Do not Lose Confidence in Yourself

Interview with Lindau Alumna Martine Abboud

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

Martine Abboud from Lebanon is a Junior Research Fellow at the University of Oxford. She participated in the 68th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting as an Eddy Fischer Lindau Fellow. Her doctoral research made use of nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy to study the activity of two classes of enzymes in important biological processes. Her work has led to novel method applications, the mechanistic understanding of these enzymes, and the development of inhibitors for them. She is currently working on metabolic enzymes involved in cancer.

 

Martine Abboud in her lab. Photo/Credit: Martine Abboud

What inspired you to pursue a career in science?

I have always been driven by curiosity. I grew up asking my parents loads of questions about everything around us. I was so fascinated by the stars and galaxies that I wanted to become an astronaut. However, during my teenage years my grandfather was diagnosed with cancer. He was one of the closest people to my heart, and his illness made me question my career choices. I wanted to help people but did not feel suited to working in a hospital, so I decided to pursue a career in scientific research.

 

Who are your role models?

My role model in science is a bright mind, who makes impactful contributions, and who is a beautiful human being at the same time. To me, academic merit is as equally important as being kind.
During my time in Oxford, I have discovered a genuine enthusiasm for scientific research, which has undoubtedly been enhanced by my supervisor’s support and positive attitude. Prof C. Schofield has given me the freedom to work on various fascinating and rewarding projects which span multiple areas of research. His guidance style suits my curious nature and has helped my development as a scientist enormously, allowing me to acquire practical skills in a range of topics and biochemical/physical techniques. My NMR work with Prof T. Claridge has also nurtured my passion for research even further. These two along with former mentors at LAU, Profs S. Tokajian, C. Daher, R. Taleb, and S. Ammous, are people I look up to. They have inspired me to thrive.

 

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

At the undergraduate level, I started by learning biology to better understand physiological processes and their pathological implications. Soon after, I realised that biology and chemistry are complementary and that an understanding of both fields is important to achieve results of clinical relevance. Hence, I went for a secondary focus in chemistry, both at the Lebanese American University (LAU), from which I graduated with the President’s award for excellence and leadership skills.
The interdisciplinary doctoral programme in Chemical Biology at the University of Oxford caught my attention as I was excited to work at this interface. Coming from a minority background, I was scared of applying to Oxford because of how competitive and prestigious it is, but my mother was right – not applying is a definite rejection. I am glad I did. During my time there, I was provided with opportunities I never dreamt I would be lucky enough to have. Three years later, I graduated with a Thesis Commendation at the university divisional level, winning awards from both academia and industry.
Being Lebanese, another major challenge was securing funding. The government does not have support funds and most non-Lebanese funds are available to select nationalities. My doctoral studies would not have been possible without the support of the British Biochemical Society through the Sir Hans Krebs Memorial Award, college and departmental grants and prizes, and the guidance of my former and current mentors, to whom I am beyond grateful.
Having been granted a Junior Research Fellowship from Kellogg College, Oxford, last year, I am developing my skills further. I think basic research is important in understanding molecular mechanisms and I have enjoyed doing both proof-of-principle and applied studies. I am interested in enabling science, community, and policy to combat antimicrobial resistance and I am pursuing work on the metabolic enzymes involved in cancer with the aim of starting my independent academic group in the future.

 

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

During my doctoral studies, I worked on antibiotic resistance and, more specifically, on metallo-β-lactamases (MBLs) which degrade the β-lactam antibiotics: the most commonly used class of antibiotics. My method development using protein-observe 19F-NMR has provided new structural insights into MBL catalysis and the requirements for inhibitor development. My work with cyclobutanone shed light on MBL mechanism and showed that it may mimic the formation of the oxyanion tetrahedral intermediate in β-lactam hydrolysis. I have studied the susceptibility of avibactam, the first clinically useful non-β-lactam β-lactamase inhibitor, to MBL-catalysed hydrolysis. The results revealed that avibactam is not an MBL inhibitor and a poor substrate of most members of all three clinically relevant subclasses of MBLs.
I have also applied NMR methods to study the human prolyl hydroxylase domain-containing protein 2 (PHD2), which is crucially involved in the chronic hypoxic response. The hypoxic response is important under normal conditions, but also at high altitudes and in cancerous conditions. My work showed that the substitution of a single amino acid, as occurs with PHD2 variants linked to erythrocytosis and breast cancer, can alter the selectivity of PHD2 towards its substrates. Competition and displacement assays were designed and applied to investigate PHD inhibitor binding modes. Comparative studies on the activities and selectivities of PHD inhibitors in clinical trials should aid in the work on the therapeutic manipulation of the natural hypoxic response.

 

Eddy Fischer Lindau Fellow Martine Abboud with Nikolaus Turner, Managing Director of the Foundation Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings, and Ernst Ludwig Winnacker, Director of The Vallee Foundation. Photo/Credit: Patrick Kunkel/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

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

I was beyond thrilled to be selected to represent the university at the 68th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting and to be named a Future Leader in my field by the American Chemical Society CAS SciFinder programme. Unlike traditional conferences, these two meetings were focused on what shapes a scientist and on the importance of science communication, leadership, outreach activities, interdisciplinary science, and global integration. All of these topics are close to my heart as I have advocated for them on internal committees in our department. My proudest moments have always been about lobbying and succeeding in introducing change to internal policies. My recent achievement, along with other committee members, was introducing management trainings for new principal investigators/group leaders. I believe that being great at science and people management are not necessarily related; these trainings will help to further create a better environment for graduate students, ensure their wellbeing, and encourage a culture of proper life-work balance.

 

What is a ‘day in the life’ of Martine like?

A day in the lab is never typical. It varies a lot depending on what types of experiment are being done. But one thing is common: we always encounter surprises! Working in a lab environment is flexible but never boring, and that’s an aspect I enjoy. A protein preparation, for instance, requires spending a few hours in a cold room (4°C) while protein NMR-ing takes an overnight run in the basement. I have spent so much time with these machines that I have even given them nicknames! Experiments do not always go as planned and this is okay. Life in research has taught me how to deal with failures, enjoy the small successes, and keep going. It is important to troubleshoot all the time as some of the most exciting discoveries in science come from mistakes. Determination, perseverance, and serendipity are keys in scientific research.
My day will, however, always include a cup of tea. Our group is very international and we enjoy sharing a dynamic environment. I end up learning exciting cultural aspects over tea most of the time. Other days in the lab involve writing or meeting with collaborators and these are as important as doing the experimental work. It is crucial to communicate our findings with the scientific community: it puts our science into perspective, shapes our future direction and, sometimes, even helps in influencing policy.

 

What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?

I have come to realise that success in science is not an overnight effort. It is the accumulation of years of hard work. I would love to have an independent academic career and I aspire to meaningfully contribute to society. There is nothing better than leaving a legacy. My dream is to contribute back to my society by helping build a research centre in the Middle Eastern region. I have worked with Oxford Entrepreneurs earlier this year and helped in organising the Oxford Hackathon. Over 300 students from 90+ universities attended; there are so many bright minds and ideas out there that just need to be given the right opportunities. I hope to inspire the next generation of scientists through Oxford and build bridges between science and entrepreneurship in both regions as science has no nationality.

 

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

In my free time, I like painting and poetry writing. Science and art are complementary on various levels. Art sets me free; the alchemy of colours with no boundaries is very relaxing to me. I do enjoy attending events and talks which are stimulating and intellectually challenging. Recently, I have become interested in coding and computer science. Electronic information and machine learning are on the rise. Chemists are not meant to be lifetime technicians. Accordingly, we need to learn how to keep being creative in a technological era. Using the power of AI will help us with our daily tasks. I also write scientific articles to various magazines and blogs, contribute to different societies (including the Oxford Arab Society and Oxford Entrepreneurs), and run events and social media outlets. My ultimate guilty pleasures remain travelling and watching football though.

 

Martine Abboud in conversation with Nobel Laureate Walter Gilbert at #LINO18. Photo/Credit: Christian Flemming/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings

 

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

As young women, we are more prone to being victims of implicit bias. We need to be more assertive in the workplace. Curiosity is the driving force of a scientist. The most exciting discoveries arise from mistakes. My advice is do not be afraid to make mistakes. Troubleshoot and think critically all the time. It might feel hard sometimes, but keep going. Do not lose confidence in yourself. Manage your time and do your tasks. There are networks of more experienced women who can help and support us; do not be afraid to speak out, reach out, and get involved.

 

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

Our understanding of the human brain and of driving forces in developmental biology is still very limited. Novel discoveries in these fields will definitely be breakthroughs. The same applies to developing novel and more powerful methods enabling quicker drug discovery and deeper biological understanding.

 

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

Encouraging women to become scientists is unfortunately not enough. If we do really want more women to be involved, we need to create the right environments for them to thrive. As much as mobility is important to provide scientists with wider perspectives, the current culture of “postdoctoral nomading” is very destabilising and difficult for people with partners and/or caring responsibilities. It should not be a prerequisite on fellowship applications; women should not feel pressurised into changing environments every couple of years. Another simple example for creating suitable environments is by not holding talks/seminars after 4 pm. People with caring responsibilities are directly excluded from these meetings and this can make them wrongly feel guilty and/or less dedicated than their colleagues. Proper life-work balance is important and nurturing; it enhances productivity and happiness.

 

Additional Note: A video interview with Martine Abboud at #LINO18 can be watched here.

The Difficulty of Combining Research and Clinical Practice

On the last day of the 68th Lindau Nobel Laureate meeting, on the boat leaving Mainau island we asked ourselves what we were taking home from that incredible week. One aspect of the meeting impressed me from the very first day: the number of physician scientists attending, at various stages of their careers, from medical students to Nobel laureates who had practiced medicine. As a physician who dived into a basic research PhD programme, I have always struggled to find people with a similar story. Surrounded by biologists, chemists and bioinformaticians, I can count the MDs in my institute on the fingers of one hand.

Indeed, combining basic research and clinical training raises many essential questions, that I found out were shared among us, even with those who got exposed to basic research during medical school, within MD-PhD programmes. “My biggest challenge has been to identify the proper niche for myself”, says Vladislav Sviderskiy, MD-PhD candidate at the New York University School of Medicine, “If I get the opportunity to have my own lab, I would still like to see patients part-time to identify the direst questions in the clinic and to continuously remind myself that my research should push to benefit patients”.

Given that many of us have this aspiration, is it more difficult nowadays than in the past to combine research and clinical practice? Are dedicated training options well formulated, at all career stages? Can anything be done to ease the great burden in terms of workload, bureaucracy and responsibility that a clinician faces every day, in order to guarantee a protected time for research? Is it actually worth to embark both in clinics and research, with the risk of not being good at either, considering the massive wealth of continuously evolving knowledge to keep up with?

Elisabetta Cacace with Nobel Laureate J. Michael Bishop at #LINO18
Photo/Credit: Courtesy of Elisabetta Cacace

“It’s a very difficult decision”, said Michael Bishop, MD and Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine in 1989. He remains of the opinion that, especially in cancer research, knowing the disease and its clinical implications is useful for those who do basic research on it. This is the same reason why, in 2006, his colleague and Nobel prize co-recipient Harold Varmus has contributed to set up the Gerstner Sloan Kettering Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, to provide biologists with an understanding of the disease and with “the big picture. They have to understand that they do biology with humans”.

When questioned why physician scientists are a vanishing species, the two agree that the problems are the high expectations and demands placed on them in terms of clinical activity and responsibilities. In this respect, while MD-PhD programmes are quite established and in good health, at least in the US, training programmes for junior faculties are critically lacking.

Since a mixed career as physician scientist remains extremely demanding, the question arises: why should we still grant doctors with dedicated options to do research? “I believe physician scientists are uniquely equipped to act as liaisons between the two disciplines. Translating scientific discoveries to clinical practice or understanding clinical results mechanistically requires communication between the scientific and medical communities and physician scientists can help to bridge the gap”, says Vlad.

Discussing with other young scientists and Nobel Laureates, it clearly seems that such a gap exists, and that communication must be fostered between basic scientists, clinicians and global health specialists. In a wonderful session Peter Agre, MD and 2003 Nobel Laureate for Chemistry, reminded us all, with his life experience and current work as director of the Johns Hopkins Malaria Research Institute, that these different figures share the same scientific objective, that is to understand the world and manipulate this knowledge for the benefit of mankind.

When questioned about this matter, Alice Accorroni, MD PhD and Lindau Alumna 2015, says: “I truly believe that we should encourage the formation of large research groups to study a specific condition at different levels, from basic research to clinical trials. Most of the meetings that I attended have separate sessions for basic scientists and clinicians: we should discourage this habit and facilitate multidisciplinary sessions where both groups of researchers have a chance to exchange ideas”.

