Meet Sophia Frentz, a geneticist trying to untangle the mysteries of life!

What is your scientific background?

I’m a Geneticist – I’ve got a BSc (Hons) in genetics, and am currently doing my Ph.D. in the same.

Why did you choose to become a scientist?

I really like figuring out how the world works, and the underlying rules that govern everything. I can’t remember a time I chose to be a scientist, but really I just never chose not to be one.

Did you have a role model that influenced your decision to work in science?

Not so much a “role model” but my parents aggressively supported me in everything I was interested in. Neither of them are scientists but they’ve always been incredibly supportive of the choices I’ve made, to the extent of scoring me a solo tour of Scion in Rotorua (a crown research institute) when I was in my final year of high school. I think without their support, I definitely wouldn’t have made the choices I did and might have gone for “safer” options.

How did you choose your field of study?

I did the international biology olympiad in 2009 (oof, that makes me feel old), and the part that set my brain sparking was genetics. Like above – I like rules, especially weird rules we’re still figuring out. Genetics is that.

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?

I’m working on mitochondrial disorders (“mito”), disorders of energy generation that affect children and that don’t have any current clinically effective treatments. I’m investigating potential treatments for this set of disorders and developing better ways of testing treatments.

I got interested in mito during my honours year, where I was working on data from a family that didn’t have mito, but the reasons it was originally thought they might I found really interesting. I accidentally spent three days reading everything I could about mitochondrial disorders and when I came out of my trance, I knew that I wanted to work on mito next.

What are the hardest parts related to this work?

Currently, I’m finding the physical requirements the hardest – lab-based work requires a lot of time on your feet, and I’ve got an ovarian cyst that puts me in a lot of pain if I spend too much time on my feet! I have to be very efficient and more willing to ask for help, which is always difficult!

What are your biggest achievements, and what your biggest failures?

My high point is probably getting a piece in the Best Australian Science Writing 2016. I don’t think I’ve had failures, or rather I don’t like the term – if you learn something from the experience, then it’s not a failure, and I’ve taken care to learn from everything that I experience.

What is a typical day like for you?

I generally try and shape my work day around a 9-5 although it’s getting… a bit out of hand as I am writing up my thesis. I’ll get into the office between 8:30-9, spend maybe half an hour checking emails and twitter while I finish my coffee, and then I’ll break my day into two big chunks – 9:30-1/2 and 2/3-5ish. Currently, both of those chunks are in the lab, although depending on what I’m working on, I might use the afternoon or the morning for writing or statistical analyses. I’ll head home between 5 and 6 most days (and I try not to spend more than two nights a week in the office late), go to the gym for a few hours, make dinner, and by then it’s usually pretty late so I’ll snuggle up with a book or TV episode before bed.

Did you ever doubt your abilities as a scientist? Why? How did you handle these situations/feelings?

Yup, impostor syndrome gets us all! I have a few friends that I work the buddy system with – when they feel like bad scientists, I pep them up, and when I feel like a bad scientist, they pep me up.

What (or who) motivated you in difficult times?

My supervisors are excellent, as are the other members of my lab group. I think we’re closer than a lot of other groups, and when I feel like I’ve hit a wall or I’m working myself to exhaustion they’ll talk me out of it or tell me to go home and have a nap. It’s great to be in a space where we care about each other – science is never easy, but we can make it easier by being kind to one another.

In ten years, what do you hope to have accomplished in terms of your work?

I want to be happy with my work. The world is changing so quickly, I don’t see any point in being more specific than that!

Is there any scientific topic (outside of your field of research) that you think should have more scientific attention? Which one?

Oh man, anti-microbial resistance???? please????? I’m so afraid of the future.

During your career, have you been specifically mentored or supported by someone?

Supervisors definitely fulfill the mentoring role, although external to my Ph.D. supervisors I have a mentor through Out for Australia. This has been particularly helpful as I want to move out of academia and by necessity, Ph.D. supervisors have succeeded within academia. Tim can also provide some calming external perspective when I’m freaking out about hard choices!

If you were completely free to choose a scientific topic to work on, which would it be?

I honestly think it would be this one. I love my work and the engagement I’ve been able to have with people affected by mito (via the AMDF) has been incredibly meaningful.

Do you come from an academic family?

Nope – my mom’s a journalist and my dad’s a town planner.

How does your family regard your career choice?

They’re really supportive of my life choices. Prior to getting accepted into my Ph.D. they were pretty keen on me doing something “more stable”/having more “backup plans” but I think the past three years have really shown that I make good choices – the concern was probably partly to do with the fact that they still see me as their baby a bit!!

Besides your scientific interests, what are your personal interests?

I’m interested in most things – to the extent that the tagline for our podcast (Things of Interest) is “a show about life and tech through a feminist lens” because I didn’t want to narrow our remit down from “literally everything”. I play a lot of video games, have recently been on a science fiction jam because the only thing that could make gritty detective novels better is having them in space, and I’m very involved in advocacy work.

Is it hard to manage both career and private life? How do you manage both?

Yes! I have to focus on self-care quite a lot because living with chronic illness is a constant party and all your suffering is invited. Because I’ve had to have that focus for a lot of my life, balancing things now isn’t too different. I make sure I go home when I need to, I try to spend time in the sun every day, and I try and do one fun social event a week.

If you had the option to give advice to a younger version of yourself, what would that be?

You can chill. It’ll work out.

What were the biggest obstacles you had to overcome? Did you ever have the impression that it would be easier/harder if you were male?

Honestly, my biggest obstacle has been my experiences with mental illness. That experience would have been different if I’d been male, but I don’t want to say it would have been easier – there’s a different collection of barriers to people of all genders experiencing mental illness.

What kind of prejudices, if any, did you have to face? How did that make you feel? Were you able to overcome these?

SO I had this one lecturer that was super sexist. For ages, I thought he just didn’t like me until like five other women in the same class came to me (I was the student representative for that class) and had exactly the same complaint. The worst thing for me was that when I asked questions he’d laugh and not respond, and when a dude asked exactly the same question he’d go “what a great question” and respond in detail. That makes you feel terrible about your intelligence and grasp of the course material.

When I tried to take it higher the offered solution was “do you want to have a meeting with him to express your concerns” which um yeah sure sounds great I, a 20-year-old femme, will have a meeting with a lecturer who’s published in nature and has made no secret of his disdain for me, and try and hold my own. No thank you. I asked them to discuss awareness of implicit biases and maybe monitor next year’s class closely with a view to disciplinary action if this continues. According to students in the years below me, this Did Not Happen, or at least not to an extent that altered this behavior.

There was also a few boys in my class who would say things like “but women just aren’t that good at maths” which ok cool nice life you have. I did come top in Year 13 calculus a year early but you do you I guess.

In your opinion, which changes, if any, are needed in the scientific system to be more attractive to female scientists and possible future scientists?

Less of a ridiculous workload, blinded CVs, implicit bias training for everyone all of the time, actually firing sexist people, codes of conduct at conferences, better methods of reporting sexual harassment and assault and actual punishment for people who perpetrate such things even if they’re really good scientists. The amount that we excuse because people “do good research” or “publish well” is disgusting.

Do you have anything else that you’d like to tell us about?

I’ve experienced a heck of an amount of sexual assault, predominantly at the hands of other scientists, and there is no way for me to confirm my safety at conferences so that’s cool I guess, love science and putting my personal safety at risk for my career (I don’t love it, it’s the worst).


Want to know more about Sophia? Visit her on  Twitter, Facebook, or listen to her Podcast!