Another month and I have another scientist’s story to share with you. Today I want to share with you a story from down under, of a structural biologist with a passion for cancer research. Having grown up in Perth – one of the most isolated cities in the world – today’s Scientist in the Spotlight now lives in Melbourne on the other side of the country where she works on trying to understand how changes in the signals that control blood development can lead to blood cancers.
We will be talking about why structural biology is so important, using Instagram for scicomm, inspiring women into STEM and my home country of Wales 🙂
So, I am thrilled to introduce you to February’s Scientist in the Spotlight, Rhi M.
Hi Rhi & welcome to Soph talks science. I am thrilled that you are here and sharing your science story so let’s get stuck in. What is your science story? How did you get to where you are now?
Rhi: I went to a performing arts school where I was in the gifted and talented programme for ballet. During my high school years, I had two really amazing female science teachers who sparked an interest in science for me. By the time I finished high school, I knew I wanted to go to uni and study a science degree. I initially started a triple degree in molecular biology, biomedical science and forensic biology at Murdoch University in Perth, but in my first years I didn’t click with the content of the lectures and I ended up failing most of my units. I took some time off to think about whether this was what I really wanted to do. After a year and a bit I went back to uni, but this time dropping the forensic biology part.
This time around I still didn’t enjoy the first semester that much, but I forced myself to do the work and got through it all easily. Second semester of my first year was when I realised the I didn’t like the anatomy that came with the biomedical sciences part of my degree and I actually missed the forensics side. So, in my second year I switched things up AGAIN! This time I dropped my degree to solely molecular biology with a minor in biomedical and forensic biology. This gave me the freedom to pick and choose the classes I wanted to do without being stuck in the ones I didn’t enjoy so much.
From here on out, everything became so much better. I loved university. I enjoyed going every day and I went from student who failed most of her classes in first semester to getting the top marks for some of my classes and getting grades of high 90s! So really if I can do it, so can anybody else!
So, how did you go from learning about the theory side of molecular biology to being in the lab doing a PhD?
Rhi: During my undergrad I started working in labs as a volunteer undergrad student and even did a subject where I worked in a lab over my Christmas break. I loved lab work and solving puzzles so after my three years of my Molecular Biology BSc with minors in Forensics and biomed, I decided I would do my honours year. In Australia, this is the year you do that bridges undergrad and a PhD. You do a year of intensive lab work, talks, exams and then you write up a thesis. You then get a mark based on all that work and that is what you use to apply for your PhD program.
I was originally going to do my honours year in Perth where I lived already, but then a crazy turn of events I ended up moving across the country to a city where I knew nobody to do my honours year at Australia’s oldest research institutes working in the directors lab. It was during this year that I developed a love for the JAK-STAT signalling pathway so when I got a competitive mark for the year, I immediately applied for a PhD placement at the same institute. I got in and the rest is ongoing. Now I am about a year and a half away from completing my PhD.
So, let’s talk about your PhD research. What is it all about? I am going to guess something to do with the JAK-STAT pathway?
Rhi: Haha yes! I work on the JAK-STAT pathway and look at how it is regulated and how when this regulation doesn’t occur effectively, blood cancers can occur. I study this using structural biology, which involves working out the 3D structure of proteins so we can understand how they function and how mutations can change their function.
Tell us a little bit more about structural biology – what really is it?
Rhi: Structural biology is a field that is interested in what proteins or other molecules look like – as this can help inform their function. We often say ‘structure informs function’. I do protein work and so we want to know how the proteins fold and how they perform their specific functions or even how they interact with other molecules or why when a mutation occurs that interaction is abolished.
What are some of the biggest discoveries in the field that we should all know about then?
Rhi: I feel like there are so many cool things that people may not realise involved structural biology. Like solving the structure of DNA! Rosalind Franklin used x-ray crystallography for that. Dorothy Hodgkin solved the structure of penicillin with x-ray crystallography. Many drugs are made based on the structure of the proteins and knowing about their active sites. In 2017, the Nobel Prize was awarded to scientists who developed cryo electron microscopy which is one of the newer techniques we use these days. Many people probably benefit from knowledge generated by structural biology without even realising it.
What is a typical day like for a structural biologist?
