Friday, May 8, 2015

The Story of Ania

My sister and I on my first day of primary school!
Check out the frilly socks I was rocking!
The following is my story - how I came to where I am now:

I was always an inquisitive child. I had many, many more books than friends (although I did have friends) and I almost ran out of books to read in my school library. I loved stories and what I could learn from them. Whether it be the poetry of Seamus Heaney (after whom I named my first car - Seamus) lamenting the plight of the Irish or the intrigue and mischief of the Russian courts in my namesake, Ania Karenina and Russian history in general - I loved to learn. I was also very fortunate to have parents that enabled and facilitate this love! Both my parents were brought up in (at the time) tumultuous Soviet controlled Poland and recognized the power of education (Thanks Mum and Dad!). They came to Australia with only a few hundred dollars and the clothes on their back and worked extremely hard to provide for my sister and I. My Mum even had to redo her nursing degree because they didn't recognize her Polish one. I am in total awe of all that they achieved (and are still achieving!). 

For me, Science represented an incredible and seemingly magical place and the void of what we didn't know was a fantastical tale, waiting to be told. As a teenager, I read "A Brief History of Time" by Stephen Hawking and was hooked on astrophysics - the idea that space is a fabric that can be woven around physical and nonphysical dimensions was alluring and captivating. But then - I took physics in high school. Although my teacher was good: charismatic and down to earth, the content was not for me. I hated identifying how much energy I needed to boil a kettle or the acceleration of a certain object. I remember a physics test that asked if an astronaut was floating in space and needed to get back to his ship, but what should he do? I answered "call his ship to reel him in" - although the answer was of course, use the aerosol he had in the opposite direction he wanted to travel to give him thrust. It just didn't really interest me. I was also fortunate enough to be selected to take part in a CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization)- West Australian Museum initiative in Western Australia that was being run where I got to help a scientist with their work for a few days in the vacation break. I worked with a PhD scientist to try and identify methanogen content in the rumens of cows: methanogens are little archea that break down nitrates into methane gas - causing cows to fart. Cow emissions are one of the biggest contributors of greenhouse gases (like methane) that help cause climate change. I presented a poster as part of the program entitled: "Save the World - Stop Cows Farting!" (unfortunately I didn't win the competition!). That was the first time I ever used a pipette - and I think the very beginning of my science obsession.

I ended up enrolling in a Bachelor of Science. I really wanted to a double major in arts and science - I wanted to learn more about philosophy and history... but unfortunately just missed out on a place (although I think it was a good thing, in the end). During my undergraduate studies, I discovered my love for molecular biology and genetics. There was SO much we didn't know and with every layer of complexity we unveiled there was yet another layer, often more interesting than the one before it. There were so many questions and often a lack of ability to ask them. So much potential for amazing stories to be told and important discoveries to make!
My sister and I at my first graduation for B.Sc
 in 2007 at the University of Queensland

As I learnt more about science and molecular biology I got drawn into the world of science. I became a "nerd" but I was the happiest I have ever been because I met people with the same fanatical awe for science as I had. We spent our lunch arguing philosophy or a point in a lecture although also spending time arguing about the plot line of lipstick jungle or Greys Anatomy... I don't want to give the impression we were all work and no play! I made friends for life although sadly, only two of us leaped into the foray of scientific research... The others become journalists, lawyers, medical doctors and teachers and are scattered all over the world. 

And leap I did, down a rabbit hole and into an unfamiliar world of pipettes, controls and 12 hour plus days. I truly believe that how good of a scientist you become depends on the environment you are first in as a trainee. I was very lucky to do my first years of research with amazing people around me. So much of how you do research is not written in protocols, rather carried down sage advice from experienced researchers. Thus, if you weren't aware of the appropriate controls or how to best structure an experiment, you may not be testing your hypothesis in the most robust way - or worse, making conclusion from your data that may be inherently wrong.

I toiled away in my honours (a one year research-only intensive year after undergraduate studies) and my PhD years in the lab of Prof Melissa Brown, at the University of Queensland, trying to identify what genetic elements could mediate the formation of a form of hereditary breast cancers (governed by the BRCA1 gene). Under the guidance of the amazing lab members of the Brown lab, notably Juliet French and Stacey Edwards who both now run their own functional cancer genomics lab at the Queensland /Berghofer Institute of Medical Research and fellow PhD student, Brooke, I became a scientist and an adult! I learnt scientific techniques - molecular cloning, PCR, cell culture amongst other things, but also softer skills, like how to stand up for myself and how to say no (although I am still working on that one). After 3 years, 7 months and 25 days of work, on the 26th of October 2012 - I submitted my PhD thesis. The "academic" result of my graduate work was one joint-first publication in Oncogene, co-authorship on 3 other peer-reviewed publications, 5 conference poster presentations (one of which was at an international conference) and hopefully one more first author publication which is currently in preparation. Two weeks later - I was on a plane to my new job and home: Boston, Massachusetts, U.S.A!
11 Lab books later - my PhD!

I am currently a postdoctoral scholar in the lab of Charlotte Kuperwasser at Tufts University and have loved the opportunity to learn new techniques, interact with new and interesting people and take in the beauty of New England (although the last winter was a tad bit brutal). I am still working in the field of breast cancer and mammary gland biology - trying to identify how breast cancer comes about in the first place. It's very exciting work, especially in such a collaborative and resource-rich environment like the Boston area! Perfect for a science geek like myself.

I am also heavily involved in the Tufts Postdoctoral Association, currently as Chair, where we hope to enable and facilitate postdocs to receive an enriched training experience - especially in the softer skills that are often very hard to learn at the bench. We just started up a mentoring program for postdocs which I have grand and amazing plans for. I hope the program promotes networking and collaboration among postdocs, faculty and eventually beyond to other science career professionals.

Well - that's me. I am not sure what my future has in store for me, but I feel like my life has prepared me for anything that comes next.

- Ania.

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