We should be able to share knowledge freely and without fear: Meet Liliana Pedro

Liliana Pedro, German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases e. V. (DZNE), is taking part in Soapbox Science Munich on Saturday 7th July with the talk: “Looking inside our brain…”

 

 

SS: Why did you choose a scientific career?

LP: When I was little adults would ask me what I wanted to be when I got older, to everyone’s surprise my answer was “I want to be a marine biologist and study Orcas”. Honestly, I think the reason why I even knew what a marine biologist was, was because every Sunday before lunch I would be watching the wild life documentaries. So, in a way I always knew in the back of my mind that I would go for a more scientific career. The idea of that scientific career as changed along the years with my academic formation, scientific projects and internships. I would still like to one day swim with the wales, but I do believe that for my professional career, brain research is the best fit for me.

 

SS: How did you get your current position?

LP: At the moment I am PhD student, but honestly, I did not always wanted to be one. I always loved research and laboratory work: mix some solutions, create a new compound and see the physical evidence that something microscopic is happening; but when I finished my Master I had to face a big decision: do I commit for four years to do a PhD in a single field, knowing that in my country my chances of getting a job will be highly diminished? Or do I stay with my Master’s degree and find a research assistant position and see where that leads me? I went with option number two and found a position in an institute in the UK. After three months I realized that that job was not enough, I needed more independence, a bigger challenge, a say in which direction my research should go. From that moment on the decision was made and I started looking for open PhD positions in Neuroscience.

 

SS: What do you do in your everyday work life?

LP: That is a hard question, as my days are never the same. Maybe a better question would be what is the work of a PhD? You start with one big question and you read a lot of literature hoping it will give you an indication on how you should approach that question. Then you create an hypothesis or model of what you think the answer will be to your question based on the information you read, this will also help you idealize what experiments you can do to answer prove your hypothesis and ultimately answer your question. Finally, you start doing said experiments. As you are doing them and analyzing your results you will realize that some answers are not what you were expecting and they no longer fit the hypothesis you had in mind, this means that you need think of a new hypothesis that makes sense with the results you have. This cycle of creating an hypothesis, doing experiments, analyzing results and creating new hypothesis is the bases of all PhD work. It is never static and it can be quite frustrating, but when you get your hypothesis right it is a wonderful feeling.

 

 

SS: What is the most exciting aspect of your research?

LP: The most exciting aspect of my research is also the most frustrating one: we know very little about our brain. It is exciting because there is still a lot to find, there are still many pieces of the puzzle missing and I always loved solving puzzles. However, it is also frustrating, because when we are constructing our hypothesis we have to assume as correct, a lot of information that we are unsure off or that we only have partial or circumstantial evidence, this increase the chances that your starting hypothesis is wrong and make you go in circles with your experiments.

 

SS: What challenges do you encounter in science?

LP: I believe the biggest challenge is the poor sharing of information between groups. In a perfect world groups should be able to share their knowledge freely and without fear: knowledge about the details of the techniques they are using, knowledge about the failed experiments that they have already tried and knowledge on experiments that are happening right now. I do not know how to make it happen, but I do know that science can develop further and faster when we share our knowledge with our fellow scientists and the public.

The sharing of our scientific knowledge with the public is one of the reasons why I wanted to participate in Soapbox Science Munich. I believe this event is a great initiative and I love the concept. And even though the structure is a bit intimidating (no powerpoint, no slides, just myself), I am super excited to try it out.

 

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I always wanted to know how things worked: Meet Dr Nisha Ramkissoon

Dr Nisha K. Ramkissoon, is a planetary scientist working on a project on habitability in the Solar System, which involves recreating planetary environments in the lab and then determining if microbial life live there.  These experiments also enable her to identify any non-biological clues that microbes may leave behind to help us figure out if life exists or existed on bodies like Mars or Europa.

 

You can see Nisha on a soapbox as part of Soapbox Science Milton Keynes on 30th June where she will talk about: “Searching for life, where should we start?”

 

SS: How did you get to your current position?

NR: After completing my bachelor’s degree in earth and planetary science I worked for a few years as a science technician at a secondary school. During this time I also completed a master’s degree and decided I really wanted to work in research.  I completed my PhD at the University of Kent, examining the instantaneous chemical changes that can occur on rocky surfaces when impacted by a meteorite.  Since finishing my PhD I have been working at The Open University on a project that examines habitability in the Solar System.

 

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

NR: I’m not sure there was one thing or a person who inspired me to pursue a career in science.  I always wanted to know how things worked, and would ask a lot of questions and was always trying to learn more about space. In school especially enjoyed learning about the planets and how rock and minerals formed, so I was very happy when I found a degree that covered both subjects.

 

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

NR: My work looks at the possibility of life existing elsewhere in the Solar System, using examples of microbial life that are found on Earth.   To do this we have to simulate the different environments we find on these other planets and satellites in a lab, it’s amazing to think that we can actually do that.

 

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

NR: Soapbox science seemed like a new and interesting way to engage with the public.  The way the event is planned means that you get to talk to people who may not specifically be there to hear about science.  It is also a great way to show people, young girls especially, that anyone can pursue a career in any STEM field they chose to.

 

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

NR: Excitement!  I’m very excited about talking to people about what I do, and hopefully I’ll get across why I love the subject so much.  I am also very excited to see some of the talks from the other researchers.

