Meet Rhiannon Morris! She's currently a final stage PhD candidate in the Structural Biology division at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (Melbourne, Australia) where her research focuses on understanding how the proteins of the JAK-STAT signalling pathway interact with one another and how when this interaction is altered, blood cancers often occur. She is also passionate about science communication and advocating for women in STEM. Click the photos to shop Rhiannon's style!
INTRODUCE YOURSELF! TELL US A BIT ABOUT YOUR FORMAL AND INFORMAL EDUCATION.
I went to an arts high school where I was in the gifted and talented program for Ballet and Dance! During high school I got really interested in science and went to university to do a Bachelor of sSience. I ended up graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Molecular Biology with a Minor in Forensic Biology, a degree I really loved! I then moved across the country here in Australia to do my honours year (an intensive 1 year research project we have in Aus). I finished my honours with a first class (H1) and was awarded a PhD scholarship on the basis of my grades from that year and my undergraduate degree and now I am in the final year of my PhD! In terms of my informal education I have gained so much knowledge from the broader scientific community just by interacting with people on Twitter and Instagram!
WHAT IS THE MOST IMPORTANT LESSON OR SKILL YOU LEARNED INSIDE THE CLASSROOM OR LAB?
Probably just learning how science really happens. I think I always had this idea that you had a hypothesis, did an experiment and found that it was true or false, but it’s much more complex than that! There's a lot more to the process and a lot of behind the scenes that never really get told when the work is presented!
WHAT IS THE MOST IMPORTANT LESSON OR SKILL YOU LEARNED OUTSIDE THE CLASSROOM?
I think I have learned that you should always stand up for what’s important to you. Sometimes you might have to make people uncomfortable by bringing up topics that are often brushed under the carpet, but if it is important to you then having those conversations and making change is a must.
WHO WAS YOUR MOST MEMORABLE TEACHER?
I had two teachers in high school, Mrs Morritt and Ms Boston, who were incredibly inspiring and really got me interested in science. The way they presented science to us in the classroom was exciting and you could tell they enjoyed it too. I will never forget them.
WHEN DID YOU DECIDE TO USE YOUR INSTAGRAM PLATFORM AS A TOOL FOR SCIENCE COMMUNICATION? WHY IS THIS IMPORTANT TO YOU?
At the end of 2017 I decided to set the goal of posting 1 picture a day on Instagram of something science-y to get people excited about science, to show that science is not done in dark places by the same group of people, but by a really diverse group of people who are collaborative and social and excited by the idea of learning something new! I chose Instagram because it was the logical place to post a picture a day, and it really blew up quickly! By the end of one year, I had 17K followers and so I thought I may as well continue to keep talking science and sharing what I do because 1) I really enjoyed it and 2) the feedback I have received has been so positive! People seem to really love learning about my life as a PhD student and what we do in the lab.
Science is not done in dark places by the same group of people, but by a really diverse group of people who are collaborative and social and excited by the idea of learning something new!
AUSTRALIA HAS A UNIQUE LOAN REPAYMENT SYSTEM WHICH HAS RECENTLY UNDERGONE REFORMS TO MAKE THE MODEL MORE FINANCIALLY SUSTAINABLE. DO YOU SEE THESE CHANGES AS POSITIVE? HOW HAVE THEY AFFECTED YOUR FELLOW PEERS?
Yes! In Australia we have a system that means we don't have to pay for our university fees upfront, they can be deferred, and once we reach a particular income level, repayments come out of what we make just as Tax does. I think it is definitely a good system in that it allows people who wouldn't have been able to receive an education if they were required to pay upfront to do so, but there are also some downsides, as there will be in any system. Overall I am thankful for the system that has allowed me to not worry about the financial aspect of obtaining my degrees!
I cannot comment on how it has affected my peers because I honestly do not know! Most of my friends are PhD students who aren't at the stage where we need to start making repayments!.
IN LAYMEN’S TERMS, WHAT IS CRYSTALLOGRAPHY? WHY DID YOU CHOOSE TO STUDY THIS? IN ONE OF YOUR INSTAGRAM POSTS, YOU TALK ABOUT HOW THE FIELD OF CRYSTALLOGRAPHY IS MALE DOMINATED - HAS THIS BEEN A CHALLENGE?
I do protein crystallography so I am interested in the structure of proteins which I guess if you think of the cell as a factory, are the little machines that make the factory work! And just like any machine they have a structure (the way they’re built). Because proteins are so small we can’t see them using a microscope, but we can use techniques like crystallography that allow us to see them (sort of). Just like salt is crystals of NaCl, proteins can also form crystals and we can shoot these will x-rays and they will hopefully give us what we call a diffraction pattern and then we can work out based on that pattern where each atom of a protein is in space. For those not in science - we can essentially use maths to make a diffraction pattern into a model of the proteins shape!
Despite crystallography being male dominated when you look at awards won and highlighted, there are an incredible number of amazing women working in the field. During my PhD, the women have actually been the majority of PhD students in my program and I have been fortunate to be surrounded by many inspirational women who work in structural biology and have mentored me throughout my PhD. We just need them to be recognized more often for their achievements!
Despite crystallography being male dominated when you look at awards won and highlighted, there are an incredible number of amazing women working in the field... We just need them to be recognized more often for their achievements!
WHAT IS ONE LESSON YOU YOU’VE LEARNED THAT YOU’D LIKE YOUNG GIRLS GROWING UP TODAY TO KNOW?
You can be and do anything you put your mind to! Never let anybody tell you that you can’t do something.
WHAT BOOK ARE YOU READING RIGHT NOW (OR FAVOURITE BOOK)?
I am currently reading Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe which is a book about pre-colonial Aboriginal Australians. I would encourage all Australians to read it!
WHAT DID YOU LEARN TODAY?
I have had a very testing week and day but it has made me realize that sometimes you just need to look for the positives in negative situations and grow from them.