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.

Spotlight on Women in Research at #LINO18

Many talented female researchers are among the young scientists of #LINO18. In this interview series, they answer questions about their career path, their passion for science, their struggles and successes and give advice to other women in research.

Get inspired by…

Gintvile Valinciute from Lithuania

Menattallah Elserafy from Egypt

Lara Urban from Germany

Amy Shepherd from New Zealand

Rhiannon Edge from the UK

Nataly from Lebanon

Arunima Roy from India

Mieke Metzemaekers from the Netherlands

and

Miriam Van Dyke from the United States.

 

To be continued…

 

 

These interviews are part of a series of the “Women in Research” blog that features young female scientists, to increase the visibility of women in research (more information for and about women in science by “Women in Research” on Facebook and Twitter).

Women in Research at #LINO18: Mieke Metzemaekers from the Netherlands

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 Mieke Metzemaekers

#LINO18 young scientist, Mieke Metzemaekers, 26, from the Netherlands, is a PhD student at the Rega Institute KU Leuven in the Laboratory of of Molecular Immunology, Belgium.

Her research focuses on a set of auto-inflammatory diseases, which are rare but severe immune diseases that usually affect children. Typically, these patients display high levels of neutrophils, a particular subtype of white blood cells, in their blood. In their project, they therefore extensively study the network of chemokines: proteins known to be important for migration and activation of neutrophils. Enjoy the interview with Mieke and get inspired!

 

What inspired you to pursue a career in science?

In fact, when I was in high school, it didn’t even cross my mind to go for a scientific job. I was rather ill-informed about the choices I had. I wanted to become a doctor. As a child, I was already fascinated by how the human body works. By a twist of fate, I went to Leuven to study Biomedical Sciences (hoping to switch to medicine at a later stage). But from the first week on, I knew Biomedical Sciences were absolutely the right choice for me. I realised that I had a special interest for the mechanisms underlying diseases. 

Who are your role models?

I prefer the term ‘inspiring people’ to the expression ‘role models’. I work with inspiring scientists every day. You really don’t have to look too far to find your sources of inspiration, male or female. There is a lot to learn from people that come your way.

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

I came to Belgium in 2011 to start a bachelor education in Biomedical Sciences at the KU Leuven. In my first week, it became clear to me that research is my passion and I realised that I had a special interest in immunology. I chose to do a master’s in biomedical sciences with a major in basic and translational research. The oral classes taught during the bachelor education made me highly curious and excited to discover how life would be at a real research laboratory. So, I was happy that I was given the chance to fulfill three internships at research labs during my first master year. As I am highly intrigued by immunology with a special interest in the regulation of inflammation, the internship at the Laboratory of Molecular Immunology (Rega institute, KU Leuven) under supervision of Prof. Dr. Paul Proost, had my special attention. The laboratory has a broad expertise in biochemistry, molecular immunology and immunobiology. In consultation with Prof. Dr. Paul Proost and Dr. Anneleen Mortier, I decided to write my master thesis at the lab. The validity of my decision to start a study in Biomedical Sciences was once again confirmed by the motivation I felt for research in immunology, during both the experimental work and preparation of the thesis. In agreement with Prof. Dr. Paul Proost, I decided to start a challenging PhD in September 2016. I am very dedicated to my PhD project, which aims to unravel the role of chemokine modifications in neutrophil recruitment during auto-inflammation.

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

I like doing biochemical work in combination with in vitro and in vivo experiments, literature research and scientific writing. I am interested to study subtle but potentially important aberrations in basic principles of the normal physiology which may correlate with disease, and to investigate whether the observed differences may identify targets for future development of new therapeutic strategies. Therefore, I am very excited about my current project which implicates a combination of biochemical and immunological research and is the coolest project I’ve been working on so far. For this research project, we have access to unique patient samples since my co-promoters, Prof. Dr. L. De Somer and Prof. Dr. C. Wouters, are affiliated to the only reference centre for these diseases in Belgium, recently recognised by the European Union in the ‘rare immunodeficiency, autoinflammatory and autoimmune disease network’ (RITA).

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

With my PhD project, I became the only Flemish laureate of the L’Oréal-UNESCO-FWO ‘For Women In Science’ program of 2017. This prize came as a huge surprise and really motivates me. Like a dream come true. Research is my passion and the prize allows further progress towards my objectives. I’m very thankful and inspired to push forward with full commitment.

Photo/Credit: Courtesy of Mieke Metzemaekers

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

I never go to the lab with any reluctance. My work as a PhD student includes a combination of performing experiments, data analysis, literature research and scientific writing. The experiments I’m currently working on are mostly related to the collection and analysis of patient samples and optimisation of innovative techniques to thoroughly investigate the chemokine network in auto-inflammation. My daily work is challenging and diverse, something I particularly like about it.

What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?

With my PhD project, I wish to contribute to a better understanding of auto-inflammation. In the future I hope to find a position that allows me to continue doing research, preferably in the field of immunology.

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

There are so many nice things to do! I enjoy spending time with friends and family, I like sports, reading books, travelling, trying new restaurant, listening to music.

