August 16, 2021
Interview with Dr Serena Ekman
Organisation: University of Queensland
One-liner: Serena Ekman’s just starting her career in science but has been inspiring Queenslanders young and old for years!
I had a teacher that inspired me, and I would come home from school every day and watch shows like Backyard Science and Mythbusters.
After studying for a total of eight years at university, what do you have planned for your future in STEM? What is your next project?
Grace, Moranbah SHS
That is an excellent question! I’ve decided that although research is super important, I’d like to try stepping away from lab work for a little bit and get a job in STEM communication/events. I’d love to work with schools, museums, or even work with patents or research grants. I might go back to the lab in the future, but right now I really want to try something new (still science-based of course).
Was your thesis investigating blood typing techniques to reduce transfusion reactions? Was it focused on newborns, are they more likely to have transfusion reactions?
STEM Girl Power
Yes, my thesis was all about producing blood typing tests so we can reduce transfusion reactions for a blood group system called MNS (named after the immune response, and s for Sydney where the blood type was first found). A big chunk of my work was looking at a blood type called GP.Mur which is found mostly in South East Asia.
Even though there are some blood types like RhD which can affect a baby while they’re still growing inside their mum, there’s lots of people who need regular transfusions (like cancer patients or people with anemia/sickle cell disease) who are also at high risk. So, while my research wasn’t focused on newborns specifically, some of the blood types I was looking in my research can affect fetuses.
At what age did you decide this was something you wanted to specialise in? Where do you want to work now that you have your PhD?
Elsie, Western Cape College
I’ve known I loved science since grade five. I had a teacher that inspired me, and I would come home from school every day and watch shows like Backyard Science and Mythbusters. Ever since my first year at university, I knew I loved studying how diseases affect the human body and became really interested in learning about how bacteria can cause disease. I did my honours studying white blood cells in the immune system of patients with Common Variable Immunodeficiency.
I don’t think I’ll ever specialise in a specific field though – I want to be able to always learn something new and explore new areas. I’m happy to jump to cancer, or investigating viruses, or learning about growing organs for transplants. Thanks to my PhD, I’ve learnt the skills I need to research and design experiments that I can use in any field.
Did you use bioengineering and nanotechnologies in your research? How important are technologies and computer modelling to research like yours that can improve our health?
STEM Girl Power
I did use some bioengineering but not nanotechnology. In my project, I used a lab-made immune system to try and use the body’s natural detection system to create tests to detect the blood types I was looking for.
Computer modelling turned out to be the most important part of my PhD. We don’t know what the proteins I was studying actually look like. This can make it difficult to make tests to identify them. I had to make the first-ever computer models for these proteins from scratch – which was very hard, but very cool.
I haven’t had to analyse or make statistical models of big data sets yet – but I know that is a very important area for health studies these days. So if anyone loves programming or mathematics, biostatistics could be a good field for you!
How did you balance studying and volunteering while working in laboratories and completing your PhD?
STEM Girl Power
It was difficult, but the most important thing for me was to remember that my PhD comes first! Knowing when to say “I’ve got too much to do, I can’t do anything extra” is super important. For me, all my volunteering and extra-curricular work was simply what I did for fun! Instead of sitting at home on the weekend, I went out and volunteered at a science fair, or in the evenings after work I went to a student event on campus.
A great thing about a PhD is that you can be a bit more flexible with your timetable. I could do research at home on my computer at a time that suited me, or I would plan out my experiments to be in the morning if I needed time in the afternoon for a meeting or event, – as long as it all still got done.
What would be your 3 reasons to why you think that it is important to communicate STEM to the community and promote STEM to students across Queensland?
Lauren, Southport SHS, Gold Coast
Good question! There are a few key things I’ve come across along the way.
1: I think the core aspect about STEM isn’t who can memorise the most facts or who can be a human calculator, it’s developing problem-solving skills. In science there’s always some problem or question to be solved, you think of a way to solve it, and then you share your results and why they’re important. Being able to do this can translate to any field, whether you’re a big fan of science or not.
