Irina Velsko is a postdoc at the University of Oxford studying ancient dental calculus, how the oral microbiome has changed over time, and how this has played a role in the rise of “diseases of civilization”. She’s passionate about promoting women in science and was an active member in the Women in Science and Engineering student group during graduate school, where she worked in outreach events showing off oral bacteria on plates and teeth tissue sections under the microscope. At our Oxford event she’ll be talking about the bacteria that live on and in us that influence health and disease, focusing on how dental plaque bacteria affect the health of your heart, joints, brain, gut and more, and why flossing actually does matter!
SS: Irina, what or who inspired you to get a career in science?
IV: In preschool I knew I was going to be a paleontologist and study dinosaurs when I grew up, which evolved into an interest in archaeology, which was run-over by a fascination with microbiology in middle school. Learning the names of bacteria that make yoghurt sparked an interest in the world of microbes that brought me into an E. coli (bacteria that live in the gut) research lab in college.
I knew I wanted to study bacteria for my PhD project, and I happened to land in a lab that studied how the mouth bacteria that cause periodontal disease (gum disease) also cause atherosclerosis (heart disease) – two big medical words I hadn’t heard of before. But I really enjoy learning new things, and I sat with a mirror and a textbook on periodontics and poked my teeth and gums wile looking at the pictures as I read about the mouth and teeth and the bacteria that cause gum disease. I started flossing regularly after processing blood vessel sections from atherosclerosis surgery patients that were so damaged, so calcified and hardened, that they couldn’t be cut with a razor blade. I figured if flossing can help prevent that from happening to me, it’s worth the extra minute every day.
SS: How did you get to your current position?
IV: Archaeology always remained a fascination for me, and I really wanted a job where I could combine both microbiology and archaeology (did you know pox viruses have been found in ancient Egyptian mummies?). When I met a professor who was combining both, I knew I wanted to do what she was doing. I kept in touch with her and she pointed me to the job listing for the position I now have and love!
SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research?
IV: The mouth is such a neglected part of the body, it’s easy to forget to brush your teeth, and people will ignore toothaches much longer than aches and pains in other body parts, yet unhealthy mouths can impact disease in almost every other body system! Having bad teeth and gums increases chances of getting heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, Alzheimer’s, certain cancers, and of pre-term birth. I love how my research shows how important it is to look at the whole body to understand disease.
SS: What attracted you to soapbox science in the first place?
IV: I saw an opportunity for public outreach and jumped at it. We scientists need to make science accessible to everyone if we expect to have an educated public. Publishing research articles in journals isn’t sharing results publicly, since no one’s going to pay $32 for a single article full of technical jargon. Soapbox Science is open-access public outreach, so everyone can participate. I love what I’m studying, and I want to share it and I hope it makes on impact on people’s health.
SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day
IV: Enlightening. You never know what kind of reactions you’ll get from people, especially kids. And I’ve never done open-access public outreach before, so I’m sure I’ll learn a lot.
SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now what would it be?
Hmmmmm, I’m not sure what early science education is like in the UK, but in the US it’s often non-existent. I grew up in a town where the major employer was a national research lab, yet didn’t have any science classes in school till I was 11. We need to expose students to science early so they’re fascinated by it, not put off by what they don’t understand. So what we need to change is how scientists, and particularly academic scientists, value outreach and public education. There is no formal recognition system for academics or industry professionals devoting time to outreach, although there’s a lot of time and effort involved. This puts the scientists who do outreach at a disadvantage from their peers who don’t, and discourages scientists from participating in these kinds of events. It’s the same problem women face with mentoring, where women tend to do more, and this puts them at a disadvantage for professional advancement.
SS: What would be your top recommendation to a female PhD student considering pursuing a career in academia?
IV: Same thing my mentor told me: stay in academia as long as you can, since it’s much harder to come back into it after leaving. Also find other people at the same career stage and form a support group. Being able to talk frankly and openly to people who really understand what you’re going through is a great help to keep yourself motivated and going.