What I ultimately brought back from Lindau is the awareness that the decrease of physician scientists is “a sociological problem”, as Harold Varmus said, and that it should be tackled as such, from many angles. Both Varmus and Bishop stressed some points that could improve the current scenario: apart from reducing the clinical responsibility burden, it is important to establish tight collaborations with pure basic scientists and have people educated enough to understand basic research, clinical practice and their demands, possibly recapitulating the kind of experience that many of the Laureates had, passing from clinical practice to fundamental research. Especially in Europe, where MD-PhD programmes are not as widespread as in the US, many measures must still be taken to assist the training of physician scientists. As Alice remarks, “these should include: defining a specific path of clinical training for those physicians interested in pursuing an academic career; promoting the access to research facilities during medical school to foster the interest of medical students for research, but also to make them realise what are the challenges of doing full-time research”.

After the Lindau meeting, I definitely feel more confident about my choices so far, and I do have hopes that I will not necessarily have to choose between the lab and the ward. A lot has yet to be done by our generation of researchers and doctors to make science more interdisciplinary and ultimately faster in advancing our knowledge of the world.

Elisabetta Cacace with Nobel Laureate Peter Agre and fellow young scientists.
Photo/Credit: Courtesy of Elisabetta Cacace

Women in Research at #LINO18: Rushita Bagchi from Canada

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

 

Picture/Credit: Courtesy of Rushita Bagchi

#LINO18 young scientist Rushita Bagchi, 35, from Canada, is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Colorado Denver, USA.

Her research involves elucidating epigenetic mechanisms that govern the pathogenesis of obesity and diabetes contributing to cardiometabolic syndrome. This work has great translational impact for development of therapeutics for treatment of obesity and diabetes (T2D).

What inspired you to pursue a career in science?

I have always been fascinated by the mysteries of nature and how scientific research helps unfold those in different ways. Curiosity has been my primary motivation for the pursuit of science in school and as a career choice. I always had an aptitude for biology, which formed the foundation of my continued interest in understanding physiological processes. Fortunately, I have had great mentors throughout my life who have inspired me to garner knowledge in various ways, and therefore helped me prepare to embark on this journey towards a career in biomedical research. The elements of challenge and surprise and my intrinsic curiosity continue to fuel my passion for science and research.

Who are your role models?

My parents have been my first and foremost role models. And I cannot express my gratitude in words for their unconditional love and encouragement.

When it comes to being influenced by ideals in science, I have been extremely fortunate to have had excellent mentors at every stage of my academic pursuit. Beginning with my teachers in grade school and professors in India, to my PhD and postdoctoral supervisors- each of them has had unique traits or skills that I have fancied of embodying someday. On a broader scale, I have been always in awe of the late Nobel Laureate Oliver Smithies for his simplicity and humble approach towards such an illustrious career in science. I had the opportunity of meeting him in person, and listen to him about his journey to the Nobel Prize. Being a woman in science myself, I have always found positive reinforcement looking up to women like the late Barbara McClintock who received the Nobel prize in 1983 for her pioneering work in the field of cytogenetics.  She was born in a family with lesser privileges, but overcame all obstacles to pursue her dream and devoted her entire life to research. Two other female scientists that I admire for their relentlessness are Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard and Elizabeth Blackburn. I continue to be inspired by these women even today.

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

While pursuing my undergraduate degree in zoology in India, I realised that my longing to learn was growing by leaps and bounds. To satisfy my curiosity and eagerness to learn more about physiology and allied sciences, I went on to do a master’s degree as well. Throughout both these degree programmes, I was blessed to have some extremely supportive mentors who always pushed me to set and achieve higher goals. My academic pursuit was put on hold for a short time due to personal reasons. But soon enough, thanks to my ever supportive husband, I was able to successfully enroll in the PhD program at the University of Manitoba in Canada. Dr. Michael Czubryt as my Ph.D. supervisor taught me valuable life skills, and most importantly to believe in myself. I began to understand and appreciate the intricacies of scientific research under his tutelage, and that continues even today in my postdoctoral training program at the University of Colorado Denver. My doctoral degree training taught me to be diligent, organized, critical and think independently. After successful completion of my PhD program, I moved to Colorado, USA to pursue my postdoctoral training under the supervision of Dr. Timothy McKinsey. My training in his lab so far has taught me to be fearless in doing the groundwork and pursuing novel research ideas. I am hoping that what I have learned from my mentors will help propel my career in biomedical research.

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

Every project that I have worked on till date had its own defining moments. Being able to elucidate the novel role of a transcription factor in regulation of fibroblast function in the heart was an exciting and “cool” project during my PhD program. Successful completion of complex experiments in this project gave tremendous satisfaction. One of my postdoctoral research projects investigates the previously unknown role of a chromatin modifying enzyme in metabolic disease. This is a very exciting and yet another “cool” project to work on as this has great translational potential.

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

It is difficult to define a particular time when I have felt immense pride in myself and my work. The best rewards and proudest moments for me have been the recognition that I have received for my work in the form of opportunities to present my work at international meetings and grant support received from national funding agencies. Although, I must say that it is a matter of immense pride in being the first ever successful nominee from the University of Manitoba to attend the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting. I was selected through a national research competition for graduate students in Canada, and secured the top spot to earn the nomination.

Picture/Credit: Courtesy of Rushita Bagchi

What is a “day in the life” of  like?

My usual day starts early at 6 am when I wake up and take time to go through my emails and newly published articles or perspectives in my field of research. Sometimes before heading to work, I try to spend some time catching up with the rest of the world on social media or doing data analysis. It is pretty much time to hit the ground running as soon as I reach the lab. Around noon would be time for lunch with colleagues from my and other labs in the division. Early afternoon, I take a little time to catch up on emails before returning to the bench again to wrap up experiments for the day by the evening. Most evenings are long, but I attempt to plan out next day’s work in advance to save time the following day. I am usually back home by 8pm, when I prepare and have supper. Before bedtime, which is conventionally around midnight, I read articles or reviews to keep myself updated about research topics of interest.

What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?

As a young scientist in training now, I aspire to transition to the next step in my career as an independent investigator in recent future. Leading a research laboratory focused on studying mechanism of pathogenesis of cardiometabolic disease, I hope to contribute to the biomedical community through development of novel therapeutic strategies to treat patients suffering from debilitating conditions such as diabetes and heart failure. I am also committed towards training the next generation of biomedical researchers when I embark on my journey as an independent scientist.

