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.
Samantha Yammine is a 5th year Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Molecular Genetics (@mogen_uoft) at the University of Toronto. To follow her #PathToPhD you can check out her Instagram @Science.Sam !
Describe your research or love for science in a haiku.
I love to ask, “why?”
And science finds the answers.
So I am obsessed.
What is the focus of your research?
I study unique populations of brain stem cells and am learning more about what they do at different ages in an organism’s life. Early on they create the cells that are the building blocks of the brain, and the same types of stem cells stick around into the adult brain. Myself and many others have found stem cells in the adult brain are not very active, so I’ve found a few different ways to specifically activate them so we can study whether they could be helpful to repair a diseased/injured brain.
Who is a female scientist you look up to and why?
I can’t pick just one, there are so many amazing women in STEM fields everywhere, and I am so glad I get to meet more and more everyday through social media (through campaigns like my #FeatureFriday series on Instagram, @womenofsci, @canwomenstem_150, #actuallivingscientist). My favourite historical woman in science is Rita Levi-Montalcini, who was described beautifully by Daniel Toker on a previous spotlight here. The adversity she faced while studying neuroscience (my passion) is always really inspiring to me.
But I have also been so privileged to know a lot of women who are more than just role models – those who are champions and advocates for other women like myself. These include the chair of my department, Dr. Leah Cowen, the Dean of Science at Ryerson University, Dr. Imogen Coe, and my department’s associate chair and graduate coordinator Dr. Julie Claycomb. All 3 of these women have actively gone out of their way to support myself and other women, challenge us, send us new opportunities, and share with us their personal experiences and tips to overcome difficulties. This is how to break stereotypes and make diversity happen: focus on your own success and help others achieve it, too.
I also really look up to my peers who are awesome women in science, including Nika Shakiba, Dr. Rachel Reeve, Dr. Karen Ring, Shreya Shukla, and Jen Ma. Basically there are so many kickass women in science and I love it. If you ever feel you don’t enough role models or champions, please connect with me on social media so I can show you that there are lots of people who are so beyond passionate about supporting you and bashing any systematic injustice that tries to get in your way.
Tell us your personal story in science + research. How did your path begin and how did it lead to where you are today?
I never really wanted to do anything else besides be a scientist. When I was young I dreamt of being a chemist and winning a Nobel Prize (actually). I’d mix things from around the house together, say I invented a new perfume, and give it to my aunt for her birthday… and yes, she was nice enough to put it on in front of me (sorry!).
In retrospect, you might say I had scientist tendencies from an early age because I was always asking a million questions, but I never really noticed until in grade 8 I won the science award and my teacher told me quietly, “that’s for asking questions I couldn’t answer.” I was always just that annoying kid who kept asking, “but why? But why?”, I’d stare at bugs in the grass all day, and leave raw eggs in the sun to see what happens. I loved Bill Nye and the Magic School Bus, and read dictionaries and encylopedias for fun.
But honestly I don’t think any of this makes me special in any way. I think I was just uninhibited enough to remain curious and privileged enough to follow that curiosity through. Most kids are curious but sometimes we are quick to set limits to those curiosities, and that’s something I hope will change because the spark of learning something new is too magnificent not to share.
Anyway highschool is an interesting time for the curious mind and I couldn’t stop myself from wondering why everyone acted the way the did, why people judged others who were a bit different, and what made each person so unique even though we are more or less made of the same stuff. Sometime in grade 9, I was home one Friday night Googling stuff about the brain and came across the word “neuroscience” – I ran to my mom and was like “hey! I know what I’m gonna study when I’m older, it’s called ne-uro-science!”
And that’s what I did, first at the University of Toronto for my BSc, where I completed a Neuroscience Specialist and Cell & Molecular Biology Major. I did some research along the way, including in a psychology lab studying mindfulness-based martial arts for adolescents with ADHD and learning disabilities. I got hired to stay in that lab for a few years, and then I also started working in a lab studying neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. This was particularly important to me because my uncle has Parkinson’s disease and I was keen to learn more about it and how I could help.
