Lately, life’s been a lot of ups and downs – and the other day I was feeling really down. So I reached out to one of my new translator friends, Nefeli (she’s been translating some of my coronavirus posts into Greek) on Twitter and ended up having a great chat. It was so helpful that I asked her if I could do a Q & A with her so I could share some of her words of wisdom with you all too. And she agreed! I figured it was only fair if I let her ask me some things too, so here it is – a back and forth between 2 grad students forming a friendship while socially isolating continents apart. We talk everything from the amino acid lysine to our favorite lab equipment to LEGOs. Hope you enjoy!
B to N: I’ll start with an easy question: What’s your name?
N: My name is Nefeli Boni-Kazantzidou- fun fact: Nefeli is the Greek for the mythological deity “Nebula”, and means cloud!
B: That’s awesome!! My name doesn’t really have a cool story – although I’ve switched to almost exclusively using “Bri” instead of “Brianna” since starting grad school – I’ve always gone by Bri and preferred it (plus it avoids the whole Brianna like banana or Bri-awn-a? question. As well as “how many Ns?”). I figured since no one knew me on this side of the country I’d just go by Bri from the start! Of course, now some people know me better as the bumbling biochemist… But let’s get back to you!
B to N: Where are you from and where are you now?
N: I was born in Athens, Greece, grew up in Rhodes- after 7 years of studying/working in Athens I came to Liverpool, UK, for my PhD.
B: On the topic of “where are you now,” we each had questions about how the other was handling the Covid-19-imposed shut-in.
N to B: What do you do at home to help you relax in these distancing times?
B to N: What’s the first thing you want to do after lockdown ends?
N: I’d love to be able to go home and hug my parents-failing that, going for a walk in one of the fabulous parks around here that I can’t reach responsibly now. Visiting a bookstore. Going out to eat.
B to N: Do you have any pets? If not, do you wish you did and what kind?
N: We have cats, all the way back home in Rhodes, and I miss them terribly.
B: One of my life goals is to have a dog again…
B to N: What do you miss most about work?
N: Seeing my friends and co-workers in person! And putting tiny volumes of liquids in tiny tubes and sticking them in the mass spectrometer.
B to N: Speaking of which, what do you research?
N: My work focuses (or will focus) on applying mass spectrometry-based proteomics techniques to the study of cancer resistance to clinical kinase inhibitors. Which basically includes working on cancer biochemistry, cell based models, mass spec proteomics techniques and a lot of data analysis to study what happens to proteins when a treatment stops working and cancer cells become resistant and survive anyway. In very simple terms, treating cancer cells with a drug and then breaking them apart and seeing what sorts of things are happening to their proteins while they’re responding (or not responding) to it! Hopefully we’ll help to shed some light on the mechanisms going on and maybe find something that could be used to improve our cancer-fighting approach.
B to N: Awesome! What do you most love about your work?
N: The fact that it gives you space to learn new things all the time, cultivate and build new skills in all sorts of fields, from writing to data analysis to experiments- and it also allows you to personalize your journey and bring in your creativity to your project in any way you want. The fact that you become part of an international community, and that science knows no borders! (Even, and especially, in times like these). Solving an experimental puzzle and getting a good result can be really satisfying- and I do get a buzz out of putting tiny volumes of proteins in tiny tubes and asking them things, even though getting answers out of them can be really tricky!
As for my work, specifically- I love how it’s at the intersection of analytical chemistry and cancer biochemistry, and my studentship from North West Cancer Research allows me to work on this issue that I feel connected to, on a human level, while being able to learn and use such an amazing technique! (Come to the dark side of mass spectrometry, we have cookies).
B: She then threw the question back to me, but you can tell Nefeli is the one asking the question here cuz she put that “u” in favorite
N to B: What is your favourite thing about your work?
B: My favorite thing about my work is getting to find answers to questions I have. There’s that saying “Curiosity killed the cat. Satisfaction brought it back.” For me it’s more like “if curiosity killed the cat, chemistry brought it back!” I really love playing with molecules and trying to interpret what they’re “saying”
B to N: What do you least love about your work?