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

Don’t let prejudices hold you back. If you are passionate about science, then just go for it. Acknowledge your strengths and weaknesses and don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t.

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

Science covers such a variety of topics that I don’t believe one breakthrough will make it. Though, I think it is important to pay more attention to so-called ‘orphan diseases’ in the future. Much research focuses on rather common diseases, which, of course, makes an extremely valuable contribution to human society. However, we should not forget that a number of relatively rare diseases also severely affect patients and their relatives. They also need our help very badly.

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

When you decide to go for a high responsibility job, in science or any other field, it usually means that you have to set priorities and make sacrifices. This is not easy, for women in particular, since women still bear the greatest burden in terms of care obligations for children and the elderly. Further, I think many
women tend to compare themselves to other women. This could imply that young women rather choose careers where other women are successful. Since most high responsibility positions in science and research are held by men, a vicious circle is thus maintained. To this end, I feel that leading female scientists play an important role. By highlighting and recognising the historical and current contribution of women to the scientific field, we can encourage young women to pursue a scientific career. Successful women in science should be made (and make themselves) more visible.


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.

Women in Research at #LINO18: Rhiannon Edge from the UK

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 Rhiannon Edge

Rhiannon Edge, 25, from the UK, is a senior teaching associate at the Lancaster Medical School in Lancaster, in the UK. She completed of her PhD in Statistics and Epidemiology in 2017. Enjoy the interview with Rhiannon and get inspired.

What inspired you to pursue a career in science?

I think rather than aspire to have a career in science, I chose to study and work on things I found interesting (first mathematics and disease modelling which has developed into interests in population health). Some parts of my life have helped to shape these interests – for example, I grew up on a farm and I was embedded within this community during the 2001 foot and mouth epidemic in Britain. I have often reflected on this experience particularly when thinking about epidemic models; I think this has definitely encouraged me to better understand certain elements of science, but I wouldn’t say that this alone has provided inspiration for a career in science.

Who are your role models?

I have many role models from various settings, my academic role models definitely include my supervisor and good friend Dr Rachel Isba – because she can juggle the work of at least four people whilst maintaining some work-life balance. Also, my sister Giselle Edge, who recently started a PhD at Dundee University, she has a completely unique way of thinking about problems – I believe that people who think outside the box will revolutionise science in the future.

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

My parents have always encouraged me to believe that anything is possible. I did not particularly excel early on in school, but I was good at mathematics and logic. After some debate about whether or not to pursue a career as an artist I ended up attending Newcastle University to study Mathematics with Biology. Towards the end of my degree, I became quite interested in the effects of social mixing patterns and social networks on disease spread (and later on the social influences on health behaviour). I approached Dr Rachel Isba to do a PhD in this field in 2013. By the time I completed my PhD in 2017, it had evolved and developed, and I had acquired several more supervisors (Dr Thomas Keegan, Dr Dawn Goodwin and Prof. Peter Diggle) to inform my academic development.    

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

So far, the coolest project I have worked on is a qualitative research project investigating the seasonal influenza vaccination behaviour of healthcare workers. I think this is the coolest project because the methodology was so different to the types I had used previously. I immersed myself in a research environment completely different (and yet sometimes quite similar) to my quantitative background.

 

Photo/Credit: Courtesy of Rhiannon Edge

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

I really did feel very proud of myself on the day I passed my PhD viva. It was an incredibly significant day for me.

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

My days are completely variable! I’d love to say that I started every morning with a protein shake and a 5-mile run, unfortunately, this is not quite the case! At the moment, I have a very variable timetable; I do some teaching and teaching related work as well as some research.

What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?

I haven’t really figured out exactly what I hope to accomplish in my career yet. I am definitely looking for the next big challenges post-PhD. Ultimately, I want to leave my career knowing that I made a difference – that I have used my scientific ability to help people in some way. I very much enjoy teaching students and I would like to be able to encourage the next generation of scientists & medical professionals to push the boundaries of science further.

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

When I’m not doing work I love being outside; I really enjoy taking my dog for walks in the countryside. I like playing sport and try to play netball two or three times a week. I think maintaining a good work life balance is the best way to be productive.

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

My advice to women interested in science is much the same as my advice to anyone doing anything – to jump into it with both feet – I fully believe it is best to be committed wholeheartedly to whatever you are trying to do (that way you will never completely fail). Find a subject you enjoy and do things your own way. Too often, we are told what is expected of us, how things should be done, what should happen and when – my advice is to avoid this wherever possible and do exactly what feels right for you. I think we are entering a new age for women in science, and we have a responsibility to exploit this opportunity wherever possible – I hope that by the time I retire, women will make up 50% of the scientific workforce regardless of seniority. If this happens we will have truly broken the glass ceiling for future generations.

 

Photo/Credit: Courtesy of Rhiannon Edge

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

The next major breakthrough in science and medicine I think will probably come from gene editing – there is a huge potential here that we are only just realising. I think future ground-breaking developments will come through interdisciplinary work and collaborative problem solving. 

