Izzy is a UKRI Future Leader Fellow, currently based in Sheffield and working on developing optical microscopes and applying them to study the physics underpinning life. After being introduced to microscopy through her earlier work in studying the fine structure of the heart, Izzy has rediscovered her interest in building technology.
Here she shares some stories of how building tech on the cheap has been a rewarding pathway into studying science and self-discovery. As a trans WoC (of South Asian descent) who lived and worked in a wide range of political environments, Izzy has a keen interest in equality and inclusion. She thinks we have made some tremendous progress on diversity in STEM, but we still face many uphill battles.
Below is a full transcript of the episode. If you want to get in touch with Izzy, you can via:
Tw//at 1:10:45 to 1:10:59 there is mention of suicide.
Hello, and welcome to the What on Earth Podcast. I’m your host Jazmin.
And I’m your host Nuzhat. In this podcast we celebrate Earth, environmental and planetary scientists from diverse backgrounds, and get to know what they’re up to.
And we also speak to scientists from different disciplines about how we can decolonise science and make it more inclusive for everyone.
Today, we will be celebrating LGBTQ plus month and international women and girls in STEM day. Today, we have Dr. Izzy Jayasinghe. Hey, Izzy.
Hi, thanks for inviting me.
Could you please introduce yourself?
Yes, I am a senior lecturer and an academic in the University of Sheffield. I work in the area of microscopy and applying microscopy to study sort of life in the sort of the finest scale. So in the scale of nanometers. I guess in terms of identity, I wear lots of different hats. I- I’m from South Asian origin, I’m an immigrant, I’m a trans woman. So yeah, I think all of those are apt descriptions.
It’s awesome. So we would like to know, what was your journey into where you are now?
It’s been actually multiple journeys happening, sort of around the same time, I kind of outlined that I, you know, I have- I am an immigrant and I’ve lived in four countries, and very different cultures. So I guess it’s been a journey, kind of learning different cultures, and different environments, and surviving, and learning to kind of always not fit in wherever I am. And another journey [has] been kind of getting- getting an education, which was kind of a challenge that was set by my parents, from a young age. So you know, I had some hiccups along the way, I, for example, I failed physics in high school, and I had to do it again, and things like that. And then, you know, when I did the PhD, people told me not to do a PhD. People thought, I mean, they were all well meaning, comments, but you know, I had to kind of overcome certain types of self doubt. And self doubt is something that you kind of work with, if especially if you’re in STEM along the way, depending on different responsibilities or different skills that you need. And the other journeys been kind of learning to live authentically. And as a trans person, you first of all, go on the journey of learning that, you know, who you are, is perhaps, you know, not acceptable in society, depending on which era you grew up in. And then learning, you know, who your role models are, and- and the way to kind of becoming, you know, becoming visible and, you know, kind of crafting your life in any in any kind of authentic way.
Okay, I think before we get into more details about your journey, can we ask what was your PhD on?
So the PhD was on, it was initially had a- had a very biomedical angle, and it was to study the structural basis of the heartbeat. So how the fine structure of the cells that make up the heart, determine its function, and one of the key central parts of it is that there are a series of calcium signals that happen throughout the heart that gives the signal to contract and squeeze the blood out. And we’ve known about the calcium for more than a century. But the PhD was about applying new microscopy tools that were emerging to visualise those structures and try and interpret the functions that we know about it, based on this new insights.
So how does microscopy work?
So microscopy is essentially, it’s the- it’s the most popular and widely used analytical tool in the life sciences and in a number of other fields as well. And the the principle is that you’re trying to visualise things that you’re, you know, you cannot, with the naked eye. And so basically it applies for anything that is finer in size, say, than a human hair, human hair is about the finest thing that you can see with the naked eye. But there’s a lot of detail that exists in the scale that’s below that. So you know, human hair is 100 micrometres. And, you know, a typical cell in biology is about five or 10 micrometers, so you can’t already see a cell. And the real building blocks of life, you know, the things that really drive life in these cells are like, the molecules, like DNA and protein, they are, again, another few 1000 times smaller. So, very quickly, the challenge becomes more, you know, steeper, essentially, because you can quite easily visualise cells, you know, with light or other media. But if you want to visualise proteins, you have to become very clever and sometimes light is not a good medium to do that. And that’s why electron microscopy has come along, because you have a very different frequency or wavelength. But we have kind of now refined like microscopy to the point where it can compete with electron microscopy, it can actually see single proteins.
Okay, that’s really cool. So when you’re saying the heart, were you studying the whole heart or like particular cells?
It’s, it’s one of those things that, you know, understanding how the whole heart works, sets the foundation. And also you can’t get to the cells without having an appreciation for the heart, you literally have to be able to like, know where you are looking. So that means that you do have to work with, you know, hearts- you know it could be animal hearts or human hearts. And they come with different challenges and different sizes. As you can imagine.
Were you studying the human heart?
I was, I was studying the human heart, and we were looking at the hearts of patients who have had heart transplants. And that the the old hearts that come out, we can actually examine under the microscope.
Cool, so can you talk a little bit more about these calcium signals? Like, how do they appear? What are these signals?