 

SS: What would be your top recommendation to a woman studying for a PhD and considering pursuing a career in academia?

NR: I would say to stay positive. As with everything academia has its ups and downs, but if you just stay positive you’ll be able to get through it. On the same note I would also say make sure you take the time to reflect on your achievements on a regular basis.  Sometimes you can find yourself working to one deadline or another, and it is easy to forget about all the amazing things you have done over the

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Closing the communication gap between scientists and non-scientists: Meet Lisa Riedmayr

Lisa Riedmayr, Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich, is taking part in Soapbox Science Munich on 7th July with the talk: “Von der Mutation zur Behandlung – Gentherapie zur Heilung vererbter Blindheit; From mutation to treatment – Gene therapy as a cure for inherited blindness”

 

 

 

 

SS: Why did you choose a scientific career?

LR: I actually got into science quite late. I started studying Biology, because I wanted to become a specialized journalist. During my undergrad studies, I was fascinated by all these tiny molecular processes, all working in a coordinated system and making up a functioning human body. But I was especially amazed by translational research – by people using all this information to reveal pathological mechanisms and develop new therapies for to date untreatable diseases. That was what I wanted to do with my life.

 

SS: How did you get your current position?

LR: After my Bachelor in Biology I applied for the “Graduate School for Systemic Neurosciences” and entered the Fast-track program to be able to start my PhD right away. After completing the preparatory year, I looked for a PhD position in the field of translational research and applied for my current position at the Department of Pharmacy.

 

SS: What do you do in your everyday work life?

LR: I am investigating mutations, which cause retinal diseases like retinitis pigmentosa. First, I “manufacture” genes containing mutations that cause the disease. Then I try to detect the disease mechanism by investigating the effect of the mutations in cells in a petri dish. When I finally now what I am dealing with, I try to prevent the disease mechanism from taking place. I do so by using already established treatment strategies, but also by developing new ones for a more efficient or less invasive therapy.

 

SS: What is the most exciting aspect of your research?

LR: The most exciting aspect is that our research could eventually help people. One day, a drug for patients going blind might be developed on the basis of our research. This is pretty exciting. When I feel like I am losing my motivation, I think about that.

 

SS: What challenges do you encounter in science?

LR: One of the biggest challenges I encounter in science is failed communication. It starts with incomplete communication of data within the scientific community. The reasons for that are quite diverse ranging from limited numbers of words you are allowed to use when describing a method in a journal to no one being interested in publishing your “negative data”. But failed communication also expands to a non-scientific audience. Many scientists do not bother communicating their research to non-scientists as well, which is leading to misperception in the public about important topics like vaccination or climate change.

 

SS: What are your most promising findings in the field?

LR: Well, I just started my scientific career, so I am still trying to make a significant contribution to the field. But we are developing some cool methods in the field of gene therapy right now, which could enable us to prevent blindness in people with different inherited retinal diseases. Let’s hope it works out!

 

SS: What motivates you to give a talk in Soapbox science?

LR: I have two reasons, why I want to give a talk in Soapbox science. First, I want to communicate my research to the public wherever and whenever I can to contribute to closing the communication gap between scientists and non-scientists. Second, I want to motivate young women to start a scientific career as well. We don’t have a lot of female role models in science and I really think we need more of them.

 

SS: Do you have a few words to inspire other female scientists? What can we do to attract more women to STEM fields?

LR: We can show the world that women working in the STEM fields are just as qualified as men and try to motivate young women to follow our lead. All of us can try to be role models ourselves. So let’s show them how it’s done, girls!

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One step at a time, and never give up: Meet Mariana Avezum

Mariana Avezum, TU München, is taking part in Soapbox Science Munich on 7th July with the talk:“How will we get to work in 20 years?”

 

 

 

 

 

SS: Why did you choose a scientific career?

MA: To be able to join my research ambitions, while doing some teaching in the process. I really like to investigate new approaches to solve problems,  and working with students is always a very cool way to get in contact with new and creative ideas.

SS: How did you get your current position?

MA: I knew my professor from my classes as a student, and had always done projects at his chair. I thus knew the people there, and knew they were very cool to work with. When I was searching for “What to do next” I simply talked to the professor, showed him some of my previous work, paid him a coffee, and that was that!

SS: What do you do in your everyday work life?

MA: A typical day for me can be separated between teaching meetings, and my own research. For teaching, I am usually in meetings with students, giving them feedback on their work, going through preparations for the next steps, and thinking what could be improved. In my own research, on the other hand, I simulate urban traffic, and try to come up with different ideas how to make urban transport more efficient, such as what would happen if we were to merge everything together. Working on such different projects makes sure that there is never a boring day!

 

SS: What is the most exciting aspect of your research?

MA: Combining different modes of transportation in a single route. Because the most efficient way to get from A to B will never be just about cars, or any single mode, and you will always need to combine different approaches. The fact that the companies working on these are so different from each other, however, makes this integration very hard and interesting, but also presents a huge room for improvement.

SS: What challenges do you encounter in science?

MA: Mobility research can very quickly become very sensitive, and thus, data privacy is a huge concern. You need to make sure that when you are analyzing how to optimize a route from A to B, you don’t keep any confidential data in places it shouldn’t be, and that the user is always in control.

