Women in STEM: dr. Dorotea

dr. Dorotea, scientist and artist

My 22nd guest is dr. Dorotea, an Italian medical biotechnologist, working in Vienna and a talented artist.

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

Hi! I’m Dorotea Fracchiolla, originally from Ruvo di Puglia in the Province of Bari, South Italy. I am a medical Biotechnologist by education and pursued my studies at the Cattolica University in Rome and later on at the University of Bari. I moved to Vienna (Austria) in 2013 for my Doctoral studies at the University of Vienna at the Institute of Max Perutz Labs. I graduated in 2017 with a PhD in Molecular Biology and now have just completed my first round of PostDoctoral training.

When did you start your Instagram account and your blog? How did you get the idea?

I have started my Social Networks outcoming shortly before the beginning of April 2020, when I have launched my very own website http://www.my-art-science.com. I decided to combine my scientific education and my long standing passion for Art into one package: Art&Science. I chose to found my own website to have my creative corner where curious people or scientists can come and visit me. All my social accounts are a way to reach out to colleagues all over the world, scientists as potential collaborators and introduce myself to them. Art&Science is also for people not directly involved in science but with a genuine interest in nature. I hope many people can approach science through my illustrations and that scientists find useful to look at the molecular world from somebody’s else point of view. I want to help them visualise their ideas or in other words: make their ideas visible.

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

My private life is mainly made of hobbies like drawing, crafting, walking or cooking. All things to try out alone or in good company. When I can, I come home to Italy visiting my family and meeting friends. There, I’m always up for a swim in the sea, which I miss a lot in Vienna, and a hike in our National Park Alta Murgia. During my free time, the matters and the questions related to Lab work stay in the background of my head and thoughts rearrange while doing other things. Then, all at a sudden, concrete ideas pop up and the obvious solution is there. I think it is important to shuffle between science and other things to keep both moving forward and sustain each other. 


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

I had many women colleagues over the years of education. Somehow medical research has a big attraction for the female sex, but many male colleagues were also there, of course. Why many women? I don’t know, but obviously they were attracted by understanding biology. I think this is very natural, it can happen to men and women, as the main driver of this job is curiosity. And the mankind is curious, luckily. This drove our Evolution.

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

Never, or if it ever happened I didn’t realise it. I’m usually an outspoken person: if I have a problem I’ll say it. Luckily, I have always been treated in a fair way and this happened because I always encountered great mentors on my way.

How did you become passionate about science?

My very passion are foreign languages: somehow my brain feels attracted by the foreign sound and when I hear any, I can follow for hours trying to decode what is being said. I can learn them easily and I think this made me love them at first. They give me goose bumps. When I was a teen, I learned English trying to write down the lyrics of famous songs. Rap music style was the most enlightening one: going after the rhythm, words aligned one after the other and with few msec of delay the translation would come up and the overall meaning build up. The decoding fascinates me. 
Searching the detail and putting together the big picture is also the process of science. More about science: I’ve always been a curious person and often am very alert of the world around me. I feel a bond with nature and I’m inspired by its complex simplicity. There is a person during my education that helped me develop towards a more conscious researcher approach: my Professor of Physics at High School. Her approach to formulas and problem solving was a key factor: always understand what a formula says, no need to learn it by memory. I will never forget her lesson on the Huygens principles when we started looking at waves in a water bath being produced by one and then two pins picking into it. Constructive and destructing interference built up and we were asked to describe what we saw. For the first time, I spoke out loud Huygens principals without even knowing him and about their existence. She always made me start from collecting observations to then derive general principles.Also, as a kid I spent a lot of time wondering around in my grandfather’s fields observing nature there: insects, birds, flowers, fruits hanging from trees. I liked to follow their evolution during seasons and see how they changed. My grandfather knew his plants very well and how to treat them, but he didn’t learn it on books. I liked to connect this to principles I had studied at school. Then, I liked to ask questions to him and my father and listening. Probably, this also helped me in growing my critical thinking. And over time, I discovered that this is what it takes being a scientist so, here I am.


Would you like to talk briefly about your job?

