#SciComm: Featuring Amal from @science_phd_creative

Posted by Applied Biological Materials (abm) on March 18, 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!


@science_phd_creative Portrait

Meet Amal! She is a structural biologist doing a post doc on G-protein coupled receptors and a passionate science communicator. As the first member of her family to pursue a scientific career, Amal started her instagram channel @science_phd_creative to share behind-the-scenes of life as a scientist. Since then, she's been sharing her knowledge, connecting with other science communicators, and helping to motivate and inspire the next generation of scientists!

Tell us a bit about yourself, Amal! What sparked your interest in structural biology and GPCR proteins? Did you have any other proteins in mind that you wanted to explore and study more about? How did you go about choosing your research topic?

Before I dive into my passion about GPCR proteins, let me introduce myself.

Hello!👋 My name is Amal, and I am a structural biologist, studying membrane protein complexes.

My structural biology career has been purely an accidental choice. I am coming from an industrial biotechnology background and as a master student, I was working with embryonic STEM cells in a developmental biology lab🧫. After the master’s degree, I did not know if I wanted to be in academia or industry and was not sure about the next step in my study. So, I started exploring around and by pure chance, I got this opportunity to work at the University in a structural biology lab that then became the place where I performed my PhD🎓. Since that moment, in 2015, I have fallen in love with the structural biology of proteins and never left. Indeed, I am currently a postdoctoral fellow in structural biology of membrane protein complexes, called G-protein coupled receptors (GPCRs), in Berlin, Germany.

As a postdoc, I am investigating the signaling mechanism of GPCRs by using biochemical and structural methods (e.g X-ray crystallography and Cryo-Electron microscopy). In particular, I am focused on a class of GPCRs that is involved in cancer and brain development🧠.

My interest in the field of membrane proteins research goes back to 2017, during my PhD. On one hand I was studying the structure-function characteristics of an ion channel that is highly expressed in the brain and can lead to neurological disorders. On the other hand, I was studying a soluble protein in a complex with Nanobody. Luckily, I had great inspiring mentors from whom I learned a lot and became more interested in structural biology. One of my mentors, in Oxford, was working with GPCRs and I guess being by her side has boosted my passion about GPCRs✨.

Although these proteins are very challenging to study from a structural point of view, I decided to continue in that direction to understand in depth how these receptors are working in our body, and why certain mutation in their sequence can lead to severe diseases.

@science_phd_creative Portrait

On your channel, you post a lot of interesting behind-the-scenes footage that give your viewers snapshots of your lab life! What made you decide to start your channel? What are your thoughts on the importance of science communication?

I am coming from a family where no one was in the field of science or working in a lab, and so the idea of starting a scientific career was not clear to them and sounded like a mysterious job. On top of that, few people from our village (from where originally, I am) had a clue about science research🤔. Yet these people from my small circle of family and friends were curious about the work I am doing as a PhD. And since I enjoy public speaking, presenting, sharing information and networking, I thought about starting my page on Instagram giving people the opportunity to have a closer look into behind-the-scenes of life in the lab. With time, I got great feedback from many people that are following me and realized that they are not only interested in scientific data, but also on how an experiment is running and how my life as a scientist is👩‍🔬.

I feel that explaining science to the public is not easy. It requires creativity and dedication to find the best way in communicating it, and therefore, be able to narrow that gap between scientists and non-scientific audience.

Thanks to my page on social media, I got to know many scientists and all from different places around the world. At the same time, it allowed me to stay in touch with scientists that I have met at a conference perhaps or meeting new people who are living in my city.

@science_phd_creative Portrait

Research can be very self-paced - sometimes it can go slowly (especially if you encountered a roadblock) and sometimes it can go very fast (and you can risk burning out!). What are your go-to project management and well-being tips/tricks for keeping on track/not falling behind on your projects but also avoiding burnout?

So what do you do to get burnout? Oh, get a PhD degree! :-) In fact, that was my first burnout moment. The second time was during the transition between PhD and Postdoc😫. Back then I didn't have enough tools to avoid such a stressful period and so, I could not avoid a burnout. Especially when you are very passionate about something.