SS: What motivates you to give a talk in Soapbox science?

MA: A friend told me it would be cool! I also like motivating other people to join and stay in STEM, and hearing about the work that other scientists do is always very inspiring!

 

SS: Do you have a few words to inspire other female scientists? What can we do to attract more women to STEM fields?

MA: One step at a time, and never give up. Things are usually more doable than they seem, and perseverance goes a long way in making things actually work out. If you give up, you pass the message to other girls to do the same, and that’s never the correct answer. I know it seems like the men achieve things more easily, but the truth of it is, is that they simply hide their insecurities better. We all get lost sometimes.

 

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Solving Puzzles: Meet Maria Spletter

Dr Maria Spletter is a researcher based at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, who will be taking part in Soapbox Science Munich on  Saturday 7th July 2018.

 

 

 

 

 

SS: Why did you choose a scientific career?

MS: I have always been drawn towards science. I made my first plant taxonomy book with my Grandma when I was 4. My parents got me a real microscope (not just one of the pocket ones) when I was 10. Just for fun I would observe plants or pond water samples. My family always supported and promoted my curiosity, and so it was just natural to pursue a degree and then a career in scientific research.

SS: How did you get your current position?

MS: I did my postdoc at the Max Planck for Biochemistry in Martinsried, Germany. I established connections with the university and when I started to apply for positions, I also sought out a group at the LMU that could host me for an Emmy Nother application (start-up funding from the DFG). I also had an offer in Sweden, and the chair of my department, Andreas Ladurner, made me a competing offer to keep me in Munich. I ended-up accepting that offer to be an independent group leader.

SS: What do you do in your everyday work life?

MS: A lot of my day is spent on the computer, either writing grants, writing papers, reviewing papers, correcting presentations and documents written by my students, researching or keeping-up with the literature. I also spend a lot of time mentoring my students in lab, demonstrating techniques, going through their data or planning the next steps in their projects. Finally, I teach Biochemistry I to medical students in the summer.

 

SS: What is the most exciting aspect of your research?

MS: I love discovering new things and solving puzzles. I my research we use genetics to try to understand how muscles are built and what goes wrong in muscle diseases. To use an analogy, it is the equivalent of first identifying the pieces in a computer and then figuring out how to put them together and how they interact with each other to make the computer work. We have one gene in lab we work on that we recently discovered plays a role in neurons as well as in muscles. No one knew this before, and now we have many new questions to answer, like does the gene have the same job in muscles and neurons, or does it have different jobs in those two cell types?

 

SS: What challenges do you encounter in science?

MS: I feel I work with two main challenges. The first is finding funding. Much of the financial support in Europe is linked to a timeline, and if you come from a different system (I’m originally from the USA) or if you get unlucky and your project takes a year or two longer than planned, it can make you ineligible. You also have to learn how to spin your proposal to match the interests of the reviewers to get funded, which can be tricky.

Second, I find it a challenge to focus on a single topic and simplify my research questions. I am interested in many different things and many different questions, but we don’t have the time or the personnel or financial resources to investigate everything.

SS: What are your most promising findings in the field?

I just published a huge paper that is the culmination of 8 years of work. It is a resource paper looking at every gene expressed in a muscle cell at 8 different points in development and tracking how different groups of genes change their expression. We discovered a large change in gene expression in the middle of muscle development, much to our surprise, that lead us to a deeper understanding of how muscle fibers mature and achieve their specific contractile characteristics.

 

SS: What motivates you to give a talk in Soapbox science?

MS: I really love what I do, and I like the chance to share our findings with the public. I do basic research, and many people do not understand what that is or why it is important. I hope that talking in Soapbox science might allow me to reach more people to convince them that science is worth the investment, and to help them better understand the biomedical research and development process.

 

SS: Do you have a few words to inspire other female scientists? What can we do to attract more women to STEM fields?

MS: I find research a rewarding and fulfilling career. In my field it isn’t so much attracting women, as retaining women that is the problem. Work-life balance is difficult when you have a demanding career and children, but not impossible. The biggest thing is you have to believe in yourself, trust your own instincts and realize that you don’t have to do everything. At the same time, you need to be willing to dig-in, stick-it-out and compete with the boys when necessary. From my perspective, to help women you need to provide daycare that actually matches working hours and give support options to allow women to travel to conferences and attend evening events. Being flexible without lowering expectations and removing time limits or adding exceptions without penalizing women who use them would also help.

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From the telescope to the microscope: how the lunar eclipse made me be a microbiologist. Meet Laura Cutugno

I’m Laura Cutugno, young PhD researcher in the field of Microbiology at NUI Galway, Ireland, taking part in Soapbox Science Galway on 7th July. I’m from Italy, in particular from Sicily, a beautiful and warm island in the south of Italy. I graduated in Biotechnologies and am passionate about science and microscopic life! I’ll be one of the speakers during the Soapbox Science event in Galway and, in the meantime, I would like to tell you the story of how I became a researcher.

When I was a kid, I was sitting in my living room with my dad and someone on the TV was announcing the lunar eclipse. I asked my dad what it was, and he thought about it for few seconds and then ran to the kitchen. “I need to show it to you,” he said. He took a flashlight, an orange and a small lime. “The flashlight is the sun, the orange is the Earth and the lime is the moon,” he said, and he showed me what happens when the flashlight, the orange and the lime are aligned and the “orange” projects its shadow on the “lime”. That was the moment that I understood how interesting science is.