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

I think that the number of female scientists and professors will increase gradually over time regardless of interventions. However, if we hope to speed up this rate of change to get to equality faster I think that there has to be greater incentives for women to stay involved in academia as they approach the middle of their careers. 

Women in Research at #LINO18: Amy Shepherd from New Zealand

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 Amy Shepherd

#LINO18 young scientist Amy Shepherd, 28, from New Zealand, is a PhD Candidate at the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health in Melbourne, Australia.

The research group that she works in aims to improve the way cognition in mice is tested by teaching them to do tasks on touchscreens, just like human patients do. Specifically, she works on an Alzheimer’s disease mouse model, and she is interested in ways that the brain’s immune and support cells can be changed to help slow down disease progression.

What inspired you to pursue a career in science?

I’ve always been fascinated by biology, for reasons I can’t necessarily pinpoint. The way that cells work, both individually and together, has always made sense to me, and I’m especially interested in how that goes wrong in disease. I fell into neuroscience in particular due both to the fascinating variety of symptoms that occur when the brain goes wrong (from convincing you that your family members have been replaced by perfect imposters to having a 3-second memory to understanding language and trying to say a normal sentence and actually speaking gibberish), and how little we understand about how the brain works.

Who are your role models?

I’ve had the luck to be surrounded by amazing, strong women and supportive men throughout my career. My biology teacher in high school always pushed me to do better when I was getting marks that were good but lower than what she thought I could achieve. My current supervisor, Dr. Emma Burrows, is the kind of scientist I aspire to be. As well as her science, she is tenacious in advocating for her students and women in STEM and she has had two kids while I’ve been doing my PhD and has continued supporting me, doing her science and actually enjoying life outside of work by sharing the load with her partner. The common narrative is that having a family as a woman in STEM negatively impacts your career, and I’ve seen her take it in stride and not let it stop her. She’s amazing. I also worked for Prof. Franca Ronchese, who has an amazing, quiet determination to answer her scientific questions as well as tenacity to understand new things that was incredibly inspiring to me.

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

I did a Biomedical Science degree with Honours at Victoria University of Wellington. Throughout my undergrad, I made myself known to group leaders who’s work I was interested in, which let me get one of my top selections for my Honours research project. My supervisor, Bronwyn Kivell, was the first in a long line of strong woman scientists I have had the pleasure of working for, despite the fact our working styles were very different – I learnt here how important communication was! I then worked for teo years as a research assistant at the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research under both Prof. Franca Ronchese and Prof. Graham Le Gros, working on two different projects. In this time, I learnt a tremendous amount of scientific techniques and was also very lucky to have them both invest and support me in my scientific development – I presented at a conference and got lots of advice on science communication thanks to Graham (and many people in his group!), and Franca pushed me to apply for things I didn’t feel I deserved but actually got; I don’t think I’d be where I was today if it wasn’t for both of them. I am now doing my PhD at the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health under Dr. Emma Burrows and Prof. Tony Hannan. They are both incredibly supportive of the science communication and outreach work I do outside of my PhD (which is really important to me) as well as giving me enough space to forge my own path with my project (Poor Emma has been dragged into working on glial cells thanks to me!).

 

Photo/Credit: Courtesy of Amy Shepherd

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

Trying to flow sort bacteria as a cheap alternative to sequencing; I didn’t get to see it through, but it was a brand-new idea and technique. I was building it in conjunction with Kylie Price (another amazing woman scientist) and if it was fully developed I really thought it could help us answer questions that would have been very, very expensive to answer otherwise – unfortunately, I had to leave to start my PhD before we got it working. There is something really amazing about working on something that probably shouldn’t work; when you see glimmers of it actually working it’s so, so cool.

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

Seeing my name on a paper where I could go through and see my contribution was the first time I felt like a real scientist; I wasn’t that fussed during graduation or anything like that, but seeing a finished product that has been reviewed and accepted by the scientific community was immensely satisfying.

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

Emails, planning experiments, running mice on touchscreens and cutting brains on what is essentially the world’s fanciest deli ham slicer are what is filling my days at the moment! One thing I love about science is how diverse each day can be.

What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?

I have two goals: I want to help contribute to knowledge about the body, and I want to help the pubic learn and enjoy science. I don’t know in what forms these things will take, but I want to leave the world a better place than I found it, at least in the field I work in.

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

…outside of research? I kid. I really enjoy science communication and outreach, so I am often involved with organising or speaking at events like Pint of Science, Melbourne Knowledge Week and Famelab. I am also passionate about increasing diversity and equality in science, so I’m the president of the Women in Science and Engineering group at the University of Melbourne and a member of the Equality in Science committee at the Florey, where I’m doing my PhD. When that isn’t taking up all my time, I enjoy dragging my friends and colleagues out to a classic Melbourne brunch of grabbing a drink.

 

Photo/Credit: Courtesy of Amy Shepherd

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

Find your support crew. Science is a career that is littered with failures –failed experiments, failed applications, failed grants, and it’s really difficult to get through if you don’t have people to support you through those things – whether it be colleagues to vent to about a broken piece of equipment that ruined your experiment, your supervisors to help you through paper rejections or friends to cry when you don’t get that job/grant/award. Science has some incredible highs, but it is naturally accompanied by some incredible lows that have to be weathered to see the light on the other side. 

