Daisy Cave interviews Maria Sharif on how COVID-19 has affected her PhD and science communication.
Maria Sharif, founder of the Research Diaries blog on Instagram and YouTube, is a PhD student at the University of Birmingham. Maria’s research focuses on how the immune system can be stimulated to fight cancer - she has recently returned to the lab following four months of working from home, due to the COVID-19 lockdown. In September 2020, she became a published equal first author in the Journal of Medicinal Chemistry. SATNAV interviewed Maria in September, after a busy day at the lab, to discuss her journey with science communication, as well as her experiences of overcoming rejection and how her field has been impacted by COVID-19.
You run a blog called Research Diaries, could you talk a bit about your journey in science communication?
‘Yes, so I did a Master's in Cancer Sciences, which is an MRes (a Research Masters). At some point, when I was doing a project in the lab, I was quite intrigued by my project and I really liked what I was doing. Instead of throwing it onto my personal Instagram I decided to start a separate Instagram account, where I can just talk about science and what it's like to work in the lab. Because, when I was going into science, I didn't really know what ‘Research Scientists’ actually did in the lab. I didn't know anybody from that background and on the news, you only really hear “researchers have found this or this,” but you don't really see what they do and how they do it. So, I decided to start my Instagram and it's like a diary of my journey through science and at the same time, I try to break down the topic of my research and say what it is that I'm researching.
I think my blog is mainly aimed at undergraduate students, in Biomedical or Biological Sciences. I also want to try and do some more basic posts that are not just for scientists. I've tried it a couple of times, for example I did a post on “What is Cancer” in February. I just like sharing my enthusiasm for what I do and promoting research life, to say “this is what we do as scientists”.’
Speaking of outreach, there are a lot of new students about to start university, following the recent scandal with A Levels. Many may feel a sense of failure or rejection. Have you ever felt a similar way and do you have any words of advice or encouragement for new students?
‘Absolutely, in academia, I've been rejected a few times. My initial career plan was to do medicine. I didn't get the A level results that I wanted, so I didn’t get any offers to study medicine, but I ended up getting an offer for Biomedical Science at the University of Birmingham. It was the only offer I had, I didn't have any interviews for medicine, I just got rejected straight away and I was quite upset by that. But, as I went through my biomedical science course, I realized that I really enjoyed it. I still planned to try and apply for medicine again at graduate entry level - but still, I didn't even get an interview. It is actually fortunate that it didn't happen, because I'm really glad that I ended up liking science and staying in science. I'm really happy with where I am now and it isn’t something that I saw myself in when I was 16 or 17 and applying to university; I never even imagined that I would enjoy being in labs.
Being rejected: it's not the end of the world. Also, during my journey in science I've been rejected from some PhD programs and that was quite upsetting, but I ended up doing some work as a research technician and that was beneficial for my current PhD because I got to do some really exciting work that was directly related to the project that I'm doing now. I'm quite glad that all of those rejections happened, because now I’ve found something that I'm truly passionate about. Don't be disheartened by rejections, because you never know what those new opportunities will bring you.’
That is great advice, especially at the minute, about not comparing yourself with what other people are doing.
‘Exactly. That's another thing: everybody's different, even as a PhD student, everybody’s projects are different and they go at different paces. Some people get published during their PhD, some people don't. It's nice to look at others, but not to compare or think negatively of yourself. The main take home message is don't put yourself down.’
Your PhD is lab-based: how did your routine shift when you were working from home and do you have any advice for students who are now having to work remotely for the first time?
‘Planning is the key here. The good thing about lockdown was the flexibility. I had a lot of time on my hands and I could do anything I wanted with it. What I liked doing was writing a plan the day before–I think planning is the main thing when you work from home. Obviously don't work 24/7, set yourself a time when you should finish working for the day and after that time you can do what you want. So balance your work with chill time. It's really important because otherwise you just end up being absorbed into work and will be quite overwhelmed by it all.’
Now that you are back in the lab, how is it different to before lockdown? What's the new normal like for you?
‘Initially, there were no more than two people in the group office, for my team. When we first started we were encouraged to work from home if we didn’t have to be in the lab. In the lab, we have certain bays where people work and there's no more than one person per bay. There are about six of us who work in the lab, so we have to plan around each other. We also have a lab where we do tissue culture (any kind of cellular work), normally two people can work there, but now it's no more than one person. For my work in immunology, I work with blood a lot. We get immune cells from human blood, so you have to find the donors and make sure they're available, and at the same time I have to find somebody who will take the blood. It takes more planning in advance, and although I always try to find people in advance, not many people are in all the time nowadays, due to all the rules in place, so it takes even longer to plan and organise the work.
Now, we're more actively back. When we first started, I saw one or maybe two people from my team; it was very empty. Whereas now, we’re getting back on track and we see each other more. We have our ‘team tea time’ in the middle of the day together, like before lockdown – but now socially distanced, obviously. We get to see each other more and talk about work, which is nice, but I've never seen the university this empty.’
There have been many news stories about how cancer has been indirectly impacted by the effects of COVID-19. Have you heard any stories about that?
‘Not so much in my lab or services, but a lot of clinical trials have been suspended, including those testing new treatments for cancer, heart disease and other serious conditions. I think there's about 9000 trials suspended and 1500 have permanently closed. That's a lot of trials: that's thousands and thousands of patients we’re talking about here. People who are supposed to get the treatments that they signed up for on the trial are not going to get it and so their disease is going to progress. Thousands have also missed their screenings as well as vital life saving treatments. It has been quite devastating to see, especially as I'm a cancer research scientist, I'm passionate about patients getting the right care. COVID has taken priority, and I wish I could say for certain, “oh, yes, there's been progress in immunotherapy development,” but at the moment, unfortunately, it's just all kind of overshadowed by coronavirus. This year is really all about coronavirus, as much as I wish there was more to mention on cancer research. It is still happening, of course, but currently the battle with coronavirus has been highlighted more than anything else.
In academia, some funding applications have been delayed, because people in the funding bodies/committees are not working normally, due to the lockdown. Also, PhD students had to have their projects extended and their funding extended, but it is quite nice, because they can come back after the lockdown and finish any work they haven't finished. I've been quite lucky in the sense that I'm only in my second year.
Maria’s blog (Research Diaries) can be found at: