Sophie is a PhD student studying stem cell metabolism at the University of Southampton. Originally from Wales, Sophie studied that the University of Bath before moving to Southampton. Currently in her final year of a PhD, she also makes time to communicate her science through blogging at Soph talks science, amongst other social media activities. Sophie will be speaking at Soapbox Science Brighton on 2nd June 11am-2pm with her talk “MARVEL-ing at stem cells: how to regenerate your body”, sponsored by the University of Southampton
SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place – and what are you most looking forward to/excited about in taking part?
SA: I am really passionate and enthusiastic about science communication and have been trying to break down the stereotypes associated with being a scientist for nearly two years now through my blog and Instagram. But I wanted to challenge myself and push myself completely out of my comfort zone by doing a live science outreach event like this, rather than just be typing away behind the scenes on my phone or laptop. I had seen other inspiring female science communicators take part in Soapbox around the world last year and I just wanted a piece of the action. I also work with stem cells so I am really excited about the opportunity to challenge any stigma that is associated with them and share why I love researching them and their huge potential with people that might have just been in Brighton for a day at the beach but ended up learning something from me and the other amazing ladies that are taking part.
SS: Tell us about your career pathway
SA: I always wanted to be a doctor whilst I was growing up, but by the time I reached Sixth Form and was applying for university, I had realised that medicine wasn’t for me. There were two subjects I loved at school; biology and French – so making the decision about which path to follow was a tricky one, but I think you already know which one I chose. I studied Molecular Biology at the University of Bath. I wanted to study a subject that was broader than the ‘Genetics and French’ course that I thought was perfect for me and would give me more options to work out which area I wanted to specialise in. As part of my undergraduate degree, I had a 12 month placement at Public Health England doing research on Group B Streptococcus. This opportunity gave me the skills and experience that a three year undergraduate degree never would have been able to. It made me realise what it meant to be a researcher and made me fall in love with discovering something new which inspired me to want to do more research during my PhD. I am now in the final few months of my PhD at the University of Southampton studying stem cell metabolism. I am finishing up all the experiments in the lab and then just the small task of writing up four years’ worth of work into my thesis and hopefully becoming that doctor I always wanted to be growing up, even if it’s not the doctor status I originally envisioned.
SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?
SA: I always wish I had a more inspiring answer for this question. I have a career in science just because I loved science at school. I grew up in a very small village in South West Wales so my exposure to scientists was pretty much non-existent, apart from the ones I learnt about in textbooks. I was always interested in the human body and as I progressed through school and then through to university I became more and more fascinated by the smaller facts of our body. I always used to think it was fascinating how our muscles and brain would coordinate for example so we could walk. But as my knowledge grew, I was amazed by how a handful of proteins would coordinate in our muscle cells to help them to contract so we could walk. I became more and more inspired to work out how all these tiny proteins and DNA all collaborated to allow us to do everyday things.
SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?
SA: Piecing together all the data I collect to work out what it means, coming up with a theory and testing that gives me so much happiness. If you watched me in the lab, I do a lot of adding colourless liquids to other colourless liquids, spinning and shaking tubes and churning out a load of numbers from that in a nutshell. So it might not look very exciting but getting that final piece of the puzzle and getting an answer to your question is such a buzz. Plus the likelihood is that you are probably the first person in the world to ever work that out!
SS: Research in STEM is increasingly multi-disciplinary. Which subjects do you use in your work?
SA: My research is pretty much pure science. I obviously use biology, but I also need to understand some chemistry to know how the reactions in my tubes are working and I need maths to do any calculations I need and perform any statistics on my data. You have always got to be reading around your specific topic though so I have been reading recently about how microgravity can influence stem cells – so there is potential that my future research could branch out into physics or engineering even. But I am a believer that science is never finished until it is communicated, so whether that is using my blog, Instagram or events like Soapbox, my work as a researcher who shares their science with others involves writing, photography and art skills too.
SS: What 3 attributes do you consider important to your work (e.g. creativity, team-work, etc), and why did you pick these?
SA: Resilience, creativity and teamwork!
Working in research is full of highs and lows but quite often the lows are much more common than the highs and the lows can last for much much longer than you wanted them too. Sometimes you can be doing an experiment that will work perfectly and when you go to do it a second time, it just stops working. Research can be infuriating sometimes but you have got to be resilient and get back up after each knockback and be determined to fix that problem.
Piecing together all your data to work out what it means requires some creativity. It is very easy to get sucked into the minute details of each and every experiment you do so it’s good to remember the bigger picture sometimes and work out how your research fits in and then coming up with new hypotheses to test further.
While you have your own research project to be getting on with, the likelihood is that you are part of a lab team. You might have to share reagents and equipment and workspace, so it makes your life so much easier if you work with your colleagues rather than against them. Replace things. Order things. Be organised and book equipment in advance. But most important talk to them! Discuss any problems you might be having, or any thoughts you are having. They might have experienced the same thing and can give you some advice rather than you wasting time trying to figure it out for yourself. You also never know what you might learn from them or what opportunities you may get.
SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?
SA: There is a huge pressure on scientists, especially early career researchers, to publish, publish, publish. And those publications have to be positive results. I would love to see a change across the scientific community that publishing negative data is just as important as positive date. I don’t know about you but knowing that one protein doesn’t affect my stem cells for example is just as important as knowing that one protein does affect my stem cells. Negative results are starting to be published more now but I still believe it is not widely accepted and that needs to change. Scientific research is all about advancing our knowledge and I believe we will advance quicker if we know the negative results as well as the positive results.
SS: What would be your top recommendation to a female student considering pursuing a career in academia?
SA: Do not let anyone tell you that you can’t do something. Follow what you want to do, network inside and out of the lab and find a mentor. Working in an academic environment can be toxic sometimes but having a network of people for advice and to talk to will help you to stay on the path to achieve whatever you want to.
SS: What words of encouragement would you give to children who might be interested in a career in science?
SA: Explore everything that you might be interested in. It is better to try something and not like it, than to never try it in the first place. Always be curious and ask questions. Always remember there is no such thing as a stupid question. It is never too late to learn something new and be inspired!