with their clear brilliance, passion and devotion to contributing to the advancement of medical interventions of various types in the regions in which they work and live.

Jeerapond Leelawattanachai, 33, from Thailand, is a researcher at the National Nanotechnology Center (NANOTEC), National Science and Technology Development Agency (NSTDA), Thailand. Her research aims to develop a cost-effective and highly specific diagnostic test of latent tuberculosis infection (LTBI). According to WHO, one third of the world’s population are currently infected with Mycobacterium tuberculosis. This large population of LTBI constitutes a major source of infection and onward transmission. While current standard diagnostic tests of LTBI have several limitations, their proposed skin test in a bandage format, utilising microneedle technology, would potentially improve diagnostic accuracy, reduce false positive results, and have a significant positive impact on the control of LTBI.

Nataly Nasser Al Deen, a PhD student from Lebanon, at the American University of Beirut (AUB) is focusing her research on early breast cancer in Lebanese women below the age of 40 and is the founder of ‘Pink Steps’, an exercise health initiative for breast cancer survivors in Lebanon. Nataly earned her M.Sc. from Georgetown University in Tumor Biology as a Fulbright Scholar and her B.Sc. from the American University in Cairo as a MEPI Tomorrow’s Leaders Scholar.

Svenja Kohler is a medical student from the University of Lübeck who together with fellow students, founded a charity four years ago to improve the perspective of socially deprived children in Senegal and spread knowledge about sexual health, hygiene and gender equality. 

 

As these young women discussed both their projects and challenges in delivering these projects to and with the communities which they serve, I was struck by how mindful they are of vital issues that must be carefully navigated. The issues and points made include:

 

  • You have to build trust. Trust goes in multiple directions and must be carefully crafted and cultivated, possibly over years. Communities must trust scientists, scientists must trust clinicians, clinicians must trust NGO and industry partners, individuals receiving medical interventions must trust everyone. And of course, scientists, medical professionals and community representatives must trust journalists and vice versa. It is essential, in particular in the developing world, to build that trust and not expect that you can come up with a great idea and scale it to a population without ensuing that trust is firmly in place.

 

  • You have to communicate in the language of the community. The panellists emphasised that to be successful in deploying solutions in developing nations especially, one has to speak the local language. But cultural linguistics is just the starting point. Leelawattanachai smartly mentioned the importance of speaking the language of business, a key insight which I was so thrilled she brought up. When scientists, medical researchers and clinicians learn the language of business and entrepreneurship, not only can they create and deliver more effective solutions, but they also have the ability to better facilitate strategic partnerships with industry.

 

#LINO18 Svenja Kohler speaking at the Press Talk. Photo/Credit: Julia Nimke/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

  • Industry can and does play an important role. Businesses, particularly national or international corporations, are important players in investing in, designing and delivering medical innovations in developing nations. Companies bring money, resources and staff. They have access to complicated logistical networks that ensure interventions safely and efficaciously get to patients and patient advocacy groups. They are strategic.

 

  • Know your stakeholders. Just as we journalists need to know our audiences, scientists and clinicians who want to deploy medical innovations into communities must get to know those communities and the stakeholders. This point really resonated with me personally, as I am in the early phase of a reporting project associated with a global polio eradication programme in India. This programme has multiple partners, ranging from companies to NGOs to doctors to engineers and logistics providers to patient advocates. But what struck me as so interesting was that all the stakeholders realised that if they are going to immunise kids against polio in villages, they can’t just pop by and say “hey, here’s an immunisation”. They have to build trust – see above – and they have to know what motivates the stakeholders. In my early reporting, I have heard how NGOs are specifically reaching out and building rapport, sometimes over years, with the mothers in villages since they are the gatekeepers of the children and essentially serve as diplomats to the medical professionals. Knowing the strategic role mothers play in deploying these medical interventions is what makes this global program so successful year after year. Every project has key stakeholders – so get to know them, understand what motivates them, and help them to help you and vice versa.

Women in Research at #LINO18: Jeerapond Leelawattanachai from Thailand

This interview is part of a series of interviews of the “Women in Research” blog that features young female scientists participating in the 68th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting to increase the visibility of women in research (more information for and about women in science by “Women in Research” on Facebook and Twitter).

 

Photo/Credit: Courtesy of Jeerapond Leelawattanachai

#LINO18 young scientist Jeerapond Leelawattanachai, 33, from Thailand, is a young researcher at the National Nanotechnology Center (NANOTEC), National Science and Technology Development Agency (NSTDA), Thailand.

She is currently working on the development of affordable diagnostic tools for developing countries. She is working on a wide range of diagnostic techniques and diseases. However, the one she is mostly focusing on is tuberculosis (TB) diagnosis. Since TB incidences are comparatively high in developing countries, especially Thailand, her home country, this situation highlights the need for a more convenient and affordable alternative diagnostics for tuberculosis and making them available throughout the nation is necessary. Besides, this project could prospectively draw public attention and encourage the research interest about tuberculosis in Thailand, which closely follows the Thailand’s national TB programme of 2017 aiming to promote tuberculosis research in the country.

 

What inspired you to pursue a career in science?

My interest in science goes back to when I was in middle school when students are required to learn several subjects – the one that captivated me the most was science. With this enchantment, I read a vast array of books related to science. To learn more about it, I decided to apply for Mahidol Wittayanusorn School, which was the only special science school in Thailand. At that time, I was also fortunate to be selected to participate in POSN-1st Biology Camp (POSN: The Promotion of Academic Olympiad and Development of Science Education Foundation). In the science-oriented environment, I spent a lot of time surrounded by scientific materials, and I found myself intrigued by the process of conducting experiments. I believe it subconsciously cultivated me to be a researcher. Since then, I have had strong desires to earn a Ph.D. and to be an expert in my chosen field. That was the starting point for me to consider research as a career. Apart from that, what inspired me and pushed me to overcome challenges are the beauty of science itself and the great benefit of scientific discovery that could transform many people’s lives. Knowing that I could utilise my knowledge and contribute back to society through research is very fulfilling and rewarding to me.

Who are your role models?

First, I am thankful to my parents who are also my role models. Without their support, I would not to have been where I am today. Since I can remember, they both have been working hard to overcome many difficult circumstances. Their personal stories taught me that with determination, devotion and commitment everything is possible. Even now in their 70’s, they still work more than eight hours a day, six days a week in hope that they could make other lives better. I wholeheartedly admire them for that.

Second, on a professional level, I have many role models. To name a few who have had great impact on me personally, these are Prof. Wannapong Triampo and Prof. Tararaj Dharakul. Prof. Triampo supported me greatly during my Ph.D. education abroad. Under his guidance, I could be able to publish my first research journal as a first author during my undergraduate study. He also inspires me to contribute to child education and STEM activity. Prof. Dharakul is my role model for women in science. She has great passion for science and teaching. As a mentor, she always encourages me to think about and discuss numerous academic ideas. She constantly puts in extra effort and is willing to make time for her students even after working hours. I feel greatly appreciative to both for believing in me and spending a good deal of their time on me. Their attention and supports play a pivotal role in my career development.

 

Photo/Credit: Courtesy of Jeerapond Leelawattanachai

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

Upon my high school graduation, I was awarded the Rian Di Wittayasat Scholarship, the excellence in science scholarship, to study at Faculty of Science, Mahidol University, where I chose physics major. To understand how biological system works, I joined a biophysics research group and I found much of my research training in the group to be extremely rewarding. As a member of this group, I conducted a research project called Modeling of Signal Transduction via Dynamics of G-Protein-Coupled Receptors: Internalization Consideration. This project was motivated by experimental data and a mathematical model to explain the agonist potency and efficacy of drugs. I extended this model to take into account trafficking events of the receptors to obtain a more realistic model. This modified model provides further mechanistic understanding in signal transduction that is difficult to detect by experimental observation alone. My senior project was categorised as theoretical and computational work. I wished to continue this project, making it more tangible by applying the knowledge into products. Thanks to the Royal Thai Government scholarship for graduate study in the United States, I was able to continue my education in Biomedical Engineering at Cornell University, where I worked on protein engineering, nanoparticle formulation, tumour targeting and in vivo animal studies. In addition, I also gained valuable opportunities of research training in the New York Presbyterian Hospital-Weill Cornell Medical College, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and the University of Rochester Medical Center.  After finishing my Ph.D., I returned to Thailand and have worked as a researcher at the National Nanotechnology Center (NANOTEC) since then.

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

I love all the projects I have worked on. Therefore, it is quite hard to decide which one is the coolest. However, I would like to talk more about my current work on developing a diagnostic test for latent tuberculosis infection using microneedle technology. I am excited about this project for many reasons. First, tuberculosis incidences are comparatively high in developing countries, especially in Thailand. This situation highlights the need for more convenient and affordable diagnostics, which can be easily distributed throughout the nation. Second, this project could prospectively draw public attention and encourage more research about tuberculosis in Thailand, which closely follows the Thailand’s national TB programme of 2017. Lastly, this project is multidisciplinary, which allows me to utilise my background in physics and gives me the opportunities to meet and discuss research ideas with several experts from various fields which I tremendously enjoy.  

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

I am proud of myself that I could come to where I am today. I have learned a lot every time I passed through challenges and have seen myself grow constantly. To me, every single step in life when I achieved some great things that I have been working hard on makes me very proud. All the scholarships, awards, publications, patents, valuable opportunities or even skill sets that I have acquired throughout the training make me proud. Looking back, I could never have imagined that I can come this far, it makes me feel so fortunate that I am not in a position where I can do what I love and contribute back to society. 

 

Photo/Credit: Courtesy of Kom Wongsawat

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

To me each day is quite different. It depends on what needs to be done at that specific moment. Usually, I plan what I have to do ahead of time and stick to it with space for flexibility. My daily life involves setting up experiments, doing literature reviews and writing proposals or research articles. I regularly attend meetings which could be about research collaboration, special seminars related to my research or administrative work. Sometimes I travel to other institutes or even different country to form collaboration and use some specific research equipment. I am also involved in outreach activities, and I am an advisory judge for a student science project in “Sirindhorn Science Home”, a unified learning center, which is next to the NANOTEC research building, to teach science and technology skills to the youth of Thailand. In summer, I usually teach and coach undergrads during their internship.

