Women in STEM: dr. Tahira

dr. Tahira and her amazing hair

My 31st guest is dr. Tahira, an Italian-Pakistani biochemist, who had courage to speak up for herself!

Hi @Dr_Tahira_Anwar! First of all would you like to tell us something about you?

My name is Tahira and I was born in Rome (Italy) from Pakistani parents. My parents moved to Rome in 1978 and both me and my brother were born there. I obtained my Master of Science in Biological Sciences from Sapienza University in Rome. While working as an intern for my Master thesis in a research laboratory, I took the decision to pursue a PhD abroad. I moved to Finland and joined the University of Helsinki where, after 10 long years, I obtained a PhD in Biochemistry.

When did you start your Twitter account? How did you get the idea?

I joined Twitter in March 2020. My PhD journey was very difficult and challenging. I struggled a lot with anxiety, burnouts, panic attacks and depressive episodes. Moreover, during my last year at the University of Helsinki, I went through some wrongdoings in campus due to a PI who used me for personal benefits, damaging my work and health. I got interested in mental health and academia wrongdoings and I wanted to connect with people working on these subjects. My goal is to be more active, share my experiences and create awareness on topics that are largely connected to life in academia.

Can you tell us something about how you balance work and private life? 

I learned the hard way that keeping a healthy work-life balance is very important. When I moved to Finland, I used to work every day, weekends included. I didn’t know anyone and immersing myself into work was the only way to escape isolation. After I burned out due to high level of stress and anxiety, I started taking care of myself and my well-being. No work on weekends (except if extremely necessary), regular exercise, healthy eating, time with friends and hobbies.

During your academic studies how many women were in course? Why in your opinion?

Most of the students during my bachelor´s and master´s degrees were women. During my PhD the difference was less striking though women still were outnumbering men. Several studies have shown that women face structural biases and barriers in their STEM careers such as gender disparity in getting hired, published, funded and reaching senior positions (“How the entire scientific community can confront gender bias in the workplace”, Kathleen E. Grogan, Nature Ecology & Evolution 2019). Unfortunately, there is not enough support for women and minorities inclusion in academic environments.

Have you ever felt harassed or being kept apart as a scholar because you are a woman?

During my PhD at the University of Helsinki, I went through some wrongdoings where a PI in my research programme promised me a job and used me for personal benefit, damaging my work and health. I have also been a victim of sexist and racist microaggressions during my PhD in Finland. But remember, always speak up girls!

How did you become passionate about science? 

As a kid, I always wanted to become a doctor but never had the courage to try the entry test (thank you, impostor syndrome and anxiety!). In high school, I found science a very fascinating subject and I was very much into science-related movies, documentaries and exhibitions. So, here I am today, with a master’s degree in biology and a PhD in Biochemistry.

dr. Tahira in the lab

Would you like to talk briefly about your job?

I worked as a PhD researcher at the University of Helsinki and I was studying Autophagy, a process by which cells eat themselves. Autophagy is important in many physiological processes and its defects are involved in many diseases such as cancer, infectious diseases, cardiomyopathies, neurodegenerative and muscular diseases. Autophagy is highly induced during starvation allowing cells to get back nutrients by degrading the cellular cargo. I performed in vitro studies to address autophagosome biogenesis and it´s regulation during starvation. During my PhD, I also did volunteer jobs in campus, taught in courses and supervised students.

Thank you so much for your time. Lastly, can you give any advice to girls interested in STEM?

First of all, thank you for giving me the opportunity to talk about me in your platform! Whatever your dream is, any career you want to pursue, any field you want to join, just go ahead towards your goal! There is not a thing you can´t do, there is not a job that is only for boys or girls. Try things, see what you like or not, move from one subject to another, from one career to another, science does allow that! Don´t get discouraged when things don´t work, don´t be ashamed to ask for help, look for resources and connect with people that can help you walk the wonderful STEM world.

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