Figure 1. Lunar eclipse phases

Despite this romantic beginning, now I’m not an astrophysicist, but a microbiologist. How this happened is a really long story, made of books about the life of great women and scientists, like Marie Curie, Rita Levi Montalcini and Margherita Hack. My story is of a modest university in Palermo, Sicily, with good professors and a great woman that showed me the beauty of the microscopic world and increased my passion and curiosity for those small and invisible organisms called bacteria. She was a great lecturer who dedicated her whole life to science and to the University. She told me once “Laura, people think that a woman with an important position in academia is a weird exception, I would like this to be the rule.” She was a woman, a mother, a scientist and a lecturer. Her enthusiasm and her dedication to her students was always surprising for me and a great inspiration for my career. She is a fundamental part of this story, together with long hours of study and long hours of packing that brought me to Ireland from the south of Italy, to realise my dream of being a scientist.

Figure 2. From the top (clockwise): Rita Levi Montalcini, Marie Sklodowska-Curie and Margherita Hack.

And now it’s in Galway that I’m doing my PhD. Here I study the ability of bacteria to sense and respond to changes in the environment and how they can escape from potentially lethal conditions. The most interesting thing is that these small organisms possess something similar to a brain… yes, a brain in a microbe! This brain is called STRESSOSOME and it’s a small but great machine made up of small components, proteins. It has several “sensors-proteins” that can sense the changes in the environment; when something potentially dangerous for the bacterium is happening, the sensors transmit the information to other components and these release in the cell those that we can call the “messengers-proteins”. These messengers pass the information to a small protein, the effector-protein. This small protein is able to reprogram the bacterial cell from the “safe and happy” status to the “alarm and defence” status. This machine is so complex that one person is not enough to study it, that’s why I’m part of a Marie Sklodowska-Curie European Network, named PATHSENSE, made up by 13 young researchers that try to understand the structure, the operation and the effects of this microscopic brain.

Figure 3. ITN PATHSENSE logo. This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No 721456

That’s what I study and what brought me to Galway, and that’s what I will talk about during the Soapbox Science event in Galway. Because I love this project and I love bacteria and, like every person in love, I can’t stop talking about it and I would like everyone to know something more about the “brain of microbes”!

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Fascinating flying machines: Meet Simone Weber

Simone Weber is seconded from Airbus Helicopters UK to do a PhD in the School of Aerospace, Transport, and Manufacturing at Cranfield University. Whilst doing her PhD she is also the Technology Integration Manager, responsible for combining the technical aspects within the research project BladeSense. This project aims to mount fibre optic sensors along the length of a blade to determine its ‘health’ and identify early on whether there are any changes to the way in which it is behaving. While the project partners are developing the instrumentation system, Simone is focusing on developing a mathematical framework that allows the definition of optimal spatial mapping for the used fibre-optic sensors. This is important to be able to detect rotor blade damage at an early stage.

Her soapbox talk will be: “Sherlock Holmes: who broke his helicopter?”

You can catch Simone on a soapbox as part of Soapbox Science Milton Keynes on 30th June.

 

SS: How did you get to your current position?

SW: After graduating from University of Applied Sciences in Munich in 2012, I joined Airbus Helicopters UK (AH UK) as a Mechanical Design Engineer. Alongside developing solutions for customers, I also had the chance to work in the installation and maintenance department to gain some knowledge from an application point of view. This experience enabled me to look at design problems from a global picture to make processes and design changes smoother for all parties. Yet, after working in design for almost 10 years, I started to miss the academic side. I began to feel bored and I certainly needed a change and a new challenge (I am certainly not bored anymore!). During my time working with helicopters in Germany and in the UK I have always been interested in the main rotor system, which in my opinion is the most exciting part of these fascinating flying machines. Hence, I wanted to do my own research project in this area and I approached Cranfield University to find out whether they would be interested. Finding financial means turned out to be the most difficult part. However, after convincing AH UK to fund my PhD, I was then setting up the research project BladeSense with the help of Cranfield University to create this excellent opportunity not only for the company but also for me. This PhD allows me not only to refocus and strengthen my technical abilities but also to learn the necessary management skills to be able to lead a research project.

 

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

SW: My grandfather has been a lifelong inspiration to me. He always encouraged me in finding simple solutions to any sort of complex problems, and I loved the creativity involved and the part of building and implementing it into reality. Still nowadays, he amazes me with the sort of solutions he comes up with and I still enjoy building all sorts of things with him!

My interest in aerospace started quite late. After moving away from the countryside to start my studies in automotive engineering (seemingly obvious after growing up in the region where BMWs are being built!) only then did I discover my fascination for aerospace engineering. It was triggered by something that was probably the reason for many of the first pioneers who built flying machines: the freedom of being able to fly wherever one’s heart desires.

 

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

SW: I am very lucky to work on a project with a scope as big as BladeSense. It covers aspects ranging from structural model development, to aerodynamics, optimisation, all the way to experimental testing. I absolutely love the combination of theory and practice and to be able to work with such a great team on this project. Also, leading the project from a technological perspective gives me a great insight to what each project partner is developing. This enables me to learn even more!