So this- the signals actually appear inside the cells. So they’re essentially- so inside the cells, there are compartments that specialise in certain tasks. So for example, virtually everyone knows what a nucleus is, it’s the most common compartment in cells. But there are other types of compartments. And in the cells that make up the heart, there’s a very extensive compartment that works as what we call the calcium store. And its job is essentially it’s, it’s a very complicated bag of calcium, and its job is to squirt out calcium at the right time. And, and we see them luckily, we can visualise them with fluorescence, sort of like dyes that- that glow. What in- if you have a dye that’s, you know, put into the cell, and you look at it in the right time scale, you can see these bursts of calcium happening, where calcium is being released. And these bursts of calcium are kind of- the kind of provide the pattern for the heartbeat. So- so you know, each heartbeat that you feel is it actually follows those calcium signals. And the whole concept is that those calcium signals have to be synchronized in order for the heart to work efficiently. And what we see in- in patients who have you know, have diseases like heart failure or ischemic heart disease, you lose that synchrony and the heart becomes less efficient.
So when you mentioned this calcium signal, is that- that, okay, my biology is very basic and I apologise for this, I stopped doing biology around when I was 16. So if we can get into the basics, I assume that the heart is made out of multiple different types of cell?
Yes, in volume, the majority of the cells are muscle cells, cardiac muscle cells, they make up about 90% of the volume. But in terms of number, number of cells, they’re about half of the cells. You have cells that are- that make up the blood vessels in the heart, you have cells that lay down the collagen cells that we call fibroblasts. So yeah, this is good mix.
And all these cells are emitting calcium?
They can a lot of them can. The ones that are really important are the muscle cells.
Okay. [Izzy] Yeah. [Nuzhat] And when they when they’re emitting this calcium signal, are they releasing it into something?
So the- the release is happening within the cells. [Nuzhat] Okay, okay [Izzy] So it goes from the calcium compartment, you know, all of the cell, and then it gets, you know, mopped up again and put back in the compartment for the next one.
Okay, I- that I understand. Okay, so it’s being released into the cell, but then the cell kind of absorbs it back.
Yeah. So imagine a room that we sitting in a room and we have, let’s say, like a glass of Smarties or like M&Ms, and I decided to spill it, and then I have to mop it up, and then I spilled it again and that’s essentially kind of how it works. [Nuzhat] Okay. [Izzy] Even if it goes all over the room, but it’s contained within the room.
But then you got to get it all back up again. All right. Okay.
So when you’re, when you’re studying them, you’re studying hearts that have been taken out during a transplant, but how do you replicate a beating heart, if it’s outside of a human body?
You can manipulate them in different ways. So I mean, if you’re looking for the structures that are responsible, you don’t have to keep the heart alive, you can preserve it and there are various chemicals that lock the structure in, and then that you that allows you to kind of, you know, take sections of it, blocks of it, and then image the blocks. Or if you want to look at the actual beating, what you can do is you can trace it chemically, so that the cells fall apart into individual cells. And the nice thing about it is that all of these individual cells have that function encoded within them. So even when they are out of the heart, they can still work approximately the same way that they used to. And so what we do is essentially make that- take that approximation for granted how we make interventions. So if you wanted to test a drug, that is supposed to make the- make a certain aspect of the calcium signaling better, we can test it out on one cell, and study the principle and then scale up that application to the person.
Because you studied hearts that were that had heart problems, I assume because they were exchanged during a heart transplant. And it sounds so weird saying this, but like, were you able to see how different heart conditions affected the calcium signals?
Absolutely. So most of the hearts from the human patients that we studied, were basically at an end stage, they could no longer work in, in a reasonable, acceptable way. And it’s actually quite amazing and quite striking to hold someone else’s heart in your hand. Because it’s a very kind of, it’s also very human and sort of emotional component to it. But also, this is something alarming about holding a heart that’s really sick, because they are quite big. Usually your heart should be not much bigger than your clenched fist and failing hearts tend to be quite, quite large, they take up a massive volume of your chest. So that’s sort of the more obvious observations that we make. But certainly, we see that the- the proteins that are responsible for delivering those calcium sparks or signals are rearranged, they can be disa- in disarray. Or they could be there- could be a loss of it so that you see less of that protein. And then you see all sorts of compensatory sort of things that happen that are not normal. And I guess our job as scientists, you know, using microscopes is to document all of these changes. And then that allows our peers to really test those hypotheses about which ones are important. And the one protein that I’ve studied a lot and it’s become my pet protein is a- is a protein called the ‘ryanodine receptor’. It’s- it’s present in most cells of the body. It’s called the ryanodine receptor, because in sort of the late or mid 20th century, they actually came up with a pesticide that targeted that protein. And the pesticide is called ryanodine and it was an insecticide. And it’s a- it’s a- it’s a compound that if- it binds to that protein can kill the animal. [Nuzhat] Oh [Izzy] -but it’s a large protein. It’s- it’s the second large protein in any kind of cell. So yeah, I’ve spent way too much time working on it.
I apologise that I’m smiling while you’re talking about this, because I just realised that we’re releasing this episode the day after Valentine’s Day- [Jazmin] Oh! [Nuzhat] -and we’re talking about broken hearts.
Oh, this is smart!
So there is a there is a type of heart disease. I haven’t studied this, but I have certainly thought about it as a lecturer. It’s- It’s a type of heart disease to happen because of real sort of emotional events that are typically bereavements. It’s called Takotsubo disease, it’s very striking because the shape of the heart changes. So the hearts typically, you know, what heart looks like it’s sort of wider the top and kind of has a kind of pointy end to the bottom. In this disease, the heart actually develops a band in the middle that is contracted, so it becomes kind of like, it becomes kind of like a pot. And so Takotsubo is, I hope I’m pronouncing it correctly is a- is a, it’s a Japanese word for traditional Japanese octopus trap, you can Google this. And the reason that it gets that name is because it has a characteristic shape, so it’s got a very narrow neck and these people who get this disease, you know, it’s a very, very rapidly developed heart- heart failure, and typically associated with broken hearts. So it’s very true that you know, your heart has a very emotional component to it. It can’t think for itself, but there’s a lot of connection to how you genuinely emotionally feel. When you think about how the heart works.
