Welcome to the first blog of my BRAND NEW feature ‘Scientist in the Spotlight’!
I have only been seriously committed to writing my science blog for about 3 months or so now, but it that short amount of time I have ‘met’ some of the most inspiring and awesome scientists who have similar interests to me and join my mission to break down the barrier between scientists and the public whilst banishing the stereotype that scientists in the lab are just a bunch of old men in long white coats!
I wanted to showcase some of these guys and gals and tell you about their science journeys, and show you that being a scientist doesn’t mean just one thing – the geeky scientist!
So, I’m so excited to introduce to you my first ‘Scientist in the Spotlight’ featuring Jess T.
Jess is a fifth year PhD student at the University of Toronto (aka. the Uof6ix!). The city girl born in Montreal and now living in downtown Toronto whose friends would describe her as ‘outgoing, funny, dependable and passionate, and probably also attest to the fact that she is an over-the-top dramatic with the hyperness level of a Chihuahua!’ Her research looks into the importance of gene remixing in the defence of bacterial pathogens in cells!
Jess’s Instagram (@thesciencediaries) and AMAZING blog! was one of the first things I came across in my quest to find other scientists out there with the same mission as me. I wanted some inspiration for my blog, I wanted to see what other research these brilliant and clever people were up to and I wanted to make a network of people who are in the same situation as me that could offer advice and support during those tough times on your PhD journey! Jess’s blog has been a huge inspiration for me – the newbie to blogging, let alone science blogging! I loved the look! I loved the style! I loved the posts! Basically I loved all of it! (Sorry about the fan-girling!) So, as I have been so heavily influenced by her blog, I thought it was the perfect way to kick start my new feature!
Tell us a bit about your science research journey.
Jess: I started off my journey in my undergraduate degree at McMaster University in the Honours Biochemistry and Biomedical Sciences program. I realised that I really wanted to get involved in research and was accepted to work as a summer student in a lab studying malaria Plasmodium Falciparum. In the next two years, I volunteered in two other labs studying infectious agents like Pseudomonas aeruginosa (the primary bacterial pathogen implicated in cystic fibrosis). My research adventure continued into Grad School in 2012 at the University of Toronto pursuing a Masters degree in the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathobiology studying the host response to bacterial pathogens Shigella and Salmonella. I enjoyed my lab environment and the work I was doing there so much that I transferred into the PhD stream and am currently one year away from defending my PhD thesis!
What has your Grad School experience been like?
Jess: Throughout the past four years I’ve absolutely loved being in the lab and the work that I’ve been doing. The best part about grad school is definitely the community and sense of belonging you get from being surrounded by like-minded individuals. Some of my closest friends are ones that I’ve made during my time in grad school – they understand the struggles of life in research essentially better than anyone else and I think this definitely helps to form a bond that can stand the test of time. The worst part would have to be the inevitable stress that comes with life in research – be it committee meetings, grant proposals or experiments not working. This is where the support system of friends and family really comes in handy. Thankfully I’ve found that stress during grad school comes in waves and doesn’t typically last for very long!
If I could give advice to my first year self it would be to start networking and thinking about my future early. It’s so easy to get bogged down with experiments and lab life in general during your PhD and completely neglect the fact that you will eventually defend your thesis one day. I’ve learned through observing others that the world post-PhD can be a scary place if you have no idea what you want to do with the rest of your life. The earlier you start building your network by making connections with people around you, the better off you’ll be!
What is a typical day in the lab like for you?
Jess: A typical day for me involves a combination of wet lab bench work and extracurricular/course work. My experiments are mostly all in vitro which means that I work with immortalized mammalian cell lines like HeLa cells in culture and I spend a lot of my time in the biosafety hood tinkering with my cells! I do a lot of microscopy and get to take a lot of pretty immunofluorescence pictures, which is probably my favourite part of my research project. I’m involved with a number of different student groups within U of T so I devote a certain portion of my days for those commitments. And I would be lying if I said I didn’t spend a significant chunk of each day chatting and socializing with my lab/floor mates – an important aspect of maintaining sanity during grad school!
What inspired you to pursue science?
