Q&A WITH DR. BUDDHINI SAMARASINGHE MOLECULAR BIOLOGIST, CANCER RESEARCHER, AND FOUNDER OF STEM WOMEN

When did you become interested in science as a career? Did anyone encourage you?

I realized quite early that I wanted to know everything I could about science. My mother is a scientist (her subject area is chemistry) and a lecturer at the University of Sri Jayawardenepura in Sri Lanka. My parents were very encouraging of my interest in science. I narrowed it down to molecular biology in my teens when I read Jurassic Park and was fascinated with the descriptions of genes and cloning techniques. I didn’t care so much about the dinosaurs, but loved the idea of the “genetic blueprint” that underlies every living thing on this planet.

What were some difficulties or barriers to entry you experienced while getting into STEM, and how did you overcome them?

I didn’t experience any difficulties because once I was sure I wanted to study molecular biology, I focused on getting the grades I needed to get into university in the UK. The culture shock was a bit difficult to adjust to at first, because I grew up in Sri Lanka. I think that’s something every international student faces, especially when from a minority ethnic background. Language wasn’t a barrier for me because I grew up speaking English; so it was amusing when people assumed my English wasn’t very good simply because I was the wrong skin color for it!

Describe your cancer research and molecular biology work.

Following my undergrad degree, I earned a PhD in molecular parasitology, studying a parasite that infected sheep. But at a fundamental level, all organisms have DNA, and very similar genetic pathways, so the techniques I learned could be applied to studying any form of life. That’s the beauty of molecular biology; DNA is DNA, whether it comes from a worm or a fruit fly or a human. I became interested in cancer because, during the final year of my undergraduate degree, my father was diagnosed with lung cancer, and I wanted to understand the disease. He passed away a year before my PhD graduation, so I switched from studying parasites to studying cancer for my postdoctoral research. Instead of fearing cancer because I didn’t know much about it, I wanted to learn more about it so I could fear it less, if that makes sense.

You’re passionate about making science accessible to the masses, and as a science communicator you write about STEM without the jargon. Do you think platforms like YouTube and Twitter make it easier to interest more people in science?

I became involved in science communication during my postdoctoral research because I realized that molecular biology was a mystery to so many people. I started doing Google Hangouts, interviewing scientists about their work, and all the resulting videos are on YouTube. I also started writing about cancer mechanisms for Scientific American. Social media platforms definitely help with making science accessible to the public, helping scientists connect with one another. This experience helped me establish myself as a science communicator, allowing me to leave academia and, since November 2014, focus on science communications full-time. I now work for a cancer charity, “translating” science into English for fundraising teams. My writing reaches so many people and helps raise money toward cancer research, and it feels very meaningful to me because of that.

Can you tell us a bit about STEM Women and its goals?

STEM Women is an organization I created back in 2011, around the same time I got into science communications. I was aware that the role models we always talk about are people like Marie Curie, a remote figure in a black-and-white photograph. I wanted more current examples of women scientists, and their experiences, so I started collecting stories. I then became aware of issues like sexism in academia, and in 2013 I partnered with two other women scientists and we set up our website, which we use to discuss these issues, feature role models, and generally advocate for women in STEM.

What advice would you give young women who want to get into STEM?

STEM subjects are not easy, but they are absolutely fascinating and rewarding. It’s a way of understanding the world and navigating through it. The skills you learn by doing a STEM course will stay with you for the rest of your life—skills like critical thinking, organization, planning…these are all so important and they are learned, not taught.

A molecular biologist currently working on cancer research, DR. BUDDHINI SAMARASINGHE is also a passionate science communicator whose mission is to describe science, minus the jargon. She is also the creator of STEM Women (stemwomen.​net), a website that celebrates and supports the careers of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. You can learn more about Buddhini by following her on Twitter @DrHalf​PintBuddy or visiting her website, jargonwall.​com.

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