The most wonderful part of my career path is that with being an engineer, learning how to work as a scientist, and understanding how research projects are managed it enables me to look at the bigger picture in order to make a change in society someday.

 

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

SW: I think Soapbox Science is an excellent opportunity to tell young people about how exciting it can be working in science, and how important it is that each of us contributes in making a change to this world. I am also keen to share my experience of working in a male dominated sector and take any worry away from young women by explaining how significant their role is just by being and thinking as a woman. I am convinced that with a team of equal gender the best results can be produced. While looking forward to passing on my knowledge and experiences during my path of becoming an aerospace engineer, I am really curious about all the questions I will get asked. I am sure that this will help me look at my research problem at a completely different angle.

 

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

SW: Excitement!

 

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

SW: Science is very much driven by success. If we fail the business is not interested anymore. This is also very much reflected in publically available research papers which often only present successful findings. Rarely do we find papers about what lessons have been learnt. I think as a scientist or engineer failure should be allowed, because only by that we can learn and improve ourselves – and this knowledge should be shared.

 

SS: What would be your top recommendation to a woman studying for a PhD and considering pursuing a career in academia?

SW: Be passionate and active about what you do. I think those two are the key drivers for anyone doing a PhD. As a women, however, I think there is an additional degree of confidence, persistence, and strength required. Sometimes we fall, but it matters how to get back up again only to be stronger. One final, but important piece of advice: Keep on smiling and have fun because that is the key to getting great ideas!

 

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Bringing Soapbox to Windsor: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly Weather!

By Dr. Rosa-Maria Ferraiuolo

Why We Brought Soapbox to Windsor… Hosting an event for the first time in a city that has never heard of it before is a very scary task. Only a handful of people in Windsor have heard of what Soapbox Science is and those people are my colleagues because I had the pleasure of being one of 12 speakers at the first Canadian Soapbox at Ryerson University in Toronto, Ontario!  Soapbox Science Toronto was an amazing experience! It was completely different from any other public event I’ve attended and presented. I wanted to be a part of Soapbox Science so that I can be a part of showing that women can be in science and so that I could try to and show young children that science can be fun and exciting! Having one of the young girls ask about cancer, what it is, how you can get it and me showing her by having her go through my props was one of the most memorable parts of my day! Having her smile at the end and say thank you still makes me smile! You can’t beat the curiosity of the children wanting to know more and asking questions that we as scientists sometimes forget to think about. This event truly revived my love for science. On the train ride back home and getting back into my lab, I couldn’t stop talking about how this was the best experience I’ve had in years! I have always been proud to be a woman in science but being a part of Soapbox Science Toronto made me even prouder! I think we can change the vision of science that the public has, and we can show them that women can be powerful thinkers and we can make a difference!

This year instead of being a speaker I brought the event to Windsor as a local organiser! We had 12 fabulous women from all areas of science. We had experts in the field of computer science, artificial intelligence, biology, physics and medicine!

 

Before the event… Being a local organiser for an event that has never happened before definitely is difficult. People do not know what this event is and often shy away from helping or wanting to commit to something. The hardest part was trying to get speakers. Even with so many social media outlets and emailing various departments of different universities, not many people initially responded to the call. If I had to change one thing, I would have changed the date that I chose to host the event. We hosted it May 12, 2018 alongside Science Rendezvous. This promoted the event beyond what I believed imaginable; but my speaker selection became more difficult because of the date. If I had chosen a date in the Fall, I would have had more researchers available who normally go away to other places for field work. I was in a bit of a panic once I realized not many people were available; thinking I wouldn’t be able to host the event, but my wonderful organizing committee kept pushing and getting the word out and then came the difficult task of choosing 12 speakers out of so many wonderful women. As the day approached the long list of tasks to do was getting smaller, but the looming weather reports was my next hurdle.

 

The day of… Finally, the day arrived! My excitement was through the roof, but as I opened my eyes in the morning, all I could hear was the booming thunder! Yes, the worst weather we could have; thunderstorms all day followed by extremely cold weather and gusts of wind. Since this is an outdoor event, I had message after message coming from all the speakers and the volunteers, “are we still doing this?” As they say, the show must go on! We had to change one rule for the safety of all those attending and because many props were not allowed to get wet, we had to be under the overhang of a building. We were still outside; the speakers and volunteers were troopers! We were all cold and all my volunteers were soaked trying to get the public to the event space, but we did it! We hosted a successful event and all the speakers want to do it again (just hopefully with nicer weather!). Many speakers didn’t want to get off their soapboxes and we finally had a change in weather with 5 minutes left in the event which drew more families to the speakers. With an outdoor event you can’t predict the weather and you can’t control those elements, but Soapbox speakers are always filled with a different kind of energy that keeps them going and makes the event the best it can be!

Even though it was difficult at the beginning and we had the worst weather, being the local event organiser has been an amazing experience and we are excited to have hosted the event. My wonderful volunteers worked so hard to make sure that this event became a success in hopes of continuing to run this event in the coming years!

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The time of the stereotypical stuffy academic is over!: Meet Jennifer Rudd

Dr Jennifer Rudd (@jruddchemist)has always been interested in applied science and travelling. She spent her Masters year in Germany, followed by a PhD in Switzerland. Dr Rudd then received a Fellowship from the Swiss National Science Foundation and spent 18 months in America. (She is pictured here at the Wright Brother’s Memorial, North Carolina, USA.) Dr Rudd wants to contribute to the international efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change. She has worked on next generation solar cells, produced hydrogen from water and has now turned her attention to carbon dioxide. Dr Rudd’s current project at the Energy Safety Research Institute at Swansea University is turning carbon dioxide into the fuels of our future.