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

Music is food for my soul, and culinary adventures teach me the art of experimentation. When I am not in the lab, I listen to relaxing classical music and am deeply investing my energy in creating my culinary “masterpieces” in the kitchen. Being able to create a unique dish in the kitchen somehow brings me the same joy and satisfaction that I would get from the successful completion of a complex experiment at the bench.

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

Patience and perseverance is what will propel women in the sciences. One needs to find mentors who support women in science- it does get very lonely out there. It is important to create your own network which comprises colleagues, peers, and role models who are committed to helping one succeed even in the face of obstacles. Nothing is impossible to attain once you set your mind to it.

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

With the current trend in use of gene editing technologies, especially the CRISPR-Cas system, we are not far from seeing the use of this tool in its current or improvised form in the clinic to treat patients harboring rare life-threatening genome mutations. Our knowledge of drug discovery tools and platforms has grown tremendously in the past few years, and this will pave the foundation for the emergence of novel and highly efficacious therapeutics for treatment of difficult to treat pathologies.

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

Opportunities and incentives to be retained in research should be increased for women. More women go to school and complete their degree programs successfully now than ever before. But not all of them find themselves in careers in science long-term. Individuals in higher seats of administration and policy makers are the ones who can truly effect a change in the system and help retain women as scientists and professors in the workforce. It is high time that gender equity, whether it comes to opportunities or pay scale, becomes a priority in our societies beyond political and social boundaries. Women need to support and mentor women, but so do men.

Women in Research at #LINO18: Kayoko Shioda from Japan

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 Kayoko Shioda

#LINO18 young scientist, Kayoko Shioda, 30, from Japan, ia a 2nd year Ph.D. student at Yale University.

Her research is about epidemiology of infectious diseases with a focus on vaccine preventable diseases. She is studying the population-level impact of vaccines against pneumococcus both in developing and developed countries. Her goal is to generate evidence to help control infectious diseases more effectively, in collaboration with hospitals, government, and international organisations. Enjoy the interview with Kayoko and get inspired!

 

What inspired you to pursue a career in science?

My goal was formulated in my childhood when my family moved from Japan, our home country, to the Republic of South Africa. Living there for three years, I noticed a number of things that were different there. I learned that the burden of HIV/AIDS was extremely high in South Africa. I saw many families in rural area suffering from zoonosis, which you do not often see in Japan. I observed and also experienced racial discrimination a number of times. I was deeply shocked by differences in poverty levels, life expectancy, education, safety, infrastructure, and so on. These days in South Africa taught me numerous life lessons and changed my perspectives. As I grew up, I realised that these issues are intricately connected to each other, requiring a multidisciplinary approach to address them from multiple fronts. Because I was especially interested in infectious diseases and zoonosis, I decided to pursue a career in veterinary medicine and public health. I am truly grateful for my parents who gave me an opportunity to live in South Africa and to find my lifework.

Who are your role models?

Although I have many role models – both males and females – here I will introduce one of my female role models, Dr. Tomoko Ishibashi. Dr. Ishibashi, who is also a veterinarian, has led a number of programs to improve animal welfare, food safety, and veterinary education at World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) and Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries. She is also a bright, strong mother of two children. I met her when I was an intern at OIE during the veterinary medicine program. She taught me ways to make contributions towards solving global health issues as a veterinarian and showed me how to balance work and personal life, which is important to many of us. I am truly delighted that I had the chance to get to know her, because it was challenging to imagine how to develop a career as a female veterinarian, especially because the veterinary medicine program at the University of Tokyo did not have any female professors when I was a student.

Photo/Credit: Courtesy of Kayoko Shioda

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

My dream to become a veterinarian persisted after coming back from South Africa, so I matriculated in a 6-year veterinary program at the University of Tokyo. Among a broad range of topics taught in the program, I was drawn to infectious diseases and decided to conduct research on the canine distemper virus for my dissertation. I studied genetic mutations of a new strain of this virus isolated from a canine case and how these mutations affect their phenotypes using cell lines and animal models. I was also strongly inspired by the concept of epidemiology and public health when I took these classes in my fourth year. I learned that veterinarians play important roles in the field of global health. Stories about veterinarians working in African countries to respond to outbreaks of various infectious diseases were particularly interesting to me, as I always wanted to go back to and work in African countries where my dream was formulated. The courses made me realise that I would like to be involved in global health initiatives as a veterinarian, although I was not sure about concrete steps to achieve this goal.
During the last two years of the veterinary program, I learned through internships and talking to faculties and alumni, that one way to achieve my goal is to obtain a master’s degree and learn more about public health and epidemiology. Thus, I decided to go to a Master of Public health (MPH) program at Emory University. I chose to study abroad to expand my network and improve my English skills to work globally. Emory provided great opportunities to be involved in international collaborative projects.
My days at Emory changed my life. As many international students’ experience, it was not easy for me to study everything in English and live in Atlanta without a car and with a limited amount of student loans. However, it gave me an opportunity to make the first step towards my dream, which is to work as an intern at WHO Country Office for Thailand for several months. One of the projects I worked on in Thailand was to control leptospirosis infections in the Northeast Thailand, which became a topic of my MPH thesis. It was my first real experience in conducting a global health project, and I realised that this is my lifework.
Towards the end of the master’s program at Emory, I was applying for more than 50 jobs. Getting a job in the field of global health as an immediate graduate was challenging, because most of the positions require at least a few years of full-time work experience. Thanks to recommendation from my supervisor, Dr. Justin Remais, I was hired by the Division of Viral Diseases at CDC, which had been my dream place. I worked on infectious disease surveillance, outbreak response, and epidemiological research on the gastroenteritis team with Drs. Aron Hall and Ben Lopman and other wonderful colleagues for two years.
Through projects at CDC, I learned how to establish a nation-wide disease surveillance program and strategies for reducing limitations and collecting meaningful data. I also realised that, while surveillance systems collect a substantial amount of data, the use of them is often limited to simple descriptive analyses. Therefore, I decided to pursue a doctorate at Yale to learn methodology of mathematical modeling and explore additional utilities of such data. I would like to contribute to the characterisation of infectious disease dynamics and guide future interventions that can impact public health.

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

One of the unforgettable projects was a response to an outbreak of limb weakness in the U.S. in 2014. State health departments noticed that there were an unusual number of children who suddenly could not move their arms or legs. The etiology and progression of this syndrome was unknown. To address this issue, CDC started a national surveillance within a couple of weeks of the first notification of the cluster in collaboration with clinicians and local health departments. As a research fellow at CDC, I helped collect clinical and epidemiological information and specimens from patients in order to gain a better understanding of the disease and to identify an etiology. Although it was the most challenging project that I have ever worked on, it taught me a number of important lessons, including how to develop a case definition, design a case report form, and formulate a laboratory-testing algorithm.