N: What can give you amazing highs can also give you amazing lows- the day-to-day of a PhD is mostly self-directed work, often with unsatisfying experimental results, and it can be easy for anxiety and imposter syndrome to thrive. You don’t really know exactly what you’re doing, nobody does- that’s why you’re researching your specific question, and the point is to learn the best way to answer it. But it can be hard navigating that. Having good supervision that suits your needs can really help you, as does a good support network – and it feels I’ve been very lucky in my choice of supervisors (I mean, they also chose me) and especially of a supportive environment with amazing fellow PhD students, post-docs and co-workers in the labs (shoutout to @c4pr_liv). Also I personally don’t miss the worry that comes (for me) with having to execute a new experimental technique for the first time or start a big, important experiment- it can be daunting, but you have to push through it.
N to B: What is your least favourite thing about your work?
B: The cold room! (it’s basically a giant walk-in refrigerator where we do temperature-sensitive work in, like protein purification).
Though, in these times I’d happily work in a cold room over a bedroom! Which I guess leads to a pretty obvious answer to Nefeli’s next question…
N to B: If you had to choose- bench or computer?
N to B: What’s your favourite piece of lab equipment and why?
B: The AKTA! Because it lets me avoid my nemesis, the cold room! (The AKTA is a protein purification helper machine that uses pumps to push liquid through “chromatography columns” filled with little beads (resin) that interact with the proteins you’re purifying to help you separate them. We can do something similar relying on gravity flow instead of pumps, but we have to do that in the cold room and it’s slow…. drip…. drip…. drip….)
B to N: If you have one, what is your favorite amino acid (protein letter) and why?
N: I’m a horrible excuse for a proteomics scientist-in training, I don’t think I have one! Lysines are cool, though.
B: Lysines are pretty cool! Especially how they can form Schiff bases – but I’m a Histidine gal myself!
Sorry for geeking out on you all for a min – if you want to learn more about what we’re talking about: http://bit.ly/aminoacidalphabet
B to N: If you have one, what is your favorite molecule and why?
N: I don’t have a favourite molecule, but we did an undergraduate group project in first semester inorganic chemistry where my group had to present about the transition elements of the periodic table- I had become obsessed with iron and the role of iron complexes in biology and pestered my friends about it. Lately, I’ve spent quite some time thinking about the Epidermal Growth Factor Receptor, it’s a pretty cool protein!
N to B: What’s your favourite thing about science in general?
B: I love that everyone can find something that interests them and everyone gets interested in different things so I don’t have to feel guilty for stealing all the super cool stuff because some people find what I do boring (I know, right?!), but find what I find boring super cool. So the work that needs to gets done gets done.
B to N: Let’s talk about how we “met” – How did you become involved in the post translating project and what motivates you to do it?
N: I came across your fantastic posts on twitter, and it was this one tiny thing I could do to help at a time where it felt like everything was going out of control- it was the least I could do. And if it helps educators teach their students and more of the general public understand things- that’s all science communication can hope for, and it always has been important to me. Language can really be a barrier for people- we take our knowledge of scientitic English for granted, but we can use it to bring things to others.
B: thank you so much! I can only do it thanks to volunteers like you!
N to B: How did you start your bumbling project, and what advice would you give to someone who wants to get involved with science communication?
B: It started in the summer after I graduated from college, before starting grad school. I was mentoring a summer student in the lab and had some down time. I was loving being able to help teach her, so I started trying to teach my friends and family – but they were a bit of a tougher audience… so I decided to make thing more fun – I stuck on a lab coat cape, posted a few things on Facebook and Instagram, and things kinda just took off. People are often asking me for scicomm advice, but honestly things really just fell into place for me, so I don’t have any sort of “how to” guide. But one piece of advice I do have have is let your personality come through. Scientists are people first and foremost, and it’s easier to get people to understand you if you’re being authentic.
N to B: How do you pick the topics you post about?
