Who are you and what do you do?
I am a scientist, currently, I am a second year Ph.D. Genetics student at Duke. I am working on understanding how plants grow and develop.
Where did it all start?
When I was very young, I knew I wanted to be a scientist. I wasn’t sure what type, but I really enjoyed research. I enjoy how the scientific method can be applied to absolutely anything, whether that’s: working out, modeling, personal finance, training cats … literally anything you can think of! The skills I have acquired with the careful problem solving and logic used in the scientific method, have really helped in all of those areas. It is one of the few areas where you are learning not just about the subject, but also how to think. That’s why they call it a Ph.D., you’re understanding the philosophy and how to logically think about things. The true purpose of it is to learn how to think.
After figuring out that I wanted to do science, I was 17 and I started college. One of the first things that I did was send out an email to every professor that I thought was doing interesting work (around 44) to ask if they would talk to me about their work and research. Out of those 44 people, I think maybe 4 responded? I met up with some of the professors and one professor, in particular, took me on a tour around her lab. I had recently seen her give a seminar and found the way she translated the topics that she spoke about into an accessible away really incredible. After we toured the lab, she gave me the opportunity to work there which I was beyond excited for. As a 17-year-old, I had to get my mum to sign permission slips: I wasn’t even an adult yet! It was very exciting.
I worked there for the entirety of my undergraduate education. She taught me not just how to be a scientist, but also how to be a better person. She gave me advice on everything really. She really inspired me to inspire that in someone else. That experience is one of the biggest reasons I decided to pursue academia.
What does your day to day normally involve?
My day to day typically involves a lot, there are no two days that are the same. So, I can break it down into one week. In one week, I normally:
- Design an experiment. I spend a lot of time thinking about how to set up an experiment and what methods to use. I work in genetics, so I have to make sense of all of the genes, the way those genes are being turned on, who is turning them on and how they are turning them on. I also have to think critically: will it answer the question that I am interested in? I actually spend about three times as much time on my design than in the laboratory!
- Laboratory work is the second part of my week. This is where I collect data to answer the questions I am interested in. It can range from “hey bacteria, I need you to grow this DNA for me” to “I need to discover whether the bacteria even grew it properly.” It can also just be “my cells are glowing a certain colour, I need to figure out how much they are glowing”. Anything can come up in lab work, it just depends on what data I need to gather to answer my questions.
- Seminars. I try to attend at least one seminar per week. Seminars are when other scientists or researchers come to the university and speak about their work to other students.
- Writing. Unlike many scientists, I actually love to write. I will write every single day and I go through about maybe 250 pages per month! Typically, I work on a fellowship proposal or a summary. It may not be published but I think going through the exercise of writing is very helpful to put your thoughts into a cohesive sentence. Occasionally, you will come across a sentence that beautifully articulates what you are trying to say, for me this is “comfort with creativity to cultivate my career”. I think those words encapsulate what I really want from my life. It is all about being comfortable with who I am, not just being creative but absorbing creative energy: visiting museums, painting, reading articles outside of my typical field. Something completely different.
- Reading. I try to read around three papers a week. Right now, I am studying for my preliminary exam. Because I am studying for this, I am reading around four or five papers a day and reviewing all of them. At the moment I am not carrying out any experiments; my day is maybe 8-9 hours of pure studying. Even when I am walking to and from my car, I will be mentally rehearsing answers to questions/my proposal/my presentation. Being able to muscle memory my way through things is very important to me, it helps me to memorise everything and stay calm.
- Some form of outreach. Every week I will try to do some form of outreach. I feel like it helps me keep the joy of science alive when things like bureaucracy tamper it down. That can be anything from this interview, writing articles for a magazine, writing blog posts for a blog I am collaborating with or leading virtual classes.
That’s a lot! How do you manage to squeeze it all in and stay focused?
I sit down in the evening and plan out my entire week, blocking off parts in my day for each of these areas. For example three hours for this lab work or two hours for this paper etc.
There comes a time in your life when your to-do lists go from tick-boxes to large tasks that are too large to check off in a day (or even a week!) so breaking them down into pieces and spreading them out over weeks really helps to stay focused and get through. Sitting down and attempting to do one of those large tasks all the way through is just not as efficient. There are too many things to do, to tackle work in that way.
Is there someone that encouraged you to do this?
Dr. Siobhan Brady was absolutely the person who encouraged me and everyone in her laboratory. I am still in contact with a lot of people from the lab, being in an environment that was full of people that I looked up to as well, as scientists that I looked up to, was really crucial. I had real role models: there were a number of females, a lot of people of colour and queer scientists. Her lab was very diverse and as an intersectional, traditionally marginalised woman, I would have been scared without those role models: what is it that women don’t have? what is it that people of colour don’t have? and the answer is nothing! We have everything. It’s just being oppressed makes it harder to get places. Having so many role models in that lab really helped me.