Yeah, so it’s like, when- sort of like, how its associated with adrenaline release, like, when you’re like, you know, sparks flying, you see a song you really like, it’s like, oh, my God, my heart’s pounding really fast. And yeah, that makes sense. Yeah. Wow, I’ve learned something new today.
I think there’s also cultural significance with different parts of the body, I guess, because I know, I think in certain South Asian cultures, and I’m picking this up from Bollywood, not from like, a sense of like, knowledge, but- [Izzy] It’s still culture- [Nuzhat] yeah- [Jazmin] and I say, I’m sure Bollywood is just as educational as Hollywood. [Nuzhat] And I guess it’s more like, I remember it from a bollywood movie, I remember a saying, and it’s something about like, showing someone that they- that they mean a lot to them by saying like you’re a piece of my liver, I think liver is seen as like a more important, vital body part. So to say someone’s a piece of your liver to say like to show how much you mean to them. But obviously, like, I think from the example, you’re saying that there’s a lot of emotional attachment connection to the heart. And hence, why like the heart is seen as a really important body part. But leading from that, what made you interested in the heart?
I suppose I just found that topic, when I was studying biomedical sciences, quite accessible, and quite fascinating. It is an organ that that determines, you know, life and death in an instance. So I think I found it interesting initially and then the more I got into it, the more I realised that there are lots of different ways to study the heart. And I particularly enjoyed the science behind it, because some of the the general scientific concepts have initially been developed in the heart, and technology, you know, that we use today, a lot of it came from studying the heart, and that includes the microscopy methods that I have used. I would say that, for myself, for my research, you know, it’s kind of better. It’s kind of at, you know, a turning point that, you know, I might not study the heart in the same capacity that I used to. But the tools that I have do that by studying it certainly will take forward.
You’ve done quite a few postdocs, and now your senior lecturer, so in between your PhD, and now you’ve been working on the heart. So what else were you able to, like, understand or discover about the heart?
So I didn’t exclusively study the heart, actually, one of the postdoctoral positions that I took, was the one in Australia was actually just study muscle sort of limb muscle- [Nuzhat] Okay! [Izzy] -and the interesting thing was, there are a lot of parallels, both in terms of structural appearance, as well as function between, you know, muscles that make up your limb and the muscles that make up the heart. So for two years, what I did was I essentially applied some of the new techniques that we developed, essentially New Zealand, and now kind of applying it in Australia to study this different type of muscle. And I think there are lots of weird and strange things about studying these cell types. So for example, you know, muscle, or what we call skeletal muscle, that that make up the limbs, they are large cells, like very, very large. So, muscles made up of lots of muscle cells that look like fibers, and each cell can be in sometimes meters long. Because each cell like if you look at your arm, connects to the bone or the tendon, you know, end to end. So you’re essentially working with cells that look like strings. And muscles of different animals have different properties. So for example, I was studying muscles, from amphibians of toads that have very different properties to muscles from mammals. They can swell and shrink and work in very different conditions. So yeah, it’s been a, it’s been interesting, learning those things. Especially like, given that I had to learn about the technical side of the microscopy as well as understand how the- you [know] the biology works.
So was it that microscopy was the really important tool that you brought with you wherever you studied you know, PhD onwards?
The microscopy was the- often the novelty and it was still way to- it was the method that we had that was unique to us, that would allow us to see new things that other people haven’t seen. But the biology kind of adds to this sort of ocean of, of knowledge that’s accumulated. So I find that the technology moves forward much faster, because the technology is being developed by people from very different disciplines. While the biology is kind of been nurtured by a smaller, let me say, insulator kind of group of people. And that comes with its own challenges.
As you are using microscopy, has there been any developments in the way that microscopy has been used or like is being used?
Yes, lots. So when I started doing my postgraduate research in 2006, we had a very different set of rules for optical microscopy. And in 2006-2007, there was a breakthrough, often new concept called Super Resolution Microscopy, and that- that concept eventually won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2014. That’s, and it was really interesting, observing how that- that burst onto the scene, because it wasn’t a lone genius doing it, it was actually multiple groups working on the same thing at the same time. So the Nobel Prize went to three people, at the same time, from very different groups, there was still some gender politics there, because I think there were about five groups working together and the prize went to three white men, while there were, you know, women who played- played a really key role. That- that was the biggest change in the field in microscopy in recent times. More recently, in around 2015, there was a researcher called Ed Boyden from- from Harvard, I believe in the US, who came up with a chemical mechanism of doing microscopy. So normally, light microscopy is, it’s a very physical thing. So you know, you’re focusing light with lenses, and you have a build your microscope to precise measurements, it’s a very quick process of imaging, and all the the secrets of magnifying things and looking at the finer details are in either the optics, or the computational tools that you use to, you know, process that- those images. Ed came up with a very different method called ‘expansion microscopy’, which is basically, the principle is if the structure that you’re trying to visualise is too small to, you know, to see, make it bigger. So, basically, yeah, so basically, what you do is that you make an imprint of the sample, of the structure that he interested in, onto what we call ‘hydrogel’. So these are, you know, polymers that can form a gel that are transparent. But hydrogels have the- the added thing that once you’ve made a copy of the, or an imprint of the structure that you’re interested in, you can add water, and it swells, it can swell by a few 1000 times in volume. And, essentially, so you know, you basically take a copy, you expand it by putting water in it, and then you put it on a standard microscope and suddenly you can see details that you couldn’t see before. So it was a very different way of doing microscopy, and I would say lucky, you know, five or six years on from that, that initial discovery, people are still struggling to understand how this happened.