Rhi: It really changes from day to day. Some days are really full on – for example if you’re purifying a protein its a loooooong day! You start early and often finish late because everything is slow. But other days you can run a few quick experiments and then you are done. Other days you go to the synchotron at 3am and get to work by 9am, then solve your structure until you get so tired its time to go home to bed. It’s crazy how different each day can be, but I always try to make time to sit down for lunch with friends and we have a lot of seminars we attend so I am always trying to engage with other peoples work as well as get my own done.
Recently it was International Day of Women and Girls in Science – what does that day mean to you?
Rhi: To me it is a day to celebrate women in all the sciences. This includes cis women, trans women, non-binary, queer, disabled women, women of colour, intersex and women of all incomes. We need to be wholly inclusive and celebrate our diversity because it is what makes us stronger. I am so happy to see these conversations happening and the changes starting to occur… but we still have a way to go.
What advice would you give to a young girl inspired by STEM but is being held back for whatever reason?
Rhi: If it is your dream go for it. After I failed all my classes I was told many times that science wasnt for me and I should do something else. But I persisted and now Im going to finish my PhD at one of the best research institutes in Australia. This may not be feasible for everybody, but it is important to remember that a PhD is not the only way to be a scientist. If its what you want, you can find a way! Get some great mentors and keep working towards your goal. I’m always happy to talk to people who need advice too.
So, let’s switch things up a little bit. You were formally known as 365daysofscience on Instagram – what on earth made you want to share a picture a day?
Rhi: Haha, good question! But seriously… I wanted to show what it is like to be a medical science researcher on a day to day basis and engage people who aren’t in science, and show them how cool it can be. I really just want the general public to trust scientists and I think breaking down the walls between us and them is important for that.
I am struggling to make enough content for a few posts a week, how did you manage to create enough content to fill an entire year? And did you enjoy it?
Rhi: Working in a lab everyday means I have a lot of things to take photos of and I did a lot of throwbacks too.But sometimes you do a stretch of the same experiments for weeks on end and that was where it became trickier to find new things to post. But overall it was relatively easy to find at least one thing that day that I thought might be interesting. I did really enjoy the experience too. I made heaps of new friends and I have learned so much from the scicomm community. There were days where I just couldn’t be bothered and those were the days where I kept it brief I guess.
Why do you love science communication and outreach?
Rhi: For me, I like to engage with people who get excited about science. It’s also awesome to see the diversity of researchers and people doing scicomm. The community we have is great and I think the more diverse we get, the better because the more voices and outlooks we get.
If you are not in the lab, where would we most likely find you?
Rhi: Probably at home relaxing with a book or at the bouldering gym! To be honest I love a day of doing nothing, snuggling up on the couch and watching a movie. But I also enjoy some outdoor activities from time to time.
We also recently discovered that we both have Welsh blood in our veins. What are your favourite things about Wales?
Rhi: The castles! The history is so interesting and I love visting the castles scattered all around Wales. Also the old pubs – I have never been in buildings so old and quite cool! Wales is probably the only place where I can find items with my name on them too.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years time?
Rhi: Not 100% certain yet and Im keeping some of my plans a bit under wraps at this stage. But Im trying to find a way to merge my love for basic science with my interest in clinical trials some way. BUT I can say that I will be working on cancer research one way or another – it has captivated me.
And finally, where in the world should be my next travel destination and why?
Rhi: Well I am about to head to Japan which I think will be the best trip of my life, but in terms of places I have already gone there are so many! One of my fave trips was to the UK last year and when I got to Cambridge I saw snow for the first time in my life. It was awesome and I loved it and I met some really fab people there too, so I think Cambridge will always be special to me.
Time for the quick fire round!
Tea or coffee? Tea
Australia or Wales? Oooh hard, but Australia is my home.
Beach holiday or ski break? Ski break.
Sweet or savoury? Savoury!I have already spoken about my love for all things potato.
Night in or night out? Night in!
And that is a wrap. Huge thanks to Rhi for taking the time to answer my questions and for some really inspirational answers. If you want to learn more about Rhi and her science then you can follow her blog, Twitter or Instagram to get your fix.
If you have any questions for Rhi about her science journey, structural biology or anything in between then get in contact or ask them in the comments.
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