What is your scientific background?
My undergraduate degree was a bachelor of biomedical science, with an honours year in developmental biology. I am in the final year of my Ph.D. in developmental neuroscience and I’ve built on this scientific background by also specialising in science communication and science outreach. My interests and experiences stretch across several areas: neuroscience, promoting scientific inquiry and STEM education, advocating for women in science and examining the important issues of science in society.
Why did you choose to become a scientist?
Science is one of the few fields that encourages you to think outside the box and ask the big questions we don’t know already know the answers to. The field is constantly evolving and pushing the boundaries of techniques, knowledge, and discoveries. I wanted to be part of a profession that constantly strived to push those boundaries.
Did you have a role model that influenced your decision to work in science?
It wasn’t one particular person I was always a curious child and drew inspiration from learning the intricacies of the world around me. I wanted to learn about everything, and I was extremely lucky to have a family that nurtured my curiosity. My mum would buy me popular science magazines, science books, puzzles and everything else in between to keep my mind preoccupied and learning. I’m so grateful to her and the way she nurtured my curiosity. When it came to high school it was clear to me that science was the pathway I wanted to follow, and with my elective subjects being in some area of science, it was a very natural progression for me to continue and study science at university.
Which topic are you working on at the moment? Why did you choose this topic and how do you think you’ll make a difference?
My Ph.D. is in the field of neuroscience and DoHaD (developmental origins of health and disease). I’m interested in how maternal alcohol consumption around the time of conception can affect the cognitive outcomes of the foetus later in life. The concept that maternal health during pregnancy can affect the health of the foetus later in life is not new, however, I’m focused on the very early stage of pregnancy. It’s during this time that the developing embryo is highly susceptible to the environmental changes and the actions of the mother. Even though no organs have started developing, it’s during this early stage that the most active time of cell division and differentiation occurs, with the early embryo containing all the genetic codes and information needed for the future development of the foetus. An optimal environment during this period is just as important as the remaining months of pregnancy and peak organ development.
I think this research is vital, especially in a society that embraces the ritual of a few drinks at the end of a work day. It’s common for women of reproductive age to consume alcohol, so it’s probable that early pregnancy is likely to be the period of highest intake for women who are unaware of their pregnancy. At times, this area of research can be quite a sensitive topic for a lot of women who may be feeling guilt or do not want to be stigmatised for their drinking choices or patterns. However, it’s not about labelling women or putting them in a stigmatised iron- clad box. This research is about giving women and couples planning a pregnancy the correct information to make better health choices based on the latest research. It will also allow health professionals to bridge the gap between the literature reported and the advice given to women.
What are the hardest parts related to this work?
I think people assume that scientists are making breaking discoveries every day – but it’s not the case. Data can take years to collect, experiments can fail and often need to be repeated. The hardest part is being patient and realising that sometimes science can be a slow process.
In ten years, what do you hope to have accomplished in terms of your work?
In ten years I would hope that the findings from my preclinical study will have been translated from the basic sciences to sophisticated clinical research. I would like to see the focus shift to the possibility of administering preventative interventions to the mother. The goal would be to give some type of nutrient to the mother, even in later pregnancy to see if the changes caused by the early alcohol exposure can be prevented, and in turn prevent the possible long-term disease outcomes of the foetus.
Is there any scientific topic (outside of your field of research) that you think should have more scientific attention? Which one?
I think there needs to be a push for scientists to communicate science and their research to the broader public, and effectively advocate for critical thinking. This has been largely excluded from formal scientific training, and as scientists become increasingly specialised in a field or chosen discipline, we sometimes forget how to communicate our research to a general audience. Academic institutions need to revamp their graduate-level research programs and implement courses incorporating explicit training in the communication of science to a general audience. I don’t think the intent should be to specifically train future scientific journalists but to provide communication skills to research scientists to enable them to better convey the details and impact of their work. It’s clear this hasn’t been happening, with the consequences particularly evident when scientists struggle to engage and inform the public on socially charged issues such as GMO’s, vaccines and climate change.