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

I feel honoured and proud when I work with multidisciplinary teams to solve global health issues. Team work is essential, as public health cannot be improved by a single person. One of the most memorable is an international response against the Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa in 2014-2015. My work at CDC was a miniscule part of the whole movement, but I felt that my work was an essential part of the response. I am so grateful that I am granted the opportunity to continue my lifework, because it is an incredible honour to make a difference in people’s lives through populational health.

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

During semesters, I take classes and help with courses as a teaching assistant. For example, in one of the courses at Yale School of Public Health, I lead a 2-hour computer lab every week to teach how to apply epidemiological knowledge and statistical skills that students learn through lectures to real world data or simulated data. Outside classes, I work on research projects at my desk in the lab, at magnificent university libraries, or cozy cafes around Yale. In between course work and working on my thesis, I spend time on a collaborative project with WHO and countries in Latin America and Africa to evaluate the impact of vaccines against pneumococcus in these countries. In the summer of my first year of the Ph.D. program, I went to Malawi for a few months to conduct research on infectious diseases in collaboration with Malawi Liverpool Welcome Trust Research Center. I also work part-time for a start-up company in Japan to develop a small, mobile blood testing kit that can run PCR and ELISA for multiple specimens simultaneously using a very small amount of blood in a short time without any preprocessing of the whole blood.

Picture/Credit: Kayoko Shioda

What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?

When I was younger, I was not sure if I wanted to work in academia, government, international organisations, or private firms. Thus, I tried to experience each of them for various durations to learn how it is to work in these sectors. After doing so, I am hoping to pursue my career in academia, becoming a faculty member who can generate evidence to help control infectious diseases more effectively, in collaboration with hospitals, government, and international organisations. I hope to be a professor who can inspire and support students through courses and research projects.

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

I have been playing percussion in wind bands and orchestras since my childhood. I am currently a member of Berkeley College Orchestra at Yale University. I also love playing with my dog, Winston.

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

There are a number of ways to work in science / physiology and medicine. You can be a medical doctor, nurse, pharmacist, veterinarian, public health practitioner, researcher, epidemiologist, and so on. If you are not sure, I would recommend that you explore your options by talking to people who are doing these jobs or doing internships or job shadowing. You may be surprised by how willing people are to help you with your career.

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

Personalised medicine would be one of them. I have also been intrigued by the surge of machine learning, deep learning, and AI in medicine and public health, which will likely trigger impactful change and innovation. I am looking forward to learning more about next breakthroughs during the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting!

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

I believe there is a need to discuss gender diversity based on data. There are many anecdotes of personal experiences, with some arguing that that there has been enough support for female researchers, and others saying the opposite. We need more quantitative and qualitative data to guide our discussion. An initiative to collect data has just started in Japan, led by the Japan Science and Technology Agency. I have been participating in their symposiums and workshops to learn more about the current situation in Japan and would like to help disseminate the information so that we can have more constructive discussions on this topic.


Women in Research at #LINO18: Lisa Nicholas from Malaysia

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: Lisa Nicholas/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting

#LINO18 young scientist Lisa Nicholas, 34, from Malaysia, is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Metabolic Science, University of Cambridge, UK.

We know that having an unhealthy (higher) body weight when you are pregnant can program a higher risk of both obesity and diabetes in the child, which can persist into adult life. How this happens is not entirely due to simply a transfer of “defective” genes from mother to child but rather exposure of the developing fetus to an obesogenic environment whilst in the womb. Lisa’s research is focused on defining the changes in insulin-secreting pancreatic β-cells of offspring exposed to maternal obesity that causes it to function improperly. She also wants to find out if these changes are the same or different between male and female offspring exposed to maternal obesity to determine if one sex is more at risk than the other. Enjoy the interview with Lisa and get inspired!

 

What inspired you to pursue a career in science?

Science has always been a natural fit for me and as I progressed through school I developed an interest in mammalian physiology and consequently pursued a biomedical science degree. During my undergraduate studies, I was inspired by a series of lectures by Prof. Caroline McMillen on developmental programming, i.e., how poor developmental experience, for example, in terms of maternal physiology and lifestyle can have a profound and long-lasting impact on the health of offspring. Something inside me lit up and I was hooked! Consequently, I pursued an Honours degree and then a PhD with Prof McMillen. One thing has led to another and I still find myself loving my job and I am good at what I do so I am sticking with it! This field of research continues to motivate me, and I hope that my contributions are making a meaningful difference no matter how big or small.

Who are your role models?

I do not have particular role models. I am inspired by people with a strong work ethic, who are relentless in their pursuit of answers to important questions and who do this to make the world a better place.

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

I believe that hard work, perseverance, great sponsors and serendipity is how I have gotten to where I am today. I had a successful PhD under the encouragement and sponsorship of Prof Caroline McMillen. In addition to my research, I won a couple of prizes for science communication, was awarded two international awards, presented at numerous international conferences and secured funding for a research visit to the University of Cambridge. I ended my PhD on a high but was soon faced with the struggle of securing my first job. I started out full of confidence, but this was slowly dwindling with every rejection when I did not even hear back from anyone, which was usually the case. Consequently, I had to broaden my geographic horizons and decided to also apply for positions outside of my home country of Australia. I eventually landed a position in Sweden working on pancreatic islets in a knockout mouse model. Although I had no experience at the time in working with both mice and in islet research, Prof Hindrik Mulder, the PI of the lab was willing to take a chance on me. I also have a very supportive wife who was willing to make the move with me from Australia to Sweden in the middle of Swedish winter! I spent the next two years working very hard to prove to Hindrik that his instincts were right about me. During that time, I published three papers and was successful in obtaining a couple of small grants. It also became clear to me that I would like to focus my research career on studying islets in the context of developmental programming. In order to be able to do this and to drive my own research, I applied for and was successful in obtaining a fellowship from the Australian Health and Medical Research Council to work with Prof Susan Ozanne at the University of Cambridge on her mouse model of maternal obesity. Although this meant yet another move, this time from Sweden to the UK, I have so far had a happy and successful two and a half years in Cambridge. This has also been made easier by the fact that my wife has also been able to develop her own career in the UK. Being far away from family, however, still remains a challenge.