Dr Rudd will be taking part in Soapbox Science Swansea on Saturday 23rd June 2018 with the talk: “Converting carbon dioxide into the fuel of the future”

 

SS: How did you get to your current position?

JR: Interestingly it was Soapbox Science, in a convoluted manner! I volunteered at the 2015 Swansea SS and met Dr Charles Dunnill from whom I learnt about the Energy Safety Research Institute (ESRI), 2 years and 1 little boy later I interviewed at ESRI with Charlie’s colleague Dr Enrico Andreoli [and got the job!].

The longer story is that I did an undergraduate degree at the University of York in chemistry, then a PhD in Switzerland working on dye-sensitised solar cells and catalysts for water splitting. This was followed by a Fellowship to work in North Carolina, USA working on water splitting (again!) and now I’m at ESRI trying to convert carbon dioxide into fuels.

 

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

JR: My Mother is a mathematician and my Dad is a marine engineer (and an ex-submariner). I always thought I would be an engineer but I didn’t like physics. Then I decided to be a professional clarinet player but my music teacher told me that if I did science I could always keep playing clarinet. If I stayed with the clarinet I would lose my science. I chose science. I also had some great [female] chemistry teachers at school.

 

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

JR: I love knowing that the work I do can solve a pressing problem. The levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have reached unprecedented levels and we have to work on a global scale to reduce them. What better way could there be than turning them into the fuels that our energy-hungry world needs?

 

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

JR: Soapbox Science is a fantastic opportunity to engage with the public. I think that the time of the stereotypical stuffy academic sat in an office thinking lofty thoughts is over. Taxpayers pay a portion of my salary and they are owed an explanation of what that money goes towards. In addition, the general public need to know about the rising levels of carbon dioxide and the implications of that on our future. Hopefully I will have an impact on people’s carbon footprints from taking part in this event.

 

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

JR: Anticipation

 

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

JR: I would change how primary caregivers are seen and the support mechanisms in place for them. Academia is an all-encompassing endeavour and this means that trying to balance work and a family life is a real challenge. In addition, researchers on part-time contracts can be seen as less committed than their full-time counterparts. Accepting that caring is not just a female role would be a real step forward as would more funding being made available for researchers needing flexible working conditions.

 

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

JR: Don’t be put off. If someone says no, find someone who will say yes – that’s how I ended up in Switzerland and America!

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Hunting Viruses: Meet Alyson Kelvin

By Dr Alyson Kelvin

Soapbox Science Halifax is coming up quickly. In my previous post, I introduced myself as a virologist, and I discussed the purpose of Soapbox Science and the importance of supporting women in STEM. As I look forward to the event, I am preparing my presentation and activities for the day, focusing on my research and interests in virology. I am ready to discuss with you the basics of viruses, my work on developing vaccines at the Canadian Centre for Vaccinology (CCfV), and HOW I Hunt Viruses….

 

A Bit About Viruses

Picture 1: credit Don Stoltz

Viruses are considered intracellular parasites since viruses are only able to be active and reproduce once inside a cell (Picture 1). Scientists often debate whether or not viruses are living because alone, they are not active and instead require the machinery of a living cell to function. Ranging in size from 20 to 400 nanometers (typically 20-110), viruses are microscopic and can’t be seen by the naked eye. They exist all around us, including in the air, water, and dirt, as well as inside the cells of bacteria and animals.  Although viruses are typically associated with disease, viruses don’t always cause illness. In some cases, viruses are beneficial, such as the oncolytic viruses that destroy cancer cells, and bacteriopahges – viruses of bacteria – that can be employed to treat antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections. To combat disease-causing viruses, our human bodies as well as other multi- and single-cell organisms have developed defense systems known as immune systems. With respect to human and animal disease, we have invented vaccines and antivirals to extend our protection during infection when our natural immune defense systems are unable to cover a particular deleterious virus. My work and the work of my colleagues at CCfV and IWK is focused on improving vaccines, evaluating existing vaccines, and — importantly — developing vaccines for the new and threatening viruses that are emerging, such as Ebola and Zika.

 

Viruses are categorized by family and each virus family is defined by the virus’s genetic material which encodes the proteins needed for the virus to function.  Unlike animals and plants which only have DNA as the genetic hereditary material, the genome of viruses can either be composed of DNA or RNA. Beyond this basic dichotomy of DNA or RNA, the viral genome is classified by its structure and order.  This can be double-stranded, single-stranded, positive sense, negative sense, or retroviral meaning moving from RNA to DNA and the structure may be linear, circular, segmented, or gapped.