Yeah, imagine the process of- be like, you know what, I’m going to create a gel and then like, all I need to do is add water then bam!
Exactly. Yeah, I mean, I think the thought process is fascinating to think about, in hindsight, and I think that’s what I want to learn if there’s any, it’s just one thing that I wanted to get out of, you know, however long I stay in academia or in science, it’s to learn the process of innovation. You know, when you see something that has potential, how do you actually run with it? I suspect there’s lots of interesting politics there. [Jazmin] I bet, yeah.
Can I also- the tiniest thing you seen is under microscopy?
It’s a single protein, so a single protein. And it’s, it’s really difficult to say that it, I’ve seen it, because it’s what I what we see is a reconstruction. All we can do is build the computational tools that are reliable, and we tested. And then we trust, the result that it gives us when you when you launched the samples. But there are techniques in allegedly that can see sort of in the angstrom scale, with the same principle, but superior hardware. And this is going to be a real challenge for us, especially here in the UK, because a lot of those new innovations are being made in Europe, in places like Germany, and we are frantically trying to copy and replicate those. I’m sure we will be able to replicate them. But you know, whether we will ever, ever be able to get to the front of the wave? I am not really sure.
Did you just say ‘Brexit’?
Yeah. From your PhD, what was it like transitioning from your PhD to faculty?
That was a long road. I think in most STEM disciplines -in most STEM disciplines, you tend to do a couple of postdoctoral jobs before you, you know, and you take that time to develop your track record to make a case that you will be competitive as a faculty member. And so for me, it was kind of two and a half jobs. So I had a half a job as essentially a technician in the group that I did my PhD in, you know, they were kind enough to buffer a bit of time for me until I found a position. And then I had two, two year postdoctoral fellowships, and for both of them, I had to move countries. So it was exhausting and it was probably the most stressful career period. I mean, it’s all relative to like what you had experienced before. So I think it was, in terms of my resilience, in developing resilience for stress, it was the steepest learning curve, and I think the thing that made it really stressful was, there was no roadmap. And you’re often working very closely with sort of more senior people who are perhaps conflicted in offering a roadmap or or advice about it. And yeah, so you’re kind of figuring it out for yourself. And the result was that there were lots and lots of failed applications, both sort of for fellowships, as well as jobs. I think, when I eventually apply- started applying for faculty positions, I think it was a period of about eight months, and about 24 job applications, with no response before I could get an interview. And even then, you- I sometimes wonder if you know, something about who I am, perhaps brings the worst out of people, but I did see some really questionable behaviors and practices when I was called into interviews. And I think yeah, in hindsight, you know, I could have perhaps done things better, but you know, it was all relative to my sort of maturity as a, as a professional, I did consider leaving my sort of area of research or a way of training. I wanted to go and study a different degree as an undergraduate again. So I think it was in the end, two things. It was certainly good luck that eventually got me an interview just when I really needed it. Just when I was coming out of a contract, and then it was good management of luck. So initially, you know, the responsibilities that I had as a faculty member, but I felt were a bit unfair, I didn’t enjoy that job. But I had to, you know, over time, I had to find the mechanisms to be strategic and really turn it around. I think this is, you know, year 2021, you know, given all the horrors that are happening in the world, and all the restrictions that I have, I think, in terms of career, it’s the best time that I’ve had, in about 10 years since I finished my PhD.
I was just wondering, you said a bit that the senior staff were conflicting and giving you advice on the roadmap, and I find that quite interesting, because it’s like, the whole idea of like, once people reach success, I want to pull up the ladder behind them and not actually help mentor and guide people to, you know, also be in those positions where they can, you know, be comfortable. And I was just wondering, like, is it because of that? Because they feel like there’s competition, that they don’t want to help you? Or what why do you think that is?
I think there’s a mix of things. One is that, you know, they can be really well meaning and they could be really supportive. But you know, if you if your mentor is the same person, as your supervisor, and you happen to be the PhD student, or the postdoc who’s generating a lot of data, valuable data for them for- for publications and grants, you know, you leaving, even for a better job is not going to end up well for them. So no matter how well meaning they are, they are, you know, in principle conflicted. I worked with a couple of very senior academics, and they were both generally very supportive, and I still keep in touch with them. But I found that when it came the time, for me to apply for faculty positions, it was on my terms, and I had to take the initiative. And I think as a result of it the reason I think that it is conflicted is that your time is finite, and I think if you- if your mentor is your line manager, they want to maximize the time that they can get out of you. While I felt that I should perhaps spend a bit more of that time writing grants and developing some skills that I you know, would of, you know, found helpful. I think it- does ask, like, answer your question?
Yeah, yeah, I just find that. I think I found that quite alien to me, because, like, my experience is that my, my supervisor, the journey has been you know, giving me the advice and, you know, generally helping me where they can. And I suppose I just find out a bit alien in that is like, why wouldn’t they help you? Like, try and progress? And I think it’s just because of my own experiences, that it’s been quite positive in, like, be like, this is what I want to do, how can you help me do that? And they’re like, yeah, okay, let’s help you- we’d help you this way. I suppose that’s just, I just yeah, I just suppose I find a bit odd, really but.