Jess: Honestly I wish that I could say that there was a standout epiphany moment that inspired me to pursue science, but it was just something that I was naturally drawn to and couldn’t picture myself in any other field! High school really developed my interest in science through basic biology and chemistry courses and when it came to university, I didn’t even consider non-science programs. It was daunting at first, especially being the only one in my family to pursue science, but once I reached the end of my undergrad degree I knew that I had made the right decision. As you can probably tell by the theme in my research background, I’ve always been particularly fascinated with infectious diseases – viruses especially. The fact that organisms that are so tiny have been able to outsmart human defences for hundreds of years is both riveting and terrifying at the same time. I think the notion of exploring completely unchartered waters in research and potentially contributing to the cure for human diseases is a driving factor behind my motivation as a scientist.
Besides science, what other interests do you have?
Jess: Maintaining strong friendships and planning/attending social events is a huge part of my life and a driving force behind my happiness, so I always make time for those in my life! In my spare time I pretty much occupy myself with all of the classic basic girl clichés. I love shopping until I drop, binge watching reality shows, hanging out with my boyfriend, friends and family and fulfilling my quest of trying every brunch place in Toronto. My current favourite is Saving Grace – once you try their coconut lemon pancakes you’ll realise it’s worth it!! I’m also a huge fan of house music and love going to music festivals and DJ events on the weekends! My newest adventure in science blogging is another thing that I’ve been really enjoying lately, although it does take up a pretty big chunk of my time!
It helps to have good time management skills to plan experiments in a way that they don’t take over your entire life! although the nature of research in the lab makes this tough. It’s easy to get so absorbed in your research and completely neglect other parts of your life and I definitely make a conscious effort to avoid this! I’ve always taken pride in my ability to balance different parts of my life – I like to think this is engrained in my Libra personality.
Talking about your blog, what made you start it?
Jess: I started my blog The Science Diaries as a way to express both my creativity and to present trending topics in science in a way that’s exciting and easy to understanding. I realised that I really enjoy portraying lab life in a way that’s a little more glamorous than people would expect through my Instagram photos. At the same time, it’s important that my posts have substance and value for my readers, be it related to interesting science concepts or general advice on grad school life. My intended target audience is both scientists and non-scientists alike and to show people that research findings in big journals can explained an appealing way without tons of technical jargon. I like to think that if my two sisters who aren’t in science can take something away from my blog posts then I’m doing a decent job!
My advice for someone looking to start a science blog would be to just do it already! I’ve had a lot of people write to me who had been meaning to start a blog for months and haven’t gotten around to it yet. It’s much easier once you get the ball rolling. Blogging is definitely a lot of work, but it’s also a ton of fun! Hone in on your specific interests and keep your posts somewhat consistent so your readers known what to expect when they visit your page. And be creative with it! If people wanted to read about science in a dull, technical narrative they could just download the latest PDFs off PubMed. Make sure your personality shines through!
What’s the next step after your PhD? What does the future hold?
Jess: I’m hoping to finish up experiments for my last research paper in the next couple of months and then wrap up and start writing my thesis! The next year will be a huge period of change for me as I transition out of the relatively comforting world of academia out into the harsh reality of industry life. I use the term comforting mainly because in no other profession are you able to wake up at 10am and show up at noon if you feel like it! I’m hopefully looking to get into the world of medical writing or digital health marketing – my ideal job position would involve both writing/learning about various topics in science and provide me with a chance to showcase my creativity in some way.
And last question, where in the world should be my next travel destination?
Jess: Given that I pretty much live for wine and cheese, I would have to say anywhere Napa Valley (or anywhere in California for that valley). It’s such a magical place with permanently good weather and an abundance of beautiful wineries. The visit that my family and I made there in 2013 when we spent the afternoon indulging in wine and delicious cheeses and driving throughout the rolling hillsides remains one of my fondest memories! Some other areas of California that I love and highly recommend would be Laguna Beach, La Jolla, and Downtown San Fran. I can only pray that my dream of attending Coachella in Palm Springs comes true one day!
I’ve discovered a lot of similarities between me and Jess; from being naturally drawn towards science to life being all about the wine and the cheese! I hope to stay in contact and continue to share the PhD journey and beyond. I know it is only my first ‘Scientist in the Spotlight’ post, but I have loved getting to know these clever, funny and brilliant people around the world – so watch this space for more ‘Scientist in the Spotlight’ posts!
Finally, if you do anything today check out Jess’s Instagram page (@thesciencediaries), visit her blog here and follow it on Facebook here. If you would like to get involved with my ‘Scientist in the Spotlight’ series or know someone that would, then please get in touch. I would love to hear from you!
Here’s the link to a feature on the University of Toronto website on Jess’s paper if you want to check it out!