Carl Sagan is a perfect example of the mind frame that all scientists today need to adopt in some way. As a scientist and a public figure, he taught both future planetary scientists and the general audience about science. Many of his astronomy courses at Cornell University incorporated required reading on critical thinking — including the importance of skepticism, with topics covering logic, rhetoric, and evidence-based argumentation. He also advocated for scientists to give 10% of their time to public science education.
This is the model that academic institutes need to adopt when training their graduate students and early career researchers. I think the future of scientific progress in society relies on scientists honing their communication skills and focusing on embedding science back into society and the public’s thinking. Scientists need to promote scientific literacy so that everyone can understand and discuss the scientific issues reported in the media with informed arguments rather than opinions. When scientists learn to communicate more effectively with an engaged, scientifically literate public, we will all be able to make informed decisions about the pressing issues that face society.
If you were completely free to choose a scientific topic to work on, which would it be?
I am fascinated about the intersection of neuroscience with artificial intelligence and I would probably choose a collaboration between neuroscience and the A.I industry. It definitely falls under my dream postdoc job.
What is a typical day like for you?
My days are so varied. It can range from lab bench work, animal work, long experimental days, statistical analysis, paper writing, professional development or conferences. I am also a science communicator so I juggle my Ph.D. with freelance writing and podcasts that explore various topics in science and society. I also do a lot of science outreach and STEM engagement in schools and the public. It’s a balancing act, with a lot of late nights, early mornings, and weekend work, but it’s extremely rewarding and I absolutely love what I do.
Is it hard to manage both career and private life? How do you manage both?
It can be difficult at times to manage a Ph.D. and a private life, but I am extremely fortunate to have an encouraging and supportive supervisor who understands that family, friends, and relationships are an important and integral aspect of life. It’s just about making a collective effort and being mindful to look after your physical and mental health. Sometimes in academia that isn’t often encouraged, but it definitely should be.
What kind of prejudices, if any, did you have to face? How did that make you feel? Were you able to overcome these?
I was born in Romania during a time when the country was in a lot of political and civil unrest. Our family left Romania and came to Australia just after the Romanian revolution and the communist regime had just fallen. When we left, we didn’t make it to Australia with much money or possessions, and my mum didn’t know how to speak English at all, or navigate in a society and culture that was so different to what she was used to. I remember kids in primary school bullying me and calling me names because I couldn’t speak English properly and had an ethnic last name. Even now I get the occasional question from people that ask if I am a gypsy or if I came to Australia by boat – with the latter question obviously a reflection of the polarising immigration and political climate in Australia over its boat asylum seeker policy. It doesn’t bother me much now, however the prejudice that I experienced as a young child was difficult. However, these experiences as a child are what has influenced my decision to do outreach work in schools – especially in lower socio-economic regions. The students I work with don’t have an opportunity to engage with a scientist (especially female scientists) or think they have the capacity to do inquiry-based science challenges. This is in part due to their socio-economic status, family background or other cultural and societal issues. It’s an amazing feeling to be able to inspire these students and show them that their gender, cultural background or ethnicity is not a barrier.
In your opinion, which changes, if any, are needed in the scientific system to be more attractive to female scientists and possible future scientists?
In Australia, there is an equal representation of men and women in undergraduate science programs. However, the gender gap starts to widen at the Ph.D. graduate level and is more evident in higher levels of science academic jobs. Quite often women have children and leave the workforce for a while, so we clearly need to focus on this “drop off” point. Women need a lot more support during this period of their lives, and there needs to be greater flexibility to maintain both career and family. Institutes and universities providing high-quality on-site child care is important for mums trying to come back into the workforce and should be a minimum requirement. While an acceptance from employers and colleagues that women can still be productive and successful when the work style is non-traditional or at times off-site should also be encouraged. There are also currently very few programs that allow female scientists to re-enter the workforce where their skills are brought up to speed. This should be a basic offering by employers, along with strong and meaningful mentoring that encourage women and devise strategies that champion women scientifically and provide support at every stage of a woman’s career.