There is another cultural aspect to this, that I think it’s not sort of geographical. But there’s a culture, particularly in academia, that the moment you’ve said that you’re leaving, people can turn against you. And I have, I haven’t had very bad experiences. I did have a bad experience quite recently. But I have seen horrible experiences by others. So for that reason, every time I was applying, and sort of transitioning into a new job, resignation from the old job was the last thing that I did. And that was the that was the first time that I would let my line manager know that I have an intention to leave. I mean, apart from the obvious things like in the end of contract, and I think of, I’ve generally always preempted a lot of these conflicts. And maybe it is possible that for that reason, I didn’t reach out to them for more help, maybe as a coping mechanism. So there are those things, I think you need to know exactly who you’re dealing with- [Jazmin] Yea. [Izzy] -before you become vulnerable with them.
Yes. What would you want to continue exploring? Would you like to continue exploring the same topic you’re researching now? Or would you like to divert to something else in the future?
I think I am slowly in the process of diverting, I have studied the heart more in a very medical or biomedical way for- for about 13 or 14 years now. And I’ve published, I think, you know, in a satisfactory way, and I’ve made a contribution to that field. But I’m now moving on and I have my reasons, and I think, perhaps, not suitable for a public forum. But I am in a very unique position to see opportunities elsewhere. So at the moment, I’m investing into the technology that has brought me through to here. So that’s the microscopy and try and make it more versatile, and, you know, more sophisticated and more capable. But I’m also exploring other topics now. So they are, you know I’ve just recently established a new- new lab in the University of Sheffield. So there are a number of new projects starting and one of them is sort of understanding one of the mechanisms of how COVID impacts people who get what we call ‘long’ COVID. So trying to drill down to again, you know, the mechanisms involved in the molecules or proteins, and why people die, and why people get, you know, terrible conditions like blood clots, or heart disease, from essentially a viral infection.
So whenever me and Jaz have been talking about you, we talk about how amazing you are, because you do like almost everything on the STEM spectrum. You showed- you even showed us a microscopy that you’re building in your house. Even like engineering thrown in that, and whenever you talk about your work, it’s so amazing. So how was your STEM journey when you were in school?
Good question. I think I’ve certainly been brought up to tinker with things. Some things out of necessity, you know, depending on the circumstances, and some because of opportunity. The- the earliest thing that I remember doing is was sort of tinkering around with computers, o the idea of ‘plug and play’. I mean, I guess I was privileged to be able to have pocket money to like, you know, go to buy, like old scrap pieces of, you know, computer and slap it together and try and make it work. In the really early days, there was a time when it became personal, like, it wasn’t just, it wasn’t about the ambition, it was kind of like, it was a distraction. So one of the things was in my house- so I was pretty gender variant from a very young age, and my parents sort of obviously noticed this, and they- now I know that they were on sort of poor advice that they needed to correct me. One of the things that my parents did, or my mum did was, she would sort of restrict media, like, you know, when we get the newspaper, like she would go through it, and like you know, remove lifestyle sections and various things, and it was a kind of an insulated, you know, experience for a while. And I remember learning about this thing called the internet, and one of the first things that I did was I found a way to wire my computer onto the phone line and hack into the local- not hacking, but like you’re logging into the local telecom network like basically- basically, my parents realized that their telephone bills were like going through the roof. [Jazmin] I mean, that’s still, that’s genius though. [Izzy] Well, it didn’t last very long, because my parents were smart cookies too.
It’s like you’re trying to outsmart each other.
So one day, I think my dad noticed that there was an extra wire going into this phone box. So I got into so much trouble, but I would like- it was, you know, it was mischief. But the things that unlocked the world for me. So when I was younger, I knew what I was, but I had no reference points to that. So going on the internet, and typing on search engines, like you know- you know, “what’s the name for wanting to be in the opposite sex, opposite gender”? And that was my like learning into who I was and who I am, I think that was sort of intertwined with the thing that like, you know, if you need to get out of a hole, you need to build your way out. So that I think that’s the the earliest memory of sort of building stuff. A bit later, in high school, I had to- I had to do my final year of school twice, or like, I didn’t do it properly the first time. I did a project in physics, I had a really good teacher who, by complete coincidence, was an out gay man, and this was in 2002, so still pretty early for the LGBTQ movement, and I found him really inspiring. Like, regardless of who he was, at the time, I didn’t, you know, identify myself with the labels. But I knew that like, you know, I was different, like he was, and he had a style of teaching that he wanted us to be really practical with our physics and in his class, I built a prototype, what we call a viscoelastic damper. So it’s like a shock absorber, but it was, it was a rig that allowed me to sort of measure the factors that affected the damping, and that turned into a project that we sent to the Auckland science fair and that ended up winning a scholarship to study science in the University of Auckland. And that was kind of like, you know, it was kind of a moment of learning that well actually, I’m not bad at this but you know, it’s tricky because like you know, when you’re talking about a formal education, innovation is kind of trained out of you, you know, a lot of it is sort of learning about the- the lists of you know, jargon that’s interesting for the professor’s, very rarely do you actually get to do something of your own. So I’m really enjoying right now the space to build on my own and not be asked any questions.
I really love the story that you said about learning how to tinker with the computer so that you could go online and explore yourself because in a way, your STEM identity is intertwined with your gender, and your just your whole identity itself.
Yeah, lots of gaming as well. Lots of gaming. [Jazmin] Good.
So when you were in school, were you always good at science? Or- were you always good at science?
Science was one of my preferred subjects. But I think they are in was the problem because schools want- you know, students to be all rounders, you know? You need to do well in everything or like a broad range of things in order to proceed. So I wasn’t particularly, I mean I was average at maths, I felt terrible doing maths. And I was okay in languages. I- I liked biology and physics. I hated chemistry.
