Hi, my name is Ea, and I am a first year PhD candidate studying Applied Biological Chemistry at Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology (TUAT). I did undergrad in Chemistry from Visayas State University in Leyte, Philippines and Master’s degree in Agriculture from TUAT. As a PhD candidate I am working on glycoproteins found in central nervous system. Funny story, as I take hundreds of photos of the brain, I was inspired to convert these pictures into art as a project called Experiments in Art (EA). With this I hope to start a trend where artists use science as inspiration and scientists can look at their work in a different way.
1. How would you describe your role?
I study glycans (polysaccharides), specifically those that bonds to glycoproteins. With the help of different chemical tools that we have developed in the lab, we study how these glycoproteins change in the brain especially in the node of Ranvier, which are unmyelinated regions in the axon that are important for fast conduction of nerve impulses.
2. What are some challenges you have faced in this research?
I grew up in Leyte, Philippines so as much as the environment was nurturing for my growth as a student there weren’t enough opportunities like exposure to other scientists or science programs as there are in Manila or some place else. The research opportunities were limited as the labs were not fully advanced, and for students in the province it is a big hindering factor that majority of the programs supported on media and private companies are only in Manila. And now that I’m in Japan working on my PhD, language barrier is proving to be a challenge since I spend a lot of time in Japanese laboratory. However, my lab mates and professor are very supportive, so this helps me cope with this challenge.
3. What made you choose this STEM discipline? Were you inspired by someone?
Funny you should ask, because both my parents are scientists. My dad is a Biochemist and my mom is a Soil Scientist. Growing up I was always exposed to science and my first experiment was making antibacterial soap with my dad using flowers near my school for an elementary science fair. We won first place. Personally, I think it was definitely a way for me and my dad to bond, and my mom was also very supportive so it wasn’t hard to fall in love with the field.
I would say the biggest influence were definitely be my parents, followed by my high school and elementary science teachers. First time I heard “molecular biology” was freshmen year in high school and I just remember being so amazed with that word. I didn’t pursue the major during college but now with my work as a biological chemistry PhD candidate, I’m using molecular biology techniques.
To sum this up, I love working in the lab, and I also loved researching as a kid..so this and support from my folks and university proved to be very influential for me in choosing this very STEM discipline.
4. What’s the best way to enter your field? What kind of experience or skills should one possess to build a successful career in the same?
There are multiple ways of entering this field so I am not quite sure which one’s the best. I was fortunate enough to grow up in a family that is in academia. Both my parents are professors and my dad is in the same field as me. For grade school, I did experiments on antibacterial soap using flowers near my school, in high school I studied about proteolytic properties of local plant species and how it can be related to Alzheimer’s disease, in undergrad I was a Chemistry major and my thesis was on the alpha-glucosidase inhibitory activity of indigenous plant species in the Philippines and how it can be related to Diabetes. So I guess what I am trying to say here is that I was exposed to lab environment at a very young age and my parents supported me in every step which I think played a big role and that encouraged me to work hard and aim for higher education. Since I am still very new in my career I am not yet fit to say what it takes to be successful but based on what I’ve learned so far, grit and perseverance paired with curiosity and creativity goes a long way. One might face failures and frustrating moments on a regular basis but the best thing to do is to just scratch that mistake and go back to the drawing board.
5. What are some cool things that people in your profession work on?
We work on cell biology, elucidating protein crystal structure using X-ray crystallography (super cool technique that allows us to see the 3D structure of a protein and how it interacts with different molecules), brain research, genome editing, modifying proteins so they are expressed more which is important in medicine, food, and fuel industries.
6. What keeps you going in your research? What’s next for your career?
There are a lot of things that helps me to keep going in my research but to name a few, a supportive lab group, interesting research topic, and of course full scholarship definitely plays a big role.
After my PhD, I am eyeing on going back to Philippines to help develop STEM fields in the country and to strengthen the collaboration between Filipino and Japanese universities.
7. What do you think can help get girls into STEM?
Grit, willingness to learn, hard work, confidence and relationships that we build with people can help us move forward in STEM. There may be less women in STEM right now but that should not discourage us from being in the field. The advantage of being less in number is that it means there are still many spaces to fill, and as a woman in STEM, I encourage you girls to fill that space! Collaboration is key, for men and women alike. As long as we keep this in mind, we can build a symbiotic relationship with men and I hope this encourages us girls to share our ideas knowing that our thoughts as women are very much needed. A raise of the hand in a conference, an e-mail to a professor stating your intention to work in lab, writing that application letter, googling “scholarships for developing countries”, picking one that is applicable to you, asking your colleagues to help you apply for grad school. Sometimes the guts to initiate is all it takes to get into STEM.
8. What message would you like to give to our young readers?
Past generations have worked hard to provide women a platform to be visible and heard in STEM and related fields. There is no need to be intimidated anymore. If you feel like STEM is something you want to pursue, go for it! Find a role model or be your own. The perspective of a woman is important in STEM not only for representation but because our brains can offer insights that will compliment that of men, and this is important for the progression of knowledge and learning.
Thank you for reading our eight STEM Up interview of Season 2! To know more about what Ea is up to, follow her journey at @eakriistine
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