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

Ha, what a question! I don’t think we can really predict the next big breakthrough, as the things that have the biggest effect tend to come from left field; there are certainly things in my lifetime that come into this category, with the one that comes to mind being CRISPR-Cas9. It has the potential to wipe out some horrible diseases, but comes with some serious consequences (see this great article by Marcy Darnovsky).

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

We need to address the issue of the leaky pipeline – that is, as you move up the career ladder, there are less and less women making the jump. There are many reasons for this, and perhaps the most well-known is the career disruption often incurred by having a family – this issue is incredibly important but that’s actually not what I want to talk about for this blog.

Due to inherent bias, grants and papers written by women are less likely to get funded and published respectively. The first we see here in Australia, and the main biomedical funding body have noticed this problem and begun to deal with it. The latter was shown in a blinding experiment – the same paper with female authors was 19% less likely to be published compared to one with male authors. (Incidentally, papers were 76% and 67% more likely to be published if they had famous authors or were from a top institution.) Blinding reviewers to the authors could fix both of these issues – the science should be considered on its merits, not by who wrote it.

Women in Research at #LINO18: Lara Urban from Germany

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 Lara Urban

#LINO18 young scientist Lara Urban, 26, from Germany, is a PhD student at the EMBL European Bioinformatics Institute and at the University of Cambridge, UK.

In her PhD, she uses machine learning and statistical methods to better understand our genome. Specifically, she studies the genomes of cancer patients to understand how mutations contribute to the development of a tumor. Enjoy the interview with Lara and get inspired.

What inspired you to pursue a career in science? 

I think there is nothing more inspiring than nature itself, its diversity, resilience and sheer beauty. Hence, what could be more exciting than studying nature and the living beings that are part of it? Life at its organismal level motivated me to study different ecosystems and species in many places around the world, and life at its genetic basis fuelled my interest into genomics research. My motivation behind understanding and exploring ecological and molecular processes, has, however, always been the conservation of what we have left of nature. I think the rate of growth of humanity has been at the expense of nature, and humanity itself may lose its place in nature if no one remembers to take care of it. I want to take care of nature by studying it, understanding how best to preserve it, and putting that knowledge into action.

Who are your role models?

I don’t really have a role model in the classical sense of aiming to emulate a specific person. However, Alexander von Humboldt and Jane Goodall are very inspiring to me, as both of them dedicated their whole lives to studying what interested them and, in addition, were wonderfully adventurous and met nature with curiosity and amazement.

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

I studied both ecology and computational biology during my Bachelor and Master studies in Germany. I had the opportunity and funding from the Friedrich Ebert Foundation to travel to remote research stations, located in tropical rainforests, at the foot of Kilimanjaro, on remote Canadian islands, or close to impressive coral reefs in Malaysia. There, I acquired and analysed data first-hand for answering various ecological research questions. I became both interested and adept in statistical analyses, and I started working on ecosystem modelling for my Bachelor thesis and developed a computational tool for my Master thesis. I then decided to focus entirely on computational biology during my PhD to learn as much about statistics, machine learning and genomics as possible. I hence applied for the EMBL fellowship at the European Bioinformatics Institute in UK, an institute at the forefront of research in computational biology. Here, I learned a lot about what I can do with my data, and, more importantly, how to work as a scientist. As I am now in the final year of my PhD, I am determined to establish myself as an expert in both ecology and computational genomics and contribute to the advancement of genomics research in ecology and conservation.

 

Photo/Credit: Courtesy of Lara Urban

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

I am lucky to have worked on a number of very cool projects. I had an amazing time working as an ecologist on, for example, orca whales, re-establishing coral reefs, and avian diversity in the Pantanal. Next year, I will be going to New Zealand to figure out how to use genomic information in the conservation of the critically endangered kakapo, and I am sure that will be a blast. But if I had to pick, I’d say my coolest project is one I am working on right now. A few friends and I started a project called “PuntSeq”, which aims to sequence the microbial diversity of our local river, the Cam, with a portable DNA sequencing device, the “MinION”. This project is special to me, because we taught ourselves a lot and worked closely with each other to manage the project. So far, we have established a whole pipeline, from collecting samples of water from the Cam, measuring environmental variables, extracting and sequencing DNA, to all the computational analyses. I am thrilled to see the results of our work, but also just the process has been wonderful.

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

 I think I might have been trying to prevent myself from feeling immensely proud of any piece of work or idea, since I did not want to be so convinced by it that I am no longer open to other angles of looking at it. However, I very much enjoy communicating my work to others. If a presentation goes well and the audience reacts enthusiastically, I am thrilled. Specifically, poster sessions can be a lot of fun with getting direct input from other researchers, and outreach activities have always left me very enthusiastic about my work, especially after chatting about topics like Jurassic Park and sequencing DNA in beer with a surprisingly engaged audience.

