#SciComm: Featuring Nicky from @nicky.brycesharron

Posted by Applied Biological Materials (abm) on March 4, 2022

We recognize science can seem difficult to young scientists, and we hope to raise awareness about people who make it fun and accessible to broader audiences through social media, #SciComm!


Meet Nicky from @nicky.brycesharron! Nicky’s channel chronicles her journey since she started as a Molecular Genetics undergrad at the University of Sussex all the way to her current adventures as a PhD student studying the Bacillus thuringiensis bacterium and the Cry41Aa toxin. She’s got a unique perspective to share as a mature student and mother of two. Her posts show the highs and lows of research life as well as explanations about scientific topics and lab techniques - great stuff!

@nicky.brycesharron Portrait

Tell us a little bit about yourself, Nicky, and how you got into doing the research that you’re doing!👩‍🔬 Why do you think science communication is so important?

Well I am a mature student of 36, married and mum of two wonderful kids, aged eleven and seven. I'm an American expat who has been living in the UK for 14 years now, after having met my British husband in World of Warcraft 🎮 now nearly 16 years ago! I went back to school to get my undergrad degree in genetics at the age of 32, and during that time I volunteered as a research assistant in my academic advisor's lab, which works with the bacterial toxins produced by bacillus thuringiensis🦠. I didn't expect to fall in love with it the way I did, but I really enjoyed my time there and thanks to that experience, I got to apply to do my PhD straight after the undergrad. Now, I study the specific toxin, Cry41Aa, which has anti-cancer properties.

I think science communication is so important because much of science has historically been inaccessible, either through pay walls or language. With social media, researchers like myself can share our research, the ups and downs that come with it, or just communicate scientific concepts that may not have historically been explained in a way that is accessible to the general public. Additionally...

...getting science "out there" and on people's social media pages demystifies it, and if more people think it's accessible, more young kids and adults will consider STEM fields for their futures.

In your most recent post, you mentioned you made a decision to deliberately slow down in your research so that you can take care of your own mental wellbeing. What are some of your go-to tips for avoiding burn out?

Research is a difficult beast in that you're never "finished."

There is always another experiment to do, paper to read, class to teach. And if you're not careful to set boundaries and advocate for yourself, you can find yourself pushed into doing more😵. That can be from a higher up or supervisor, but in my case it was me pushing myself. Protecting my evenings and weekends as time for myself and for my husband and kids has gone a long way in helping avoid burnout, but so has slowing down. If you have to run an experiment more because you're pushing and therefore maybe rushing things, that isn't helpful. Do it less, but do it right, so you don't have to hit that burnout wall😌.

Avoiding burnout is hand in hand with self advocacy I believe, and some practical tips for that are:

  1. Committing to habits that have a positive effect on your mental and physical well being✨.
  2. Setting boundaries with your work and / or supervisor, and upholding those.
  3. Setting time limits and sticking to them⏰.
  4. Setting aside time to just play or relax, and giving yourself the permission and grace to do so without guilt.
  5. Allowing yourself to feel your feelings, and let them move on (i.e. it’s ok to be anxious because something didn't work, but don't keep it, release it because it doesn't mean you're a failure!)
  6. Pace yourself, you won't do it all overnight!

@nicky.brycesharron Portrait

Failure is unavoidable when it comes to research and you’ve posted about a few experiences on your channel, such as your first hybrid toxin that failed to fold properly or that transformation that failed to produce results. You mention many times that research sometimes feels like pushing a Sisyphean boulder back up the hill over and over again😓. How do you handle your setbacks and get re-motivated to try again/keep going?

You know, in such times I think about the artist Pablo Picasso🎨. Picasso created more than 50,000 works of art in his lifetime. Do you know how many of those we celebrate as classics? Around one hundred. Less than one percent. And yet we absolutely and rightly so consider Picasso to be one of the greats in his particular line of art.

Success is a numbers game, and it's through getting back up and trying something new that we increase that chance of success.