What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?

I have two goals that I want to accomplish in my career. First, I want to do high-quality research which can benefit humanity and improves the well-being of people. It is my ambition to contribute to scientific progress that could translate into medical products. Seeing my developed diagnostic tools become widely accessible throughout the nation, or perhaps the globe, and affordable enough for everyone is my ultimate career goal. Throughout my career, I have seen many people who could not afford medical services that they need. Thus, I want to help filling that gap or at least alleviate the inequality of access to health care, especially in developing countries. Second, I want to get to the position where I can share my experience and knowledge to improve science and technology education in Thailand. I believe that providing our youth with opportunities to develop their science skills will help them become a future driving force for improving the country’s economy and offering a better quality of life to the population of Thailand.

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

I am personally eager to learn new things. I believe that I can grow as a person by developing my knowledge base and taking in new experiences. If opportunities arise, I like to travel out of town to several provinces in Thailand or to other countries around the world. I love to explore new activities like flying an airplane, sailing, learning equestrian, Thai boxing, western cooking, taking pottery class and 10-day silent mediation retreats. I also like playing instruments and I recently have learnt to play harp and ukulele. Other than that, I am especially fond of working with kids as it reminds me of myself when I started to love science. Therefore, I have participated in several volunteer activities and outreach projects.

 

Photo/Credit: Courtesy of Jeerapond Leelawattanachai

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

For women who are interested in science and still not certain whether pursuing this career will be the right way, I suggest talking to several people in different disciplines. Science is a broad field and there are many ways you can participate. Women should not underestimate themselves and run the risk of narrowing their choices in life before finding out how far they could have gone. It might also be beneficial to look for specific internships that you find interesting and give it a try. For women who already work in the field, I believe it is important to find what you love to do, work hard and build your personal identity from it. Have the courage to follow your dreams and you will find each small step forward very rewarding. Also, spend extra effort to get to know people in the field and do not be afraid to ask about what you don’t know.

In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in physiology or medicine?

­­­It is quite difficult to specify one as there are many worthy challenges in science and medicine. For me, I think that a novel method to prevent infectious disease will be the next great breakthrough. We live in a world with continuously mutated viruses, multidrug resistant bacteria and pathogenic organisms with complex latent stage. Developing technology and tools to fight against these diseases and identify emerging deadly diseases is challenging. We are now getting better at vaccines and rapid diagnosis on the known diseases, but we also need to prepare ourselves to rapidly identify emerging diseases and coordinate a respond to prevent epidemics. Besides the breakthrough in infectious diseases, I also would like to see a breakthrough in precision medicine for cancer treatment as well as a breakthrough in the study of social and behavioural science for mental illnesses like depression.

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

While we are now getting better at closing the gender gap, many cultural influences still promote gender stereotypes that drives women away from science careers. This includes gender bias in the workplace and the potential career-stalling effect on women of having children. The underrepresentation of female role models in science can also be discouraging for female students and postdocs who are still deciding whether to pursue career in science. Despite these facts, we are still responsible for creating an optimal working environment for all research scientists. In my opinion, we should consider taking the following actions. First, alleviating the maternity burden. In science careers where each project might take a long time to finish, maternity breaks can stall the tenure track or promotion which force many women to delay having children. In this case, re-evaluating rules and processes for tenure and promotion to accommodate maternity and parental leave is necessary. It is very helpful to develop explicit, clear and written policies for tenure and promotion to be adjusted proportionally to the part-time employment and leave periods (including maternity leave and parental leave) and make them available to all faculty. Moreover, the transparent employment and promotion system will also make sure that women with well-developed skills are being steered toward scientific professions. It might be helpful to provide grants which the mother can use to safeguard her research activities or talented personals.

Another suggestion includes providing extra supports for childcare to enable work related business, like conference visits or collaborative meeting abroad. For example, providing additional travel support for an accompanying babysitter or other support programmes or facilities to help reconcile work and family life. The second action would be to offer mentoring programmes to each specific target group, for example, female Ph.D. students, young female scientists or female tenure trackers. This programme would 1) increase the network of the female researchers, 2) raise the visibility of women in the field and 3) provide role models of successful female scientists who managed to balance work and family-life. These actions aim at encouraging structural and political changes in scientific work environments, to improve the representation of female professionals in STEM fields, and to create a more inclusive workplace within and outside academia where everyone can be successful.

Women in Research at #LINO18: Chelsea Cockburn from the USA

This interview is part of a series of interviews of the “Women in Research” blog that features young female scientists participating in the 68th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting to increase the visibility of women in research (more information for and about women in science by “Women in Research” on Facebook and Twitter).

 

Picture/Credit: Courtesy of Chelsea Cockburn

#LINO18 young scientist Chelsea Cockburn, 27, from the USA is an MD-PhD student in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine in Richmond, Virginia.

Her research focuses on host pathogen interactions between obligate intracellular bacteria and their host cells. In particular, she studies specific lipid pathways that these bacteria hijack with the hope to identify novel therapeutics that block these bacterial mechanisms.

What inspired you to pursue a career in science?

I was convinced I was going to be a professional musician like my parents up until high school. I think a few things all happened at the same time to really inspire me to pursue a career in science and medicine. First, I took a biology class with the most wonderful teacher, Mr. Bair, who recognised that I had a knack for science and was interested in it. He mentored me and encouraged me to study biology in college. The same time I was taking that class, my grandfather had entered hospice and my family took a trip to visit him for the last time. Something about seeing the care that physicians provided to my grandfather and family, while also being able to see a direct application of the things I was studying in class triggered something in me. It was almost as if a lightbulb went off in my brain saying this is what you were meant to do. 

Who are your role models?

I’ve been fortunate enough to have some wonderful role models throughout my life. First and foremost, my parents are huge role models in my life and have pushed me to excel at whatever my chosen path is (although, I think they’ve secretly wanted me to be a scientist since I was a child and would always buy me science kits!). In terms of role models for my career, I really look up to Dr. Kami Kim at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. I did a summer internship in her lab as part of the Einstein Summer Undergraduate Research Program while I was in college. Kami was one of the first female physician scientists I interacted with and she strengthened my decision to pursue a MD-PhD. Randy Schekman is scientist who I really admire for both his quality of science as well as his fearlessness in addressing the problem of open access science and academic publishing reform. I’m looking forward to meeting him at Lindau in June!

Science and medicine benefit when there is a diversity of thoughts and ideas at the table.

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

I grew up in Harrisonburg, Virginia and was homeschooled until middle school. Believe it or not, I actually hated science during that time (mostly because there are so many questions we don’t have answers to), but my parents encouraged me to keep at it by buying me various science kits to do things like grow crystals or do chemistry reactions. I didn’t really like science until high school when I took biology with Mr. Bair. That was the first time science clicked for me and made sense. I then went to James Madison University and majored in biology. While at JMU, I did both microbiology and neuroscience research and also did internships over the summer. I’ve been fortunate to have my internships giving me a wide range of experiences from doing research on honey bees in Ghana, malaria at Albert Einstein, and preclinical drug trials at Amgen in California. I had so many wonderful mentors during undergrad that it is impossible to list them all. However, Dr. Janet Daniel and Dr. Sharon Babcock at JMU have been my biggest cheerleaders, advocates and listening ears as well as shoulders to cry on. I’m not sure I would have even considered an MD-PhD program without their encouragement. Currently, I am involved in the American College of Physicians on the national level and have gained many wonderful, strong women mentors in medicine, specifically Dr. Sue Hingle and Dr. Darilyn Moyer. Their advice about navigating the world of medicine (and leadership!) as a woman has been invaluable to me and helped me solidify my career goals, even when I was doubting myself as to whether I should even continue down this path.

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

I don’t think I can pinpoint a project that is the coolest because each of them was fun to work on in its own way. I really do love my dissertation project because I’ve been able to take an observation from basic science all the way through an animal model. I also love that my project has direct application to the clinic as I’ve discovered that a certain class of FDA approved drugs eliminate bacterial infection. Being able to take your discovery from the bench to the bedside is something that I think every physician scientist aspires to have happen, so it’s been neat to watch this project evolve, and hopefully it becomes a reality for me soon!

 

Picture/Credit: Courtesy of Chelsea Cockburn

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

Any time my work is published in a journal, I feel a great amount of pride in what I do. In the medicine realm, I am on the Council of Student Members for the American College of Physicians and am also on their delegation to the American Medical Association House of Delegates. We do a lot of things related to health policy, such as advocating at the state and federal level as well as working to pass policy within ACP and AMA to benefit physicians and patients. Any time we pass a policy or speak up on issues that directly benefit/affect our patients fills me with immense pride and illustrates the impact we can have in the field of medicine. Such examples include ACP speaking out on issues such as gun violence as a public health issue or urging lawmakers to include women’s health in important policy discussions.

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

I typically wake up around 5:30 am and start my day with lots of coffee and a walk with my dog. Then I head off to my Pure Barre studio for a barre class and then arrive in lab around 8:30 am. My days in the lab vary greatly depending on what I need to get done. Often, I am in the lab doing experiments all day, but sometimes I will be at my desk for a large portion writing up manuscripts or making figures. I usually leave the lab between 4-5 pm, although sometimes later if I have time points for experiments. When I get home, I go to the dog park with my dog or take him on a walk and then go to the gym for some cardio. My evenings vary depending on the night: sometimes I’m doing work or am on a conference call, while other times I’m spending time with my boyfriend or simply just relaxing!

What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?

While I’m not 100% sure what I want to end up doing, I do see myself havingsome connection to health and science policy (whether that is my main career or a side interest). Ideally, I would like to work for either the CDC or WHO and do outbreak management and investigation. Regardless of what I do, I want to be involved in both the science and clinical aspect of my degrees.

 

Picture/Credit: Courtesy of Chelsea Cockburn

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

I am usually training for either a marathon or triathlon (sometimes both!), so I am often out doing a training run or swim. I also sing in the Richmond Symphony Chorus and am frequently at a rehearsal. When I finally have some downtime, I enjoy gardening, playing board games and drinking wine.

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

Don’t give up. The glass ceiling is a real thing for women. There are many trailblazers who have come before you and made many cracks – it’s up to you to smash through.