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

Working with sheep has definitely been one of the coolest things I have done in research. During my PhD I worked on a sheep model of maternal periconceptional obesity. Consequently, I spent a lot of time in a farm setting, taking blood from new born lambs, performing glucose tolerance tests etc. I also got to be involved in embryo transfer experiments from donor to recipient ewes working with scientists who were involved in producing Australia’s first cloned sheep, Matilda!

 

Photo/Credit: Lisa Nicholas/Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting

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

That has to be when I was awarded a C J Martin Fellowship from the Australian Health and Medical Research Council.

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

I am an early bird so my day at work starts early, usually before 7 am. I love this time of day when it is quiet in the lab/office before the hustle and bustle of the day begins. I usually spend most of my time either in the lab or in the animal facility. If I have any reading and writing to do, I usually set aside whole days to do this rather than to split my day. I find that I work better this way.

What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?

To be a successful scientist who is able to maintain a healthy work/life balance!

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

My two joys in life are cooking and traveling.

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

Go for it! Be brave and persistent, stay positive and find a good sponsor who is willing to speak up about your strengths to others.

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

I think the next great breakthrough in medicine will be the clinical use of human pluripotent stem cells for regenerative therapy to treat diseases such as diabetes.

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

I think universities and institutes should make a conscious effort to hire and support talented female scientists. I think fellowships geared towards scientists returning after a career break or that offer the flexibility of combining work with other commitments such as caring responsibilities are also invaluable. These will be especially useful for female scientists who have taken time off work to start a family. I also think it is important for promising younger researchers to be actively sponsored by members of the faculty. It goes a long way when someone who is well established vouches for you.

Women in Research at #LINO18: Mariana Alves from Portugal

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 Mariana Rama Pedro Alves

#LINO18 young scientist Mariana R. P. Alves, 23, from Portugal, is a PhD student at the EMBL in the Developmental Biology Unit, Germany.

It’s fascinating how animals evolve from a single cell to a complex embryo, but many of the mechanisms at play are yet to be understood in detail. In Mariana’s lab they have the fruit fly as a model and follow the motto “seeing is believing”, so they use imaging techniques to understand how a single cell evolves into an embryo. Specifically, she wants to understand the mechanisms underlying how the spatiotemporal activity of enhancers (regions bound by transcription factors that promote or repress gene expression) is regulated and contributes to complex gene expression patterns during development. If you want to know more, be sure to check their latest paper. Enjoy the interview with Mariana and get inspired!

 

What inspired you to pursue a career in science?

I had a wide spectrum of possibilities in my mind, including literature or journalism, before I decided for my BSc in Biochemistry. What finally drove me to science was the will to contribute to society in the form of a meaningful and translational discovery, such as a vaccine. I was also attracted by the idea that biochemistry is a very challenging subject. Ironically, during my undergraduate studies, I discovered my passion for basic research rather than for translational or clinical research. The pursuit of discovering unknown molecular mechanisms is what is driving me to do research and be a member of the scientific community now.

Who are your role models?

Several people have inspired me. Hard-workers. People with clear work and life philosophies and principles that make me think “wow, how haven’t I thought of this?!” Courageous and bold people who don’t stick to the “norm”. Several friends or colleagues I have met along the way have inspired me in that sense. Over time, I dedicated to podcasting and radio broadcasting, I interviewed over 100 international scientists and found inspiration in most of them. I would highlight names such as Oliver Smithies, Marina Cortes, Martin Chalfie or Tiago Brandao Rodrigues. Marina Cortes is a very special example, because she studies Cosmology, a field completely unrelated to mine, but nevertheless listening to her gave me such an energy rush, such a hype! She was a ballerina first – something I relate to because I also dreamed of being one before I entered high school and broke my ankle – and she currently hikes the world’s highest mountains. I was very inspired by her enthusiasm regarding people having several passions instead of “funnelling” what you dedicate your life to. The ultimate women in science role model is my friend and Lindau Alumni Renata Gomes. Wise and generous, two of the 100 adjectives that could be used to describe her, Renata has been a role model since I met her. Some of the most impactful encounters prior to my time as a PhD student have been with women in science. I would also like to mention Dr. Carlos Faro, someone I would call in time of doubt or when I had to make choices, who recommended Dr. Jose Silva’s lab for my first international experience and who was very enthusiastic and supportive about me gaining experience abroad. I am also very inspired by the women scientists who founded the non-profit organisations DrosAfrica, NativeScientist and Maratona da Saude. My family has been a good source of inspiration as well. Just to mention my father’s resilience and standards, my mom’s strength and generosity, my sister’s resolve to follow her own path or my grandmother’s personal history. Finally, I have a very deep respect and admiration for artists and creative individuals. I am very inspired by creative giants such as Lin Manuel Miranda, Pina Bausch and Beyoncé. What unites artists and scientists is a high level of motivation, discipline, creativity and resilience. The 12 consecutive hours we can spend at the bench are similar to the 12 h a recording artist spends in a studio or rehearsing a choreography. This extreme work ethic and relentlessness are, in my opinion, the qualities one needs to be a great scientist as well.

 

Mariana with Renata Gomes at the 64th Lindau Meeting in 2014. Photo/Credit: Courtesy of Mariana Rama Pedro Alves

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

In a nutshell: I think it was essential for me to have an early start in a lab, to get international experience and work in different labs. I also value the time I spent in my MSc a lot, which allowed me to mature my thoughts and ideas before starting my Ph.D. (and applying for several programmes as well!). In addition, I believe that it was important for me to follow my personal career path and dedicate the time I did to science communication and public engagement. I believe I can say that all these aspects added up to positively influence my personal development and development as a young scientist. Finally, I am extremely grateful for all the generosity of my supervisors (formal and informal) and everyone who helped me along the way, and my family who made it all possible.

I really believe my three years as a volunteer trainee during my BSc made a huge difference in my career path. Professor Francisco Ambrosio was really surprised when I knocked his door, still 18 years old in my freshman year of Biochemistry, to ask to volunteer in his lab. I am forever grateful to him for opening his door. It was the perfect lab for a first experience because it is one of the happiest and friendliest labs I had the pleasure to work in during my short scientific career.

Because I started early, after spending 1 year and a half in the lab during my BSc, including summer holidays, I was ready to spend a summer in a lab abroad, which I did in the second year of my BSc. This was crucial for my personal development and shaping the following career decisions. Two international experiences opened my eyes a lot. The first one was my stay in Cambridge, my first time living abroad and exposed to the atmosphere of a competitive research environment [2]. The second experience was a 6-week lab rotation in Copenhagen, in the lab of Kim Jensen. I loved Denmark, the Danes, and Copenhagen, and I had a great time personally and scientifically. Dr. Kim Jensen and his lab welcomed me warmly and I was able to contribute to a very interesting “story” that was wrapping up.