I’m a molecular biologist and a biochemist. In our Laboratory at Max Perutz Labs, we study a process called Autophagy, a term derived from the Greek words ‘auto’= self and ‘phagy’= eat. It describes the ability of the cell to eat parts of itself for survival in emergency situations, like lack of nutrients. In particular, in the last seven years I have been working on the in vitro reconstitution of some steps of this process using purified proteins and synthetic lipids. In a way, the projects I have been involved in have pretty much matched my inclination of looking at the details. Building the various parts together was like playing a construction work and getting the whole machinery going on its own was always an amazing moment! Nature is inherently perfect and our discoveries showed us exactly this! 

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

Based on my experience, I’d say try to do what inspires you, what you love. If you happen to be doing something you didn’t really plan to do before, take the best out of it and use it as a growth experience. Loving something does not make us good in it, by default. Working in scientific and technological environments requires a lot of effort and the will to study hard. Learn how your brain works and find a method that works best for you. Keep in mind that the goal is not to show others that you seem to be able to do something, but to be sure with yourself that you got it, first. This will give you confidence, will make you feel secure of your own steps and will allow you to drive discoveries.

Find Dorotea on her socials:
Facebook: Art&Science
Twitter: @DoroteaArt
Ig: my_art_and_science
LinkedIn: Dorotea Fracchiolla

COVID-19 and fake news

Last month, Nature published an article by Timothy Caulfield on the impact of fake news during this pandemic crisis.

Facebook groups are full of conspiracy theories on the origin of the virus and absurd cures for the COVID-19. Among them, we read that the virus was created in the lab, it is caused by 5G and that you can cure COVID-19 by injecting bleach (DON’T DO IT!!!).

All these fake news are causing a pandemic of (mis)information, a so-called, infodemic.

The problem is old: scientists are distant from society and scientific language is often inaccessible to the general public.

What can we do to build (or re-build) the trust in science? It is quite simple: scientists should be more involved. And social media can help a lot. Just tweet or write an Instagram post or make a TikTok video and comment the latest news on COVID-19 (climate change, vaccines or something related to your field of expertise).

Here, some advice useful for effective science communication.

1. Be accurate: if we want to build trust in science, we need to report data as they are.

2. Avoid jargon: you are not impressing your fellowship committee, you are talking to people who want to know more about science, in an accessible language.

3. Be authentic: sometimes (well, often!) results are partial, they show correlation and not causation. Don’t hide it. Explain it.

4. Be patient: take your time to go deep into the explanation if your public asks for it. Don’t engage with trolls at the same level, but try to support science with evidence and fact.

It is not always easy, but I strongly believe that scientists should be involved in science communication.

Remember:

Many small people who in many small places do many small things that can alter the face of the world.

References:

Caulfield, 2020, “Pseudoscience and COVID-19 — we’ve had enough already”, doi: 10.1038/d41586-020-01266-z

Fearon et al., 2020, “Pivotal moment for trust in science – don’t waste it”, doi: 10.1038/d41586-020-01145-7

Yammine, 2020, “Going viral: how to boost the spread of coronavirus science on social media”, doi: 10.1038/d41586-020-01356-y

Women in STEM: Juliet

The pharmacist Juliet in the lab

Ladies and gentlemen, my 21st guest is Juliet, a Nigerian doctoral student based in the U.S.

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

Hi! My name is Juliet Obi and I am a Nigerian currently living in the United States. I was born and brought up in the South Western part of Nigeria and I have a Bachelor’s degree in Pharmacy from Ghana. I got licensed to practice as a Pharmacist in Nigeria in 2015 and worked as a Pharmacist for approximately 2 years. I then moved to the United States in 2017 to study a Masters in Pharmaceutical Sciences at Albany College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, New York. I completed my Masters in 2019 and started a PhD in Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Maryland, Baltimore afterwards.