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

Almost every day is different, as I travel a lot for work. When I don’t, I often start the day with sports (either rowing or running along the river Cam), as it clears my mind and relieves stress. I’d then get a strong black coffee and go to work, where I spend most of my time on statistical analyses of genomic data for my research projects. A typical day will also involve Skype meetings, writing emails, drafting applications, preparing presentations, and, if it’s a good day, working on a manuscript. In the evenings, I’d go to the pub with friends or attend events at my college (Wolfson College Cambridge) such as talks, formal dinners or sports classes. Summer months are great as there are barbecues going on all the time, and I can go for swims in the evenings. I am also learning to play the guitar so when I have time for myself, that’s what I’ll do.

What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?

I want to work towards establishing genomics research as a means to understand, monitor and maintain biodiversity in ecosystems. This can be achieved through applying methods commonly used in genomics research for assessing important measures, including levels of inbreeding and genetic risk for diseases of endangered species as well as the interaction between their genetic variants and their environment.

 

Photo/Credit: Courtesy of Lara Urban

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

I like spending time outside, so I go running or rowing a lot. I am also a keen hiker and scuba diver whenever I get the chance. I have recently started learning Spanish and playing the guitar, and it’s fun even though I’m not very good at either at the moment. I enjoy simple things like meeting friends, reading books, having good wine and food, and watching the news (especially if they are delivered by John Oliver).

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

I would like to tell every woman interested in science to believe in herself and just do it; there is much more to gain than to lose. However, I feel that just saying that to someone might not have an actual impact on this person’s doubts and self-consciousness. So, more specifically, I would say to anyone interested in science, including my younger self, that it is important to identify your goals and motivations, yet remain flexible on the means they may be achieved with. Sometimes the best laid plans fail, and it is important to forgive oneself and recognise there may be other ways. Life (on a scientific and personal level) may not turn out as you have neatly planned it, but the outcome can still be great, or even better than anticipated.

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

There is so much happening right now that I think I can justifiably name a number of research directions that will probably result in breakthroughs, such as gene editing, single-cell assays, and personalised medicine. I am, however, particularly excited about the prospects of the Earth BioGenome Project, an international effort that aims to sequence and characterise the genomes of all known eukaryotes within a decade. Assessing biodiversity on our earth and taking measures to preserve it are among the most essential and challenging task we should take on. The BioGenome project represents a crucial first step towards obtaining an open repository of all biodiversity’s genomic data.

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

There remains a difference in burden carried by men and women for bearing and raising a child. That, in my opinion, is one of the main reasons women may be less able to spend much time and energy on a demanding scientific career than men or are less willing to sacrifice their life-work balance for science. A simple solution for this problem would be giving men and women equal leave from work for childcare and improving the inclusion of children into research life by allowing parents to bring their child to research institutes, conferences and workshops.

Women in Research at #LINO18: Menattallah Elserafy from Egypt

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 Menattallah Elserafy

#LINO18 young scientist Menattallah Elserafy, 28, from Egypt, is a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Genomics at the Zewail City of Science and Technology in Giza, Egypt.

In her research work, she uses budding yeast as a model organism to discover new DNA repair players. This is mainly done through performing yeast genetic screens. The function of the identified genes is then studied in mammalian cells. Finally, they screen patients’ samples of relevant diseases to check for suspected gene mutations. Enjoy the interview with Menattallah and get inspired.

 

What inspired you to pursue a career in science?

My mum is the one who encouraged me to study Biotechnology during my undergraduate studies. She convinced me that this field is unique and that the world of diagnostics and therapeutics will be greatly transformed in the future by medical biotechnology.

During my bachelor studies, I developed a passion for molecular biology. I found understanding the tight regulation of all processes inside the cells impressive. That’s why I decided to pursue my Master’s studies at Heidelberg University in Germany to study molecular biology in depth. During my PhD at Heidelberg University and my postdoctoral time in Egypt, my motivation for science grew. The more I tasted the satisfaction of obtaining new findings, the more I got intrigued to dig deeper and understand better. Science does not only satisfy my curiosity, but also represents a hope for change in my developing country.

You can be inspired to start a career journey, but you definitely need the support to grow and excel. My main source of support now is my husband. He is always proud of me and just wants to see me develop more in my career. We promised each other that we would always push ourselves to excel on the professional level.

Who are your role models?

I was influenced by several people who shaped my personality. My role model in science is the Egyptian late Nobel Laureate Prof. Ahmed Zewail. He was a source of inspiration for me as a kid, as he was unique in the sense that he made the best out of all chances given to him to add something and leave an impact. I always admired his passion and dedication to improve scientific research in Egypt. He fought hard to establish the scientific research hub ‘Zewail City of Science of Technology’, which I am currently working at. I will always be grateful to him, as without his persistence to make the ‘Zewail City’ dream come true, I would not have been able to return to my country after my PhD to pursue research that satisfies my ambition.

My parents have also always been a source of inspiration because of their endless support in my career journey. This made me realise the tremendous impact parents have when they respect their children’s goals and pave roads for achieving them.

