STEM Up (S2): Ella

I am a second year Cancer Research UK PhD student researching how to improve treatment for colorectal cancer. Specifically, I am looking at a protein KDM6a and researching why deleting this gene in mice prolongs survival. 

A PhD is notoriously stressful and time consuming. However, during lockdown the pace of my PhD drastically slowed down which gave me time to stop and reflect what it is I love about science. I realized what I love is breaking down complex topics into bitesize chunks that anyone could understand – and from this realization I launched my Instagram account ‘@ella_explains’. With this Instagram I hope to make science accessible to everyone.

Something that is hugely important to me is work life balance. Research can very easily become all consuming so I make a huge effort to be very efficient while I work to maximize the time I have away from the lab. It’s very easy to become overwhelmed by the enormity of the research. In my spare time I ride my horses, spend time with friends, family (and of course my dog) and generally find other creative outlets. 

1. What is your specific area of STEM?

I work in cancer stem cell research. Stem cells are cells which are able to change themselves into multiple different cell types. Tumors contain some of these stem cells and what makes them tricky is that these stem cells are resistant to cancer treatments we have at the moment. That means when you give a person a cancer treatment most of the tumor dies, except for the stem cells, and because they can turn into multiple other cell types they can reform a tumor. I am looking at trying to understand these stem cells better in the hope that we can make cancer treatment better. 

2. What are some challenges you have faced in this research?

Working in research is like trying to solve a puzzle – which means mentally it can be quite draining. Sometimes I find it very difficult to leave my research at the door when I go home in the evening so I get a bit stressed out and burnt out as a result. Hopefully I will get better at this! 

3. What made you choose this STEM discipline? Were you inspired by someone?

I chose to be a biologist because it was the subject I found the most interesting at school. However, the field is so vast that I spent a lot of time stressing about which part of biology I wanted to study. I chose to go to The University of Edinburgh because it had so many different undergraduate courses which enabled me to change my mind easily – which I did – 3 times! I settled on Stem Cell biology and fell in love with it – stem cells are incredible.

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?

I think if you have the drive to be a research scientist you will get there. The most important thing is to have a hard working attitude which will get you a place in a lab. Classically most people start with a masters and move on to a PhD after that – but neither of these are essential. I was super lucky and my supervisor was so pleased with the data from my undergraduate project I was employed as a technician to continue the work. This gave me very valuable experience meaning I never had to do a masters before my PhD. A PhD wasn’t the only option however, you can remain working in a lab without one and work up to positions such as lab manager. 
I think in order to do a PhD you have to be very determined – it’s a tough process that can be very demanding at times – but very rewarding in the long run! Unlike a university degree which is lots of memorizing information research involves having to explore one tiny aspect of science in very fine detail – meaning it is nothing like the degree! I think having a creative mind is often an asset to a researcher where you are designing experiments and devising solutions to problems. 

5. What keeps you going in your research? What’s next for your career?

Research is very demanding both in time and mental capacity. So I think it’s really important to keep reminding yourself of the bigger picture. Ultimately my research could help save lives – so that is a major factor that keeps me going. At the moment I don’t think I will continue my career in research. However, I hope to delve into the world of science communication but I am also keeping an open mind as I may enter a new field entirely. Research is teaching me so many life skills which would help me in any future career I choose. 

6. What is it like to be a woman in STEM? What are some challenges that you have faced?

There are distinctly more men in my office than there are women and additionally an even smaller percentage of these women occupy principle investigator roles. I think young people are often inspired by imaging themselves in roles those around them occupy and a lack of females means a lot of girls can’t imagine themselves in these roles. However, I do believe the tide is turning on this and with help from projects like #STEMUp we will have more diversity in STEM.

7. What are 3 things that you wish could change about STEM?

I would like STEM to be a little less intense – it is possible to advance your career and have a life outside of your STEM field. 

I would make STEM more diverse – and I am hopeful this will happen in time.  

I would like the ‘pressure to publish papers’ to be relaxed – and for research to be considered more of a journey than just a mission to publish papers. 

8. What do you think can help get girls into STEM?

When I was at school I was fortunate enough to have speakers come in and tell me about their STEM field. This enabled me to understand the range of jobs that were out there. This is why I now run a science communication Instagram as an attempt to make science more accessible and less intimidating for everyone. I think more initiatives like this is the best way to promote more women into STEM. 

9. What message would you like to give to our young readers?

Don’t be intimidated by the STEM fields, don’t think they are just for ‘smart’ people. STEM fields are for hard working people who want to make a difference in the world – so if you are interested – go for it.

Thank you for reading our ninth STEM Up interview of Season 2! To know more about what Ella is up to, check out her journey at @ella_explains

Follow us on Instagram for more women in STEM interviews at codejammies

Want to make a difference with your STEM story? Email us at codejammies@gmail.com

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