There is an aspect common to my summer internship in Cambridge and my MSc rotation in Copenhagen: both my previous supervisors were open for me to move on and try different things. This can be rare in academia and I highly value Prof. Francisco Ambrosio’s and Dr. Jose Silva’s attitudes – they could not have been more supportive. This was again true for my PhD applications, for which references from Dr. Jose Silva, Dr. Kim Jensen, and Professor Francisco Ambrosio were crucial, and I am very grateful for the time they dedicated and patience they showed helping me to move on in my career [3]. There are many more names to add to my thank-you list, indeed too many…

I applied to several Ph.D. programmes because I have broad interests and was curious about different projects and places. I benefitted from attending several rounds of recruitment procedures because I really got to know the PIs, the institutes, and was able to see very different research environments. I was able to make a well-more informed choice. The institutes are usually understanding of this. The most important thing is that you look at this as a 2-way process. Sure, they are interviewing you, but you are also making an informed choice and you should be critical and rigorous about what you want for yourself.

Finally, I am aware of the privilege I had in many ways throughout my education and the start of my career. I am extremely grateful for my parents’ investment in my stays abroad and am aware that not everyone has these opportunities. For example, when I was in my last year of the BSc, my work was selected for an oral presentation at an international student conference in Leiden. I didn’t have any travel grant but I saw this as a great opportunity, so I asked my parents to finance my trip. Since they would be paying my travel and accommodation anyway, my mom decided to join me along with a friend and my sister, and we took a mini-holiday around the Netherlands. I also feel that since I lived with them during my BSc, I had the time to dedicate myself to my studies, the lab and all my time-demanding extracurricular activities (radio, theatre, etc), since I was alleviated from all the burdens associated with living on your own.

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

This is a very easy answer: it’s my Ph.D. project, which I am currently working on. There is something very special about “seeing” molecular events rather than just graph outputs. I really like to dissect mechanisms and there is still a lot to understand regarding transcriptional regulation in development. I am still new to the Drosophila model and I am constantly amazed by the number of datasets and information that have already been generated for it, they are very helpful when you want to study certain molecular events and mechanisms in detail.

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

I would say, anytime a paper to which I contributed got published. But specifically, when my first first-author paper was published. This is a milestone for any researcher but in this case I felt double the pride because this work was carried out during my BSc. I decided to volunteer at Professor Francisco Ambrosio’s lab in my first year of undergrad and dedicated much of my free time from lectures, exams, and extracurriculars to it. A lot of times I would hear people making fun of me for being in the lab so early on, “wasting my youth time”… Finally, three years of hard work eventually paid off. It felt extremely good to have been able to produce a coherent and publishable story at such an early stage of my scientific career [1]. It was with this project and still in my BSc that I had my first poster and oral presentations including in international conferences.

I was also very proud when, in the summer of 2014, I overcame my fears and lived abroad and away from my family for the first time, to work at Jose Silva’s lab in Cambridge. This was a huge step for me and it paved the way for my definite move away from home 2 years later. Anyone who lives abroad will relate to the fact that there are always new challenges arising, and we should be proud of our daily courage. Here, once again, having people who support you is key – from my family over the distance to the crazily talented and generous Ph.D. student Hannah Stuart who was supervising me and always made sure I felt literally at home. At such an early stage in my career, she really shaped a lot of my “how-to’s” and research principles that I still remember and act by.

Several of my science communication/extracurricular achievements also made and make me proud: doing the press coverage of the Lindau Meeting 2014 for my university radio show, co-organizing the Stem Cell Exchanges Art Project or the coordinating of the video with which my MSc class fundraised almost four thousand euros for neuroscience research in Portugal.

I would also highlight other events such as being accepted in the EMBL Ph.D. Programme after having undergone an intense recruitment procedure or defending my MSc thesis in front of many of my friends and colleagues from my home university.

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

Because EMBL is far from the city center, my day starts with a 20-minute bus ride. It sounds boring, but many EMBL employees take this bus, so there is always someone different to talk to. Then, I usually like having breakfast at EMBL’s cafeteria, because there are flaky and warm croissants. My day in the lab is divided between working with the flies, bench work and imaging and data analysis. The lab usually has lunch together. I usually meet with my supervisor once a week. EMBL has many interesting seminars to attend as well. On my way home, I get to see Heidelberg’s beautiful nature and especially in the summer, when the days are long, it is a very nice way to end the day. I really love Heidelberg’s old town, it somehow magically reminds me of the best features of several cities at home and abroad.

What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?

I would like to combine my curiosity for the undiscovered mechanisms of life with my will to impact society. During the next 3 years, I aim to discover how to do this and am certain that the Ph.D. and my time at EMBL will equip me with the tools to accomplish that.

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

On a weekly basis, I am learning German and French and like to spend quality time with my friends, going out for dinner or going to the movies. I am interested in science communication and science philosophy so I like to read about it or engage in related activities. Heidelberg is great to enjoy the outdoors, especially during summer, and I really like to get some sun or to swim, although research doesn’t allow much time for that, to be honest. I spend a lot of time listening to music as well – needless to say, I listen to a lot of Beyonce’ (but not only!). On a more sporadic basis, I really enjoy the “performing arts” so I like to go to concerts or dance pieces (being in Central Europe is great for that, especially for the contemporary dance scene, with Pina Bausch’s Tanztheater only 4h from Heidelberg); hopefully when my German is better I will be able to attend theatre plays as well. I miss performing theatre, which I did for several years in a company in Coimbra called Bonifrates. I also like to take photographs and really enjoy travelling. Currently travelling usually means visiting friends living abroad (being in Germany is very convenient for this) or going home to Portugal, which is always nice and refreshing.

 

Play about Women and Freedom. Photo/Credit Bonifrates

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

Start getting experience as early as you can.

Try different things. I was super anxious to return to Cambridge after my summer there. I thought I would use all my MSc rotation time just to go there and start my thesis as early as possible, given my eagerness to go back and because of my fascination with the university’s atmosphere. I was disadvised to do so and rather try something different. I followed this advice and couldn’t have done better. After all, I had had only one working-abroad experience, and I would be very limited if I hadn’t lived and worked in a different country, institute, lab, and field. I believe that if I hadn’t been in Copenhagen maybe I would not have been so open to moving out of the UK to do my Ph.D. It was essential to gain different lab skills and meet another lab.