Oh gosh, I think everybody, you know, every STEM researcher has that one subject that they don’t like, for me, it was biology unfortunately. Like I really loved physics and maths, and chemistry I liked a lot. But I think the way biology was taught in my school wasn’t as inspiring. But then when you but then when you speak to like biology researchers, they always make it seem a lot more exciting, I think, especially the way you were talking about the heart and how dynamic it is. It kind of reminds me of like geology, why I like geology, because the earth feels so still. But then I know, as someone who studied petrology, how dynamic how much action is actually happening hundreds of kilometers within our feet.
I think, perspective changes sometimes with time, I was very starstruck about research into the heart. I think as a PhD student or- it was actually when I was a young postdoc, junior postdoc, I met one of my real heroines is a professor called Cara Franzini-Armstrong. She did virtually all of the foundations of electron microscopy work, that set the scene for, you know, how we understand this works. And reading her papers, so she’s published papers from about the mid 50s, 1950s, and she’s still she’s still going. She’s certainly retired now, but I think she said on the editorial board of the National Academy of Science in the US, as she’s such a big name, and I met her for the first time in 2012, in Switzerland, and she was this wee little woman and she was so lovely. And yeah, so I think, you know, you I think perspective changes. So, you know, someone who feels like, it seems like a giant, you know, in a discipline becomes very human. But in the same way, that- that’s a good thing. But also, you see, some people who behave so appallingly, you know, but have made so many major contributions. For example, you know, James Watson, who kind of solved the structure of DNA, and I think that erodes some of the shine that that is there for you in, in, in a subject. And I think that’s true for me, too. I love cardiac sort of biology and physiology when I was younger, than perhaps I do now.
So talking about scientists and how human they are, I think that’s a really important conversations to have, especially because we know there’s an under representation of people from disadvantaged backgrounds and women and taking up science. And that’s particularly because sciencists are seen as you know, particularly ‘clever’, and science subjects are particularly associated with being really really inaccessible unless your ‘smart’. So that when people are picking that GCSEs, and STEM subjects, unless they identify as being really, really ‘smart’, they won’t choose this- the science pathways and it’s particularly like, you know, working class children, and particularly girls, that disassociate themselves with being really smart and picking these ‘smart’ subjects. But then, you know, there are so many academics that actually have come from like non-traditional routes, you know, they also did BTEC, they also didn’t do well in their GCSEs. They were average in maths and science, but then we really need to diversify the types of scientists to show you know, there are scientists who are very human, or scientists that actually were average in school, but then builds up their skills. I think that’s like Twitter is great, because you see the really human side of scientists. [Izzy] Yeah.
Yeah I mean, yeah, I was a very average student and even through undergrad, pretty average. It’s only when actually was on the masters I like, properly exceled because it was in volcanology, it wasn’t just general geography. So think it’s from when I was like, yeah, this is what I want to do, that’s when I kind of like showed my full potential, I suppose, though, yeah, like, very average. And, like, people have met me, I don’t like people that much, even though I study people. So it’s like, yeah, we are very human, and I think it’s- it’s- it’s good and it’s humbling, I suppose as well. And yeah, that’s why role models are very important, and to be visible.
Absolutely and I think the- you know, in school, the- the role models are the teachers often. I mean, you do get to see scientists sort of from afar or like, occasionally on, you know, on various events. But yeah, I think there’s a thing to be understood that it’s not being understood currently, you know, in the way we do secondary school. And that is that different people bloom at different rates and different stages. So I think it’s pretty well documented that people who peak early are not necessarily the ones who end up being very successful in scientific disciplines. Often it’s people who’ve made mistakes or learned- or have- have had major setbacks in life and in the way they approach their studies. But also, it’s very unhelpful to- to typecast students from an early stage. Sort of these really unhelpful and false stereotypes, particularly in our assigned to girls, and that means that they never venture- venture out into sort of exploring things like physical sciences.
Yeah, I think like we really need to get people with non-traditional roots to STEM be exposed to kids as young as possible. I think students need to hopefully see that “oh, just because, you know, you didn’t get such a great grade in science GCSE, it doesn’t mean it’s over for you if you’re passionate about science”. There’s always, time and time again, you can come back, like as someone who’s actually, you know, was a really good student, during my PhD, I’ve seen people who didn’t do so well in their school, you know, doing so well, during PhD onwards, so it’s never too late to bloom in the sciences.
I think it’s also important not to like, I think it’s important to make sure that there are no social consequences about the sort of preferences or who they are, I think we’re getting better at it, especially in terms of identity, you know, gender and sexual identities. You know, teenagers to do this- you know I sound I feel so old saying this, much more accepting and like, it’s just a part of life. But I think that should be extended not just for that kind of identity, but you know, the kind of subjects that you enjoy as a part of your identity without going too far. If you’d like maths, then you can still be called one.
Try telling that to my sisters! I partly joke because they’re both like, you know, maths geeks as well, or you know they’re both very good at maths and they’re- you know one’s even studying maths at uni, what am I saying? She’s more geekier than I am, but she’s also cooler at the same time. I don’t know how that works.
Yeah, it’s the same with my siblings like- oh, well for them they don’t like STEM, which is really disappointing. But like, even whatever they do, they’re still cooler than me. And it’s like, how is that possible? I’m a volcanologist, that’s cool! But how are they cooler? I don’t get it!
Also I think coolness is something that fluctuates over time. [Nuzhat] That is true.
That’s fine, I’ll peak at some point maybe like, this year when I turned 30. That’s when I’ll start being cool.
