Perhaps the word “scientist” conjures up an image of an individual, huddled in a lab coat, spending hours in a small lab space, hidden from the rest of society. You consider Dexter, from Dexter’s Laboratory, to be your ideal scientist, as he mixes chemicals and builds inventions—while fixing everything his older sister Dee Dee breaks.
If that’s what a scientist is to you, then you may need to update your mental vision. Sasha Weiditch, a fourth-year Ph.D student, fits none of those expectations, as she sits across me in her bright pink lab coat, and discusses both her research and the many commitments that she holds beyond the lab bench.
“I’ve always loved science,” says Weiditch. “In high school, I loved Grade 12 biology and chemistry, and that drove me to do chemistry in university. I came here to UTM—I wanted to stay close to home.”
Weiditch was pursuing a Bachelor’s of Science—specifically a biology major, and a minor in both chemistry and English.
“By third or fourth year, you find yourself thinking: where is this going to go post-graduation? I was always keen on getting more research experience, and seeing what I could do with a science degree. That’s when I stumbled upon professor Kanelis.”
Professor Voula Kanelis, an associate professor within the department of chemistry, was teaching a third-year biochemistry course, which Weiditch was enrolled in.
“I thought it was so interesting in learning about proteins—how they fold, how they work, what they do—and I kind of bugged her for the first semester. I went to her office hours. I tried to see when she was available, because I really wanted to see what it was like to be a scientist: to be a female in science,” says Weiditch.
Her persistence paid off. Weiditch went on to complete a fourth-year thesis research project with Kanelis.
“I enjoyed working there. I thought the research was very interesting, and it was something I could see myself doing, so I went on to a master’s. I think that a master’s is a nice start in case you’re not sure that research is for you, because it is a different lifestyle and a huge time commitment.”
Upon graduation in 2013, Weiditch initially continued her education as a master’s student (under the supervision of Kanelis), but then faced another set of crossroads as her master’s drew to an end.
“My academic journey wasn’t done yet. There was more I wanted to learn, there was more experience that I wanted to gain, different jobs that I wanted to get that I thought a Ph.D would be required for, so I transferred to a Ph.D.”
Weiditch is enrolled in the cell and systems biology graduate department, but is in the unique position where her supervisor is within the chemistry department. She was recently awarded the Kenneth C. Fisher Fellowship, which is an award intended for a graduate student within the cell and systems biology department who maintains a high standard of academic and research achievement, along with outstanding extracurricular contributions to the university.
Today, Weiditch’s research focuses on phage proteins—specifically the protein gp74 produced by the bacteriophage HK97.
“Bacteriophages are viruses that infect bacteria,” explains Weiditch. “They’re actually quite a novel therapeutic. Antibiotic-resistance is growing, so the idea is that now these bacteria have evolved to become resistant to antibiotics. What’s the next step? What can we develop? […] It’s really coming into news and publications again that phage therapy could be promising.”
It could be “nature’s very own” invention, which now has the potential to work on bacteria who have evolved to avoid susceptibility to antibiotics.
Specifically, Weiditch is using NMR spectroscopy to understand the molecular mechanisms by which gp74 regulates bacteriophage replication.
“We always study a thesis project that is very niche. We spend five years studying something that is very specific. That can be very effective or not very effective. But what you do gain is a broad set of skills,” says Weiditch. For example, while Weiditch is primarily a Ph.D student, she is also a teaching assistant, a co-president of the UTM Association of Graduate Students, and a mentor for a high school student through Girls E-Mentorship.
“This can be transferrable to many types of jobs. So, although I’m still looking for where I’ll fit in—and I think that’s one of the issues for graduate students—what type of jobs are out there? What do I do with my Ph.D, besides becoming a professor or a principal investigator?”
“Know yourself. It’s something that you have to understand, and then from there, you’ll be able to fit whatever job works for you,” she adds.
This is something that UTMAGS is actively working on. Last semester, in collaboration with UTM’s Career Centre, the UTMAGS team recently delivered a Career Management Mini Series, featuring four short workshops (including Where Are the Jobs? and Marketing Yourself), aimed to help graduate students develop a sense of career management. Two of these workshops have taken place, and the other two will take place this semester.
Before being elected to the UTMAGS co-president, Weiditch was the UTMAGS vice-president in the 2015/2016 academic year.
“[UTMAGS has] actually been fortunate to have our say in a few matters that are going to be reflected in the coming years,” says Weiditch.
Along with Weiditch’s many commitments, a key one is science outreach—especially to women in STEM fields.
“Science outreach is important to me because there is a lot of noise about what is true, what is fact, what is fiction, and also, what it means to be a scientist—what a scientist looks like. Those sorts of things are important to me because it does not fall into one category,” says Weiditch. “A scientist could be anything.”
Interestingly, Weiditch runs an Instagram account, titled PhDenomenal PhDemale, which she has defined to be “a very remarkable, extraordinary woman or girl who pursues a Ph.D. in science and is not afraid to be exactly who she wants to be.” This account was started in November 2016, and currently has over 400 followers.
“There are so many awesome women in science who are phenomenal—who are unique, different, diverse and smart. I really wanted to showcase that,” says Weiditch. “That maybe it’s not something you see every day, but that these are phenomenal women. Not just scientists, but female. And that’s where the title came from.”
Weiditch hopes that through her PhDenomenal PhDemale platform, she can promote girls to join science—and to keep women interested in science.
As for current female undergraduates in STEM, Weiditch says, “If you have a passion for science—if you’re interested in science but don’t know where it could take you, look at what’s out there, and believe in yourself. Don’t think you can’t do something because you don’t look like a scientist, or you don’t think that you look like a scientist, but always have faith in yourself. If you believe in yourself, if you’re doing the best that you can in your courses, if you have passion for science, pursue it. Science needs more women.”