What motivates you/what do you find motivating?
When I was in undergrad, I was very motivated by the lab that I was in. I was inspired by them. I cared about my project and wanted to do well, but I was also working hard to please them. So, before coming to grad school, I cultivated a motivation from within. I am doing this because I care and I want to do well in my exam because I care about it, not just because I want to pass.
I think the number one thing that motivates me is my own curiosity and my own interest. If I was motivated by something else, things that could change, it wouldn’t be as strong. If I was motivated by a particular question, maybe the question will change. If I was motivated by an organism I was working with, I might find that it’s not the best organism to study for my questions. With all of these things, I could become unmotivated very easily. I am married to my interests questions and what interests me and that will guide where I end up.
If you could go back in time, what is the one piece of advice you would give to yourself? (hindsight is a wonderful thing!)
I don’t know if I would give myself any advice. I honestly made the best decisions I could every step of the way. I always made sure to get a lot of advice from other people when making decisions and I constantly ask for help when I need it. Asking so many questions of people really helped me to get different perspectives on things, such as choosing an undergrad focus.
I think I would probably give myself some advice along the lines of “everything is going to be okay, stop worrying so much”. Which probably wouldn’t work because I would worry anyway until that challenge was over/completed anyway. I am glad to say I don’t have any regrets with the decisions I have made so far. Which is the best place to be in!
What is your favourite thing about your job? What excites you most?
I think that I have a lot of creative freedom. I get to choose what I want to work on, how I want to work on it and when. I can’t think of many jobs that give that much flexibility, while at the same time learning how to learn: which is one of my absolute passions. Being able to have so much creative control in what I do is very important to me.
Do you have any thoughts on how we can encourage diversity in STEM?
I think one of the biggest ways we can make an impact is to recognise when biases are happening and giving training on these implicit biases to faculty, students, post-docs and everyone at the company or university. It is important for people to understand the value of diversity in STEM and to encourage diversity and, in the process, build a more inclusive workspace. We need to frame it in ways that make people understand the value of diversity – for example the monetary value of diversity when speaking with business or economics-minded folks.
You also need to have resources for marginalised people. Whether that is counseling, psychological services, lactation rooms, non-gendered bathrooms, auditory equipment making sure that presentation slides are readable by people who are colour blind, etc. These are just a small number of ways we can make places more accessible for everyone.
Without having representation, it is really hard to picture what/where you can be. It is hard to be what you can’t see. Not just “oh we have checked off this box by having this person, from this community”. It’s about making a legitimate effort to be inclusive, not just hitting numbers. For example, in academia, lower income people get excluded because they can’t afford to stay in academia anymore or people who want children are vulnerable if they do not work with a team that allows for time to be with and care for your children. It is a multi-faceted problem that I don’t think can be solved by any one magical session that just workshops your way out of the problem.
What do you enjoy doing outside of work?
I mostly work on my blog, Notes by Niba, I recently launched it in February 2019. I am hoping to influence the public image of scientists and what scientists do. There is this annoying joke of scientists being socially awkward white males, whose entire life is their work. I want to paint a more well-rounded picture of scientists through my work. Science is all around us, and people who also enjoy make-up or dancing or whatever can be scientists too.
I also work at a yoga studio and journal a lot too. I would say journaling is one of my biggest hobbies. I journal every day or every other day. It really helps with writer’s block and self-reflection!
What’s your favourite color?
I like this question a lot because I am a very visual person. It would probably be a royal purple. I like that it is made up of red and blue. I think in red when I am doing yoga and working out, I think in blue when I am reading or relaxing with my cat: I like that purple is the interplay of both of those colours.
What is your favourite film just now and why?
That’s hard! I am a pretty big Batman fan, so I guess I would say one of the DC animated movies. They watch like a real movie and the artwork is very beautiful. I really enjoy the visuals of animated movies as well as the storylines. Probably Justice League: Flashpoint Paradox or Justice League: War.
If you could be anyone for a day, who would it be and why? (from any time period!)
Maybe Jeff Bezos and donate all my money for the day? I would just give money to science, the environment, SAGA centers, animal rescues, and many other causes that I support.
Is there anything else you would like us to know?
I recommend people check out the Value of diversity. Scott Page’s work on “The Diversity Bonus” demonstrates how diversity is a quantitative bonus and not something that is a negative impact.
Also, my cat CRISPR is super cool! She is trained and she has a lot of outfits!
Thanks, Niba! What an incredible and insightful interview!