Scientist in the Spotlight. Krishana S.

We have had a little break from Scientist in the Spotlight posts recently. We wrapped up Season 3 back in August, and took a short break from doing them as I got married, moved house, tried to buy a house and thought about how I could make these posts even better – which also took me a little longer than expected.

But Season 4 of Scientist in the Spotlight is now back! Yay! And I am ready to share the STEM stories of so many more scientists, engineers, mathematicians and more the rest of this year and next year with an exciting new addition to these posts!

Before I used to do all my questions via email – which takes up a lot of time, doesn’t really sound like an organic conversation and I don’t think it gives my guests the platform to really showcase themselves properly. But from Season 4 onwards, I am doing these interviews via Skype, then edit them into little audio snippets that will accompany the questions in this post.

Don’t worry – I plan on writing out the answers too – maybe not in full – but like I would have previously so people can engage with it how they prefer and hopefully it is accessible to more people – fingers crossed. It also means Soph talks science is on SoundCloud – which you can follow from the icon in the right hand menu bar under ‘Get in Touch’. This is where you can get access to these interviews first before these posts even come out – plus some bonus content when I finally get round to it! And you can now listen to these interviews almost like a podcast – head over to my Soundcloud here. Now you can choose to read, or listen – or both!

So I hope that is some exciting news to start of the new batch of Scientist in the Spotlights and now it is time to introduce you to my next Spotlight. She is someone that I have admired for a very very long time and I really hope to meet in the not too distant future. I love everything that she stands for and am in awe of all that she achieves within and outside of her PhD. I am thrilled that I have finally managed to get her onto the blog and is this month’s Scientist in the Spotlight. Say hello to Krishana S.

Krishana grew up in Guyana; a country near the equator and had intended on moving to Canada alone for her university education. However, the unfortunate loss of her father led to her whole family moving to Canada with her. So, the two biggest challenges in her life are the loss of her father & becoming an immigrant as an older teenager and adapting to a completely new country with a completely different weather system. Krishana described Guyana as a beautifully warm place whereas Canada is more like a fridge, so there was lots to adapt to.

Other than this, as an introduction to Krishana – she is also trained in classical ballet, and danced from the age of 5 until she moved to Canada. But has always had a passion for many other dance style. She also played piano and her Dad thought that she should take up a sport too, so pursued squash. It was this love of activity and passion for her research and advocacy for diabetes that led her to incorporate the two in her #150mins campaign – which you can hear more about further down.

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Krishana’s research looks into the basic science of diabetes, but she is passionate about having a real impact on those with the disease. So, she is using a biomedical tool to try and improve a current treatment of diabetes.

In type 1 diabetes, the body is fighting itself. It can often get so bad that diabetics can have other issues like kidney failure. In the past, people have performed transplants on these severe diabetics giving them a new pancreas from donors who have passed away. But often they need a kidney transplant too so both procedures are often combined.

But this procedure, while effective, is really invasive and can leave people hospitalised for a while, and patients can often still be required to take their insulin injections – something that the transplant should have removed.

For Krishana’s research, she is trying to answer the question of whether we can take the islets of langerhan – the cells in the pancreas that produce and secrete insulin – and transplant them instead of a whole pancreas. This again was effective but is a long way from being a gold standard as they often experience low oxygen conditions and there is an issue connecting the blood vessels they need to send the insulin around the body. In her research specifically, she has designed and built a biomedical tool. She take islet cells out of a mouse and puts them into the device with the aim to try and get the islets to stay alive longer and prepare them for this new environment they will experience when being transplanted. She primes them with an hypoxic agent that tricks the cells into thinking they are in a low oxygen environment and they respond to this by expressing new markers and proteins that they need to prepare themselves. The device also physically causes the blood cels to stay alive longer. Its a technique that has worked well and Krishana has seen good improvements in.

The next step is to take those islets that have been treated in the device into mice and compare them to the traditional method.

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After chatting with Krishana about her research it made me realise how much I missed research and having my own research to talk about. Krishana shared how she wished she could be there for the second phase where they would do the transplantations. She has been thinking about doing a post-doc, but not in this area. She has an interest in the e-health and diabetes space and has been watching people do some cool work there. Krishana wants to interact more with the patient population and believes that career path could help her to do that, especially as getting basic science research which would include her device work takes years to reach the bedside.

We discussed transitioning out from the bench further below.

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I asked Krishana what she thought might be the next big thing for diabetes research. The diabetes field if very wide and very complex and researchers around the globe are tackling it from many different angles. But one area in particular is using stem cells to try and create functioning islet cells – those cells that produce and secrete insulin, to increase cell number in diabetics. There was also promising research a few years back where a team had produced beta cells from stem cells that actually produced insulin. Also, as type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease, there are people looking into the possibility of creating a vaccine to treat at least a subset of type 1 diabetics.

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Krishana shared more about her experience with burn out. Several things contributed to it and they all came to a head at one. Things like a difficult lab situation, a turbulent relationship, becoming a care giver and more. She felt she just had to stop everything and go cold turkey. She took academic leave and turned to her friends and some family, but wanted to keep herself active, although some days that was difficult. But she gradually had more of a social life and picked up hiking which brought her the most solice. She had also been having therapy about a year before for her fear of flying, but started up again at this time to help. Krishana also talks about how social media, particularly Instagram helped. Seeing other scientists communicating on the platform helped her feel more connected to the outside world especially on those days where she struggled to really do and go anywhere.