So you mentioned that your science teacher was also gay. In terms of like being a role model for you, was he also like a role model in different ways for you?
Yes, absolutely. I think the main observation at the time was that he got bullied a lot by the students in- in the classroom and it was pretty terrible. And I think it was the- all the learnings that I did from in that time was kind of retrospective. So while I was in that moment, I didn’t think that, you know, this is how it is for me. But certainly, I came away from that, that experience thinking that, you know, a teaching or education is a profession that I didn’t want to get into. But I think also, it’s a very visceral sort of experience that I also learned from the way he behaved. He didn’t retaliate, he, you know, I think he was very calm about it. So, you know, years and years later, when I was coming out, and particularly when I transitioned gender, you know, was being a lecturer and there was a time when, you know, I went away on, you know, medical leave, and then I came back, and I was my ‘new version’, and I, you know, walk into a lecture theater with 200, you know, young people, some of whom might have known me from the previous year. It was a nerve wracking experience, you know, thinking about the possibilities. But I think it was really useful to have that experience and observation and reframe that- that situation. Because, you know, I think the impact it had on me was that you know, him being out and living his authentic life, impacted me positively, and I’m grateful that he did that. And I knew that you know, if I was walking into a lecture theatre of 200 students, statistically, there are going to be at least two trans or non binary people in that room. You know, in the ‘worst case scenario’, you know, at least two people will be comforted by me doing that, and me being there and getting on with the job. And of course, you know, so he’s my physics teacher, his name is Dr. Michael Hart. So, you know, as a teacher, he was a brilliant teacher. And I think as a role model, you know, even though I sort of observed him from a distance, yeah, he had a major impact. I did get in touch with him more recently and he was grateful that I did. Yeah, sort of, yeah, probably over shared all the journeys that I’ve had since then, but he said that he was he was honored.
Oh, that’s so lovely.
And still, I remember, like, when I was at uni, I would still contact or I have, like, contacted teachers from my primary school and secondary school. It’s always lovely, because, you know, I, every success was because of the really helpful and supportive teachers that I’ve had, and they play a such a big role. And that’s why it’s so important, and how we train teachers and who, like the types of teachers that we have. Because they play such a big part in our life, it’s- it’s such- it’s kind of- it sucks that in this country, there’s not enough appreciation of teachers.
I think it’s also the, the time that we live in this- it’s time of ‘anti-intellectual’ sentiment. Yeah. But you know, nothing lasts forever. So I think I’m hopeful that full circle would come back to better times again.
I was more aware about my sexuality in my late 20s, and I found like the process of coming out to my friends fine. Luckily, like, you know, I had good friends where I didn’t really have to worry, I had to worry a little bit, because I had some religiously conservative friends, but everyone I’ve come out to have been really kind and helpful and nice. But I found like, being open about it at work and like, I found being open about it during my PhD, being like, oh, this is an event to get over and then starting a new workplace, I realised, oh, this is a process that I have to go over again. And not that I’ve had any negative reactions, but it’s the whole worry like “what if?”, and hoping that everybody is really nice and positive about it? And will, you know, treat you the way that they always did? But you’ve moved quite a few times, have you had this kind of like anxiety? Or like, how did you find it?
It was nerve racking, and it was just awful. I mean, I first came out to, to the people around me, particularly my friends, you know, science friends, sort of, you know, other PhD students, when I was a PhD student, and I thought I would never look back, and I thought, there’s no going back, you know, this is now, you know, flood floodgates are gonna open anytime now. And I found myself going back into the closet again, and again, especially like, because I was on very short contracts. I mean, two years is not as short as they are now. But I felt that, you know, they were short contracts. And I had to present and represent myself in ways that would, you know, I felt, you know, my employers would feel acceptable, and that took a major toll on me. I remember when I got my first faculty position, and because up until then I was a very casual person. So, you know, I didn’t have formal attire. But then suddenly, I felt that there was an expectation to like, be more formal in appearance as well, and this was before I transitioned gender, so I was kind of pushing myself to an extreme that I felt I didn’t belong. And that meant that when I did transition, like I went sort of full tail the other way. But I think the- more recently, I made the move from my last employer to this current position as myself, you know, after I came out, one of the perhaps I wouldn’t- I wouldn’t use the word perks, but certainly one of the the realities of being a trans person of- often is that your ‘read’ straightaway is trans. There’s no hiding around it and I didn’t make an effort to do that. And that, that has felt so much more liberating, that, you know, the moment I walk into the room, you know, that- that- that internal conversation happens for everyone in their minds. But then what ever happens after that is just what- what it- what it is. So, I really empathise and sympathise with people who have to like, you know, put that part of themselves in the closet, every time they start a new job. It shouldn’t be that way and I think as a culture, we have a long way to go.
I find like, thinking about jobs and when I was applying you- I mean, because I suffered from racial harassment in my PhD, my first anxiety for the new, whenever I applied for a new job is like, what if this happens at this job? You know, what happen- like, will- will people here be anti-racist? I need them to be anti-racist, I don’t need them to be not racist, I need them to be anti-racist, I want to be integrated. I don’t want to live on the fringe. But then when you’re also like an ethnic minority but also when you identify as LGBT, there’s a- are the two things you have to think about then right? You have to think about: I hope that they are not homophobic, or I hope that they’re not transphobic. So there’s additional fear that you have to carry with you when you’re aplying to different jobs and because like academia is, you have to deal with a lot of short, relatively short contracts, like two years is still short. You have to you’re- have to statistically deal with the anxiety a lot more. And I think, especially because you made moves around across different countries, you’re taking even bigger risk that this country is going to be as hopefully inclusive or you feel integrated.