After studying neurodegeneration for a year and a half, I decided to stick to my plan and apply for a PhD program since I really loved research, but decided to do it in the opposite field: instead of studying degeneration, I wanted to study regeneration. That’s what got me into stem cells, and I couldn’t be happier with this decision. I was never a top student but I have always been passionate and a hard-worker, and I think those matter more than marks or scholarships in the long run.
My research is really at the intersection of genetics, cell biology, neuroscience, and developmental biology, and since I am a part of so many diverse research communities, I never feel like an expert and am always learn new things (which I love). Since I am often thinking about cell fate and what makes a cell one type versus another, it can get very philosophical at times and is always a lot of fun to debate.
How did you start Science.Sam? What is your favorite part of communicating science?
I’ve always been passionate about making science more accessible to benefit everyone, and I felt that one important step in succeeding with that is making scientists seem more approachable. I wanted to show that we are not all condescending know-it-alls like Sheldon Cooper, and that we love discussing science and teaching where we have expertise and that it doesn’t have to be boring. I also wanted to show that we are pretty normal people who are relatable, and that there are also a ton of women in science. I was getting pretty tired of people reacting so surprised to learn that even though I wear mascara and love shopping, I am also an over-achieving nerd who plays sports. It’s actually not that rare, a lot of my friends in science are pretty similar to me, and it makes me sad that so many people love to bash women with “girly” traits and assume we can’t also be smart and good at many different things.
As a woman in science, have you faced any form of discrimination? What advice do you have for women who go through similar challenges?
I certainly face a lot of prejudice, mostly as a “girly” woman in science. There are a lot of subtle things, like people explaining things to me that I already know (and that I probably know more about than they do…), being interrupted, and noticing that when people ask a question they direct it at the males or more “nerdy” looking people in the group. At the last conference I was at, I was reading a poster during the poster session and got inspired with an idea, so, being all about the cloud-based technology, I started fervently typing it out in my phone. Then an older male comes up to me to make fun of me for being on my phone and even after I told him I was actually doing work, he continued to talk to me about his personal life anyway… which I really couldn’t have cared less about. This sounds small but it happens a lot – people constantly feel entitled to my attention even when I am visibly working, as if my work is not important enough?
My parents raised me to be very confident and assertive and always made it clear that I could be the best at whatever I wanted. I have found being assertive to be incredibly helpful so I think this attitude protects me from a lot of discrimination others may face. At the same time it also might give me a reputation of being “bossy”, “opinionated”, “intimidating” and whatever else, but I take all of those things as compliments.
While being assertive can be helpful to overcome obstacles, it is time we shift the burden of change off women and onto the systems oppressing them. Yes, assertiveness training and self-empowerment can be helpful in the short-term, but we also need to be more open-minded to what the face of a good scientist looks like so that we stop selecting for the same type of person over and over. With diversity of experience comes new ideas, and science thrives off new perspectives.
As a fellow member of the #STEMsquad, what do you like most about the sense of community its created?
I love the supportive online community I’ve found a home in, including the #STEMsquad. It started as a small private messaging group on instagram and grew so much that we had to branch out to facebook. Now the group has over 500 members who are active and discussing important and interesting things everyday. I love that we share things that inspire us or bother us and have healthy debate. Everyone in there is so intelligent and creative and I could’ve listed everyone in it as woman in STEM who inspires me.
What is one piece of advice you would give someone considering science research?
Science is all about experiments, so experiment! Try it out, see if you like it, and if you do, keep doing it. If you don’t, don’t worry: there are lots of ways to contribute to science without actually doing science. Science needs people in policy, advocacy, business, administration, law, project management, education …. Science research opens a lot of doors if you’re willing to do the work to walk through them.
Also don’t get caught up in self doubt and comparing yourself to others. Comparing yourself to others is a bad experiment because you don’t know everything else a person goes through so you don’t have all the information to make a real comparison with controls… so don’t do it! Most people (myself included) hold themselves back more than anything else does. Just decide what you want and go for it.