B: That really depends… on several things… Back in the good ole days when I was actually working in lab, I would often post on some of the biochemistry techniques I used that day (like different forms of protein chromatography or molecular cloning). Since I was working in the lab all day, I’d try to mix, match, and modify pieces of old posts (especially graphics) to save time. Sometimes one post leads logically into a follow-up posts, other times my post order is pretty random. And honestly, that’s one of the greatest things about running your own blog – you can write about what you want, when you want!
I’ve always tried to occasionally cover cool new science findings I hear about – like new treatments for diseases – as well as the science behind everyday things that had peaked my interest and sent me digging for info (like why my hair was getting super frizzy on humid days).
Lately, I’ve been trying to do a lot more coronavirus-related content. I come from a non-scientifically-trained family and, as the outbreak grew, I become sort of the “coronavirus whisperer” for them – they were frequently coming to me with questions, so I began thinking a lot about how I can best use my scientific training to help them (and others) understand what’s going on (with the caveat that there’s still a lot no one knows!)
N to B: What process do you usually follow to write a new post?
B: When I’m writing a completely new post, I typically try to spread out the post-making over several days, depending on how much background research I need to do. For example, it’s a lot easier for me to do posts on protein purification because I do (or at least I did) that all the time. But with the coronavirus posts, I’ve had to do a lot more research because, while a lot of the concepts are familiar to me (like the RT-PCR technique used in traditional diagnostic techniques) some of the other concepts are new to me as well. I usually write a draft in pieces while I’m reading and/or whenever they come to me, and then I piece the pieces together into a post! I try to do most of the heavy work on the weekends so that I can devote myself to my grad student work during the week (although waking up at 4am gives me some post-working time on weekdays as well).
N to B: What inspires you to keep going with it?
B: The positive feedback I get from people telling me things like how my post helped them understand a concept, pass a class, or even just made them smile. Sometimes I have rough times where I wonder if it’s worth it. But then I just think about all those people – and it pushes me on. An education is a tremendous privilege and I feel it’s only fair to try to do my part to give back and help people see the miraculous molecular dances underlying everything – it’s way too cool not to share! And, although the biochemical world takes place at such a tiny scale, there’s room for us all to explore!
B to N: Why do you use social media and how do you find it useful as a scientist?
N: Meeting fantastic people! (Like you!). Keeping up with goings on from labs that do work that interests me, learning about new publications and workshops and other opportunities… And getting a chance to be part of projects like this one! Also, seeing other grad students navigating the same journey and seeing how we’re all going through similar things and how they’re dealing with them can also be very useful and comforting.
B to N: Speaking of other students, what advice do you have to fellow grad students?
N: Being one, I don’t feel like I’m qualified to give advice to my fellow grad students, but…know that you’re not alone. Reach out for each other and have each other’s backs. Share the things you learn and the tricks that help you. We can be each other’s best support network. Also, it’s okay if you can’t be “productive” right now. Some of us are lucky to have enough resources and energy and space to maybe keep learning things- and it can be helpful, but it shouldn’t be demanded- the world is on fire and your wellbeing is the most important thing. Take it one day at a time.
B: As a fellow graduate student who has benefited tremendously from your advice, I unofficially qualify you for advice-giving!
B to N: How about advice for high schoolers & undergraduate students?
N: Things that feel like they have big importance now (or, well, not now now, but in normal non pandemic times), like grades- they won’t really matter, in the future-you will forget them. They will only matter for a very brief time and only in so far as they help you get through the door for an opportunity you want to pursue- but they shouldn’t keep you from enjoying your learning and do other things that you enjoy and make you grow as a person! Also, I know people telling you not to be anxious doesn’t work- it didn’t for me- but I’m going to say it anyway- you will be good enough for the thing you want to do, whatever it takes to get there. Speaking of which- give yourself time to discover what you like (in science, or otherwise). We don’t all like the same things, and there are so many paths out there! So many ways you can contribute to science, so many techniques you can use- if you try something and it’s not working, it’s okay, don’t get disappointed! Don’t be afraid to wait for something that fits or start again if you didn’t find it- staying in something just because you started it and being miserable can be really bad and sometimes you can’t change it- but it’s important to trust your instincts. A supervisor can make or break your experience and your mental health and your success-finding someone you can work well with is more important than the technique or even the field you choose, and the same applies to them.