It’s a tough one. I think there’s no straightforward answer. I mean, you are vulnerable, whenever you move both geographically as well as sort of, you know, as a- as an institution or an organisation. I think the strategies have to be different and you have to be adaptable unfortunately. The worst I experienced was when I moved from doing a PhD in New Zealand, or like being a technician in that lab, to Australia, which- I mean our culture is not too different, I mean, politically, it’s very different. But the way people speak and behave, not too different. But I went into a department that had a lot of homophobia. There was a colleague who took their life, who was- were known to the closer friends is as someone who was LGBTQI, queer. And there was- there were incidents that you know, involved women being marginalised, very clearly treated really poorly. And I had, you know, I shared an office with someone who, you know, without the knowledge of who I am, you know said awful things about trans people. And it took a major toll on my mental health, but you just have to find the mechanism to like, that works, that- that keeps you above the water. While I was in Australia, the main thing was, you know, I met my partner, and we used to do Latin dance. So, you know, going out to dance class or like social dancing was my little escape. And yeah, it wasn’t- it wasn’t a fond time. But yeah, I think, yeah, it’s- it’s, you have to do what’s right for you, and other people have no right to judge you for it.
I think after Bristol, I told myself that wherever I work will be in the to be on the safe side, like a big, diverse city, I was eager to move back to London. I mean, I grew up and I love London. But I knew that if I hated where I worked in London, at least I had friends or people I can identify with. And that’s how I like, is maybe apprehensive about moving countries because I’m like there are great departments, for example, in Australia, but I’m like well, it depends on the- on the city, like if it’s not diverse, I would feel really apprehensive. Has that affected where you you would choose to move?
It- well, it has affected. I worked in Exeter for two years, and it’s a pretty white part of the country, and I doubt that I will move to a small town or city like that again. And I think as you get older, I mean, I think it comes with a bit of resilience in terms of career and a bit of trust that you can adapt to different types of working. I find that my- my priority has been to be in an area that I like being in rather than chase a scientific career to the enth degree. Ultimately, like, you know, we are we are still scientists, whether we are employed by university or not, and I think this is this is a changing landscape, you know, universities, you know, in 10 or 20 years time, I don’t think we’ll be able to claim to be the absolute sort of centres of knowledge as they as they have in the past. So, yeah, I think- I think comfort in my environment is really important. I think that happens as you get older as well.
I think because when I was choosing my PhD I had two choices. One was the one in Bristol, and one was in London. And I told myself like, you know, the subject is really important. I’m going to choose what’s more interesting to me because with the one in London I tried to read around if I couldn’t get as excited as the one in Bristol, but like I did learn the hard way that actually the the city’s also just as important and that’s- that’s what sets up being minoritised, because you can’t ultimately have the freedom of choice that say like a straight white person has. We have to compromise different situations and ultimately, some people are lucky that they don’t have to make that compromise, but we don’t have that freedom of movement unfortunately. One day, it would be great that if we could have that.
We will have that one day.
One day! That’s what I fight, you know, for my sisters to have that freedom and, you know, the future generations. And hopefully for us, hopefully we gain a bit of that in the near future as well, not just, we’re not just working for other people.
I think there’s something about being able to even if you don’t get to experience the- the better times as time goes on, there’s something nice about being able to be happy for others who come after you. And I say this, because I’ve been, I’ve worked with people who can’t do that. Who can’t, no matter how much they try, feel happier for their junior colleagues that they have in a more equal pay or better working conditions. And I think, yeah, it’s just a human thing that to be better human beings and just- just be happy for others, even if you can’t have it for yourself.
So we like to give each of our guests a fun little question to ask. So for you, we would like to ask if you had all the money in the world, what instrument would you like to play with?
So this one was a really interesting question, because I did have a cheat sheet. I did see these questions before- [Jazmin] that’s fine. [Izzy] -and it made me think a lot, and I realized that I’m someone who’s never happy with like one instrument or piece of kit, like I’m a tinkerer. And if money was no object, the thing that I would love is to have a workshop like that that’s fully kitted and have- has everything. So one of the things that I’ve really come to love during the- the lockdown periods is there’s a YouTube channel by someone called Laura Kampf. I think their pronouns she/her, but I’m gonna stick with they just to be sure. They are in Germany, and they’re essentially what you describe as a ‘maker’ making stuff. So it has become very clear that like having the right kind of kit, like, you know, the drill presses and like you know, good quality tools is- is there’s no greater joy than that. At the moment, I don’t have space for it, and I don’t have the money for it. I’m kind of doing what I wrote in my grad proposal and stringing you along. But one day, if I had a workshop, that will be brilliant, that will be like, and I think that that, that those stereotypes about you know, being in a workshop are shattering, you know, you don’t have to be a certain demographic or a certain gender to want to make stuff.
I like that. That’s a good answer.
All right, so we’ve reached the end of this episode. So before you go, could you leave your contact details for guests if they wanted to contact you?
So my, I guess, work research website is appliedbiophotonics[dot]org. That’s where you can see sort of my research work. You can also find me in the staff directory of the University of Sheffield if you just search for my name. My email address at the moment is i.jayasighe[dot]sheffield[dot]ac[dot]uk, those are the main ways and of course Twitter. What is it? It’s [at]i-underscore-j-a-y-a-s.
Thank you for being our guest Izzy.
Thank you for the opportunity. I’ve had a great time.
Thank you learned a lot, great!
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