In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in physiology or medicine?

That’s a hard question to answer as I’m not sure if there will be a singular breakthrough. I do think we are rapidly approaching a time when we will be able to cure genetically linked diseases in embryos with CRISPR, which brings up a whole slew of ethical issues both for science and medicine. Selfishly, I’m hoping the next great breakthrough will be altering the way we think about treating bacterial infections. Instead of attacking the bacteria itself, what if we were able to alter host cell processes that bacteria rely on in order to treat patients? I’ve shown this is the case with the bacteria I study, so I know it’s possible. And I think this would lead to less bacterial resistance and better treatment of patients.

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

There’s a wealth of data out there that shows that we have just as many or even more (depending on the field) women than men coming through the science pipeline as students and post-docs. However, the biggest disparity occurs when they reach professor level. I think this is due to multiple things. First, everyone has unconscious biases and I do think there is still a lot of bias against women (both conscious and unconscious) in the sciences. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve seen women professors who bring their children to work or leave early to take care of a child be labeled as not serious about their career, stretched too thin or even unprofessional. However, when male professors do this, they often labeled as being a great father or kind/caring. At least here in America, we first need to start by passing an all-encompassing and generous family leave policy – maternity and paternity leave (for both births and adoptions), care of a sick family member, etc. In general, society needs to stop judging women for whatever decisions they make regarding family and career. You don’t want children? Great! You want to hire a nanny so that you can continue to work full time? Great! You want to work part time, so that you can spend more time with your children? Great!  Finally, science and medicine benefit when there is a diversity of thoughts and ideas at the table and the best way to accomplish this is by making sure to specifically include underrepresented groups (women, minorities, LGBTQ, disabled, etc.) when developing policies and in leadership roles. I think science as a field also needs to have better ways of addressing sexual harassment, mistreatment, and racism (of anyone, not just women); there should be a no tolerance policy regardless of what accolades that person has won. I can think of a few prominent scientists who espouse sexist and racist views yet are still lauded. We as a field need to put our collective feet down and say those kinds of views are not welcome in science and create an inclusive environment where all members are valued. 

Women in Research at #LINO18: Harshita Sharma from India

This interview is part of a series of interviews of the “Women in Research” blog that features young female scientists participating in the 68th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting to increase the visibility of women in research (more information for and about women in science by “Women in Research” on Facebook and Twitter).

 

Picture/Credit: Courtesy of Harshita Sharma

#LINO18 young scientist Harshita Sharma, 29, from India, is a Postdoctoral researcher in biomedical engineering at the University of Oxford, UK.

Her current research focuses on medical image and video analysis using advanced computer vision and artificial intelligence methods in obstetric ultrasound. Enjoy the interview with Harshita and get inspired!

 

What inspired you to pursue a career in science?

I am a postdoc with an interdisciplinary background in biomedical, electronics, electrical and computer engineering. I was inspired to pursue a career in science through biomedical engineering mainly because I feel motivated to utilise my technical and research skills towards advancements in physiology, medicine and healthcare, directly benefitting humanity. Moreover, I was excited to explore the latest trends in medical technology because I grew up in a scientifically inclined family as my parents are medical doctors. In high school, I was keen to learn physics, biology and maths, and I achieved very good grades in these subjects. So, when I got selected for a bachelor’s in engineering in a government institution in India, I decided to work on research projects combining medicine and technology, such as medical image analysis and speech processing, and in this way, I was introduced to this interdisciplinary field of biomedical engineering, where I could get the best of both worlds.

Who are your role models?

My parents have had the biggest role in shaping my career path and in introducing me to the fascinating world of science. My mother made substantial sacrifices in her career to build a firm foundation of mine. My father always encouraged me to pursue my ambition irrespective of any circumstances. My role models in science are my academic mentors who have advised, motivated and guided me towards achieving my goals and aspirations. These are my current mentor Prof. Alison Noble at the University of Oxford, my PhD supervisors Prof. Olaf Hellwich at TU Berlin and Prof. Peter Hufnagl at Charité University Hospital Berlin, master’s supervisor Prof. R.S. Anand at IIT Roorkee, and bachelor’s supervisor Mr. Akash Tayal at IGDTUW Delhi. Also, I greatly admire the work of Marie Curie, Ada Lovelace and Rosalind Franklin as pioneering women in science. I am inspired by the contributions of Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam towards science and technology in India.

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

From 2006 until 2010, I studied BTech (Bachelor of Technology) at Indira Gandhi Delhi Technical University for Women (IGDTUW) in Delhi, India and became an engineer. In my third year, I completed a research internship at the Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) which was my first external research experience. After this, I presented three research papers at national conferences, that made me further realise my interest in scientific research and development.

After my bachelor’s degree, I received multiple job offers from private and public sectors in India. But I wanted to pursue higher studies, so went for MTech (Master of Technology) at Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Roorkee, where I was competitively selected via the GATE exam. During my master’s degree, I achieved the opportunity to perform my dissertation research in Germany via the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) Master Sandwich Scholarship Programme. I applied at the Technical University (TU) Berlin in the Computer Vision group headed by Prof. Olaf Hellwich and expressed my interest to pursue research in medical image analysis. In September 2011, I travelled to Germany, which was my first trip outside India. I worked in a joint research project at Charité University Hospital in Berlin to analyse breast cancer biopsies in digital pathology for the next year and also wrote my first journal publication.

 

Harshita Sharma receiving from Berkman Sahiner the Finalist Award for Best Student Paper; SPIE Medical Imaging 2106. Picture/Credit: Courtesy of Harshita Sharma

Upon my return to India in 2012, I graduated from my master’s and started teaching as a Lecturer at Jaypee Institute of Information Technology in Delhi-NCR. However, my curiosity to perform more research further increased, so I decided to apply for a PhD and in 2013. I was awarded the DAAD PhD scholarship to pursue my doctoral studies in computer vision and medical image analysis in the research group of Prof. Hellwich at TU Berlin. My PhD was a growing, exciting and rewarding experience, as I engaged myself in diverse research activities such as collaborating with Charité University Hospital Berlin and UKSH Kiel, travelling and presenting work at conferences around the world and publishing papers in scientific journals and peer-reviewed conference proceedings.

In April 2017, after 3.5 years, I completed my PhD at TU Berlin. Subsequently, I joined the Institute of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Oxford as a postdoctoral researcher. This has been an incredible opportunity where I analysed rich real-world data to develop novel computer-aided techniques in medical ultrasound. I perform my own research and collaborate with colleagues and students. I am also involved in teaching, organisation and volunteering activities.

Obstacles were there at each stage of my career, but I think determination was more powerful to overcome these in my journey till now. I have moved at different locations over the years and acquired invaluable experience, nonetheless stayed focussed on my contribution to science and technology.

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

All the projects are equally close to my heart. I would say my PhD research was really my biggest career defining project because, besides working on a medically relevant topic, I was able to learn so many new ideas and gain specific technical and domain knowledge of the field. During my PhD, I developed computer-aided methods in digital pathology to analyse gastric carcinoma whole slide images using deep learning, and classical machine learning with graph-based image representation techniques. The aim was to understand how visual information captured in high-resolution microscopic tissue images can be utilised to quantitatively describe cancer properties leading to automated prediction effectively and efficiently. The constituting research projects in my PhD were cancer grade classification, necrosis detection, cell nuclei segmentation and classification and content-based image retrieval.

 

Picture/Credit: Courtesy of Harshita Sharma

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

A recent moment of overwhelming happiness was when I received my PhD degree at TU Berlin. Also, around the same time, I was offered a postdoc position at one of the most prestigious universities in the world, University of Oxford, to pursue research in my areas of interest, when I felt immense pride. As a researcher, I feel highly rewarded when I get positive results while solving research problems. Moreover, realising that my research is communicated to a large audience via publications, conference presentations and networking events, such as the Lindau Meeting also makes me feel proud. Being affiliated to renowned academic institutions of the world and recipient of prestigious awards such as through two DAAD scholarships and prizes for best performance during my bachelor’s and master’s degrees have given me great satisfaction. Last but not the least, being a woman in STEM and engineering and carving my own path and career, motivates me to contribute even more to scientific research. I am pleased to know that I can potentially be a role model to several young researchers worldwide.

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

My typical day starts with waking up around 7 am, getting ready for work, cooking and packing my lunch, then usually working from 9 am to 6 pm, with a lunch break at around 1 pm. At work, I am engaged in my own research activities, have regular discussions with my mentor and colleagues, and co-supervise student projects in the research group. Also, I do some teaching with lectures, tutorials and lab demonstrations, and organise seminars and meetings. After work, I stay home in the evenings, talking to my family on video call, watching TV, cooking and reading. Occasionally, I also complete any remaining work in the evening.

What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?

I am an early-career researcher and aim to become a successful scientist and academic in the future. I will continue to gain knowledge and experience through research and teaching and wish to have my own research group. As a biomedical engineer, I want to contribute towards science and technology by developing novel methods and solutions in healthcare and medicine.

 

Picture/Credit: Courtesy of Harshita Sharma

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

When not working, I like to be at home, spending time with family, cooking favourite meals and watching TV. I like to review journal articles and conference proceedings in my free time. I also like to be out for nature walks and try photography during weekends. Sometimes, I am engaged in outreach activities organised by Oxford University, such as teaching school students.

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

My advice is to just focus on your dreams and everything will fall into place! The sky is the limit, and from my personal experience, a career in science is highly rewarding. Especially, learning medicine and physiology can be very satisfying as it directly involves the effort towards improving the quality of human health. There can be difficulties and challenges on the way, but these can strengthen and empower one to pursue even more in this field.

In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in physiology or medicine?

It is exciting to witness the efforts of researchers who work relentlessly towards advancements in medicine and healthcare worldwide, such as eradication of communicable diseases and widespread research in cancer. This is also accompanied by the rapid progress in engineering and technology. I am fascinated to see the convergence of these two branches, especially, how artificial and machine intelligence, robotics and computer vision are revolutionising the areas of medicine, physiology and biology. Biomedical imaging including radiology, ultrasonography and digital pathology is a rapidly growing field, and in the next few years, I expect to see many more enhancements in biomedical imaging techniques and computer-aided analysis methods which can provide support and assistance to medical professionals worldwide, e.g., in surgery, diagnosis, prognosis and routine check-ups.