Finally, my grandparents taught me two main key lessons that I always try to follow. My grandfather, who was an ambitious, successful medical doctor, always reminded us that one should always transfer the knowledge he/she has to others. Keeping what you know from others makes your knowledge of no benefit. My grandmother taught me that offering help to others and making people’s life easier is something a person should always try to do. As I grew up, I realised that the more you help people in need, the more you will find people standing next to you when you need them.

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

I obtained a Bachelor of Biotechnology from the German University in Cairo in 2010. Then, I pursued a Master’s in Molecular Biosciences (Major Molecular Cellular Biology) and a PhD in Molecular Biology at Heidelberg University in Germany. The biggest challenge I faced was moving abroad in 2010 at the age of 20 to start my master’s studies. I was quite young at that time and my research experience was very minimal. I had to fit into the German system of education and learn how research is performed at top institutes. It took me almost a year to adjust to the system and to be able to perform well. However, after this phase ended, my performance greatly improved. Therefore, I think every student/scientist who would like to excel in his/her career will definitely face troubles and disappointments, but the ones who will manage to excel are those who did not give up at the hardest times.

The main challenge other researchers and myself face while pursuing a career in science is overcoming the frustration resulting from unsuccessful experimentations. A scientist should always find alternative ways to achieve results and be pushed to think outside of the box to innovate new tools to test his/her hypotheses. Every now and then, I also face the same problem and I always push myself and try to look for alternatives.

Menattallah Elserafy and her husband. Photo/Credit: Courtesy of Menattallah Elserafy

Three main mentors taught me a lot about science, Prof. Elmar Schiebel, who supervised my master’s and PhD thesis. He taught me a lot about yeast, and I developed a great passion for yeast research in his lab. I am also grateful to him for teaching me a lot about science and the importance of documentation and being very organised while performing experiments. I also learned a lot from Dr. Mirela Šarić, my postdoctoral supervisor during the master’s thesis. She taught me a lot about academic life. My current mentor is Prof. Sherif El-Khamisy. I am currently working under his supervision at the Center for Genomics in Egypt. I learned a lot from him about the importance of translating basic research we execute in the lab to outcomes that satisfy the needs of society. I also learned from him the importance of keeping research standards high to push scientific research in Egypt forward – not only to meet the international standards but also to compete with world-class institutes. I am also grateful to him for teaching me the importance of thinking out of the box, valuing time and aiming very high.

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

The coolest project I have worked on was a side observation that we could not explain and involved a lot of frustration at the beginning. During my PhD, I have been working with the S288C budding yeast background strain. After I moved to Egypt, I started using W303, as this strain is more common among yeast DNA repair labs. I obtained findings that did not match published data. So, I started checking the literature to find a way to explain the results. I realised that a specific mutation in a gene called RAD5 in the W303 background strain could impact the results we get significantly. Moreover, I got to know that many yeast labs have corrected the W303 mutation and started using the modified one. This issue was hinted to in some papers but in a very indirect manner and no review existed that discussed this issue deeply.

Since I was not familiar with this mutation when I started using the strain, I spent so much time trying to interpret my data and this consumed a lot of my time and effort. Therefore, together with my PI we wrote a comment in Nature Reviews Molecular Cell Biology to raise awareness of researchers who are not familiar with the W303 strain, especially those who regularly use other strains or those who usually work with mammalian cells but use yeast for genetic screens only. We also combined all dissimilar results reported by researchers who did the same experiment using the wild type or the corrected strains and ended up with different results, for researchers to check easily.

I got really interested in the RAD5 gene afterwards, and we wrote another review on the topic. We are currently also doing experimental work in the lab on RAD5. So, big frustrations you face in research can force you to think out of the box and walk a rewarding road you did not choose at the beginning.

 

Picture of Menattallah Elserafy in the streets of Beirut, Lebanon. Photo/Credit: Menattallah Elserafy

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

I was very proud when I received the L’Oreal-UNESCO fellowship for Women in Science. I felt that I am on the right track in my career. Actually, I first got to know about the L’Oreal-UNESCO awards when I was in Paris. I saw pictures of the five outstanding scientific female researchers in the Life Sciences who were chosen from across the globe to be awarded the L’Oreal-UNESCO international award in 2015. The first thing I noticed was the diversity of the applicants and I admired the idea of rewarding these great women scientists for their achievements. I dreamed one day I could be in their place.

When I started my postdoc I got to know that the L’Oreal-UNESCO initiative offer fellowships for young female postdocs to encourage them to excel in scientific research. I decided to apply for the fellowship, which involved a competition between postdocs from six Arab countries and I was honoured to be among the winners of 2017. I was also extremely happy to see my picture in the streets of Beirut, Lebanon, where the celebration of the winners took place.

Besides the story I mentioned, I was very proud of myself when I finished my PhD before turning 26. I realised that I managed to cross roads that I thought would be impossible to cross.

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

A typical day in my life would start by going to the lab early in the morning. However, working in academia means you have multiple responsibilities (experiments, writing papers and grants, supervision activities and teaching duties). Some days, I do experiments only. Other days, I would have to write papers or grants. Other days, I might have some teaching duties. I like my job, so I enjoy all duties. However, the days that I spend doing experiments in the lab are usually the most rewarding.

