What is it like to be a biology researcher at Yale
Updated: Jul 3, 2021
Knowledge is power. And for the young women knowing what is out there for them to choose is liberating. Generation Women reaches out for extraordinary women in different fields and professions in order to share their stories on how is it like... to be them and to talk about the challenges and the joys of their profession.
First on the list is Lina Ntokou, postdoctoral biology student in Yale University and Greek Women in Stem founder. An organization that aims to bring more women in STEM studies.
-What is it like to be a postdoctoral researcher in Biology at Yale University?
There is at the same time the feeling of independence and a clear and strict framework provided by the head of the lab you work. The level is very high, and the competition is quite intense. This means that we all constantly strive for the best result. The good thing about ivy league institutions is that you end up collaborating with top notch scientists and the relationships that are created provide an excellent environment for research with all the logistical and scientific support needed.
-What did you find interesting in Biology?
Biology is the study of life. I do not think there is anything more interesting and impressive than life itself. It encompasses other sciences such as mathematics, physics and chemistry but it is the science that sets the context and asks the big questions. Obviously, I'm biased.What makes it magical is that it is constantly evolving, and you never get bored while its applications have a direct impact on our daily lives.
-What is it like to study Biology at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki?
The department of Biology of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki could be much better if there was support from the state for upgrading equipment and facilities. For some reason, when I started, I thought everything would be perfectly organized, but unfortunately the department at least while I was a student, had infrastructure remnants of 1960s. The curriculum is quite intensive. As a department it offers a wide range of specialties from microorganisms, plants, animals and finally humans. Of course, this can also be a disadvantage for someone who does not want to lose part of their life by studying plant anatomy or learning how to categorize insects, when they are mainly interested in the genetic study of human diseases for example. The study and attendance time is a lot and personally for the first two years I was thinking of giving it up every day, since my interest faded as days passed with non-stop participation in lab trainings and lectures. At the end of the second year, however - and there my relationship with research changed forever - Dr. Basile Michaelidis gave me the opportunity to join his research lab. This first involvement with the lab, the way research takes place and what it really means to set up and analyze experiments turned the aforementioned frustration with Biology into the love of my life. The most important part in any job is the people! My close associates-mentors and now friends Dr. Andreas Anestis and Dr. Konstantinos Feidantsis were perfect role models and provided me with a lot of guidance and support.
Last, I wish that at some point the country will actually invest in higher education institutions. Especially if they finally create technology transfer centers and start-ups everywhere everyone will benefit tremendously.
-How do you know this is for you?
I wake up and I want to go to the lab. I think that as long as you work on something that gives meaning and motivation in your life, it is a sign that it suits you.
-How could a girl who is interested in Biology "expose" herself to science
Today there is so much information that is sometimes lost on various websites. A good start is to ask her teachers for guidance. REAL Science, in which I volunteer, is the team founded by Dr. Eleni Sinopoulou that brings researchers to schools.
Additionally, we at Greek Women in STEM are in collaboration with the STEM department of Anatolia College in Thessaloniki. We are organizing a first presentation on February 27, at 2 pm and it will be open to everyone. In this talk we will discuss our personal paths and explain very briefly some super cool techniques. In the end we will receive questions from everyone, and I hope we will be able to answer them all (time flies!). If not, there will be many similar seminars where we will have the time to discuss and explain further any aspects of scientific life people would be interested to learn about.
Stay tuned to Greek women in STEM because we prepare a lot of beautiful things - especially when we overcome this horrible pandemic and its limitations. Last, something they can do is create or participate in teams for international scientific contests. A robotics team or a math club are things every school should have and support. EMBL teens is a great European example where students can participate and see if science is something they are really interested in pursuing.
- What obstacles can they encounter and how to overcome them
There obstacles never end. First of all, it is not easy for the Greek family to accept that their child will go to another city or country to pursue their dreams. Personally, I am still in big conflict with my family about my decisions. Also, for better or worse the doctorate is a pretty poor period, when you often have to spend many hours in the lab (12-16 a day) and there are no direct benefits or moments of joy - the experiments go 99 times wrong and 1 right, but this one is the breakthrough! Fortunately, as a woman, I have never faced discrimination. However, observing around me I realize that when / if I will have children, I will have to sacrifice a period of my career advancement. I hope the flexibility and adaptation shown by institutions during the pandemic with home-based work will help making this period easier in the future. This will allow a smooth transition from single to family life without impacting professional growth.
- How is the day of a postdoctoral researcher at Yale
Many meetings, animal surgeries, imaging at the microscope, molecular analyses, some more meetings, presentations, lectures and planning for the next experiments! The good thing about New Haven is that it is a student-town and there are many restaurants, coffee-shops and bars while two big cities (Boston and New York) are close enough in case anyone wants something more (big concerts, parties etc). As one of the big universities one has access to good recreation facilities such as gyms, swimming pools, sailing club – perks of the seaside location -, tennis courts etc. that make everyday life much more enjoyable.
- How is a woman researcher at scientific conferences?
Like a man but we can and wear high heels! I do not think there are big differences. Sometimes male researchers, especially the older generation, are more intense in their speech and absolute in their views than their equally successful female colleagues. This makes scientific discussion more challenging, but fortunately the younger generations do not have this characteristic.
-What is it like to be a woman in the field of biology today?
I do not think there is a gender difference in Biology. However, it is discouraging that in the area of medical biology I now work in, senior positions are held by men. It is a tough competitive field and if one is not made for constantly racing at some point they have to leave and do something else. Maybe that's why many of us women leave academia because we can't stand the constant pressure and crazy timings it brings to our lives.
-What do the women in your science usually discuss with each other?
What went wrong in a protocol, how to write a grant application, which meals are of better quality with fewer calories (hello 30s!), if it is wise to freeze your eggs, what color blazer should I wear at the conference, how to negotiate a job offer, if they have a transgenic mouse and I am looking for, what media is best for that cell line, which gym is better, if an antibody worked, how do you better analyze scRNAseq…