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

I would like to encourage women to consider the career path of research and academics. We can ensure that women are equally represented in scientific organisations by introducing systematic refinements such as motivating women to apply to advertised job offers. Special fellowships could be introduced exclusively for women to support their scientific careers. Providing more exposure and networking opportunities to early-stage researchers is important to build their confidence, which can be facilitated through organising women-centred research conferences, development courses, workshops, forums and group meetings. Work-life balance could be improved by suitable arrangements for maternity leave and childcare facilities. It would be very helpful to welcome back women into work after a career breaks and provide the essential support to resume their professional life.

Women in Research at #LINO18: Edith Phalane from South Africa

This interview is part of a series of interviews of the “Women in Research” blog that features young female scientists participating in the 68th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting to increase the visibility of women in research (more information for and about women in science by “Women in Research” on Facebook and Twitter).

 

Photo/Credit: Courtesy of Edith Phalane

#LINO18 young scientist Edith Phalane, 27, from South Africa, is a PhD student in Cardiovascular Physiology at the North-West University, South Africa. 

She is currently profiling the demographic factors and investigating the impact of long term HIV infection and ART use on cardio-metabolic factors, as well as liver- and renal function in HIV-infected Africans and controls over 10 years hence, evaluating the long-term cardiovascular health. Enjoy the interview with Edith and get inspired!

 

What inspired you to pursue a career in science?

My interest in physiology was sparked when I was in secondary school, I have always been curious about how the human body functions and how certain diseases occur. Thus, I have always been excited and attentive during life science classes at secondary school.

Who are your role models?

For me a role model has always been someone who rose above their circumstances or background to achieve their dreams and goals. There are no specific people about whom I can definitely say these are my only role models; I am inspired as I see people rising above and beyond.

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

My journey had both smooth and rough rides, but above all I overcame those challenges through the support of family, friends and by the grace of God. I believe hard work, dedication and perseverance were and still are key to my victories in my academic path. I remember after I passed my matric which is an entry level in to a University, I lost my mother (who was the bread winner of my family), and I was thinking to myself how am I going to go to University to study. But because my mom always motivated me that education is the key that opens doors, I told myself I will work hard in my studies to always achieve merit so that I can qualify for bursaries. Indeed, from my undergraduate until now in my PhD, I was able to get financial assistance based on my academic achievements. One of the most difficult and painful moments in my academic path was when I had to leave my MSc programme after two years without graduating as a result of lack of progress with my supervisor and scientific committees that were beyond my control. At a certain point I wanted to give up on my dream of pursuing my MSc and PhD in physiology because of this delay but through the support of family, colleagues and friends I was able to hold on and switch Universities and register the MSc with the institution where I am currently doing my PhD. And by the grace of God, I was able to complete my MSc in one year and the following year (2017) I registered for the PhD. Here I am, after two years of delay, going to attend the 68th Lindau Nobel Laureates Meeting as one of the top 600 young scientists in the world.

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

That would be the ESKOM EXPO for Young Scientist in South Africa. In this project, I basically mentor young scientist from primary and secondary school by assisting them with conducting and writing scientific research project for scientific competitions hosted by the ESKOM EXPO for Young Scientist as a way of motivating the learners from a younger age to remain and grow in science. It always amazes me when I see the learners solving the problems and challenges they face every day in their communities or schools by applying scientific methodology and going back to the communities to implement what they have learnt. In this process, they get to have fun and still discover many possibilities within science. Knowing that I have contributed to a young person, especially a girl child, to realise their dreams fulfils my heart, because it is not every day that you see young girls getting involved in science projects.

 

From left: Edith, a learner she mentored and another mentor. Photo/Credit: Courtesy of Edith Phalane

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

Recently, together with my colleague (Blessing Ahiante) we went to rural communities (Tzaneen, Limpopo Province, South Africa) to raise awareness and educate the people on the importance of regularly monitoring their blood pressure as part of the May Measurement Month 2018 campaign. In addition to raising awareness on blood pressure, we also included awareness on diabetes mellitus, hyperlipidaemia and body weight. Together with the local clinics, hospitals, nurses and medical doctors, we were able to measure their blood pressure, test for glucose and lipid levels, check their body mass index and advise on how to live a healthy lifestyle and all of this service was done for free. 

I felt very proud to have shared what I know and understand scientifically and explain to the people in a simple term and language they could understand and relate to. The event was done in an open field and it was cold and raining, so seeing people from all different age groups coming out in their numbers to be part of the initiative really touched me. Most of the individuals who already had one or more of the chronic illness (either hypertension or diabetes) did not even understand what this chronic illness was and how to manage it except form taking the medication, but after explaining to them the importance of living a healthy lifestyle they were ready and willing to implement those suggestions and even requested that we write it down for them so that they can remember it.

As scientists, we often only publish our work, forgetting that the people back in the rural and urban areas do not understand the bombastic terms (scientific and medical) we use in our publications and often cannot read because most of them are illiterate and do not even have access to our work. Hence, it is very important for us to go in to these communities and explain our findings as they impact their lives. If we want to reduce the burden of cardiovascular disease, I believe that awareness and education is key. I believe that, as a researcher, you have not done justice if you do not go back to the communities and share your findings or knowledge on the project that you are working on, especially if it involves the lives of people. In particular, since I am working on cardiovascular disease development in HIV infected individuals, it is of utmost importance to me to go in to these communities to raise awareness and education on how to prevent and manage cardiovascular disease and how to prevent HIV transmission.

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

My day starts at 9 am until midnight depending on how far I have made progress with my work. In the morning, I assist with clinical work, with collecting data on flow-media dilation for one of the studies that is currently running in our department of physiology. During the day, I usually go to the schools where I am assisting with mentoring the learners for ESKOM EXPO for young scientist or I read up their work. From afternoon until late midnight, I work on my research doing statistical analyses, writing up and reading articles.

What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?

I enjoy doing research and working with the communities by sharing skills and knowledge and also learning from them. After my PhD, I want to pursue a post-doctoral degree to focus more on the mechanism (molecular studies) of cardiovascular disease development in HIV infection to improve the understanding thereof. I want to get more involved in research projects that involve communities with intervention studies to improve the lives of our people.

 

From my right: Edith and other volunteers during the May Measurement Month campaign in Tzaneen, South Africa. Photo/Credit: Courtesy of Edith Phalane

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

If I am not doing research I like spending time with my kids, family and friends. It’s also an opportunity for me to assist with the mentoring of the young scientist for the ESKOM EXPO for Young Scientist and doing community outreaches.

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

Follow your dreams and do what you love most. The world of science is interesting, and there are many adventures to explore while having fun at it. Challenges will be there, but know that you are more than a conqueror.

In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in physiology or medicine?

Science is very broad and there are many scientist who work day and night to make discoveries. I believe the next breakthrough in science would be finding cure for HIV/AIDS or drugs to stop transmission of HIV. 

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

I believe women need to see examples or role model of female figures in science to show them that not only man can make it in science, that science is for all and that it does not know gender boundaries or differences. Usually, after having children and getting married women lose their ambition to achieve their dreams due to a lack of support, as they have to multitask being a mother and a wife. Women need support, to let them know that it is possible to study further even if you are a mother or wife. I believe that part-time studies would be beneficial in such cases but most women do not know about this, they think you must be in school full time.

Women are often discouraged to pursue their dreams, I usually receive comments from people (both men and women) saying “who will marry you with your high qualifications, no man wants a woman who is too educated” or “who will employ you with your many qualification, you are over-qualified for a woman”. So women need role models to look up to and seminars on advancing women in science to talk about the challenges women face and how to overcome those challenges.

Women in Research at #LINO18: Forough Khadem from Iran

This interview is part of a series of interviews of the “Women in Research” blog that features young female scientists participating in the 68th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting to increase the visibility of women in research (more information for and about women in science by “Women in Research” on Facebook and Twitter).

 

Photo/Credit: Courtesy of Forough Khadem

#LINO18 young scientist Forough Khadem, 36, from Iran, is a Business Development (BD) Specialist at Mitacs and the Western Canadian Innovation Offices (WCIO) in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.

Her PhD research contributed to new scientific knowledge on understanding the host-pathogen interaction during visceral leishmaniasis (a deadly parasitic disease) by focusing on Leishmania donovani as the pathogen and phosphoinositide 3 kinase (PI3K) pathway as the host factor in murine model of the disease. She successfully identified a novel vaccine/drug candidate against leishmaniasis. Enjoy the interview with Forough and get inspired!

What inspired you to pursue a career in science?

My parents definitely sparked my curiosity towards science and encouraged me to think outside the box by developing reasoning and inquisitiveness about the world around me and its mysteries in my childhood. While growing up in Iran and New Zealand, I observed how relentlessly my dad worked/studied toward his higher education in science. I also saw how my mum was a major support in this process and she always encouraged me to be passionate about science due to its potential to improve lives and humanity. This was what inspired me to pursue a career in science and medicine. As I got older and wiser I realised that being involved in science and helping to develop innovative ideas is very important as it helps me to transcend across cultural, geopolitical and religious differences and barriers. This has been the driving force that motivates me to learn and study as much as I can and be a visionary leader and be passionate to make a difference in the community worldwide by contributing my time towards research and partnership building.

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

I don’t have one single cool project that stands out, each project that I did in my BSc, MSc, PhD or the projects that I support in my current position all have their own different exclusivity.

For example, part of my BSc research studies contributed to the production of the BARVAR-2 (a Phosphate Bio-fertilizer), which is now being used by farmers in Iran and other countries and has been shown to significantly increase crop productivity. The Interdisciplinary research I performed in my MSc is still being evaluated by the company it was funded by, to see if it is viable to be commercialised as a plant-based medicinal agent for tuberculosis therapy. My PhD research provided outstanding novel understandings into the mechanisms involved in the development and regulation of immunity in visceral leishmaniasis. The data obtained also introduced a drug target in the form of immunotherapy for both visceral and cutaneous leishmaniasis. In my current role, I have helped (and continue to) match private company and non-profit organisation dollars to build collaborative research projects with the academic sector that are so far valued at $2,085,000 and $5,000,000 for Mitacs and WCIO funded projects.