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

I started my Instagram science communication account a little over a year ago (on the 1st of January, 2019 actually!) so it’s still fairly new. It was drawing close to the beginning of a new year and as usual, people were posting so many things about new year resolutions and all the thousand and one things they hoped to do for the year 2019. I remember visiting one of my closest friends who lives in New York City sometime towards the end of 2018 and we were exchanging ideas on what we could do personally to share what we love doing to everyone. That was when the idea of opening a science communication page first came to my mind. I decided to randomly search for science pages on my personal Instagram account, and then I realized there were so many amazing accounts people like me had opened and I knew I just had to join that train! It was one of the best decisions I have made in a while as I have been able to meet, connect and network with so many people who have the same goal I have, to share the science I do with everyone and inspire anyone who wishes to pursue a career in science.


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

Honestly, balancing work and my private life is something that I am continuously learning everyday. There are times I am able to effectively manage my work-life balance, and other times, I am just winging it. Nevertheless, I have learnt over the years to try as much as possible to consciously take breaks from work/school and pay attention to my private life without feeling guilty about it. The journey to getting a PhD for example is a marathon and not a sprint, and sometimes we forget this. There is always so much work to do and you end up feeling guilty when you are not doing something school related. I have learnt to take breaks without feeling guilty because research can get very overwhelming, so that’s kinda like my own way of balancing work and private life 🙂


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

If I remember correctly, almost half of the people in my class while I was getting my Bachelor in Pharmacy were women. There was a total of six people in my cohort when I was getting my Masters in Pharmaceutical Sciences and interestingly we were all women. There are ten of us in total in my PhD class right now and six of us are women. With all these being said, I have pretty much had a good and even more representation of women in my classes throughout my education and I am grateful for that! I think that there a fairly good representation of women who enroll in STEM-related degrees although there is more room for improvement when you think about minority populations. What I have observed though is that even though more women are now enrolling in STEM-related PhD degrees, majority of women do not end up reaching the peak of their careers compared to men which means that more work needs to be done in helping more women harness all these opportunities to get to their desired level in their career goals. 


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

I have honestly not experienced any form of harassment as a scholar or woman in science (at least none comes to mind!) and I am grateful because I have heard terrible stories of women being harassed or not taken seriously as scholars or experts in their field. I know that women are constantly being harassed today, especially when they make a strong opinion about a topic in science for example (this happens on twitter a lot!). This awareness helps me prepare myself for the future and the challenges I could potentially face as a woman in science. 


How did you became passionate about science? 

I have always been passionate about science during my high school days and I chose to pursue a career in Pharmacy which is why I went ahead to get a degree in Pharmacy. My passion for research and development of drugs in particular grew in my third year of my Pharmacy degree when I attended a nano medicines workshop at a conference I happened to attend. I loved being a Pharmacist but I soon realized I was more passionate about the pharmaceutical sciences. This motivated me to start my journey in becoming a pharmaceutical scientist in the area of drug discovery.


Would you like to talk briefly about your job?

I am a few weeks away from completing the first year of my PhD in Pharmaceutical Sciences (yay!). I also just officially joined a lab where I will be completing my lab work for the rest of my PhD. The lab I joined focuses on the use of Hydrogen-Deuterium Exchange coupled to Mass Spectrometric methods (HDX-MS) to understand protein dynamics. Proteins are dynamic in nature and many proteins go through a number of conformational changes to perform their functions in the body. These conformational changes can be influenced by a number of things like drug binding, protein-protein interactions, and the location of the proteins in the cell. We can use HDX-MS to study these conformational changes in proteins of interest, and potentially understand which ones might be important for their interaction with drugs or ligands. This will potentially help in the discovery of drug targets for various diseases.  


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

Thank you so much for the opportunity! To girls out there interested in STEM, my advice is to seek for mentors who can help you realize the goal of pursuing a career in STEM. There are so many opportunities out there now to inspire and motivate girls interested in STEM (and boys too!). Also, there is a vast network of women in STEM on Twitter and Instagram who are always open to advice, help and mentor younger people interested in STEM so take advantage of that and network!. Lastly, GRIT is my key word. You will need a lot of this as you pursue a career in STEM and with persistence, you’ll eventually get there. I am not where I want to be for sure, but with grit and persistence, I am for sure not where I was yesterday and you too can get to where I am and do even much more. 

Follow Juliet on her social media platforms:

Twitter: @yinye92

LinkedIn: Juliet Obi

The happiness of the lab!

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