Science (or your field of choice) needs you! I was told by a well meaning maths teacher in high-school that it might have been better if I had gone into the humanities- I would have gotten a better grade there ( a bit of “your brain is not as suited to science as some” might have unconsciously snuck in there) and that I could have gotten into a more “prestigious” department than Chemistry, that way, like law school. And I love the humanities, but I will never regret my choice for a second, because it’s what made my heart sing. On that note- science and humanities and arts are not in competition- they’re all awesome and fit together and you can love them all!
Having also been told as an undergrad that maybe research wasn’t for me (by good, well meaning supervisors) because of my lab-related anxiety and because I hadn’t yet found the things that most inspired me and suited me- you don’t have to get it right on the first try, the thing (field, method, approach) that will feel right for you will be somewhere out there, and mental health should be supported, not considered a disqualification.
N to B: Do you have any advice for high-school students and undergrads looking for their next steps?
B: Don’t feel like you have to lock down what you want to study right now – there’s so much out there to learn that you don’t even know you don’t know about! So keep an open mind – speaking of which, since you’re likely now stuck in at home, it’s a great time to read about various science topics. Try not to lose your momentum – there are a lot of great online resources like Kahn academy, which has some great (and free) online videos and tutorials. And try not to let grade anxiety keep you from ENJOYING learning! An education is a tremendous privilege – it’s important to have fun and enjoy yourself, but you should see school as an opportunity, not a burden.
N to B: Have you given any thought to your post-PhD adventures?
B: I would LOVE to teach at a small liberal arts college. I went to one (St. Mary’s College of California) and I had such an amazing experience. Class sizes were small & the professors worked hands-on in the lab with the students and that’s the sort of teaching experience I hope to be able to provide.
N to B: Best advice you’ve ever been given about your PhD?
B: Find a lab that’s a good fit and a healthy, happy, working environment – I am so fortunate to be in the lab I’m in and have a fantastic mentor (Dr. Leemor Joshua-Tor).
B to N: Advice for the general public?
Scientists are a subsection of the public- we are not perfect, we make mistakes, we can be bad at communicating outside of our field, or chase after recognition. Like every other profession, scientists represent the worst and the very best of humanity. But we have, collectively, put so much effort into building on thousands of years of human knowledge, and bringing forward the things that keep standing up to scrutiny- things that are not true are always, eventually, discovered. We’re not all lying to you, we’re not hiding the cures for anything- trust us. When we don’t explain something well enough, ask us to explain better. Also- I know black and white, truth or lie, can be very comforting-there’s science to prove it! But in science, sometimes the best answer we have is “I don’t know yet”. “I can’t be 100% sure”. “I can’t guarantee 100% that this will or won’t happen”. So we have to be careful and make recommendations based on past experience and established facts even though we don’t have the entire picture, sometimes. But we are not making things up-try and trust us. Our lives, right now, depend on it.
B to N: Final thoughts time – Anything else you want to say to people?
N: We will come out the other side of this! And I hope that, in a world that will have to adapt, in a painful situation- that we will manage to reassess some priorities and see how much we need science and art and people who do all these jobs that are keeping the world running right now. Staying healthy, taking care of your loved ones and going through every day right now is the most important thing.
N to B: Anything else you want to tell people?
B: I know I don’t know most of you – but I think about you all all the time. And I’m rooting for you!
links to Greek translations:
traditional Covid-19 diagnostic testing: https://bit.ly/covid19testsgreek
Covid-19 serological antibody testing: https://bit.ly/covid19testtypesgreek
This post is part of my weekly “broadcasts from the bench” for The International Union of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. Be sure to follow @theIUBMB if you’re interested in biochemistry! They’re a really great international organization for biochemistry.
more on topics mentioned (& others) #365DaysOfScience All (with topics listed) 👉 http://bit.ly/2OllAB0