The Biggest Unexpected Challenge in Academia
Is it the pressure to get published? The late nights?
As part of the Juno Jones "Women in Nontraditional Fields" series, I had the pleasure of speaking to Jayne-Louise Pritchard (@SlinkyScience on Instagram), a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Queensland Diamantina Institute in Brisbane, Australia. She is a cancer cell biologist and is studying chemoresistance. She shared a bit of her STEM journey with us, including some surprising challenges she has faced as a woman in academia.
Jayne-Louise Pritchard, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Queensland Diamantina Institute in Brisbane, Australia, studies cancer in the lining of the uterus and chemoresistance.
What’s your name and job title?
My name is Jayne-Louise Pritchard, and I'm a Ph.D. candidate.
Where do you work?
I’m currently studying at the University of Queensland Diamantina Institute (UQDI), which is based at the Translational Research Institute (TRI) in Brisbane, Australia.
What do you do there?
I research cancer cell biology. Chemotherapy works by stopping cancer cells dividing, which causes them to die, however, some cancer cells will continue to divide in the presence of chemotherapy.
We call this chemoresistance. My Ph.D. project is looking at how and why some cells are chemoresistant, and possibly how we can overcome that resistance. We think it may have something to do with something going wrong with proteins that regulate the cell division phase of the cell cycle, so I spend a lot of time in the lab studying the biochemistry of the cell cycle by working with model cell lines.
The research I’m doing isn’t focused on one type of cancer as chemoresistance affects multiple types of cancers, however I do have an interest in gynecological cancers (ovarian, uterine/endometrial, cervical, vulvar, and vaginal cancers), particularly endometrial cancer, because it is the most common gynecological cancer in developed countries, and its incidence is unfortunately on the rise.
How long have you been working on your Ph.D.?
One year – I start my second year this week! I should be finished in the next 3 years.
What’s the ratio of women to men like, and do you feel there is a gender gap in cell biology research?
All of the research groups I have studied or worked in (4 of them) have been predominantly women, including my current research group. My current group has three men and five women: a male lab head, a male post-doc, and a male research assistant; and two female post-docs and three female Ph.D. students. I think that the balance between men and women in my field and my particular institute is relatively equal, but that said, I believe there are more men in positions of power and are more likely to be the bosses.
What challenges have you encountered, in both work and your Ph.D. journey?
I faced 3 major challenges in my journey. The first big challenge was when I first started my Ph.D. I started my Ph.D. in a different lab to the one I’m in now, but my supervisors in my previous lab were not supporting me in a way that was conducive to my work. More specifically, the feedback and comments I would receive on my writing and progress would often leave me in tears, and I was having some technical problems in the lab that I was expected to resolve alone, but I was struggling. These things made me feel like I wasn't good enough to be a Ph.D. student. Only four months into my first Ph.D. project my mental health had deteriorated to the point where I wanted to quit my Ph.D. I ended up changing labs, and I am much happier now!
The second big challenge was my confirmation. The cell cycle is very time-dependent, so studying it means long hours in the lab (sometimes 15 or more hours) and so during the first year of my Ph.D. I struggled to find the time to write. I had planned to give myself 4 weeks to write my confirmation document, however lab work went over time (as it always does) and I ended up with only 10 days out of the lab to write, which was very stressful. It was a rush to complete everything and I became increasingly exhausted. In the end, my review panel were very happy with my document and my presentation – thankfully!
The third big challenge was one I did not expect at all: the changes that have occurred in my personal relationships. These changes began when I was in undergrad and have continued to grow as I have started climbing up the academic ladder. Some people approach me differently, treat me differently, and speak to me differently. Sometimes people make hurtful comments, for example, "Studying at university is closing your mind," or, "You don't have to be intelligent to get a degree," or, "Only idiots post on Instagram." (Side note: NONE of these things are remotely true). Some people will go out of their way to test my knowledge, put me down, or prove me wrong. It can be upsetting and lonely, but thankfully I do have a lot of other people who are very supportive.
"I ignore negative comments as much as possible. I surround myself with people who are supportive and fill my life with love, light, and laughter."
How have you met those challenges or solved those problems?
For the first challenge (my first lab): I spoke to my doctor, counselor, family, and friends, and they helped me to see that I was good enough to do a Ph.D. and that I was suffering from anxiety. Instead of quitting, I took two months of unpaid leave during which I looked at other projects with other labs. I met with a few, but in the end, I settled for my current lab. It wasn’t an easy decision to change labs because it meant that I was 4 months behind in my new project, but now that I’ve completed my confirmation, I can see that it was definitely worth it to protect my mental health. My current lab, who are very supportive, have helped me to see that I'm strong, skilled, and capable of completing this Ph.D.
For the second challenge (confirmation): I persevered through the tears and the pain (and it really was painful, both physically and mentally.) My advisor was, thankfully, very supportive during this time, and she really helped to push me through it. After confirmation, I took two weeks off to focus on my mental health, which was great! I highly recommend doing this if you can.
For the third challenge (personal relationships): I ignore negative comments as much as possible, and I surround myself with people who are supportive and fill my life with love, light, and laughter.
Jayne-LouisePritchard at her lab bench, where most research takes place.
What advice do you have for young women who want to enter the field of biological research and biology in general?
Try and volunteer or work with a variety of labs to get a feel for the kind of work you like and the kind of people you want to work with. Ask a lot of questions, not just about science, but about their lifestyle and career options. Try to find people and groups who will support you professionally and also emotionally. It can be a challenging field to work in, so try and prioritize your mental health (easier said than done). Lastly, it’s okay to quit or change fields if it’s not for you!
Have you had a mentor?
I have received advice and guidance mostly from women in the field, but I’ve never had an official mentor. I would like one though!
What’s something someone has done to help you in your career?
My parents have supported me endlessly and allowed me to continue to live at home while I’m studying. They cook for me and cheer me up if I’m having a hard time. I really wouldn’t be where I am today without my Mum and Dad; they’ve helped me get through this more than anyone else.
Lastly, what is your favorite part about working in a lab? Personally, ejecting a micropipette tip is one of the most satisfying things I do, and I would love to hear yours!
Oh, it's hard to choose!! My favorite thing about working in science and research (which can also be frustrating) is the fact that I can't google everything and expect to find the answers I'm looking for – because I'm the one discovering those answers! I love it when I read a textbook, and I see a sentence that says, "X mechanism is unknown," and I think to myself, "That's my Ph.D. project right there!" One day my discoveries will fill those unknowns, and then there will be new unknowns to discover.
My favorite thing about working in a lab might be the smell of the incubator when I open it in the morning to check my cells (I know, it's weird). The scent is kind of like how a blanket feels – so cozy and warm. I love doing cell culture, and I enjoy microscopy too.
Thank you Jayne-Louise for not only forwarding the progress of women in STEM but also for researching a disease that affects more than 200,000 women yearly. Without researchers like you, we would not see the fundamental advances needed to save lives. You can check out her science journey on her Instagram, @SlinkyScience!
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