2: There’s science behind so much of our lives. Medicine, technology, rockets to space, our food and water supply and more. I think it’s really important to understand the world around us. You may not have to know how to build a phone but it’s good to appreciate all the effort and knowledge that makes a phone possible.
3: How can you decide you want to work in a specific field if you didn’t know that field existed? Something I love about talking to students is being able to show them all the different areas of science. Most people immediately think of a lab coat and research, but there are scientists whose “office” is a boat at sea, or in front of a TV camera, or coding at a desk. Plus, I get asked a lot of questions about how to get into uni, or what it’s like compared to high school. I think it’s nice for students to have an idea of what happens next.
From all your science communicator activities, what advice would you give about getting scientific messages across to younger students and the community?
STEM Girl Power
Keep it simple. Science can be complex and confusing and complicated, BUT when talking to the community I like to use the “tell me like I’m five” rule. Explain your work in the way a five-year old would understand.
It’s also always fun to have some interactive activities and simple science experiments – especially for the younger students. It can be pretty boring listening to a lecture, but much more entertaining doing an experiment yourself.
Last but not least, you need to get your ideas out there. If you really want a science event in your school or community, why not start one yourself? Another idea is to write a science blog, or make a YouTube channel? The only way to get a message out there is for someone to tell it!
What’s the best part of all the volunteering you do for science awareness?
STEM Girl Power
Honestly one of my favourite parts of volunteering is being able to attend all the science events! If I’m volunteering at a festival like the World Science Festival or National Science Week, I know when all the events are on so I don’t miss anything. Another thing I love is getting to wander around in my free time during the event and see everything. If you’re standing at the front door of a science show helping people find their way in and helping clean up once they’re out, you also get to watch the show in between! I’ve been able to see turtles hatching, explore museums, watch science talks, and participate in exhibits all because I was helping out.
Do you believe the research being undertaken for COVID-19 will benefit other fields of science and how?
Grace, Kirwan SHS, Townsville
I believe 100% that it will. For example, the group at The University of Queensland working on one of the vaccines were also working on improving how we make vaccines in order to make them faster in case a pandemic happens. Unfortunately for them, COVID happened when they were only halfway through their project, but I think they have done very well.
Another fun one is when lots of computer programs came out to help understand protein folding/shape for COVID. They ranged from games people could play, to improved artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms. These concepts could be used in the same way for other proteins in the future.
Thinking about the use of mRNA for vaccines, it was really only since COVID that this type of vaccine could be used on such a large scale – and they can be potentially used for other diseases or even cancer. This is just on the medical side. So much data has come from COVID regarding how people travel and interact with each other. The big data sets from COVID tracing and surveys on mental health could be used in psychology or social sciences. For all we know, they might improve the bus routes based on the most commonly visited areas!
If there’s one thing I’ve learnt from science it’s that one item of research can hold the answers for so many other areas. I wouldn’t be surprised if one day the research on people being stuck in isolation was used in making sure astronauts stayed happy and healthy when stuck out in space for months on end!
It’s an exciting time for Serena Ekman. In July she was successfully awarded the title of Dr for her thesis on “Structural studies of MNS glycophorins to guide the discovery of monoclonal antibodies”. Receiving her PhD follows four years of intensive research into the topic with the help of her great supervisors at The University of Queensland.
Serena is passionate about communicating STEM to the community as an active member of Queensland’s National Science Week Committee.
She’s also taken to the small screen, helping to translate science in a fun and easy to understand way. For three years she was the TV presenter for Channel 7’s Get Clever, covering a variety of topics including a clever explainer of how the body fights against germs when you get sick (Episode 15 of Season 1).
During her PhD studies, Serena has been an active member of The University of Queensland’s Wonder of Science initiative – helping promote STEM to students across Queensland. She’s also been a tutor at The University of Queensland School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences, demonstrating laboratory techniques and procedures for university students in the fields of microbiology and biological sciences. Who knows how she’s fitted all this in, but she’s also an active volunteer with the World Science Festival Brisbane, Pint of Science and the Young Scientists of Australia (Brisbane).
Now Dr Ekman is about to put her long journey of eight years of university study behind her and is excited to start her career in science and is keen to find new things to discover!