Categories: Sanger Life, Tree of Life8 March 20226.2 min read

Making your voice heard

Dr Mara Lawniczak’s team at the Sanger Institute has research interests that include malaria transmission, mosquito evolution, butterfly chromosomes and ancient DNA. They are connected by the aim of gaining a deep evolutionary understanding of species and organisms.

This International Women’s Day, we spoke to some of the team about creepy crawlies and being a woman in science.

Tell us about your day-to-day

Juliana Cudini (PhD Student): My day-to-day is very computational. I’m focused on analysis of single cell data from malaria parasites. It's mostly plotting new maps and looking at dots all the time. I mean, I see dots everywhere. In my sleep. Little cells, like Tetris blocks fitting in.

I'm also really passionate about making understandable figures to show my data. I probably spend a little bit more time than I should on making reproducible figures and making reproducible code notebooks.

Petra Korlevic (Research Fellow): I’m working on extracting DNA from species of mosquitos and flies that I’ve not worked on previously. I’ve got some samples from the 1920’s that I’m really keen to work on. There is a lot of collaboration with the bespoke sequencing team at Sanger – sequencing DNA from the 20’s isn’t straightforward.

Marilou Boddé (PhD student): My work is purely computational. I am doing a combination of data analysis and  developing new methods to look at the types of data we have. I’ve been working on a project with Petra to develop ways to identify mosquito species using data from cheap, minimal sequencing.

Charlotte Wright (PhD student): Usually my work is computational, but this week I’ve had to dissect some butterflies. We want to sequence the DNA from butterfly sperm cells. It is really, really fiddly – their reproductive systems are very complex - and a bit gross.

Juliana: I hate insects. I find them creepy, creepy crawlies. I really do - it's bizarre that I'm in this team, and for me to be interested in bug talk.

What’s the best thing about working in science?

Petra: It's the creativity. You have it all; you get to create a protocol, or you get to create a script, or a new interpretation of the world. And for a second, or a few minutes, when you find something, you may be the only person in the whole world who knows that thing.

Marilou: Coming from studying pure maths, for me it’s the real world applications. We are looking for answers that will make a difference to malaria control and people’s lives. Also it’s the collaboration, I can talk to people from completely different backgrounds about my ideas and our research questions.

Charlotte: I like science because I like understanding things. I guess I was always the kid that asked, “But why?”. Science allows you to answer those questions, and keep going until you understand the very fundamental basis of things. And I think that's why I ended up studying genomes, because ultimately, how things work is written in their DNA sequences. And the ‘why’ is the process of evolution. So evolutionary genomics ties things together for me.

As it’s International Women’s Day, could you reflect on some of the challenges that women in science face?

Marilou: I think there is an issue of confidence. When I was doing my Masters degree, only 10 per cent of the students were female. In seminars, I wouldn’t feel confident about speaking up, unless I was very sure I understood something and had prepared. But I noticed men speaking up – who actually didn’t know as much as me. My female colleagues felt the same. It wasn’t until I got my final exam results, and I’d done well, that I realised I was good at what I was doing.

Charlotte: I agree. In University it would tend to be men that spoke the most and would be the loudest. Having your voice heard is really important. And I guess a lot of people don't have the confidence to think they can do science, and that it is something they can see themselves doing.

Petra: I think men and women can be perceived differently. There have been points in my career where I’ve been told I should be more agreeable, for example. I don’t know if that would have been said to a man. And there have definitely been occasions where something I’ve said has been ignored, then a few minutes later a man says it, and it’s a great idea. I think it’s an issue of supporting women to speak up, speak out and challenge authority.

Juliana: I think Mara is a really good role model, especially for how to run a group. She doesn't have a very strong hierarchical structure where maybe some of these things could become apparent. She treats everyone in her group very equally, and very collaboratively. I think that in itself would then erase some of the more stereotypical boundaries that people face.

Do you have a science hero?

Juliana: I've always admired Barbara McClintock. She was the scientist who discovered jumping genes. I think the discovery was super fundamental and very interesting. And I think she's a very cool person.

Charlotte: Maria Sibylla Merian. She was one of the original lepidopterists and she was really ahead of her time. She not only really carefully studied insects, and drew them, but also tried to understand processes like their development. It was her that first coined the term metamorphosis. She was super cool, because she travelled around the world and she took her daughters with her as well. She was centuries ahead of people like Darwin. She was a pioneer.

Petra: There are so many – Leonardo Da Vinci, because he was an artist as well as a scientist. But Van Gogh's paintings are some of my all time favourite things. Thinking about genetics, Rosalind Franklin who discovered the structure of DNA. The amount of publications that came out of her lab in a brief time is amazing.

If you could time travel where would you go?

Charlotte: I'd really love to be on one of those original exploratory adventures in the 16th Century, where people are looking at things for the first time and going to places that no one has ever been to before.

Petra: I’d like to see the last common ancestor – as in the life form, probably just a cell - that became all the species we see today.

Marilou: I would really like to be in the NASA control room during the time of the moon landing. I think that would be very exciting.

Juliana: I want to go into the near future, maybe 10 years down the line. Not too far, as there'll be so many changes that I wouldn't really get an idea of what was happening. I think looking at advances that are up and coming, I would like to see if they had worked. And I’d see if the climate crisis will allow us to even jump ahead that far.





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