Over time I have learned how to cope with it and realized that finding that balance is not difficult, it just takes time. As one of my mentors said, it is a learning process.

From my experience I would say:

  • Speak up. When you feel in difficulty with your project, talk to your lab colleagues or supervisors, or someone outside the science-bubble to brainstorm on the problem and hopefully it motivates you to proceed.
  • Learn how to do things in more moderation, to make sure that you can continue to do the work you like.
  • It is fine to fail, as long as you learn from it, and you can take care of yourself.
    Simply by disconnecting your mind, having regular breaks, and relaxing. For example, I cycle🚲 every day and this is something that makes me feel very happy and refreshed to either start my day in the lab or be relieved after work. I love being also in nature🌳, whether to go for a walk or a hike, and it is powerful on my productivity overall.
  • Work smart, not hard.

I really think that some small positive actions can surely have a positive impact on our mental health.

@science_phd_creative Portrait

"Some days are full of experiments and achievements, and then there are days of failures." Some great words of wisdom you shared in one of your posts! Failures are part and parcel of research, especially when you're breaking new ground! Can you share a story of an experiment that didn't go as planned and how you kept yourself motivated to break through that deadlock?

Another quote I like from a podcast is “It doesn’t matter if you fall down, as long as you pick up something useful from the floor when you get up.” This sentence became a reminder to me all the time of the choices I’m making, and those failures are just lessons.

I remember a moment in my career where I was really undecided about a project that has been assigned to me😕. The more I was going on and giving the best I could, the more I was feeling depressed and unhappy. Very unusual to me. But I couldn't admit that and kept pushing myself until the burnout. I spoke up, asked for help, and decided to leave that position because it was not the right fit. I guess, I had to go through this experience to figure out what I really like to do next and what motivates me to wake up every morning. This experience was definitely life-changing in my career. Since then, I look at failures as a learning experience.👍

So, talking to someone can help in standing up and getting motivated again. Reminding myself of the reasons I chose science, the journey I accomplished until now and how many obstacles I've overcome to achieve my goals. For example, I am the first one in my family to get a PhD degree in science and when I remember the success of my PhD defense, the happiness of my family, and how many hurdles I had to go through, it automatically gives me a great motivation boost.🤗

Such a successful moment showed me that I can make it and “every cloud has a silver-lining”.

Listening to certain podcasts motivates me a lot.

I tend to tell students: do not be afraid of making mistakes in the lab because this is how you learn. This is how I gain lots of experience in the lab.

@science_phd_creative Portrait

Now for some more fun questions!

What does a typical day in the lab look like for you? What are your favorite and least favorite lab assays/techniques?

My days in the lab can vary a lot, but mostly you can find me either in the cell culture, for the overexpression of our proteins, or in the protein lab🧪, where all the wet-lab work is going. Some days may include several meetings, literature reading and structural analysis on the computer💻.

So there is no a typical day for me, and I guess that’s the luxury of my work in academia. It is not boring.

My favorite lab technique is protein purification. My least favorite one is any molecular biology technique, like DNA-cloning.

@science_phd_creative Portrait

You know you're a structural biologist when....

It is hard to think about one single moment. But maybe that moment when my eyes were sparkling at any protein structures🤩 or probably when I got the first data set of my three protein's crystals, at the electron synchrotron, I was crying of happiness.😁

@science_phd_creative Portrait

How was the transition moving from the UK to do a Postdoc in Germany? Living away from family/friends in a new place/country can be daunting - how did you adjust to your new environment?

From a professional point of view, it was hard anyway because of that transition in my career levels, from being a PhD student to a postdoc. Also, the dynamics of doing science in the lab was different between the UK and Germany.

At the personal level, of course there were cultural differences, but I am a very flexible person, and could integrate easily-quickly in a new culture. Therefore, there was no huge difficulty in moving to Germany for me. I still miss my time in UK and my family though.

@science_phd_creative Portrait

Thank you Amal, for sharing your journey as a scientist with all of us! It's challenging being the first in your family and the village where you're from to enter the field of scientific research but you're doing a great job as an ambassador of science. You can follow Amal's journey on her instagram channel, @science_phd_creative.

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