Neurology Central

International Women’s Day: a day in the life of Samantha Yammine

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This International Women’s Day (8 March), we’re asking women from across STEM subjects to share their typical working days, the highs and lows of science research, and the women that inspire them.
In this interview, we speak to Samantha Yammine, a science communicator and PhD Candidate in Derek van der Kooy’s lab at the University of Toronto (Canada). Samantha studies neural stem and progenitor cell lineages in development, and the activation of quiescent neural stem cells in the adult mouse brain. She shares daily updates from her lab through Instagram as @science.sam, in the hope of making the process of science research more transparent and accessible. Samantha is also passionate about busting myths and equity, diversity, and inclusivity in STEM (and everywhere!). You can find out more about her at samanthayammine.com.

Want more? Find further ‘Day in the life’ interviews with inspirational women across STEM – from oncology to bioananlysis and everything in between – in our series running across our partner sites: find them here.

Can you talk us through your typical working day?

Each day is a little bit different because I’m lucky to be involved in a lot of different projects from teaching and mentoring to public speaking, but generally I like to start my days off kinda slow. I usually spend some time each morning going through Twitter and catching up on news, replying to emails and looking over my to-do list for the day to make sure my priorities are in check. Then I head into the lab and do my experiments for the day… usually split between immunostaining/microscopy and lots of cell culture. I currently supervise two undergraduate students in the lab and help with a lot of training for new students, so my time in the lab is quite social and my experiments very collaborative! I try to go to the gym when I can to de-stress, then come home to work on side projects like researching for social media posts and writing blogs. And I always end the day with some TV to unwind (just finished re-watching 30 Rock and am starting The Get Down!).

What are the best aspects of your job? What are the most challenging parts?

My supervisor is absolutely wonderful at giving his students their intellectual freedom, and this space to grow scientifically and explore my interests has been one of the most exciting and empowering experiences. Of course, this comes with a lot of struggles, but the ability to rather independently design experiments and investigate research questions has been very worthwhile for me.

The most challenging element of my research is that I work on a very, very rare cell type and am the only person in my lab doing so. I’ve faced a lot of technical challenges beyond my control because of this, and it’s certainly slowed down the progress of my degree, but this type of challenge has helped me develop a lot of patience and perseverance that I am incredibly grateful for.

Can you give us a brief overview of your current research?

I study a rare population of neural stem cells (NSCs) called primitive NSCs, which are negative for the common NSC marker GFAP but are self-renewing, multipotent, and can give rise to the more common GFAP+ NSCs. We previously published on the quiescent nature of these NSCs in the adult rodent brain, but how they can become activated upon injury of their downstream progeny. My current work aims to study the process of primitive NSC activation in the adult.

Given the key role these primitive NSCs play in adult regeneration, my work also focuses on the role they play in prenatal development. I have characterized the unique progenitor cell types that these primitive NSCs and the GFAP+ NSCs give rise to in development through lineage tracing, and have constructed a new lineage map of neural progenitor cells. My current work aims to validate this model through single cell transcriptomics and further functional analyses to highlight the heterogeneity of rare stem and progenitor cells that build, maintain and repair the forebrain.

What led you to pursue a career in research and science communications?

I have always been curious about the world around me, and was asking questions from a young age, whether or not they made sense. I was actually more drawn to the physical sciences and maths in high school because they were more based in problem-solving, but ultimately decided to pursue neuroscience because I was completely fascinated by the brain. The more I’ve studied the brain, the more cool things I’ve learned that I want to share, and that’s part of what’s motivated me to do science communication.

But importantly, the more science I’ve been privileged to study, the more I realize how lucky I am to be where I am and that not everyone is given these types of opportunities. That, plus a seemingly growing anti-science culture, has motivated me to work to make science more accessible and engaging to everyone through science communication. I believe that science research – especially that which is publicly funded – is not complete until it is shared back with its stakeholders, and thus that communication is a key part of the scientific process.

Where do you hope to be in 5, and 10 years from now?

I hope to be sharing science with as broad an audience as possible in new and innovative ways that I wouldn’t have thought were possible now.

Have you faced any challenges in your field due to your gender?