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

I would like to rephrase this question as I hardly ever feel pride in what I do, but I aspire to be inspiring to others and be so humble and approachable to my peers and the individuals that I work with, so that they find it seamless to approach me in any instance. I should add that whenever a task is very demanding or time-consuming or when I reach a milestone in my career, I feel very happy.

For example, during the first year of my PhD degree, I attended a lecture at Canadian Student Health Research Forum (CSHRF), given by a Postdoc who had attended a Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting and was talking about the once-in-a life time experience he had. Right then, I said to myself: “I want to be that person!” Even though I dealt with two challenges, adopting to the new field of research (Plant Science to Immunology), and combating a health issue, they did not stop me from being successful to the fullest and finally winning the competition to honourably being nominated to attend the Lindau Meeting. I have been very ecstatic ever since I found out that I have been selected to attend both the Lindau Meeting and the Baden-Württemberg International post conference programme. I will cherish the experience of connecting with the Nobel Laureates and other young scientists and cherishing every day of these meetings forever.

 

Photo/Credit: Courtesy of Forough Khadem

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

After graduating from PhD in Immunology, I became a Business Development Specialist at Mitacs, a Not for Profit organisation that supports research-based innovation by working with its partners in industry, academia and government, and WCIO, Western Canadian Innovation Offices, where Technology Transfer Offices in Western Canadian Secondary Institutes have virtually joined, to improve engagement between industry and academia to address industry-driven innovation needs. In this role, I engage with Manitoba’s vibrant innovative research, technology and start-up community to promote collaborative research between academia and industries. I do not remember having a boring day or having to do similar things for two days in a row, because there’s always something new to learn or do or some new place to go to. I Usually have long working days starting at 9 am with meetings with past or new clients in industries, academic supervisors, faculty or department heads and deans and students or trainees usually ending by 5 or 6 pm, but internal/external emails are always there until 10 or 11 pm! I enjoy the life style, as I can arrange my meetings of the day according to my needs of that day. Due to my efforts in building a bridge between industry and academia research collaborations in Manitoba and Western Canadian ecosystems, I have been selected as a successful Manitoba newcomer, leader, innovator and trailblazer by CBC’s #iamMB for Canada’s 150th Birthday. As I don’t get the time to eat lunch with my colleagues (or department members as I used to during my PhD program), I try to arrange a dinner with my friends/colleagues in a local restaurant once a week or every two weeks and I have had a chance to try almost all the good places in town (we even have a few favourite ones).

What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?

I believe that everyone has to work hard to build a unique skill set that would make them stand out from the crowed if they want to be successful in life and if they deeply want to give back to their community. This is extremely important to me as I have received free higher education to the fullest quality in a public and free system in Iran and New Zealand, and I have used a lot of scholarships for my education in Canada. During the past years I have built a strong diverse scientific background in plant biology, immunology and infectious diseases, robust entrepreneurial spirit, business development and leadership skills, partnership building aptitude and ability to think outside the box and try new things. I hope that this expertise will help me develop creative ideas and implement continuous improvements to the overall growth and success of any organisation (academic, not for profit or industry) that I work in. I also hope that I can maintain my multicultural professional and social networks to start national and international collaborations in bigger capacities. As a lifelong teacher, I would also like to continue to create a challenging but positive learning atmosphere that intellectually stimulates students, embraces the evolution of learning techniques and bridges students from disadvantaged backgrounds with educational opportunities that expose them to scientific career paths.

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

Although I have had a very busy research life, I have still managed to volunteer in many industry and academia associations, research networks, NGOs and non-profit organisations, organised many national and international workshops, conferences and meetings, volunteered for leadership, teaching and departmental and community outreach programmes to develop interest in youth and underprivileged kids towards science. After an intense day in the lab, nothing calms me down more than either cooking in massive amounts or taking a drive to my favourite places in the city. Therefore, my friends and family have definitely benefited from my cooking and spontaneous offers of going places! I also like to read, paint, watch news, HGTV or Netflix.

 

Photo/Credit: Courtesy of Forough Khadem

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

As a young woman researcher living in Canada, I have been passionate about inspiring, empowering and mentoring other scientists in general and female individuals specifically. I believe sharing my experiences through teaching and mentoring and complimenting other young scientists will influence their lives and career path in a very positive way.

I believe that where there is a will, there is a way! Therefore, although dreaming of a career in science is something that comes with its challenges, hardships, long hours, low salaries, sometimes dealing with choosing between your personal life and professional life (which is very unfortunate in this day and age!), one should never fear anything and always enjoy the unearthing that the journey brings and the success and happiness that comes after achieving one’s goals and milestones in life.

I also would mention: believe that nothing is impossible! Be yourself and never live the life or choose the career that others want you to live or choose! This is how you can become unique, forward looking and discover novel findings.

In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in physiology or medicine?

The field of physiology and medicine is tremendously comprehensive; hence, it is tough to determine a single breakthrough predicted in it in the coming years. However, I do believe that scientists and researchers in academic institutes and industries internationally need to work and collaborate more closely together in order to bridge the gaps and enhance advanced findings in these fields specifically in personalised and computational predictive medicine. building a bridge between industry and academia will reduce costs in highly advanced research and result in more dynamic and accurate data sets, outcomes and possibly future personalised therapies or preventative measures. 

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

Internationally, there is a very interesting situation of gender distribution in various levels of education in STEM. With many female students being admitted to different undergraduate or graduate programmes but not so many women having academic or executive roles in research or industries such as being Professors, Heads of Departments/Faculties, Chairs, Vice Presidents, Presidents, CEO’s and etc.

I believe that in the STEM fields, we need great minds of all genders. There should be no classification, and everyone should be equal. It is a disappointment that in this modern world we are still concerned about how to increase the number of female scientists, professors and employees, but as long as unequal pay and preference of men over women in work environments still exists we are going to have to find ways to close the gap between gender inequality in different organisations. To do so maybe the following options could be beneficial:

  • Create a platform to help men and other family members realise that their female partners or colleagues do not have to work full time at their jobs and also manage all their personal family life on their own. It is Ok, to ask a partner or family member to help with a sick child and pick up and drop offs from school or from extracurricular activities!
  • Help women have a more efficient work-life balance by providing appropriate programmes. Adequate high capacity and high-quality day cares at work places that are open late could be an advantage.
  • Taking the full time dedicated to maternity leave is fine and it does not mean that women will have to come back to no job position or with less knowledge than before.
  • Women should start having each other’s backs instead of being each other’s enemies. If each successful woman becomes another colleague’s mentor or trusted advisor, this will help build trust and success for both parties.
  • Providing exclusive government or private research funding, scholarships or fellowships for femal scientists in underdeveloped, developing or developed countries based on their international and industry collaborations could increase their success rate for getting funded.
  • Academic, government and industry positions envisioned only for women, to which other applicants cannot apply to, would be a good way to secure positions for women at workplaces.

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

While living in New Zealand as a child, I learned English as a second language, got involved in competitive sports, arts and music, developed computer and leadership skills and learned how to work successfully in collaborative environments. When I got back to Iran in my teenage years, my urge to give back to my home country and help engendered me to voluntarily start teaching English, computer and music to my classmates and others. Since many contemporary issues are written in English, I believed that teaching women to read and write in English and connect to the world via the internet would liberate their minds and open new frontiers for them.

After passing the Konkoor entrance exam on the second attempt (as I was changing fields from mathematics to biology) and successfully ranking 800, I was accepted for the BSc. degree in Plant Biology at the University of Tehran. During my BSc period (2000-2004), I became familiar with various theoretical and practical aspects of basic and plant biology, but I did not limit myself only to these fields, which were my primary area of research. Instead, I tried to explore other fields and thus I voluntarily became an active member of the Genetic and Biotechnology Societies of Iran. I voluntarily established and maintained (as admin) the Iranian Geneticists and Biotechnologists Database (IGBD). I recruited over 3000 Iranian Genetic, Biotechnology and Medical Science researchers to be participants of the IGBD which contained information on the researcher’s themselves and their research interests. I also played significant leadership roles as one of the executive committee members organising national and international conferences. I gained a lot of leadership skills and made scientific connections with other researchers. My BSc thesis project was a collaborative venture between Plant Physiology and Microbiology Laboratories of University of Tehran and a private company that was owned by the chairperson of the Genetic Society of Iran. Part of my research studies contributed to the production of the Green Biotech’s BARVAR-2 Phosphate Biofertilizer, which is now being used by farmers in Iran and other countries and has significantly increased crop productivity.

To enter the next level of my higher education, I passed another entrance exam after the second attempt, successfully gained rank 39, and was qualified for MSc in Plant Biology at the Tarbiat Modares University (2005-2008). My MSc research focused on the comparative study of the extracted alkaloids of two local plant medicinal species and their effects on the growth and viability of Mycobacterium bovis BCG. This was a collaborative work between Tarbiat Modares University and Pasteur Institutes of Iran and Paris. The research component was funded by Rastadaroo Co, a biotech, Immunology and pharmaceutical start-up company that was owned by one of my supervisors. I also mainly became involved in some immunology projects, through one of my four supervisors, Dr. M. Abolhassani – an immunologist at Pasteur Institute of Iran & Institut Pasteur (Paris, France) and the owner of Rastadaroo, and also Professor S. Rafati – Head of Molecular Immunology and Vaccine Research Laboratory-Pasteur Institute of Iran.

During my MSc, I was employed by Rastadaroo as Sales Representative. After the completion of my Masters, I got promoted to Sales Manager and Scientific Workshops, IT & Publication Director (2005–2009). I was able to increase sales, design and publish all the marketing tools, establish and build partnerships with other Iranian companies, research institutes and foreign companies and organise and lecture in scientific workshops. I learned how to establish, run and develop a company from A to Z and also gained a lot of leadership and management skills in the field of business and scientific research. I also helped increase the employees from three individuals (myself, CEO and the founder) to 10 individuals before kindly declining the CEO position offered to me in order to pursue my post-secondary education in Canada.

