Keep an open mind and push your limits: Meet Anastasia Aliferi

Hi there! My name is Anastasia (@anastasialiferi) and I am a PhD candidate in forensic genetics currently working on my research project within the King’s Forensics group at King’s College London. I have studied biology and forensic science and my research at the moment focuses on finding a way to predict someone’s age from DNA material that can be found at a crime scene (like from a tiny blood spot!). I am also involved in similar projects on predicting someone’s country of origin and external appearance (like how curly their hair is!). The purpose of this research is to help the police with providing information that can lead them to the right person, especially when there are no suspects at all!

You can catch Anastasia on her soapbox as part of Soapbox Science London on 26th May where she will be giving a talk entitled: “Miss Scarlett, Mrs Peacock or Mrs White? Can DNA give us the answer without visiting all the rooms?”


SS: How did you get to your current position?

AA: A combination of hard work, timing and, well, luck! I have always been keen on acquiring new skills and during my bachelor’s degree I made sure to get as much experience as I could through volunteering and internships. I actually ended up spending 2 years in what was meant to be a 3 month internship and that quite challenging journey helped me grow both as a scientist and as a person. Walking into my master’s degree, in a slightly different field and in a totally different country and language, it was that experience that helped me get a great thesis project and, at the same time, it was luck that got me working with some pretty amazing people. I fell in love with the project and immediately ‘clicked’ with my supervisors to the point that I basically refused to leave them when my degree ended. As it turns out, the feelings were mutual and I was originally offered a temporary position to help me stay in the country and then a PhD when the funding allowed it (timing!).


SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?

AA: Is it too cheesy to say that science and I were star-crossed? If I have to trace it back, I would say it was all those amazing biology teachers I got to meet during my school years. I seriously don’t think I have ever met a biology teacher that was not passionate (to the point of what some might call ‘slightly mad’) about their teaching subject and I always thought that this is how working in a field you love should feel, deliriously exciting. It was one of those teachers that during my final year, and despite the extreme workload for the coming exams, insisted on signing me up for the National Biology Olympiad and I think that competition marked the point of no return for me and science. Three rounds of qualifying exams later I made it to the 4-person team that competed in the International Biology Olympiad in Japan and it was there that I got a glimpse of my future life in science. After that there was no turning back, my heart was set on science and research.


SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?

AA: The question is what is NOT fascinating about it! Working on the development of new forensic tools that can predict someone’s age, home country or even appearance is like living inside a sci-fi movie and even though there is always the occasional overload of lab work and writing up, one good result makes it all worth it! I am also quite lucky in the fact that I am working in a laboratory that also handles police cases and I often get to be involved in some pretty interesting work with a direct impact on people’s lives (and of course getting to actually say ‘Sorry, I can’t talk about my work, it’s confidential’ is always a plus). Last but not least, travelling! I have always had a big big love for travelling and research conferences and collaborations regularly send me around the world (I actually spent three weeks in South Korea last summer!) where I get to meet the most interesting people that get my mind working on new ideas!


SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?

AA: I like talking. A lot. And fast. OK, although that is actually true, the real reason behind my participation is the chance to stand up, in all my 5’3’’ glory, as a woman and a scientist and share my research with the world (or, well, South Bank, but it’s a start right?). There is a saying that goes ‘If you can’t explain something to a six-year-old, you really don’t understand it yourself’ and, if there is one saying I want to live by as a scientist, it’s this one. Soapbox Science is my chance to try and explain what I am working on to anyone who would listen and – who knows? – maybe some actual six-year-olds! Plus, I get to do this besides some great, inspiring women who feel the same way, and that on its own is just amazing.


SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day 

AA: Is ‘scarexcited’ a word?


SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?

AA: Can I change two? Inequality and funding! If I could swish my magic wand like Hermione, I would make science (or the whole world actually, I mean I have a wand now why think small) free of any superstition/ bias/ discrimination. I would make sure anyone could be heard, taken seriously and given equal chances and support no matter how they look or sound or where they come from. Even though I have been lucky so far to work with great people, it makes me sad and angry to see how unjust things can often be for so many others. Also, unlimited funding! (What? One can always dream!) In all seriousness though, the way research funding currently works creates a lot of issues for researchers especially in the early stages of their career. Scientists struggle to make plans for the future due to financial insecurity and as much as constantly moving across the world in the search of a new position can be exciting and rewarding, it can also cause a lot of uncertainty and anxiety and it often drives researchers with great potential away from academia.


SS: What would be your top recommendation to a PhD student considering pursuing a career in academia?

AA: Well, I am still a PhD student considering a career in academia so I can only give my utterly un-tested opinion on that topic! Expand your knowledge and be true. You can be great at what you do and know everything there is about your project, but I think that you always have to keep an open mind and push your limits. Take a training course on a new technique that has no actual application (yet?) to your current project, chat with different people about their work and look at your research through their eyes, try to find the connections in this big science puzzle that we are all part of and, most importantly, step out of your comfort zone, you have no idea how many things you can do until you try. Finally, remember who you are and what you stand for and always be fair and respectful. In other words, do right, do your best and treat others the way you want to be treated.



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