September

A year ago today, I was in the middle of the first week of employment at that unnamed large Canadian engineering, procurement, construction and management (EPCM) firm that I keep talking about. I was working at a small chemical distributor outside of Toronto before that. The people there were nice, but the most salient aspect of my memory from there was how the commute made me progressively and physically angry as we entered into the mass stretches of office parks and suburbia. 

I had sworn that life would never be for me. Every time I thought about the prospect of buying property in the suburbs and raising family there – it ate away at the core of my soul. I was confused about why it was such an exciting mark of adulthood for the majority of people – even people I admired in other ways.

Don’t get me wrong, though I am very critical of the normative expectations regarding monogamy and marriage and the proper way for folks to ‘nest’ as well as the continued and unsustainable urban sprawl through suburbia, I do not see anything wrong with individuals choosing any one of those things for themselves. I, too, essentially desire some sort of continued stability as such, but I hate the way adult life has been constructed for educated urban individuals to follow. 

This September, I am returning to the University of Toronto for a cornucopia of courses which fall in the intersections of gender, geography and technology. Though I am fairly certain I will not be changing the specific courses, further commentary on each will be discussed as I take them.

I am hoping this drastic change in the course of my life since last year will propel me far out of the proverbial suburbia and its associated mindset that I am so obviously dreading. I am nervous beyond what can be elucidated from this post regarding other issues related to financing and future academic plans, but my gut as of now, thinks this has been a good decision. 

Researcher Q&A: Dr. Avisek Chatterjee, Postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Chemistry at University of Toronto

Avisek Chatterjee

Dr. Avisek Chatterjee is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Toronto, working under the supervision of Nobel laureate Prof. John Polanyi. He has a PhD in Chemistry from University of Waterloo and a BSc and MSc in Chemistry from Visva-Bharati University in India.

Tell me a little bit about your research.

The focus of our research group has been to study the dynamics of chemical reactions by various methods; currently we are using mostly Scanning Tunneling Microscopy (STM) to study the reactions of single molecules. I concentrate on investigating reaction dynamics of single organic molecules on metal (copper) surfaces at liquid helium temperatures (~ −268 °C). The goal of operating at such low temperatures is to freeze all the other modes of energy (thermal) available to the molecule and to concentrate only on excitation energies supplied to the molecule by the STM tip.

What exactly is Scanning Tunneling Microscopy (STM)?

STM makes use of the concept of quantum tunneling. Quantum tunneling is the phenomenon that occurs when a particle moves beyond a classically forbidden energy state – think of it as rolling a ball up a hill. Similarly, when the conducting tip (which has an atomically sharp apex; ideally with one single atom at its end) of the microscope is brought close up to a surface, a voltage difference between the two creates an electron transfer in the vacuum formed between them. This is called a tunneling current. The conducting tip scans across the surface of your sample, and the dynamics of this tunneling current gives you information about the surface, creating the microscopic image.

How did you get interested in this area of research?

I was studying STM of organic molecules on silicon surfaces for my PhD and so I was familiar with Prof. Polanyi’s recent research. I have always loved chemical reaction kinetics and mechanisms since my undergrad days, and I was immediately hooked. After my PhD at Waterloo, I was pretty fortunate to get an opportunity to work with this high-profile research group.

What is a typical day like for you?

To me every day is different. We do different things like organizing various experiments, discussions, and writing scientific papers.  We have sub-groups within our research group that focus on different projects going on simultaneously using a variety of instruments and techniques. We also have theoreticians who help us understand our experimental results. For our sub-group, once the experiments start, they usually run for 24 hours for at least two weeks. So in a typical day, if I am conducting experiments, I am in the basement of Lash Miller Chemical labs. Otherwise, I am doing analysis of our experimental results or discussing them with our theoreticians and also with Prof. Polanyi.

What are your favourite aspects of your daily routine/research? What are your least favourite aspects?

I like everything I do in the lab: conducting experiments, discussing results and meetings with Prof. Polanyi. If I have to pick any particular aspect, I would say that the meetings with Prof. Polanyi are quite interesting and delightful. He has an amazing personality; his vast knowledge in chemistry, economics, politics and so many other fields makes him an ideal person to have conversation with.

What are some challenges you see in your own field (academically, economically, culturally, or in terms of bureaucracy) personally and as part of a research community? How do you think they are best addressed?

I came to know that in Canada the future of fundamental science is not very promising. The Canadian government is continuously cutting budgets and making it increasingly difficult for the researchers to procure funds. Focusing only on industry-oriented research won’t help the frontier of science to move forward and without advancement in fundamental science, technology will not move forward either.

What would be your advice be to those interested in pursuing your field of research? What do you still not know that you wish you did? Is there a particular technique or discovery that would greatly accelerate research in your field, something we can’t do today?