There are many convincing data of inequalities in academia, including those in the Naylor Report and the Equality Challenge Unit’s publications. Many inequalities are intersectional and subtle, meaning that they are often a result of unconscious bias and affect those belonging to multiple underrepresented groups in STEM the most. Personally, I’ve had many encounters where my capabilities and intelligence were undermined, particularly at conferences or in other scenarios where I’ve been meeting others in my field for the first time. Based on anecdotal evidence of responses after further interactions, it often seems these underestimations are because of my age and appearance: I like makeup and fashion and that kinda makes a girl stand out in academia, though it certainly doesn’t influence her aptitude.

I’ve also faced some gender-based professional misconduct, again at conferences and networking situations. I am very fortunate to have incredibly supportive labmates who always stand up for me and go out of their way to make sure everyone is treated fairly, but systemic injustices in academia persist and are holding back the advancement of science.

What would you say are the biggest challenges that early career researchers face? Do you feel you’ve had to overcome any particular hurdles associated with being a female early career research in STEM?

I think we’re in an interesting time where the challenges early career researchers face are being more openly discussed, but where there are still a sufficient number of people who have a “too bad, tough it out” mentality around. There are so many terrific people in academia across all levels, but the few with high authority who haven’t been properly trained in leadership and equity really slow down everyone else’s progress. Fortunately I think these can be overcome with empathy and rigorous training programs.

A few things people can do today to make things better for everyone else:

  • Next time you’re asked to give a talk or sit on a panel, ask whether the entire session reflects the diversity of the research community. If not, offer your place to someone else who might offer a more diverse perspective. There are many great resource lists of researchers so I doubt it will be hard to find someone equally qualified, and it matters a whole lot to that young person in the crowd doubting themselves because of lack of representation.
  • Don’t shame people for the hours they work: you don’t know what they do when they go home or why, nor is it any of your business.
  • Ask whether your institute or department has equity, leadership, and psychological well-being training for principle investigators… if it doesn’t, find someone who will make this happen.

What advice would you give to young women hoping to pursue a career in science?

If you have unsolved questions and want to “take chances, make mistakes and get messy” with science until you figure out their answers, pursue a career in science.

Keep your options open, and don’t get upset or feel bad if you change your mind about your career path. At the same time, always self-reflect on why you may be changing your mind, and make sure it’s because you genuinely want something else and not because you feel you are being pushed out.

Find mentors and champions who will support your academic journey. They will have advice and will know what to say when you’re facing hardships. Tough love isn’t always the best love – find a mentor who gets it and genuinely cares. They’re rare but when you find them you’ll know.

Remember that there are many different kinds of careers in science. You can do any of them that you want, and each of them needs your input and perspective.

Never try to rise to the top on the backs of anyone else. Find mentors who raise you up with them, and do the same to your peers. Collaboration > competition.

You’re very passionate about communicating science – can you tell us more about this? What role do you think researchers can play in advancing public knowledge of scientific research? How can this help advance the field?

I think it is an injustice for research to be kept behind paywalls and closed doors, though at the same time I think it is imperative for research to be accurately communicated. While there are a lot of fantastic science journalists and communicators out there doing their part to foster a pro-science culture, I think science on the whole has a marketing problem that causes research funds to dwindle and risks the health and well-being of species across the globe.

To me, science communication is a way to give back to the people who have supported my learning through their tax dollars, and to empower everyone to make more informed decisions to better their day-to-day life. I think I can play a unique and valuable role as a communicator who has done research firsthand. My philosophy is that nothing is too complicated to be explained or understood, and I truly think anything can be fascinating to anyone with the right words and without sensationalism.

My approach to science communication is friendly, never condescending, and encouraging of discussion, just the way science should be. I also like to show my diverse interests to highlight that researchers are not the uni-dimensional caricatures they appear to be on TV, and that we can be relatable, normal people who are approachable!

And finally, who is your female science hero?

I have always been very inspired by the story of Rita Levi-Montalcini, but truthfully my true heroes are the women who champion me in my everyday life. From my sister and mother who show unwavering support, my friends and labmates, the awesome STEM squad members, professors who have gone out of their way to mentor me, and those in science careers outside of academia who have encouraged my diverse interests. I have been so lucky to be bettered by so many incredible women, and it is my absolute privilege to give back as much as I can to anyone who asks.

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