 

picture 2: credit Don Stoltz

The complete virus particle is referred to as the VIRION. The virion contains genetic material and proteins responsible for infecting cells and moving the viral genome between cells.  The viral surface and structural proteins typically give each virus a shape characteristic of its virus type. The virion can take on various shapes and sizes including, spherical, geometric, and cylindrical (Picture 2). The nucleic acid genome of the virus is protected by a protein coat. Some viruses also have an envelope that is typically formed from a host cell membrane during virus egress (i.e., when virus escapes from a host cell). Influenza viruses, for example, are enveloped viruses of the Orthomyxovirus family that contain receptors creating an overall spherical structure covered in nobs or lollipop-shaped proteins. Differing is the Ebola virus, a member of the Filovirus family. The Ebola virus is long and tube-like or filamentous in structure, inspiring the Filovirus family name.

 

How does one become infected with a virus? Understanding how viruses spread is inherently important to knowing how to keep from becoming infected. The spread of viruses between hosts – from one infected host to a susceptible one – is called transmission. There are several different modes of transmission for viruses. Transmission can be grouped as either being Direct or INDIRECT. Direct transmission occurs by direct contact with an infected source either by touching, kissing, sexual intercourse, or droplet spray. Bloodborne viruses are viruses present in an infected host’s blood; they can be spread to a susceptible host through direct contact. Examples of bloodborne transmitted viruses are HIV and Hepatitis B. Vertical transmission is another type of direct transmission and occurs when a virus is passed from an infected mother to her infant either during pregnancy, childbirth, or breastfeeding.

 

Conversely, viruses transmitted by indirect means use a vehicle to move the virus from one host to another.  Indirect spread may occur through 1.) the air; 2.) contact of contaminated non-living objects (such as touching a door knob that was previously used by sick person); or 3.) living vectors.   Respiratory viruses such as influenza can be spread through the air when an infected host coughs, sneezes, or breathes. The release of virus particles allows the virus to move in the air and be inhaled into the respiratory tract of a susceptible host. Viruses also may gain access to uninfected hosts through oral transmission. Oral transmission occurs when viruses contaminating food and water are ingested, leading to infection. Examples of viruses using oral transmission include rotavirus, enterovirus, and coxsackievirus, which is the agent for hand-foot-and-mouth disease.

 

Vectorborne transmission is a type of indirect transmission that is responsible for the emergence of several novel viruses threatening the health of humans. Vectorborne transmission is the transmission of a virus through the medium of an insect such as a mosquito, tick, or fly. Specifically, viruses transmitted by an insect are referred to as an arthropod-borne virus or arbovirus. ZIKA virus and Dengue virus are examples of viruses spread by insects, specifically by the bite of a mosquito. Through the bloodmeal of a mosquito or tick, viruses can be picked up from a reservoir animal species, such as monkeys, and during a subsequent feeding on humans, the virus may spread from the now virus-carrying insect to a susceptible uninfected human.  The U.S. CDC has recently reported that infectious diseases spread by mosquitos and ticks are on the rise, reinforcing the importance of studying insect-transmitted viruses.

 

Emerging viruses are the unknown threat to human and animals. Over the past 15 years there have been several examples of emerging infectious diseases that have significantly affected human health making global headlines in newspapers, on TV, and on the internet.  Examples include the H1N1 influenza pandemic in 2009, the emergence of SARS in 2003 in the Guangdong, and the most recent ZIKV outbreak in the Americas. These viruses have significant impact on humans because humans are naïve to these pathogens having no previous exposure or immunity.

 

 

Emerging Viruses and Virus Hunting

 

My main interests are investigating how emerging viruses and pathogens move from their animal reservoir to infect humans and cause disease. Following a virus from its emergence to human infection and illness is Virus Hunting. Most of the viruses that infect and cause disease in humans today originated in animals such as birds, bats, or non-human primates. The emergence event where a virus transmits from an animal and infects a human is called “zoonosis” or, colloquially, as “spillover” between species. My interest and the public health importance of understanding emerging pathogens has led me to investigate viruses such as influenza, Zika, Chikungunya, and SARS. It is important to be continually researching how emerging viruses are spilling over into humans, who may be susceptible to developing severe disease, and how we can prevent spillover.

 

Zika virus emerged in Brazil in 2015 and was a cause of public health concern as Zika cases were correlated with an increase in infants born with microcephaly (severely smaller heads). Zika virus is transmitted by mosquitoes, making it an arbovirus or vectorborne virus. A combination of epidemiology, in vivo modeling, and molecular studies showed that Zika virus specifically targeted the brain cells of developing fetuses, leading to neuronal cell death, underdeveloped infant brains, and smaller heads in infected babies. Being on the frontlines of scientific investigation during an outbreak allows me to directly help people suffering from diseases that are mysterious in origin and in mechanism. Helping people understand the virus affecting them and how they may treat or prevent disease through antiviral therapy, vaccination, or by inhibiting transmission is the most rewarding part of my job. As Zika was taking hold of South America, I developed a free smart phone App called ZikaTracker with international colleagues to track the spread of the virus and the disease it was causing throughout the world. The App could be downloaded for free by anyone with a computer or smart phone, allowing them to report an incident of Zika infection, the location of the infection, and if disease was associated with the infected case. The App was designed to help the public become aware if Zika was present in their community, help scientists track the disease, and aid governments for the deployment of control and preventative measure for the insect vector.