I first met Professor Jude Uzonna in an International workshop in Iran (2008) as his translator and a member of the workshop executive committee. During our farewells, he mentioned that I can call him anytime, if I ever wanted to study Immunology at University of Manitoba and so I did call him! That is how Dr. Uzonna enabled me to change the path of my higher education and opened new frontiers in my scientific career by helping me to pursue my PhD degree in Immunology. My PhD training at the University of Manitoba (2010-2016), allowed me to enhance my scientific knowledge in the field of Immunology and infectious diseases. My PhD research was targeted at studying the host-pathogen interaction during visceral leishmaniasis (a deadly parasitic disease). Data from my research showed that mice with inactivating knock-in mutation in the p110δ isoform of PI3K signalling pathway are hyper-resistant to Leishmania infection. I also addressed the role of Hepatic Stellate Cells and their impact on regulatory T cell induction/expansion in the pathogenesis/immunity to visceral leishmaniasis for the first time. I then demonstrated that treatment of Leishmania-infected mice with a pharmacological inhibitor of p110δ (CAL-101) confers protection against experimental visceral and cutaneous leishmaniasis. My PhD research suggested that targeting the PI3K pathway may have important and direct implications for immunotherapy of leishmaniasis.

I presented my work at four invited lecturs, 15 poster presentations, three oral presentations and eight scientific publications. As a result, I received one studentship award (the only award I could apply for as an international student at the time), two tuition scholarships, one course/workshop registration bursary, one award for excellence in graduate research (Apotex Fermentation Inc. Major Award for Molecular Biology Research from Collage Committee for Graduate Studies), 11 travel awards and 10 poster awards. I was also selected as a finalist in the 3-Minute Thesis Competition.

 

Photo/Credit: Courtesy of Forough Khadem

During my PhD programme, I was actively involved in school politics as University of Manitoba health Sciences Graduate Students’ Association (HSGSA)-Vice President Academics and Department of Immunology-Student Deputy Representative. I also volunteered for leadership and teaching roles in departmental and community outreach programmes. As a result, I was nominated as the CBC’s 40 under 40 successful youth leaders, which celebrates Manitoba’s new generation of leaders, builders and change-makers under the age of 40.

It is worth mentioning that I also tackled a health issue during my PhD programme and with the support of my supervisor, lab members, close friends and family, I was able to overcome the hard times and learn how to deal with the situation. This lead me to think outside the box for my future career path after the PhD and not take the usual post-doctoral path. It got me thinking that with the entrepreneurial spirit in me and with all the business experience I had gained in the past, and with my desire to bridge academia to industry via supporting collaborative research between the two organisations, joining organisations such as Mitacs and Western Canadian Innovation Offices (WCIO) would be a great fit for me.

 

 

Who are your role models?

Many grand people in science and non-scientific fields have influenced me in my day to day journey and they are in different areas of life. There are many women and men who I have admired for their courage, skill set and dedication to make this world a better place to live and work and to bring EQUITY among all in the world. I have gained many valuable experiences from my father (Dr. A. Khadem), my BSc. (Dr. S. Zare and Dr. M. Malboobi), MSc. (Dr. H. Zare Maivan, Dr. M. Abolhassani, Dr. M. Sharifi and Dr. M. Salimi,) and PhD mentors (Dr. J. Uzonna, Dr. E. Eftekharpour, Dr. N. Mookherjee and Dr. A Marshall), community influencers (Oprah Winfrey, Ellen DeGeneres), friends and family and my social, academic and industry networks (Dr. S. Rafati, Mr. B. YazdanPanah, Dr. K. HayGlass, Dr. D. Lanoway, Dr. L. Saward, Dr. J. E. Ghia, late Dr. R. Moqbel, Dr. A Soussi Gounni, Dr. P Nickerson and Dr. E. Kroeger, Dr. A. Halayko, Dr. K. Fowke). I have treasured these unique opportunities to enhance my scientific, professional, marketing and management skills.

Women in Research at #LINO18: Miriam Van Dyke from the United States

This interview is part of a series of interviews of the “Women in Research” blog that features young female scientists participating in the 68th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting to increase the visibility of women in research (more information for and about women in science by “Women in Research” on Facebook and Twitter).

 

Photo/Credit: Courtesy of Miriam van Dyke

#LINO18 young scientist Miriam Van Dyke, 27, from the United States is a Ph.D. student in the Epidemiology programme at Emory University in Atlanta.

Her research examines how the distribution of heart disease in a population varies by race, place and/or class. It also aims to identify factors (i.e. psychosocial stress or social policies) that may contribute to differences in the burden of heart disease by race, place and/or class. Enjoy the interview with Miriam and get inspired!

 

What inspired you to pursue a career in science?

I wasn’t necessarily inspired — I just followed what I was interested in and passionate about — and that was research. Research intrigues me for many reasons. The most important reason I am drawn to research is that with it you can identify important problems and figure out how your unique perspective can build upon what is already known about a topic in order to find innovative solutions.

Who are your role models?

One of my role models is Michelle Obama. Her eloquence, stature, compassion and strong drive is something I strive to embody every day as an advocate for the health and life opportunities of marginalised populations. 

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

I graduated from the University of Alabama at Birmingham with a Bachelor’s degree in nuclear medicine technology. During my time as an undergraduate student, I participated in cancer research which sparked my interest in entering into a Master’s programme in epidemiology (which is a subfield in public health). During my first year of the Master’s in public health programme at Emory University, I continued to research cancer and even did an internship at the National Cancer Institute where I analysed data and wrote a manuscript on occupational radiation exposure trends. During my last year in the master’s programme, I identified that I was passionate about health disparities, and I wrote my master’s thesis on discrimination and sleep quality. Because I knew that I wanted to hold a leadership position in public health later on in my career, I decided to apply and enroll in the PhD program at Emory University in Epidemiology, which is where I am at now! Through my entire school career thus far, I have had amazing mentors that have guided me through career and training decisions, edited personal statements for applications and taught me important life lessons. One particular obstacle that I had to overcome was learning that I was capable of learning difficult material related to quantitative theory and methods. During my first two years in the PhD program I constantly struggled with material and self-confidence. It was the support from other friends in the programme and mentors that helped me push through and gain the momentum I needed to conquer tests, including the most important one — our written qualifying exam. The motto “don’t think about it, just do it” was one my friend in the programme, Veronica, instilled in me, and to this day, I still lean on it in times of doubt and difficulty.

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

One of the coolest things I had the opportunity of working on was an analysis examining the relationship between increases in state-level minimum wages and heart disease death rates in the United States. Minimum wage is something that can be relatively easy to change compared to many other “exposures” in public health research. Through this analysis, I was able to add to the growing body of evidence that shows the possible positive health benefits of raising the minimum wage in the United States.

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

I wouldn’t say that there has necessarily been a specific time where I felt immense pride in myself/work. However, I will say that every time one of my manuscripts is published, I am overcome with thankfulness as I know the research I have just published is a meaningful contribution to a specific area. Also, every manuscript that is published is worthy of celebration, as the process of publishing in peer reviewed journals is not for the faint of heart and doesn’t happen every day. Thus, we as scientists must celebrate when we are given the opportunity — and publishing a manuscript is definitely one of those times.

Photo/Credit: Courtesy of Miriam Van Dyke

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

Most days consist of me answering emails in the morning and then commuting to school where I conduct analysis mostly using SAS and working on manuscripts I’m writing. When school is in session, I serve as a teaching assistant and teach a supplementary course or “lab” once a week for an epidemiology methods course. 

What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?

I seek to conduct research that will in part lead to public policy changes that positively impact the life opportunities and health of marginalised populations in the United States and across the world. I know that’s quite an accomplishment to fathom, but it is possible. For example, I have published on the relationship between changes in state-level minimum wages and heart disease death rates in the U.S. The study published provides evidence of the possible beneficial relationship between increases in hourly wages and improvements in heart health at the population-level. Although there are more questions still to be answered, this research is a step in the right direction.

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

I have recently taken up cycling and hiking. Instead of driving to school 1-2 days per week, I have chosen to commute via bicycle, and I also bike during the weekend on hiking trails. I also enjoy volunteering in my free time. Recently, I have been volunteering with an organisation that provides services to individuals and families experiencing homelessness. Additionally, I am known for my muffin baking! In my free time, I like to bake a variety of muffins. My latest muffin creation was a lemon honey chia seed muffin.

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

My advice to other women would be to find a great and invested mentor who will advocate on your behalf for opportunities that will progress your training and career. Having at least one person who has successfully navigated the challenges of the field, (and of even being a woman in the field), can prove invaluable at many junctures during your training and later career.

Photo/Credit: Courtesy of Miriam Van Dyke

In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in physiology or medicine?

I am a large proponent of realizing the valuable scientific evidence that has already accumulated and finding ways to leverage it and create ways to improve its translation into public policy and clinical or public health practice. Thus, I believe the next great breakthrough in science/ physiology and medicine will be the creation of innovative ways to increase access to health prevention and treatment. In this context, access could encompass many things, whether it be physical and financial access or the identification of societal barriers and integration of cultural norms. While scientific inquiry and new research is critically important, we have made advances and have identified points of intervention. Now, it is time to identify ways in which all groups in society can equally benefit from those advances.

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

Where I live in the Southeastern part of the United States, a large proportion of researchers and practitioners working in the public health field are actually female. Thus, it is not necessarily a numbers problem, but a power dynamic problem as I have noticed there are a disproportionate number of males in positions of power and leadership in the field. So, the goal where I am currently located would be to provide an equal opportunity environment for females to be actively considered and promoted into leadership roles across the public health field. There are a couple of things that could be done to encourage this culture/practice. One would be to ensure that females are included on committees that interview new applicants and in the final hiring decisions for leadership positions.

Women in Research at #LINO18: Arunima Roy from India

This interview is part of a series of interviews of the “Women in Research” blog that features young female scientists participating in the 68th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting to increase the visibility of women in research (more information for and about women in science by “Women in Research” on Facebook and Twitter).

 

Photo/Credit: Courtesy of Arunima Roy

Arunima Roy, 30, from India, is an Alexander von Humboldt postdoctoral fellow at the University of Würzburg, Germany.

She studies why children with psychiatric disorders cope in vastly different ways. Some children are resilient to their mental health problems and have relatively better life outcomes than others. The hope is that if they understand what enables these few children to cope well, they can eventually help everyone to reach their full potential despite their psychiatric problems. Enjoy the interview with Arunima and get inspired.