These days, scientific instruments are becoming increasingly more complex with the addition so many different technologies. To thrive in the world of Scanning Tunneling Microscopy, one needs a sound understanding of chemistry, physics, electronics and vacuum techniques.  To those who want to pursue a career in nanoscience and technology, I would suggest acquiring a good knowledge base in the aforementioned areas. I wish I knew more electronics!

Scanning Tunneling Microscopy helps to obtain images of single atoms or molecules! This is the lowest resolution one can achieve today and has unprecedented advantages when compared to electron microscopes. The only problem is that this technique does not give us chemical information about a given molecule – all we can see is its electron density. If we are able to integrate other chemical specific techniques, such as infrared spectroscopy, X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy, etc. with STM, it would become an unparalleled technique for studying and manipulating individual molecules and atoms.

What are your interests outside of research? How do you de-stress and how does it compliment your work?

I like to play sports like soccer, cricket and squash regularly. Soccer is my favourite sport and I believe that without playing soccer I wouldn’t be able to function normally in daily life. It keeps me motivated and focused, and helps me to have clear perspective on things.

Sex educators need to be better science communicators

I have been thinking about the role of effective communication of scientific concepts in the context of providing various kinds of health services. Doctors and nurses have an important responsibility in communicating issues about the status of health to patients in a way that is coherent to the specific niche of patients. This type of communication directly impacts the patient’s understanding and agency over his or her health issues. It could be even be argued that for this exchange to be effective from a health promotion viewpoint, it hinges on some basic science communication skills on the part of the health professionals, that is catered specifically to the needs of the patient.

While doctors and nurses do receive a variety of formal training enabling effective discussion of health-related scientific concepts to patients, there are other professionals in society at large, who may or may not have any formal training in such duties, but whose advice and communication skills also play a crucial role in the wellbeing of large populations, and their individual understandings thereof.

Such a group of professionals are sex educators. Often times, sex educators include persons trained as social workers, nurses, teachers but the ones arguably with national and international influences as individuals, such as Dan Savage and Sandra Daugherty, have no background in the sciences, let alone science communication.

Given the subject matter, and the wide audiences each address, this is not inherently a problem. Indeed, the realm of sexuality and gender is such that scientific opinions alone, divorced from social context, are not something that the average citizen may care about. As sex educators, both Savage and Daugherty have made great strides to destigmatize the cornucopia of practices undertaken by persons of all backgrounds, and have empowered them in making compassionate choices that cater to their unique situations. The world surely can use similarly likeminded folk, who can use humour and empathy and speak to mass audiences about topics that are still largely taboo and private, or otherwise contentious.

Because the likes of Savage and Daugherty enjoy mass popularity, they also have a responsibility to properly address the scientific concepts they gloss over to explain one point or another in their podcasts or columns. No one expects a firm grasp of scientific experimental design or statistics from an average citizen, and thus, when communicating scientific findings, especially when it can potentially deal with the sexual paradigms of many, sex educators need to use caution and resist making sweeping generalizations, using questionable aspects of scientific evidence, that only progress to reaffirm what their own ideologies.

Both Daugherty and Savage, and especially the latter, have used their flawed understanding of science, at times, to illuminate their audiences on cumbersome issues within sexuality.

A topic that has long been debated is the existence of bisexuality, in particular, the issue of male bisexuality. To illustrate the anomalous nature of male bisexuality, and the apparent abundance of female bisexuality, Savage has routinely used the example of study conducted at Northwestern University in 2005 that indicated male bisexuality is something of a unicorn, despite the fact that the study itself received much criticism for its dubious data interpretation method. The uncertainties within the study are never mentioned in context of the point that Savage aims to deliver, which is thus, remains unknown to the general public. By 2012, the theory of male bisexuality essentially being a hoax was subverted using completely new research methodology that used dilated pupils as more reliable indicators for arousal. Somehow, the myth of the unicorn male bisexual, or the bisexual in general, continues to persist, owing no less to the bisexual erasure with apparent scientific evidence committed by Savage and other sex educators who misinterpreted the study.

Similarly, there is the case of the ridiculously popular book for non-monogamy enthusiasts, Sex at Dawn: The prehistoric origins of modern sexuality, by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá. Sex at Dawn uses an appallingly flawed interpretation of evolutionary biology to assert that monogamy is inherently unnatural and less evolved than any other non-monogamous alternative. While it has been quite successful indeed to further the awareness of the notion that monogamy should not be the default and paramount way to conduct relationships, its shoddy understanding of evolutionary biology leaves much to be desired. (It was, in fact, addressed in a book known as Sex at Dusk more recently). Human beings can fall anywhere in the spectrum between commitment to total monogamy to any form of multiple partnerships, but privileging one style of relationships over another, and using flawed views on evolutionary theory to do so, is not the way good scientific reporting works.