Thomas Edison is quoted as having said “I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work" in reference to the light bulb. Sure, it can be hard to fail, but it doesn't mean I’M a failure, so I found a new way things don't work, and I try again to find one that will.

As an aside, that first hybrid might actually be functional after all👏. With every new thing I've learned, I've marched that hybrid back out again to test, and I think I've finally cracked it last week!

“So much success in science often comes not from pure raw talent but the perseverance and grit to continue even when it can be a bit of a slog”💪. On your channel, you describe when you had to test a bazillion conditions whilst trying to optimize a new protocol for your new hybrid protein. Can you share a bit about the “less glamorous” aspects of research? Do you ever feel impatient at yourself at your perceived lack of progress?

The world definitely never sees the side of research which is running the same damned experiment for the thousandth time, the latest time being that you may have tweaked the NaCl concentration by mere milimolars or incubated a sample at a slightly higher temperature!😬 I do feel impatient, but I'm learning to live with it, because...

...that perception of zero progress is in fact just that, because I've come to realise that actually I learn a little bit more with every trial and error.

Research definitely isn't like in the movies or on the television, where a cold case file is wrapped up nicely in 45 minutes and with a small science montage of an experiment working on the first try!

@nicky.brycesharron Portrait

During the height of the pandemic, you were homeschooling your kids during the day and doing labwork in the evenings – you’re amazing!🤩 Being a mother and a researcher comes with unique challenges and double the pressure! How do you do it? What support in the form of programs or policies are or aren’t available to ensure more mums in science can pursue their research dreams?

Honestly I don't know that there is a lot of support within academia itself, and that is often very limiting to not only parents but also people who have to work in addition to their studies, have learning or physical difficulties, etc. I am very lucky in two regards, and owe a lot of my success to: 1. I have an amazing supportive husband who not only will work around my needs but whose income is as such I do not have to earn money and 2🥰. I have an amazing supervisor who has always been supportive, flexible with our arrangement, and understanding of my circumstances. And yeah, I definitely see that comes down to a big degree of privilege.

Universities, especially here in the UK, do not have flexible schedules for classes, which is less of a problem now that everything is recorded and online, but it's a huge problem when you might have a lab lasting 4 hours in the middle of the day and a school run in the middle of it, or a job that isn't willing to be flexible around your studies😩. It's a huge problem. Working with individual lecturers and staff can often yield positive, more flexible outcomes, but it should really be the school at large putting things into place to make it possible.


Favorite and least favorite lab technique?

Favourite techniques are those surrounding gene manipulation. Going right into the As Gs Ts and Cs to rewrite the code of life! Least favourite? Western blots. They take the whole day and can be finicky.

Prettiest thing you’ve seen in the lab?

Always going to be two things: The visible white wisps of DNA coalescing after cell lysis in the tube, and DNA fluorescing (via dye or a tag like GFP) under UV. Never gets old!💖

Favorite way to unwind after a long day?

Video games! Currently enjoying Metroid Dread, but my forever go to's are Animal Crossing🌱 and Stardew Valley as they are so relaxing! I also love to read and crochet.

As you mentioned many times on your channel, it is important to acknowledge your own growth no matter how “small”. What’s one recent breakthrough you experienced, whether it was a lab experiment, or a personal “intellectual growth spurt”?

One of the biggest ones that has both been recent and also ongoing is noticing my ability to talk about my research with my supervisor.🤓 Sure, I still say a bunch of really dumb stuff to him, some days it feels like too much, but its improved so much and I feel like (sometimes, not all the time!) I’m talking more to a peer than a superior..

The other is one I mentioned earlier, and that is last week I saw what is perhaps two working hybrids, my old one, and a new one I've just made.🥳 More testing is needed, but I think they work, and that feels pretty awesome.

You know you’re a scientist when…

Someone makes a claim and you ask to see the data. 😂

@nicky.brycesharron Illustration

Thanks for participating in our #SciComm interview, Nicky! So happy to hear that your first hybrid might be functional after all! You can follow Nicky on her instagram channel, @nicky.brycesharron!

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