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Our chat moved onto PhD side hustles, and for both of us our side hustles made us realise what career options there were available to us. Krishana secured herself an internship at a pharma company, which also really helped with her burned out state. She switched from worrying abut what she was going to do after her degree, to feeling she didn’t have to worry about it because of the internship. There were times where she still felt lost as she had no ambition to follow a career in academia, but learning about all these job opportunities that you could have with a PhD helped to pull her out. This internship helped her to look into what else she could do and she started looking into consulting and worked in non-profit, management and healthcare consulting. It has thrown her completely 180 from having a problem of “what can I do”, to “what do I want to do”!

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We spoke to Krishana about her #150mins campaign that we mentioned earlier. Krishana started this campaign because she had a love for being physically active. She’s not a gym buff, but thought it would be great to get others involved whilst combining it with sharing information around diabetes and diabetes awareness in this campaign that she started in 2017.

Time commitments have prevented her from being as active with it recently, but she received such great feedback as people loved learning from the quizzes and just getting into that regular regime of exercise. Krishana has been doing this campaign for three years so far, and for 2020 she hopes she can commit to it a bit more and maybe even look for sponsors for the campaign and make it a fundraiser too. For the most recent addition, Krishana reached out to different experts to combine their expertise with diabetes for example how stem cells could relate, or a biochemist talking about insulin receptor structure.

But the number 150 comes from the American Heart Association and was based on research evidence. They recommend 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous to maintain good health. It is a number that Diabetes Canada have also started using too. But Krishana’s campaign wasn’t necessarily to get that level of exercise but just for people to get up from their desks or take their dogs for walks as a starting point.

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Krishana met an inspiration of hers; Angela Saini, towards the end of last year. She was involved in the campaign to get Angela’s book Inferior into Canadian schools, and tweeted Angela saying it would be good to meet her. Krishana received a DM from Angela saying it would be good to meet and chat to thank her for her work. Krishana ended up organised a small meet up between interviews that Angela was doing for her book tour.

Krishana describes Angela as a beautiful person inside and out, and describes how lovely it was to meet her as she is such a force, but very different from what you imagine as an embodiment of power. Angela was really chilled, composed and softly spoken. This made Krishana feel good about herself as she is often told she is softly spoken and it was reassuring to see a small person with small voice be able to achieve big things and let the work speak for itself. A reminder that you don’t need a big voice to be taken seriously and have an impact.

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I asked Krishana about how we can advocate for EDI (equity, diversity and inclusion). She shared that if you are a minority or underrepresented person, to start reading up on what equity, diversity and inclusion are and then documenting your own experience to see if you have experienced any biases. Go to events that are EDI related to learn more and also hear what is happening in your community. An EDI talk in the US is completely different from one in Canada so it is good to know what is happening and important to your community and society.

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Krishana shared that even as a minority she still has different privileges than others. So, in being an EDI ally, we need to understand what our privilieges are compared to others and being an ally respectfully by acknowledging that. For allies, again, make sure to get educated and show up for your underrepresented friends who need support. Show up to those events and keep learning and growing to be the sponsor or champion someone might need.

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Grad Write Slack is an online community that Krishana started from her burn out phase. After taken her leave of absence, her cohort of friends continued and had graduated, so returning was really difficult and reintegrating with a new cohort was just more isolating that grad school already is. But Grad Write Slack was her attempt at getting company and to get back into writing to finish up her thesis as she was looking for writing groups that just kept falling through.

Grad Write Slack has grown organically to become a community of people writing their theses or papers or anything. A number large enough that there is always someone working in there to keep you accountable, but not big enough that it is overwhelming and has members from all over the world. It has created an amazing community and safe space, that it has featured in many people’s thesis acknowledgements, and ti is something that Krishana has had the most joy in creating and running, so it is so inspiring to see people finish their journeys after joining.

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Krishana recently hosted a workshop at the WonderWomeninSTEM online conference, so I asked her for her top tips for writing a resume or CV. Her first tip was to have a document where you write down everything that you have ever done which you can then use to pick out things to highlight on your CV. Her second tip is to make sure you tailor the resume for each specific job. It helps you to market yourself better by showing you understood the job description fully. Her third tip was to use her CAR technique – so in your CV you will write actions that you have done before, but market yourself even more by giving those actions context, and also share the result of what happened.

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What’s next for Krishana? Right now, she doesn’t really know. Like many of us. But she did share that she is now excited and energised for it, which wasn’t the case a few years ago. Whatever it ends up being, she wants to combine her expertise and interests, but the major thread is to help people; maybe even the World Health Organisation, or making her own career path.

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And the question that I always ask at the end, where should we travel to next? Krishana would recommend the South of France, especially if you love hiking, nature and the outdoors like she does. Krishana and her fiance went to Cassis and did a roadtrip along the coast taking in all the hiking trials and exploring all the towns and cities which each have their own charm. She would also recommend Guyana for anyone interested in ecotourism. If you want to see wildlife, raw and untouched landscapes, waterfalls and the jungle, then a trip to Guyana could be for you.

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Huge thank you to Krish for being my Scientist in the Spotlight- and I apologise for taking so long to get this interview up! But I am really really grateful to have met you through Instagram as you are so incredibly inspiring. Keep doing what you do!

If you want to hear more from Krish then you can follow her on Instagram or Twitter.

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Do you like the new audio additions to these posts?

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Who do you want to see featured in Season 4 of Scientist in the Spotlight? Maybe it’s your lab mate, maybe it’s your fave scicommer or maybe it is you, let me know your suggestions in the comments below! If you have any questions about diabetes or anything you have heard from Krishana here too ask your questions in the comments too!

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