Scientists have the superpower to make the world a better place: Meet Raysa Khan

Raysa went to school in Stockholm and after graduating top of her BSc degree in Pharmaceutical and Medicinal Chemistry from Nottingham Trent University, she joined the University of Sussex for a PhD in Chemistry in 2014. Having recently submitted her PhD thesis, she continues to work as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Sussex in medicinal chemistry in the field of cancer research. Raysa is speaking at Soapbox Science Brighton on 2nd June 11am-2pm with her talk “Using Cutting-edge Drug Design to Beat Cancer and Treat Up to 100,000 Patients Per Year”. Thanks to the Royal Society of Chemistry for supporting Raysa’s talk.


SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place – and what are you most looking forward to/excited about in taking part? 

RK: Despite the recent efforts and enhanced awareness in tackling gender stereotypes for career in science, one can still see a significant lack in the participation of women in scientific career. As a female scientist, I do believe, Soapbox’s public outreach platform and its novel approach in promoting research by women scientists is a great way to showcase what we do and encourage youngsters to pursue career in science. This initiative also provides a unique platform to hone public speaking and communication skills for young researchers like me. Finally, what I am most excited about and looking forward to is meeting people, having a good time and sharing different aspects of my work that I am passionate about.


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

RK: I have always been interested in science and maths, however, I grew up in a community where, time and again, I have been told that a career in science is not where a woman might fit in. In light of the prevalent misogyny, I guess, as a rebellious teenager, I wanted to prove them wrong. I decided to pursue chemistry after high school, where I had a great teacher who made us interested in science and taught us that chemistry is nothing but solving problems by asking the right questions. And the good thing is that the question does not have to be always right. It’s a process of trial and error where perseverance and dedication often pay off. The reason I came to Medicinal Chemistry and pursuing a career in drug discovery is that I have always wanted to make an impact and help others.


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

RK: My PhD and current work are focused around making new compounds and seeing if they can be utilised in the drug discovery process to treat various diseases. As researchers, we learn to accept the hard fact that often it takes a lot of time, effort and a process of trial and error to find solutions. However, what I find energising is the thrill of finding new ways of solving problems. Besides, to me, the most fascinating aspect of my current research is, if successful, we are going to be able to help approximately 100,000 new cancer patients each year.


SS: Research in STEM is increasingly multi-disciplinary. Which subjects do you use in your work?

RK: I was trained as a chemist in my BSc and my PhD was focused around synthetic chemistry. Currently, I work in medicinal chemistry, where various scientific disciplines come together. Although my work is mainly as a synthetic chemist, I never the less, need to work and collaborate with biologists and also need to know about various mathematical techniques and computer modelling as part of my day to day work.


SS: What 3 attributes do you consider important to your work (e.g. creativity, team-work, etc), and why did you pick these?

RK: I believe dedication, perseverance and team work are the three most important attributes for a career in scientific research. In my line of work, things don’t always work out as one would hope. Arguably there is a positive correlation of success with dedication and perseverance. One needs to be patient and keep on trying, because all the hard work is totally worth it to get the result at the end! I also believe that, most of what we do is collaborative and often are multidisciplinary, in order for the work to reach its full potential and have true impact, there is no alternative to having an effective team dynamic.


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

RK: Gender inequality. Women are still underrepresented in STEM and I would like to see equal ratio of women and men in scientific research.


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

RK: For the female students considering pursuing a career in academia, I would say, there are lots of opportunities out there to thrive and shine in a scientific career. We should embrace every opportunity to engage and showcase our capabilities. I know that we girls have traditionally lacked professional female role models in STEM but I am grateful that slowly but surely things are changing. For instance, my current workplace, Sussex School of Life Sciences holds an Athena SWAN Silver Award, which emphasises that the faculty is trying to actively improve on its commitment to advancing women’s careers in STEM employment in academia.


SS: What words of encouragement would you give to children who might be interested in a career in science?

RK: Science is fun, more like solving puzzles and making Lego, you get to make new and cool things that have true and real impact. As a scientist, you get to find answers to the most complex and difficult questions and you get to have the superpower to make the world a better place.

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