What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?

I want to contribute to establishing a world-class research environment in Egypt. One day, I would like to have my own lab which publishes high-quality publications and competes internationally. I also have other future goals regarding mentoring female researchers and entering the field of science diplomacy. I am also glad that I recently got to join panel discussions and give talks in events that focus on motivating young students, empowering women and encouraging young women to pursue a career in science. I would like to always be part of these events in parallel to my research work at the current stage. But I believe I might dedicate a great part of my time in the future to these activities.

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

I like to hang out with my husband and my friends. I am also a big fan of shopping. Moreover, I enjoy reading about different topics, but recently, I am focusing on reading success stories. Finally, I like to cook; cooking is very relaxing.

 

Photo/Credit: Courtesy of Menattallah Elserafy

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

I would tell them that they have unique qualities that can make them leaders in scientific research. First, women are multitaskers, and a scientific career requires balancing between time dedicated to research, grants applications, educating students, offering training and your personal life. Moreover, women are organised, and they investigate details more deeply, and these characteristics are necessary when it comes to research.

Finally, I would tell them to dream big, to trust themselves and to choose an ambitious partner that supports your career and work together to positively impact each other’s career.

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

There will always be breakthroughs in imaging, which will allow us to visualise molecular mechanisms better. Better visualisation will for sure allow deeper understanding of cellular mechanisms, defects and the causes of associated diseases. However, I believe the future breakthroughs will involve revealing deep connections between mechanisms that were never linked before. For example, understanding the interaction/cross-talk between different organelles better and linking signalling pathways that no one linked before.

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

The representation of females in science, especially in leading positions, is significantly smaller than that of males. It is also worth mentioning that very few Nobel Prizes in the life sciences were awarded to female scientists. This problem is attributed to different factors, and in order to solve it, initiatives from governments, societies and individuals are required. However, this issue started getting more attention in the past years and multiple organisations and foundations have been calling for supporting women in science and offering special fellowships for females to adjust the female to male contribution ratio in science.

I was very grateful throughout my career not to be discriminated against because of my gender. I was also lucky to be raised in a family that supports my career. That’s why I believe that family is the biggest contributor to the success of a woman. Thus, society needs to educate children at school about gender equality and increase their awareness to grow up as supportive men and women.

I also believe that the existence of role models will definitely help to encourage young females to pursue a career in science. The presence of successful female figures is enough to inspire young female scientists to aim high and dream big.

Furthermore, academic institutes should make sure that a minimum number of female research and faculty members are among their research and teaching programmes. In addition, no discrimination against females should be applied upon selection for leading positions. Moreover, to facilitate achieving this balance, high quality nurseries should be offered at work places, so that women could assure their kids are taken care of and focus well on their work.

Women in Research at #LINO18: Gintvile Valinciute from Lithuania

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 Gintvile Valinciute

#LINO18 young scientist Gintvile Valinciute, 26, from Lithuania, is a PhD student at the Clinical Cooperation Unit Pediatric Oncology at the German Cancer Research Centre (DKFZ) and Hopp Children’s Tumor Centre at the NCT Heidelberg (KiTZ) in Germany.

She is currently working on two projects and both of them involve an extremely aggressive type of medulloblastoma, which is one of the most common malignant brain cancers in children. On the one hand, she aims to decipher a particular protein complex involved in the tumorigenesis. On the other hand, she tries to find a suitable and clinically-relevant combination of small molecule drugs to target medulloblastoma. Enjoy the interview with Gintvile and get inspired.

 

What inspired you to pursue a career in science?

I did not think of pursuing a career in science until I was in the second year of high school. I think the reason for that is the fact that all my family members have careers in arts and humanities, and as a child I was never actually introduced to the world of science. However, when I was 16 and started thinking what to study after I’m done with high school, I realised that I am very interested in and very good at biology, especially, the molecular side of it. One of the biggest inspirations to go for it and pursue a career in biosciences was, and still is, my biology teacher at high school. She decided to teach after receiving a degree in microbiology; thus, she was especially interested and excited giving lessons about the molecular machinery of the cell. Because of her I chose to study molecular biology and to become a scientist.

Who are your role models?

The most important role models for me are the women of my family, my mother and my grandmother. They kept their heads high even during the hardest times, they taught me how to read and write when I was very young, and they always encouraged me to pursue my dreams and to have an informed opinion on everything. I am extremely thankful for the opportunities my mom and grandma gave me. Regarding the role models in the world of science, I was always very fond of the work done by Marie Sklodowska Curie, Rosalind Franklin and Barbara McClintock. I think these women were both amazing scientists and inspiring leaders.