 

Locally, Nova Scotia is experiencing an increase in the number of ticks as well as tick-transmitted diseases such as Lyme disease (caused by Borrelia species of bacteria) and tickborne viruses.   Nova Scotia has become an epicenter in Canada for tickborne infections since Nova Scotia has the highest incidence of Lyme disease in all of Canada. and is recognized as an environment capable of transmitting deadly tick viruses such as Powassan virus. Tick numbers and species have increased in the province over the past decade, which is thought to possibly be due to changes in the environment and climate such as the frequencies of warmer winters. Together, the increase of tick numbers and tickborne illness in Nova Scotia has created concern. As a result of my experience with emerging vectorborne viruses, the study of insect-transmitted pathogens is one of my areas of research at Dalhousie and IWK, allowing my work to be directly connected to health problems of Nova Scotia.

 

 

Picture 3: credit WHO

Influenza, the continually re-emerging virus

Influenza is a constantly emerging and re-emerging virus. Each flu season represents the emergence of new influenza viruses, causing disease in vulnerable humans (Picture 3). Much of my work is devoted to influenza viruses and determining how the viruses change each year, how previous infection in humans affects this year’s disease, and how a person’s first influenza infection affects all other flu infections and vaccination during their life-time. The knowledge gained from my research and my work in collaboration my colleagues at Dalhousie University, IWK Health Center, and the Canadian Centre for Vaccinology (CCfV), will lead to the building of better influenza vaccines, including a universal influenza vaccine. Since there are several types, subtypes, lineages, and strains of influenza viruses and the strains are continually changing by genetic shift and drift, a Universal Vaccine for influenza would protect people from all circulating flu viruses and eliminate the need for repetitive seasonal vaccination.

 

Discoveries and Contributions to Science

Why do some people need to be hospitalized from an influenza virus infection while others may only have mild sniffles and cough? How does age impact influenza disease? These are some of the questions that I have investigated in my research during my career.

 

As mentioned above, Influenza is a well-known reoccurring virus that can infect up to 30% of children and 15% of adults every flu season. By tracking the ages of people hospitalized from flu, it is well-known that infants and the elderly have a greater susceptibility to developing severe influenza disease, but why this occurs and how we can prevent severe disease are not entirely known.  As I was investigating the immune responses of breastfeeding infants during influenza infection in an model of infant infection, I found that infected infants are able to transmit the influenza virus to their mothers’ mammary glands during feeding.  After transmission, I found the virus infected the cells of the mothers’ mammary gland and live virus was then excreted in expressed milk.  This is the FIRST time that influenza transmission from infant to mother’s mammary gland has been shown.  My finding is a step to understanding why infants may be more susceptible to severe disease and may represent a mechanism we can use to protect infants during flu season. Furthermore, since pregnant and breastfeeding women are also high-risk groups for influenza, my research gives insight into this population as well.  My discovery was reported in This Week In Virology (TWIV) and by the Naked Scientists. Knowing that influenza virus may be able to be transmitted to a mother’s mammary gland, we are able to ask questions about why this may occur and if other respiratory viruses such as Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) are also able to infect the breast.

 

Picture 4: credit CDC

Chikunguynya Virus (CHIKV) is another arbovirus transmitted by mosquitoes. It causes a human disease clinically characterized by sudden appearance of high fever, rash, headache, nausea, and severe joint pain (the defining symptom). The severe joint pain can last for months or years following infection, which highlights the importance of studying and understanding this virus’s transmission and disease. Chikungunya virus was first identified in East Africa (Tanzanian and Mozambique) and the word Chikungunya means “that which bends up”, describing the bent posture of CHIKV patients while in severe pain. Previously, CHIKV had only been found in tropical and subtropical areas of the world such as in Africa, Indian Ocean region, and Southeast Asia. The virus was only known at this time to be transmitted by the tropical mosquito Aedes aegyptii, which also transmits viruses such as yellow fever virus and dengue. But during an outbreak in the French La Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean, the virus acquired a mutation in its genome allowing it to also infect and be transmitted to humans by an additional mosquito, the Asian Tiger Mosquito, Aedes albopictus (Picture 4). This mosquito has a great habitat range and lives in tropical, subtropical, and temperate regions of the world. Since the mosquito lives in temperate regions, it is able to transmit CHIKV to people living in Europe, North America, South America, and the Caribbean.  In 2007, the first outbreak in a temperate region occurred in the Emilia Romagna region of Italy, which includes the city of Bologna. Over 200 cases of CHIKV infection were identified between July and September 2007 in the region. Since this virus and its disease had never before been seen in this temperate region of the world, it caused a strain on hospitals and mosquito control teams in the region as authorities worked to identify the infectious agent and contain the outbreak. My Italian colleagues at the University of Bologna and I investigated the reaction of the immune system during CHIKV infection in these patients.  From my research, I wanted to understand why the severe joint pain lasted for months and years in some patients. From my analysis of symptom severity, I found an association of proteins of the immune system specifically, CXCL9/MIG, CXCL10/IP-10 and antibody (IgG) levels.  These immune proteins (cytokines) and antibodies were seen in patients that had long-lasting severe joint pain.  By identifying the factors that may be contributing to joint pain during infection and after virus clearance, I can develop therapies to treat the painful disease.

 

 

Conclusions

 

Understanding emerging and re-emerging viruses and pathogens is important as the world changes with population growth and environmental shifts.  As humans move into previously untouched places on the globe, the frequency of virus spillover will increase.  My developed research program — which has already faced the challenges of ZIKV, CHIKV, and re-emerging influenza — will be ready to hunt the next emerging virus.

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