I stumbled upon science and fell in love with it!
by Francesca Di Cara
As little child when somebody would ask me: “What do you want to do when you grow up?” I would promptly respond that I wanted to be either a ballet dancer or hair dresser, but absolutely not a scientist. I am not sure why I felt the need to clarify that no matter what I would be, I would make sure not to become a scientist. I imagine that to a little girl the image of a fashionable hair stylist or a delicate dancer wearing a pink tutu skirt was probably way more appealing than the image of an Einstein-looking old man wearing a sloppy lab coat and having messy white hair. However, this was the image of a scientist that the media and my society at the time was offering to the next generation. Unfortunately, it seems that that image of a scientist, which is now a grossly inaccurate representation of most scientists today, is still floating around. Maybe the scientist image of today is a bit more fashionable or more of a superhero-like image, but surely it is still most often represented as a man rather than a woman. For this reason, I am pleased to share my story in this blog with the hope to broaden our image of who and what a scientist is.
I was attending my third year of high school and at that time I still did not know what I wanted to be. Having just completed my first intense biology course, I suddenly felt that the idea of pursuing a degree in Biological Sciences in university was interesting and did not seem so scary or difficult. So, that is what I decided I would do. I truly enjoyed the subjects of my degree so much that by the end of it I decided to apply for an internship at the National Institute of Research in Naples, Italy. It was at that point I knew I wanted to pursue a lifelong career in science, get a PhD, and one day have my own research group. I was not sure what research topic to study, which methods I wanted to learn, but I knew the only thing that mattered was that I wanted to learn how to be a thinker, a problem solver, and a discoverer.
After I was accepted into a PhD program at the University of Naples, I stumbled upon what would eventually become my day-to-day scientific tool that I use to study genetics: the fruit fly. Since there were very few PhD positions available in Italy at the time, the fact that I ended up learning genetics in a laboratory that used the fruit fly as model system was by chance and not by choice (more info on fruit flies to come on July 6th at my talk). However, this serendipitous encounter with the humble, yet incredibly powerful, fruit fly was the best event that could have happened to me for the future development of my scientific career. This simple model system has helped me answer an array of questions about fundamental biology and medicine. After my PhD, I left Italy because I wanted to train in a research institution with research funds and infrastructures that would allow me to learn and achieve even more. I first moved to Scotland and then eventually to Canada, but always with my fruit flies. During these years and in different research labs, I relied on my fruit flies to study the importance of different fat molecules in our cells and understand how they control our cell biology, our development and ultimately our immune system’s ability to defend us from dangerous diseases (again more to come on July 6th at my talk). Last October, I finally started up my own research group and again with my fruit fly collaborators. Now using fruit fly genetics, my group is tackling questions about the metabolism of fats and their importance for our health. I am now part of a universe of scientific discovery and can truly say it has enriched my life for the past 15 years.
I am honored and excited as a scientist and as a woman to participate in the Halifax 2019 Soapbox Science event. I hope to inspire the next generation of scientists with my story and my research. I also hope to show the public how their contributions to science (through their hard-earned tax dollars) benefits their community and the world around them. Finally, I am excited to show to young girls today that scientists can be woman (and still wear pretty dresses if they wish).