Amy Inkster is a UBC doctoral student at BC Children's Hospital.
I've always been interested in science and became specifically interested in genetics in high school. When I applied to graduate school, I was interested in several medical genetics programs across Canada and ended up choosing my position based on the supervisor and their projects. I interviewed with Dr. Wendy Robinson and was impressed by how welcoming and friendly both she and the lab were. The Robinson lab studies human pregnancy and prenatal development, and also does a lot of "big data" analysis, which fit perfectly with my research interests and the skills I wanted to learn in graduate school.
My current research focuses on understanding sex differences in prenatal development, specifically with a focus on the placenta. During pregnancy, almost all of the complications that can arise show some type of sex bias (based on the sex of the baby), and male-carrying pregnancies are more likely to experience a variety of complications, such as preterm birth. The placenta is the organ responsible for supporting the growth and health of the baby during pregnancy, and in my work I'm using DNA methylation and RNA sequencing data from the placenta to investigate how the prenatal development of males and females differs, at the molecular level.
After I finish my PhD, I'm open to a variety of scientific career directions that align with my research interests. I'm very interested in the study of sex differences and the effects that biological sex has on health, and I've always found the related process of X chromosome inactivation fascinating. To explain X chromosome inactivation, in female mammals one of the two X chromosomes is coated with molecular marks to turn off gene expression along the entire chromosome. This happens because females have two X chromosomes while males have only one (along with one Y chromosome); without X chromosome inactivation, females would have twice as much X chromosome gene expression as males. I find the elegance and complexity of X chromosome biology fascinating, and I think we can learn a lot about human health if we study cases in which X chromosome inactivation doesn't work properly. This is relevant to male-female sex differences, but also to conditions like some autoimmune disorders.
In Wendy's lab, I have learned a lot of X chromosome data analysis skills, been involved in evaluating how efficiently the X chromosome is silenced in the human placenta, and analyzed data from a handful of patients affected by X chromosome disorders. I'd ideally like to end up in the field of medical genetics, specifically conducting analysis of patient data — either in a research or diagnostic setting.
It's all about the people
The highlight of my graduate school experience has been the people and communities I've encountered along the way. First, I'm in a lab run by a strong female scientist, and, by happenstance, the professors we asked to be on my supervisory committee are also all women. It's really inspiring to be guided by a strong team of female-identifying mentors, and to receive their advice and feedback on my work. I also feel lucky to be part of such a great research group; going to work every day in Wendy's lab is so much fun. The community she's built is amazing — the students, lab manager, research assistants, and collaborators I've worked with over the years are all incredibly kind and supportive and have made all the difference in my graduate work. (continued below)
We all have our challenges — some visible, some not
I experienced something really poignant at a conference a few years ago related to being a woman in science. During a diversity and inclusion seminar, we were put into small groups and asked to identify things that worked against us in terms of being included in science or things that made us diverse from our colleagues. One of the women in my group identified having children as something that led to bias against her in academia and science. I found it impactful as none of the men in the room had identified the same factor, despite many being parents as well. Although we live in a time when having a career in science is an option for women, that doesn't mean it's fair yet. I'm encouraged to see institutes and organizations starting to take a more active role in committing to improvement in these areas and I hope it continues.
In addition to gender, everyone has various aspects of who they are — either visible or invisible — that can bestow privilege or make it harder to proceed in science or in any career or area of life. I'm a woman, I have type 1 diabetes, and I was born as a right-hand amputee as a result of amniotic band syndrome. Over the years, I have had several people question my ability to be a scientist. However, it is possible to find people who will believe in you, and people who won't question your abilities. I think it's important to seek these people out and surround yourself with them. Being part of a supportive network of people makes it so much easier to succeed professionally. They'll help you navigate challenges, they'll write excellent reference letters for you, they'll supervise the labs that you join. It just comes down to finding them.
Enthusiasm and courage go a long way
My advice to young women considering a career in science is twofold: First, don't be afraid to try new things and second, enthusiasm is a good thing. Science is full of failure, and trying new things can be paralyzing. Often, we feel the need to be experts before we even begin. A big part of science is being resilient to this failure, learning that what doesn't work is as valuable as learning what does, and it doesn't mean that you personally are a failure if an experiment doesn't work or a scholarship doesn't get funded. With that in mind, when faced with new challenges, just try! Take small concrete steps and don't be afraid to ask questions.
It's so valuable to be enthusiastic about your science! Having genuine interest in and enthusiasm for your chosen field makes it exciting to go to school or work every day, and it's all the more satisfying to finish a project that you're proud of.
Another tip is to gain research experience early on to figure out where your interests lie. That can mean volunteering if you're privileged enough to be able to do so, or seeking a paid undergraduate research position. Even if it's only a couple of hours a week, getting familiar with the scientific process and experiencing different research areas can help you figure out where you'd like to end up.