What inspired you to pursue a career in science?

I have always been interested in understanding child development and human behaviour. I trained as a medical doctor and was keen on becoming a psychiatrist. However, it was during my undergraduate internship in the psychiatric department that I realised we know little of the human brain. Even though certain psychiatric disorders have been well studied in human populations, we don’t understand why and how they occur. Combined with the lack of objective tests and limited treatments, psychiatry is perhaps the most complex of all medical specialisations, and despite these limitations, physicians still must help treat the very real mental health problems of very real people. For these reasons, I turned to science, in the hope that perhaps I could contribute to our understanding of neurodevelopment and mental health.

Looking back, that was a very naïve outlook. I cannot hope to understand all the brain’s secrets on my own. In fact, one person may not even be able to grasp all that is already known about the brain.

The brain is a very complex organ and understanding its functioning in humans has so far proved to be very difficult. We are only beginning to get a glimpse of its mechanisms for some functions that we consider very basic, such as ‘what happens when we look at an object?’, ‘how do we remember?’, or ‘how do we find our way?’.  Despite the disillusionment (that I will not be able to research my way through all of psychiatry and neurodevelopment) I am not in any way disheartened, as neuroscience keeps me on my toes with the exciting mysteries I get to encounter and solve.

Who are your role models?

My biggest scientific inspirations are Michael Faraday and Émilie du Châtelet. Faraday was entirely self-taught back when science was a leisurely hobby pursued by upper class men who had the time and money to invest in research. Du Châtelet, though not entirely self-taught, was persistent in educating herself. She immersed herself into mathematics and physics at a time when it was highly unusual for women to study at all. This maverick spirit showed up throughout her life: she wrote a lengthy critique of the Bible and used her mathematical knowledge to develop gambling strategies. Both these scientists made momentous contributions; Faraday is known for his electromagnetic theory, while du Châtelet challenged the understanding of kinetic energy and momentum. Both these people are inspiring because their lives demonstrate it is possible to excel in science if one has the will to overcome obstacles.

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

After graduating from medical school in India, I joined the doctoral program at the University of Groningen, in the Netherlands. Here, I worked at the department of psychiatric epidemiology and psychology. Coming from a medical background, I had little research experience, so I had to retrain myself to conduct scientific studies. I completed my Ph.D. in two years, following which I was awarded a fellowship to join the psychiatry department at McGill University, Canada. There, my task included analysing data from a large longitudinal clinical cohort. I advised medical residents and psychiatrists on statistics and research methodology, taught an epidemiology course, and took on administrative work for the graduate school. During this time, I also developed a project to understand the neural and genetic underpinnings of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in adulthood. After spending two years at the Psychiatry department at McGill, I received funding to join the molecular psychiatry division at Würzburg University, Germany, where I’ve been learning wet lab skills. I am currently investigating the influence of epigenetic changes on mental health.

I have been fortunate to have worked with some of the most supportive individuals during my research career. Prof. Tineke Oldehinkel, my Ph.D. supervisor at the Groningen University, not only helped me develop my scientific abilities and critical thinking capabilities, but also immensely supported me in my research endeavours. Prof. Lily Hechtman, my supervisor during my McGill traineeship, was an enormous source of inspiration. She juggles clinical practice and research and works literally non-stop. Seeing her dedication to research made me work harder. Despite her busy schedule, whenever I asked advice, be it the middle of the night, at 4 am in the morning or on a weekend, I always received her feedback swiftly. Her mentoring has taught me essential skills in supervision.

The obstacles in this journey were the difficulties I faced in broadening my research expertise. I always wanted to do interdisciplinary research, however, the process of getting there was tough: no one would want to take a chance on a person who was not trained in their research area and I found it hard to get the experience I needed in other research fields. In fact, coming from a background in medicine, I was also impeded on my way to pursing a Ph.D., as it was believed to be difficult to transition from medicine to epidemiological research. However, I learned the statistical skills needed for my doctoral studies in under half a year and I am glad all that is now behind me.

But ironically, one of the biggest obstacles in science isn’t the science itself. It’s finding the funding to be allowed to do science at all. The hardest part of every position has been finding the next one, and it’s a sad state that instead of using our mental energies to wrangle datasets, today’s young scientists are spending their productive energies hunting for new grants.

 

Photo/Credit: Courtesy of Arunima Roy

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

It’s hard to pick a single project. What I love the most about science is the process; refining the unknowns into testable hypotheses, developing an apt experiment, gathering data and, the most fun of all, analysing and making sense of the results. At the end of it all, every project ever done and to be done will be exciting and a step forward in our understanding of our universe (or multiverse?).

 

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

I feel privileged to be able to do research. I am happy that I am at the forefront of human knowledge, I am happy that I get to interact with the experts in numerous fields, and I am grateful that I can participate in the important task of altering (in a good way) humanity’s views of the world.

All that said, you can’t beat external validation. One spends so long toiling away in the lab or staring at numbers on the screen that it’s great to see your work be recognised, whether it’s getting papers published, getting invited to present at conferences or being interviewed about your research.

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

My day starts at 6 am when I use my early morning energy to read papers. I arrive at work at 9 am, where I try to complete all high-priority efforts by noon, such as writing or editing my manuscripts and sending important emails. Lunch time is at my desk, I usually use it to get more reading done. After that I either run experiments in the lab or do data analysis, while responding to incoming emails. Between 5 pm and 7 pm, I either attend a meeting or complete work left over from the day, such as unattended emails. I arrive home by 7 pm, where I usually cook dinner and finish other chores. With any luck, before bed I can find the time to finish up the day’s emails.

What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?

It’s nice to be published and present my work at academic conferences, but ultimately, I’d like my career to affect the broader world. I want to be useful for doctors developing new treatments, and I want this research to eventually help people with mental health problems.

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

What free time are you talking about?? (my boss will be reading this…)

Okay, okay, I sometimes dance, sometimes play games, sometimes try to write, then fail, then try again… I read many books, but I don’t think I’ve finished one since I started medicine. A busy week will distract me, and when I come back to the books I was reading I find myself re-reading previous sections I’d forgotten. I like cooking, but only if there is someone to feed it to (Yes, I have become my mother and it is too late to do anything about it).

Photo/Credit: Courtesy of Arunima Roy

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

One of the biggest determinants of your scientific career is going to be your mentors. The search for a good mentor can be difficult, but it’s not something you can afford to neglect.

Keep trying your hand at the things you want to do, even if people say otherwise. I mean, if I took the advice of people around me I would have neither gotten my medicine degree, nor completed a PhD. So, if there’s something you want to do, just go for it.

In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in physiology or medicine?

I think the modern information technology revolution suggests a lot of promise from its biological analogues. If we can decipher DNA or the workings of the brain, it could usher in whole new paradigms of biological science in the way that the emergence of computers and the internet created whole new fields. The possibilities seem unbounded:  artificial creation of DNA? Data storage on DNA? Also, I want dinosaurs, and no number of Jurassic Park movies will dissuade me.

Maybe one breakthrough will be in neuroscience – it is possible. We have some good technologies to peep into neural circuits and functions in vivo.

There are of course more down-to-earth hopes. I hope Alzheimer’s is curable soon, infectious diseases are wiped out, prenatal screens eliminate infant morbidity, fertility spans are improved. Another thing that will probably happen soon is a further reduction in cancer fatality rates (fingers crossed). We’ve been making progress for quite some time now, and many people seem to miss one of the biggest causes for optimism: although cancer has been a tough nut to crack, unlike viruses or bacteria, cancer doesn’t evolve. So once we’ve cured a cancer, it’s beaten for good.

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

Right now, we have too many female scientists and too few female professors. Until we can increase women’s prospects of “making it” in academia, increasing the number of women in the academy’s lowest ranks is doing more harm than good! People joke that the progress we’ve made in representation has come from higher-paying jobs luring all the men away.

Grant applications should be blinded, especially since some of the best justifications for unblinded applications don’t apply here: a grant committee rarely needs to interview candidates, after all. Even when this measure is demonstrated to increase womens’ funding opportunities, there seems to be little will to implement it.

I don’t like the commonly floated options of better maternity and childcare support in academia, simply because there should be better maternity and childcare support for everyone. Only then will women be truly free to pursue any career they wish.

Women in Research at #LINO18: Nataly from Lebanon

This interview is part of a series of interviews of the “Women in Research” blog that features young female scientists participating in the 68th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting to increase the visibility of women in research (more information for and about women in science by “Women in Research” on Facebook and Twitter).

 

Photo/Credit: Courtesy of Nataly Naser Al Deen

#LINO18 young scientist, Nataly Naser Al Deen, 27 from Lebanon,  is a Ph.D. Candidate in her 3rd year in Cell and Molecular Biology at the American University of Beirut (AUB), Lebanon. 

Her Ph.D. research project aims to delineate if microRNAs associated with disrupting breast epithelial morphology identified in young Lebanese breast cancer patients are involved in higher risk of early onset breast cancer. Her laboratory has previously profiled the miRNome and transcriptome of  young Lebanese breast cancer patients compared to normal adjacent tissues and they are working on recapitulating the results in their breast cancer risk progression series 3D culture system and gradient-on-a-chip technology, by characterising the corresponding miRNome, transcriptome and signaling pathways through miRNA-and-mRNA-sequencing. This project will bring initial information on whether microRNAs (miRNAs) associated with morphological disruptions of the breast epitheliumacini and identified in young women with breast cancer are involved in higher risk of early breast cancer onset. It will improve population health outcomes, notably in women, by providing proof-of-principle of how data from populations at heightened breast cancer risk in Lebanon, under critical environmental and socioeconomic conditions, can help primary prevention research. Enjoy the interview with Nataly and get inspired!

What inspired you to pursue a career in science?