The nuances and intricacies scientific approaches to sexuality and gender research are often hard to pin down by lay people far removed from the ivory tower methodologies and statistics associated. However, when beliefs held strongly by the masses are supported (or not) by even a speck of real scientific research, it often has salient repercussions on confidence in individual paradigms, and even more so, if it concerns the mental and physical health of many. Since matters of sexuality continue to be such delicate topics, it should follow that sex educators, and researchers alike, have a greater responsibility for outreach and communication, in order to dispel existing myths that continue to cause harm in insidious ways. A forum that discusses sexuality and gender openly is further encouraged, but ensuring scientific evidence is presented accurately and with accountability should also be paramount.

 

Special thanks to Angela Chen and Kameron Hanson for helping me proofread and edit this piece. 

Researcher Q&A: Stephanie MacAllister, Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences, University of Toronto

Stephanie MacAllister is a PhD student in the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Toronto. Her main specialty is toxicology and she works under the supervision of Dr. Peter J. O’Brien. She researches xenobiotics that cause liver toxicity in humans on a molecular level. She focuses on oxidative stress and studies rat liver cells. Her lab utilizes a screening technique that could be possibly used to accelerate the pre-clinical process in pharmaceutical and environmental regulatory environmental agencies that can identify methods by which specific compounds cause toxicity.

How did you get interested in this area of research?

In all honesty, I kind of just fell into it. In high school, I really enjoyed chemistry, and I actually didn’t want to do any animal work whatsoever. I did my undergraduate studies at Brock University majoring in biochemistry. I was working in an organic chemistry lab during my undergrad and I also did my undergrad thesis project in a microbiology lab. I wanted to do something that was a little more applicable and that’s when I came across pharmaceutical sciences at UofT. So I started looking up professors and their research online and Dr. O’Brien’s seemed very appealing to me.

What is a typical day like for you?

There is no typical day. For instance, when we do our specific hepatocyte work, we are involved in making buffers or performing surgery on the rat to remove the liver and extract the hepatocytes. That can take between 3 to 6 hours. Other days, we are doing literature research or analyzing data. I also work with a lot of undergraduate students, helping them develop and supervising their research projects throughout the year.

What are your favourite aspects of your daily routine/research? What are your least favourite aspects?

I socialize a lot with not just the individuals in my lab but also my colleagues that are in neighboring labs through which I get to learn about their research; this can be really fun. I enjoy researching different drugs and the various ways by which they can affect people. So the lab work itself that I do as well as the socializing and communicating with colleagues is my favourite aspect. The way that my schedule is set up allows me to broaden my academic horizons as such. As an extrovert, these are also things that are innately appealing to me.

In our research, we use a small set of specific techniques and assays when we do our experiments, so sometimes I feel less challenged in that realm. I am the type of person who likes to have a constant stream of new technical challenges to learn and grow from, but since we are using the same techniques over and over again, there is little room for growth in that regard. However, I still have so many outlets for developing and nurturing leadership, communication and teamwork skills, so there are plenty of challenges and excitement in that.

What are some challenges you see in your own field (academically, economically, culturally, or in terms of bureaucracy) personally and as part of a research community? How do you think they are best addressed?

I think that a lot of people going into research (and this is where I was at first to begin with) think that the research is going to get them everywhere, and that’s unfortunately not the case. A lot of people want to go into the pharmaceutical industry and there aren’t a lot of basic science jobs in the Canadian pharmaceutical world. You hear about all these job losses due to outsourcing to India and China. There are other jobs that are opening up in medical affairs and clinical research. However, when you’re doing basic science for your PhD, you don’t get some of those necessary skills. When employers look at a PhD student they think of the typical “lab rat” who is not able to communicate or do anything outside of pipetting. I think it’s extremely important to be able to communicate not only your research on a personal level with individuals, but also to develop those soft skills employers may be looking for, for example managing multiple projects, and having superior organizational skills.

There are some departments that focus primarily on research while others are concerned more with employability and it can be very difficult to strike a balance. However, I think my department is on the right track towards finding that balance.  Nonetheless, it still appears that not a lot of people know about the specific dynamics of the industry. There are upper-year PhD students that have no grasp of how the industry they would like to be employed by actually works. Canada remains a very small part of the pharmaceutical industry and if that’s the route one wants to pursue, you have to have the diverse skillset for it.

What would be your advice to those interested in pursuing your field of research? What do you still not know that you wish you did? Is there a particular technique or discovery that would greatly accelerate research in your field, something we can’t do today? 