Don’t rush into a Ph.D. After I spent the summer of 2014 in Cambridge, my supervisor encouraged me to apply for a Ph.D. So I did, and it was a stressful but rewarding experience. I was called for an interview, which I saw as a major compliment regarding my career stage. The interview was unsuccessful (and rightfully so, I was not ready) and it was very hard for me to take that rejection. But fortunately it was a learning lesson, and it ultimately helped me with my Ph.D. applications 2 years later [4]. I also believe it was truly a blessing to have two years before my PhD to mature personally and professionally. With my MSc thesis research, I understood better what I liked (mechanisms!) and how to be a researcher. There is no such thing as too much experience. I remember asking Nobel Laureate Prof. Dr. Harald zur Hausen about this off-the-record after an interview for my radio show, and he insisted “Do a MSc first!”. Though this depends on the individual career background, of course, this is what I would recommend to everyone: Have substantial lab experience and try different labs before you commit to a Ph.D. programme.

Ask for advice. Don’t be shy! If people don’t have the time they will let you know, but if they do you can learn so much from them. Learn from as much of a diverse group as you can.

Don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself. Academia can be tricky and there could be times where you need to stand up for yourself, for example, to claim credit that is due and missing. That can be daunting, you do not want to give a bad impression, but you need to stand up for yourself. And credit should be given wherever it is due. Also, do not let your hard-fought and sweat achievements be downplayed by people who will point out all the ways in which you were “lucky”, and don’t be fooled to state that yourself. Finally, you should be aware of “mansplaining” and try to stand up against it.

Do it YOUR way. Follow your instincts and passions, whatever it is that makes you a complete person. Don’t be fooled by people, as senior or important as they might be, who try to tell you how to live your life and who try to convince you that research lives cannot accommodate anything else. It is worth investing time and hard work in projects you believe in. Work hard, don’t fool around, but be yourself.

Take care of yourself. Research can be daunting. PhDs particularly, but it can also feel overwhelming in other stages. Too often there is this weight put on researchers that their failures (a rejected paper or grant, a failed experiment) or successes are direct measures of their personal worth. This can be hard to deal with. I wanted to bring this up because EMBL offers Mindfulness and Stress Reduction training on site, and this is a very important initiative, and I am very glad that EMBL is showing good practice by example by caring about the mental health of their employees – the instructor is Sonja Noss. I am taking the course. We promised Sonja not to make judgments (positive or negative) about it before is finished, so I won’t. But scientists should not be embarrassed of taking care of themselves and acknowledging that it can be stressful. This is where friends and good colleagues also play a very important part.

Celebrate milestones! I believe that no matter how small they are, our personal milestones should be celebrated. And I mean really celebrated. Publishing a paper, having a poster accepted, submitting a thesis, the first time an experimental procedure works, a tiny amount of exciting data, or an interview to the Women in Research blog… Often these events are anticlimactic and science has its lonely and non-eventful times, so we should not be embarrassed to fill our time with celebrations for our small, medium or big accomplishments.

 

Mariana involved in public engagement in London in 216. Photo/Credit: Courtesy of Mariana Alves

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

I hope that we find solutions for antibiotic resistance very soon. I also hope that the scientific scene will leap forward not only in terms of hard science breakthroughs but also from changes in the system. I hope we breakthrough in improving the health of labs, the mental health of workers, gender imbalance, and scientific misconduct of different kinds. Only by improving these conditions, can we keep incredible professionals from leaving academia and increase the chances and the number of great discoveries. 

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

Change is definitely needed and it is true that the academic culture is harder on women than men. I feel that it is less accepted when women are assertive. I think it will be very hard to change without some forceful rules, such as quotas for faculty positions, conference invitations, etc. At EMBL, I see many scientists with families trying to juggle life and research. This inspires me. It should not be such a surprise and inspiration but it is. And I believe that having a kindergarten on campus, for example, is a tremendous help for mothers in science. Another example of improved practice could be to protect women at the beginning of their contracts against dismissal due to pregnancy. Nevertheless, male scientists also have families and family duties. EMBL currently has an initiative by the Diversity & Equality Committee that encourages female scientists to join for lunch and share their “Women in Science” stories. Small initiatives like this can make a difference because they open dialogue and create awareness.


________________________________________
[1] It would be impossible to accomplish these things without a support network, in this case the whole lab – from Professor Francisco who opened the door to me, to Filipa Baptista who supervised me and all the co-authors in this project who lent me their expertise and also their time when I couldn’t be there because of exams or during revisions.
[2] I couldn’t be more grateful to Dr. Jose Silva for accepting my summer stay and welcoming me back to do my MSc thesis.
[3] I should add Dr. Renata Gomes’ generosity for providing personality references as well.
[4] Here again, the help of so many colleagues (advice, proof-reading, etc) was indispensable.

Women in Research at #LINO18: Jeerapond Leelawattanachai from Thailand

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

 

Photo/Credit: Courtesy of Jeerapond Leelawattanachai

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

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

 

What inspired you to pursue a career in science?

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

Who are your role models?

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

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

 

Photo/Credit: Courtesy of Jeerapond Leelawattanachai

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Photo/Credit: Courtesy of Kom Wongsawat

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

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

What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?

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

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

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

 

Photo/Credit: Courtesy of Jeerapond Leelawattanachai

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miriam Van Dyke from the United States

Forough Khadem from Iran

Edith Phalane from South Africa

Harshita Sharma from India

Chelsea Cockburn from the USA

Lisa Nicholas from Malaysia

Mariana Alves from Portugal

Jeerapond Leelawattanachai from Thailand

Kayoko Shioda from Japan

and

Rushita Bagchi from India.

 

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: Chelsea Cockburn from the USA

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

 

Picture/Credit: Courtesy of Chelsea Cockburn

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

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

What inspired you to pursue a career in science?

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

Who are your role models?

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Picture/Credit: Courtesy of Chelsea Cockburn

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

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

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

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

What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?

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

 

Picture/Credit: Courtesy of Chelsea Cockburn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Women in Research at #LINO18: Harshita Sharma from India

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

 

Picture/Credit: Courtesy of Harshita Sharma

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

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

 

What inspired you to pursue a career in science?

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

Who are your role models?

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Picture/Credit: Courtesy of Harshita Sharma

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

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

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

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

What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?

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

 

Picture/Credit: Courtesy of Harshita Sharma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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