With my mother working at the Lebanese Red Cross and my uncles working as a neuro-surgeon and a medical lab physician, I was always fascinated with science and medicine as a child. I was impressed by their work and wanted to impact the medical and research field myself. Growing up, I remember the library at my grandparents’ house with medical and biology books that belonged to my mother and maternal uncles. I used to flip through the books with fascination, looking at images that seemed like magic to me. I have always had a fervent interest in perusing a medical degree, but after attending the American University in Cairo, I discovered my love for research and academia. I undertook my first research project in 2011 during my semester abroad at the University of South Carolina, USC. Upon my return to Cairo, I took an oncology course at the Paediatric Cancer Hospital. I knew then that a career in cancer research was my calling. I conducted my undergraduate senior research project at Theodor Bilharz Research Institute, TBRI, on hepatocellular carcinoma on “YKL-40, a Novel Non-Invasive Biomarker as a Predictive and Prognostic Marker for HCV-Induced HCC” under the supervision of Dr. Suher Zada at AUC. I then pursued my master’s degree in Tumour Biology at Georgetown University in D.C., and I am currently pursuing my Ph.D. degree at the American University of Beirut (AUB) in Cell and Molecular Biology.

Who are your role models?

Growing up in a relatively small city in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon to a family of four sisters (including my fraternal twin sister), our mother has been our greatest supporter, cheerleader and educator. She always put our education first and pushed us to achieve our goals. Since she works with the Lebanese Red Cross, she taught us the importance of serving the community and aiding others, above all. So, on a personal level, I owe all my accomplishments and achievements to the bravest women in my life: my mother and my grandmother. As for my role models on the academic front, I value dedicated female scientists, who are also keen activists in the community, especially in the cancer research field. Thus, I can mention a few names of mentors that I look up to, including:

• Dr. Rihab Nasr (my Ph.D. co-advisor), who is an Associate Professor at the Department of Anatomy, Cell Biology and Physiological Sciences and the Director of Cancer Prevention and Control Program at the Faculty of Medicine at AUB. She is also the founder of Amalouna, an NGO at AUB that aims to spread awareness on cancer research and cancer prevention.

• Dr. Sophie Leleivre (our collaborator) who is a Professor of Cancer Pharmacology, at the Department of Basic Medical Sciences, College of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the Coleader for the International Breast Cancer & Nutriton (IBCN), a global research-based initiative that targets primary prevention of breast cancer through collaborative scientific efforts.

• Dr. Priscilla A. Furth, a Professor of Oncology & Medicine and the Associate Dean for Faculty Development at Georgetown, who runs a physical fitness clinic for breast cancer patients, survivors, and those at risk. Because of her, I was inspired to create my own exercise health initiative for breast cancer survivors in Lebanon three years ago called “Pink Steps”. It aims to promote physical fitness and a healthy lifestyle in breast cancer survivors in Lebanon.

And of course, I am forever grateful for all the support and guidance that my Ph.D. thesis mentor and advisor Dr. Rabih Talhouk, a Professor in Cell Biology at AUB, has continuously provided me with. I admire his vast contributions to the breast cancer research field over the years and his dedication as a member of the IBCN research network.

 

Photo/Credit: Courtesy of Nataly Naser Al Deen

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

It all started when I was 15 years old, when I was awarded the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study (YES) scholarship. I was granted the opportunity to live in Hawaii with a host family and attend Hilo High School for a year, as an exchange student. My eagerness for excellence did not stop there, and I was determined to continue my hard work. I was then awarded the Middle East Partnership Initiative- Tomorrow’s Leaders (MEPI-TL) Scholarship in 2009 to pursue my Bachelor of Science at the American University in Cairo, where I pursued a degree in Biology (pre-med), and minors in chemistry and psychology and conducted my thesis on hepatocellular carcinoma under the supervision of Dr. Suher Zada. After AUC, I was awarded the prestigious Fulbright Foreign Student scholarship in 2014 where I attended the Georgetown University Medical Centre in Washington D.C. and pursued my master’s degree in Tumour Biology. I was very proud to be part of Dr. Rebecca B. Riggings’ team at the Lombardi Cancer Center. Our work focused on the therapeutic targeting of the ETS family with the small molecule YK-4-279 as an effective strategy for the treatment of Triple Negative Breast Cancer, TNBC. My part in this joint research project was to test whether YK-4-279 is more efficacious in the absence of functional p53 in TNBC.

After I graduated from Georgetown in 2015, I knew that pursuing my PhD studies at the American University of Beirut was the ideal environment to strengthen my passion for research and enhance the depth of my knowledge. I was privileged and delighted to join Dr. Rabih Talhouk’s team, in collaboration with Dr. Rihab Nasr’s team at AUB, who are both members of the International Breast Cancer and Nutrition, IBCN network, with our collaborator at Purdue University Dr. Sophie Lelièvre (one of IBCN’s leaders). This gave me the honour of becoming an IBCN member. I am currently working on “microRNAs Dysregulated in Early Onset Breast Cancer in Lebanon and their Association with Loss of Morphogenesis of Breast Epithelium in a 3D Culture Model” as my Ph.D. thesis project. This is of high importance, especially because breast cancer incidences among young premenopausal women in Lebanon are alarming, with 22% of cases diagnosed in patients under the age of 40, compared to the 6% observed rate in Western countries.

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

I have enjoyed working on all of my previous research projects, including ones that focused on hepatocellular carcinoma, triple negative breast cancer and early breast cancer. However, my Ph.D. thesis work is of particular interest to me. I am learning a lot about miRNAs and their regulatory and biomarker functions, and currently, we are working on two collaborative side projects with the University of Toronto and Purdue University, respectively. These are adding new layers to our understanding of the interaction of miRNAs with key regulatory molecules (like circular RNAs) and the role of oxidative stress in facilitating tumourigenesis.

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

Being awarded various scholarships that fully supported all of my higher education thus far has been my greatest driving force for me to achieve more and give back to my community and the research and scientific fields. I have always felt immense pride in belonging to many prestigious alumni communities. Being amongst the KL-YES scholars, MEPI-TL scholars, Fulbright Scholars, and now, of course, being a member of the Lindau Nobel Laureate Alumni network is one more reminder to me to always dream big and pursue all my career goals.

Photo/Credit: Courtesy of Nataly Naser Al Deen

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

Well, usually I am more of a night owl, so on week days, I go to our laboratory in the morning, have my coffee and catch up on my emails, then I proceed to perform my planned experiments for the day. We usually have lab meetings, skype calls with our collaborators or discussions between lab members, so I try to plan that during the experiments’ incubation periods. I also teach introductory to biology laboratory, as part of my graduate assistantship duties once a week. When we have a deadline for a grant proposal or if we are writing a review book chapter or if I need to perform some bioinformatics analysis or dry-bench research, I work on them mainly during the weekends and sometimes I try to catch-up on work during weekdays as well. After I am done with my day at the lab, usually around 7-8 pm, I try to get in my daily exercise by going to the gym with my friends from other laboratories, then I head home and cook dinner and finish working on any dry work/writings (usually till around 1-2 am).

What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?

After I obtain my Ph.D. degree, I would like to continue in the cancer research field and academia and pursue a post-doctoral fellowship. I want to make an impact in the cancer research field, mainly through basic and translational research, and teach courses in oncology, and hopefully later have my own research team. However, I am fully devoted to my academic and professional responsibilities and I feel responsible for my community and the Alumni networks that I am part of. Thus, as a dedicated activist for breast cancer research and prevention, I dream of expanding my exercise health initiative for breast cancer survivors (Pink Steps) to other countries and establish it as an NGO.

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

When I am not doing research, I like to spend my time on sports activities, dancing, hiking, and most importantly, I dedicate my free time on weekends to my “Pink Steps” initiative. A cause that is very dear to my heart is empowering women, especially female cancer survivors. Thus, I combined both my passions for cancer research and sports into founding my own exercise health initiative for breast cancer survivors in Lebanon called “Pink Steps”. Pink Steps aims to promote physical fitness and a healthy lifestyle in breast cancer survivors in Lebanon. It was generously funded in 2015 through a Fulbright Alumni Community Action Grant, by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. Pink Steps is designed to increase the fitness level in survivors through daily walks (10,000 steps/day) performed at home or work, which are monitored through pedometers. Every Saturday, we meet for a group supervised walk at the American University of Beirut (AUB) green field, along with a session of yoga, Zumba, belly dancing, or core exercise. We also have nutritionists that offer dietary advice and food safety sessions, and we sometimes hold support group sessions such as stress-relief sessions, rebirthing/breathing exercises and mental health and wellness reflection sessions. Pink Steps has fostered a safe community for empowering female cancer survivors (especially breast cancer survivors), who have a common goal: to increase and improve their quality of life in order to combat cancer and prevent recurrence. Pink Steps is working to challenge the misconception that cancer patients should not exercise or be physically active. On the contrary, they need to exercise and eat healthier to feel stronger and fitter. I feel responsible for affecting a wide-scale change in my community, and this is just the beginning. Our family has been growing for the past three years, and we will make sure to keep on empowering more and more female cancer survivors who join our cause and help them lead a better and healthier lifestyle.

 

Photo/Credit: Courtesy of Nataly Naser Al Deen

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

I salute every single woman in science that has paved the way for all of the current female scientists and physicians to contribute to the countless accomplishments in the STEM field, and I encourage every single aspiring woman who is passionate about science to pursue her dreams to the fullest. I have great pride in every female in science. I really do not think we should give women any different advice than we give to any person interested in persuing this career. Believing in absolute equality, my only advice would be to follow your scientific passion, find what drives you in science and in aiding others, give it your all, and believe in yourself and your capabilities.

In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in physiology or medicine?

On a daily basis, we witness new breakthroughs in science and medicine, which help save lives and eradicate certain diseases. I believe that the new breakthroughs in science and medicine are leaning towards devising techniques and making use of big data and high-throughput analysis to characterise biomarkers for early detection/prevention of cancer through personalised medicine, liquid biopsies, cancer vaccines and tailored interventions for cancer prevention.

Photo/Credit: Courtesy of Nataly Naser Al Deen

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

I am beyond proud of all the great accomplishments and efforts that are done in the STEM field by many influential and dedicated young-and-established women in science. I am a strong believer in women’s scientific power in our current time, and I keep on hoping for the number to grow exponentially. From my experience at various educational institutions, both in the Arab world (Lebanon and Egypt) and in the U.S., I have enjoyed witnessing the majority of current graduate students (at least in the biological and cancer research field) being dominated by ambitious and hardworking female scientists. Being granted equal access to science, research and grant money, whether at the graduate or professorship level, is the key to ensuring more participation and contribution for women in science.