If you want to do graduate research, my biggest piece of advice is to get as much laboratory experience as possible. When I came out my undergrad, I had good grades, but there were others with much better grades than me, but my professor took me because of my previous lab experience. It also gave me the opportunity to get to know professors on a personal level. I realize it’s somewhat more difficult in a larger university, but any such opportunity is worthwhile, even better if it is something you are passionate about, so you have the added motivation to go in every day.

As a researcher, it can become very easy to be consumed by work, and not be able to explore other things, and it is extremely hard to get other experiences that make you more employable. I wish I had done it throughout graduate school, but even volunteering and being involved in student organizations help.

There are some limitations that one comes across when you do your research, and my perspective on the way graduate research works is that, basically, you follow the money. So sometimes it can be quite a challenge to convince your superiors or funding sources to do extra research. It can be hard to align your interests with funding sources.

What are your interests outside of research? How do you de-stress and how does it compliment your work? 

I love cycling so I take my bike all the time to work. I have established a very good group of friends in the department that I can spend time with and vent about research frustrations. I was also involved in Pharmaceutical Sciences Graduate Students Association and the Graduate Management Consulting Association.

#twittersilence and Science Communications

Today, there is a movement transpiring on Twitter in which women boycott the social media platform for a day in order to protest the tolerance of an online world replete with misogynistic trolls. Further background on movement can be found here.

The notion of being silent, in order to protest abuse, on a gut level is simply appalling to me. On the other hand, as a non-native born woman of colour without much economic privilege who has been subjected to misogynistic and racist attacks both in online communities and real life, to the point at which it becomes, well, normalized and to an extent, expected, I see the merits in the motivation to simply leave spaces where one feels disrespected. As a self-preservation mechanism, I think it can be an effective coping tool for individuals. However, on a  larger scale, the misogynists, the racists and the general troll community, if it can be referred to as such, only end up being given exactly what they seek by being able to so easily and strategically silence and marginalize anyone who counters their claims or brings attention the nature of their abuse. Therefore, as a political strategy to further goals of gender equality in online spaces, I believe that #twittersilence is grossly misguided.

As an aspiring contributor to the science communications community in Canada, I had doubts regarding whether, publicly identifying as a feminist, on a medium such as Twitter, alienates conversation on a variety of issues facing the scientific community at large. My experiences have shown, although women and trans-identified people in STEM fields take issues of discrimination, sexual harassment and representation seriously, many have reservations about the feminist label, or at least identifying with it publicly. This is also not something anyone should be faulted for, since identifying as feminist is a privilege too, and we never fully can understand the complexity of individual situations in which despite believing in social, economical and political equality of all genders, one cannot simply identify as being a supporter of feminism in the public sphere.  Some men (and women) even respond the label with blatant negativity. However, the climate around words like ‘feminism’ that provoke knee-jerk responses all around can be a starting point for conversations about discrimination against women and sexual minorities within STEM fields. Furthermore, it would indeed be foolish think gender and social politics do not affect science and associated policy, especially given the context of the Canadian war on science, and when imminent problems such as climate change have been shown to be a feminist issue with significant public health impact, in addition to new research linking increasing temperatures to a rise in violence. Since science and science communicators themselves have already concerned themselves with social and political aspects of STEM activities, further engagement with the culture at large and social movements such as feminism should also be considered worthwhile.

Back to the theory behind #twittersilence – as I mentioned, using silence as a mechanism to further one’s standing in a place in this case is rather counterproductive. In 2011, some of my fellow female engineering students and I were invited on a panel on CBC’s The National with Wendy Mesley (see ‘Extended Interview’), to talk about the state of women in engineering in commemoration of the 22nd anniversary of the École Polytechnique Massacre. We had a lot to say, and were not at all accustomed to being on a panel on national television. Some of us discussed after the interview, how we made these awkward attempts to self-censor some of the things we said, since we didn’t want to be perceived as some brand of the straw killjoy feminist. This is the same fear that predicates silencing of women in many professional and STEM fields, despite the fact that they individually do realize that the environment around them is far for ideal, but somehow need to maintain composure in order not to be viewed negatively by peers. This urge to self-censor and sanitize stories of discrimination and abuse are taking place in the same kinds of culture in which, ‘the most enlightened man in the world’, Colin McGinn, has the audacity believe he can philosophize his way out of sexually harassing a graduate student and former Harvard president Larry Summers poorly interprets science to justify sexism within STEM fields. The latter, at least, is an issue directly in the heart of science communications! As such, we cannot afford to be complacent.

The kind of attitude that perpetuates the safety in places for women, or anyone undergoing abuse to speak out is something that should be fostered early on in the burgeoning Canadian science communications community. We need to have an inclusive climate in which people’s interest in social and environmental justice don’t cause them to be marginalized from the community and further silenced, since the government and sometimes, institutions can be well-depended upon to do that themselves.

With this in mind, I think I’ll go ahead and put ‘Feminist’, as part of my Twitter bio.