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

I studied BSc Genetics at Vilnius University (VU) in the capital of Lithuania. During that time, I became stregthened in my goal to become a scientist, learned a lot, both in the studies and in life. I volunteered for numerous organisations, helped to promote life sciences at schools, studied abroad (University of Gothenburg, Sweden) and found amazing people who taught me a lot. One of them was Prof. Dr. Juozas Lazutka, a programme leader of the BSc Genetics course. After my BSc studies, I decided to continue my studies in Germany at Heidelberg University. The decision to leave my country was determined mainly by the fact that I wanted to pursue another specialty and it was not offered at VU. At Heidelberg University, I studied Molecular Biosciences with a major in Cancer Biology. The programme partner is the German Cancer Research Centre (DKFZ). Here I learned a lot, tried a few different fields in cancer biology, did an internship abroad (Karolinska Institute, Sweden), published my first paper and enjoyed the scientific environment provided by the DKFZ. Therefore, I decided to stay here for my PhD as well. After my MSc thesis internship in Epigenomics and Cancer Risk Factors division, I realised that I would like to do research in a more translational, more clinical topic. Thus, I am currently working in the Clinical Cooperation Unit Pediatric Oncology in the group of translational brain tumour modelling in one of the best teams I have ever worked in, led by Prof. Dr. med. Olaf Witt and PD Dr. med. Till Milde.

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

I think the coolest project I have worked on is my PhD project (current). It is very challenging both in methodical and biological point of view; however, it is also very rewarding since the drug combination I am researching could eventually be used in clinics.

 

Photo/Credit: Courtesy of Gintvile Valinciute

What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?

Currently, the main short-term goal is to finish my PhD studies in 2019-2020. Afterwards, I would like to stay in research and get a postdoc position overseas, preferably in paediatric oncology. Eventually, I would love to have my own research group and to return to Lithuania to contribute to the scientific world there.

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

Besides the more official accomplishments, such as achieving academic degrees or seeing my publication printed, I always feel very proud when the experiment I have been optimising for weeks or months finally works. In my first year of PhD I have been working on one particularly tricky co-immunoprecipitation protocol for a couple of months, and in the beginning of this year, it finally worked and showed exactly what I wanted with almost no background signal. Even though it is just a tiny detail of my work, I still felt amazing when I saw that complex of proteins

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

I am a morning person, so I wake up at 6 am every morning and walk to the lab. I get there at approximately 7:30 am, check my emails and start some experiments I planned. My colleagues come to the lab at 8-8:30 am and then we all get our morning coffee and talk for ten minutes. Afterwards, I proceed with planned experiments for that day or go to a course (currently, I am learning a FACS technique). I usually plan a few experiments in parallel, so I would not lose time during incubation periods. At noon, all the lab goes to lunch together. In the afternoons I work in the cell culture room. We have many meetings (group, division or others) on different days of the week so the routine is sometimes different. Also, every week I have a personal meeting with my team leader where we discuss the results and prospects of the project. I am also involved in some student activities at the DKFZ; usually after work (at 6-7 pm) we meet to discuss the organisation of some events. I usually get home at 8-9 pm every day, cook dinner and lunch for the next day and do sports before I go to sleep. I think the fact that every day is different and the possibility to make your own schedule are the things I particularly enjoy being a scientist.

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

I enjoy organising various events and contributing to the PhD student society at the DKFZ. This year, I was elected as a member of the DKFZ PhD student body representing structure, DKFZ PhD student Council. Here, we are trying to improve the life of PhD students at DKFZ and serve as a connection between the students and the management board. Also, we are organising various events for PhD students. This year, I am leading the student team organising our summer retreat. Also, I am managing the team organising the 6th Heidelberg Forum for Young Life Scientists, a conference which will be held at the DKFZ on 6–7 June 2019.

 

Photo/Credit: Courtesy of Gintvile Valinciute

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

If you dream of having a career in science, the best advice for you is to never give up and go for your dream. The life of a scientist is difficult, but also very exciting and rewarding. And being a woman in science could also pose some difficulties, but you have to believe in yourself and fear nothing, and, most importantly, forget the ticking clock that so many people try to impose on you. Don’t follow somebody else’s route – make your own, after all, your job is to make yourself happy and to realise your dreams.

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

The field of physiology and medicine is extremely broad and thus it is difficult to pinpoint exact advancements that are going to be the next breakthrough. However, I believe the next great development brought by science to clinics is the implementation of personalised medicine to the everyday clinical routine. The concept of personalised medicine is not new, but there are still many challenges to overcome and many questions to be answered. Currently, there are various clinical trials that involve targeted medicine stratified according to the molecular patterns in various cancer entities. And since cancer is one of the main health issues in the world, the success of such trials would make a huge impact on society.

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

In science, there is a very interesting situation of gender distribution in different levels of education. Starting with undergraduate levels until PhD studentships there are usually more female scientists working in biosciences compared to male. However, at later stages the numbers drastically change and usually it is due to the age. Most frequently, people finish their PhD studies in their late 20s or early 30s and this is also the time when most people choose to start a family. And despite many improvements, especially in the Northern European countries, providing opportunities for a more efficient work-life balance, many women still decide to stop their career for a while to raise children. The problem here lies in the fact that scientific positions are very difficult to get back to after a few years. I think if the job security during maternity leave would be improved this could be circumvented. In addition, anonymised job applications would be advantageous here. And finally, some women are convinced by society that simultaneously raising children and having a successful career is next to impossible. To my mind, with the help of employers, such beliefs could be broken and we, women, should encourage each other that nothing is impossible.