Science Narratives is a series of interviews with students from diverse fields in science at various stages of their career. By learning more about individuals and their journey in science, this series has the goal of breaking the stereotypes in science and showcasing the diversity in STEM. We hope readers will find connections and inspirations in these stories told.
Jessica Tsalikis is a 4th year PhD student at University of Toronto, Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathobiology. You can follow her stylish #PathToPhD on Instagram and her blog, The Science Diaries.
Describe your research or love for science in a haiku
An exciting world
To cure us of all disease
Research is crucial
What is the focus of your research?
My lab studies primarily the host innate immune response to bacterial pathogens such as Salmonella, Listeria and Shigella. Specifically, my project explores how cells regulate their genes during infection using a specific process known as alternative splicing. During alternative splicing, pieces of our genetic material are rearranged in such a way that new proteins are generated from a single transcript of DNA. I’m interested in exploring how these new proteins that are made specifically during times of infection can help our cells to fight off these dangerous bugs.
Outside of work, how do you like to spend your time? What are your hobbies?
In my free time I love travelling the world, shopping, trying new food and drink recipes and watching tons of TV (I’m currently binge watching The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt). I’m also obsessed with electronic dance music and try to go to as many DJ shows that my wallet will allow!
Tell us about your blog and the inspiration behind it.
I started The Science Diaries a little over a month ago to serve as a platform to blog about trending science topics in a way that’s appealing, easy to understand and relatively jargon-free. I think it’s really important to keep the public engaged with both basic and translational science research. I’ve always enjoyed writing and giving presentations throughout my PhD, and I’ve realized that I love communicating science. We as scientists can get so absorbed in our research that we neglect our soft skills like how to effectively convey complex research findings to both other scientists as well as non-scientists and the general public. My posts range from journal club-style article reviews, highlights of cutting edge technologies, laymen terms explanations of diseases and general tips on how to survive a PhD in research.
My second motivation behind starting this blog is to break the stereotype that females in science can’t have other interests like fashion, travelling and taking Instagram food pictures, without compromising on their ability to “do” science research. I want to highlight that you shouldn’t have to sacrifice aspects of your personality while pursuing your advanced degree. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always made a point to keep
balanced with different aspects of my life – I think this is arguably necessary to maintain your sanity as a PhD student. I would love for this blog to serve as a visual diary of my PhD journey and to hopefully inspire young girls to pursue graduate studies in science research.
Tell us your personal story in science. How did your path begin and how did it lead to where you are today?
My parents can attest to the fact that both the creative and scientific sides of my personality became apparent pretty early on in life. I would often demand the classic science starter kits for Christmas like the microscope set with the dried lettuce slices on a slide. At the same time, creativity was extremely important to me and I had converted the basement of my house into an art studio for a good ten years. I can honestly regardless of how cliché it may sound that my strong interest in science probably wouldn’t have developed it weren’t for Dr. Kerr, my grade 8-science teacher. His enthusiasm for science was absolutely infectious, from teaching us about mitochondria exclaiming “small but mighty!” in a high squeaky voice or having competitions of who could build a thermos with the highest level of insulation from non-conventional items. Listening to him teaching about various topics in science, particularly the sections related to cell biology, was fascinating for me.
After taking the maximum amount of science courses throughout high school and finding that I actually enjoyed them, the decision to pursue an undergraduate degree in the Life Sciences program at McMaster University was basically a no-brainer. Once I survived through the dreaded mandatory first year courses, I was able to take courses that I was actually interested in and could learn about topics like viral pathogenesis, immune-cell cancer therapies, allergies, and autoimmune diseases. During my four years at McMaster, I was fortunate enough to gain laboratory research experience in three different labs, all of which studied various aspects of infectious disease centered around different pathological agents (Plasmodium falciparum and malaria, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and Pseudomonas aeruginosa for cystic fibrosis). This definitely solidified my interest in biological research, particularly in the field of infectious disease. The fact that all of the supervisors that I worked with were tremendously inspiring and brilliant scientists was a huge factor in my desire to research. Furthermore, experiencing three different lab environments not only equipped me with the technical skills I would need for research, but also gave me a glimpse into the different lab environments that exist – both the good and the bad.
By the time I finished fourth year as an Honours Biochemistry and Biomedical Sciences specialist, I knew that I wanted to continue in research and began my Masters degree in the lab of Dr. Stephen Girardin at the University of Toronto. I didn’t stray too far from my infectious disease background and I’m currently studying how our cells respond to dangerous bacteria like Shigella flexneri and Salmonella typhimurium by rearranging their genes and generating new proteins during infection. When I first started my Masters I never expected to enjoy my project or the lab environment as much as I do. I later transferred into the PhD stream and am now roughly one year away from defending my thesis. Although research can be challenging at times, its exciting to explore the unchartered waters of scientific knowledge and to become an expert at a specific topic within your field. I’m eager to see where my project leads next and for what the future has in store for me with respect to my career path.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Hopefully working in a life sciences industry position at a job that I love! Right now I’m leaning towards a career in medical writing but I wouldn’t be surprised if my career path had changed a couple times by then.
Can you talk about one moment of discouragement and how you overcame it? What keeps you motivated to pursue your work?
Being discouraged is something that almost everyone in basic research experiences at one point or another. I know I personally have been discouraged a handful of times throughout my PhD and was faced with the “imposter syndrome” that too often plagues us as grad students. I think it’s important to stay humble and never get defensive when someone points out something about your research topic that you may not know or aren’t as familiar with. Whether it’s having a bad committee meeting or a contamination that ruins your experiments, keeping a clear vision of the bigger picture of why you’re doing research in the first place helps to put things into perspective. With respect to staying motivated, it’s extremely important for me to associate my basic science research with developing therapeutics against disease – this motivates me to stay focused and hopefully generate findings that can help patients who are suffering.
What are your thoughts on grad school so far? Is there anything you expected to be different?
My grad school experience so far has been awesome and exceeded my expectations. Not only do I love the research project I’m exploring, but I’ve also been so fortunate to have an amazing supervisor, graduate program and peers in my department, many of whom have become my close friends. I had the intention of only completing a Masters degree when I first started out, but once I realized how much I truly loved my research project as well as the overall lab environment, transferring to a PhD felt like a natural progression! I think there’s this misconception that to succeed in research you have to slave away at the lab for 16 hours a day and isolate yourself from your friends, family and anything that interests you outside of science. I’ve found that as long as you can maintain strong time management and organizational skills, balancing your personal life and work in the lab is completely feasible. Having a European supervisor who values the importance of taking time off for vacation is also a bonus!
What is one piece of advice you would give someone considering science research?
To not be afraid of failure and to be persistent – this is incredibly important for all aspects of life in research. As an undergraduate it can often be hard to get your foot in the door to get research experience, for example. Keep knocking on doors! Once you’ve entered your graduate studies, failed experiments that either give you negative results or just plain don’t work out, can be challenging to overcome. It’s important to stay positive and be flexible in making new hypotheses based on the data you generate! Things won’t always go the way you want/expect them to and being mindful of this fact will help you maintain your sanity while pursuing a degree in science research.