Who Could’ve Predicted This? A Look at Biochem’s Decade Ahead

Written by Em Miraglia

Interviews by Claire MacMurray, Kate Jiang, Andrew Zhai

We first envisioned this piece at the start of the year. We set out to talk to people in our graduate department about what they wanted to contribute, create, and see around them in the decade that we had freshly entered. As biochemists, and as people. We also wanted to know their predictions for what was to come in the 2020s. We even referred to this article amongst ourselves as “the predictions piece”. At the time of our initial interviews, COVID-19 was still a distant problem (for many Canadians, at least) rather than an international terror. We asked fellow Biochemistry members about their wishes, aspirations, and predictions for the decade. And then everything changed.

We recognized the irony of going forward with “the predictions piece” after being hit by a global health crisis that affected our priorities and trajectories in ways that nobody could have ever predicted. We decided to harness the unique opportunity we had; the pre-COVID interviews served as a snapshot of our lives right before this major shift. The optimist in me believes that pre-COVID reflections like these could even orient people again when we eventually enter a post-COVID world, hopefully with the relatively swift development and administration of an effective vaccine. We were lucky enough to catch up with some of our peers once again (virtually, of course) and ask about their new wishes, aspirations, and predictions in the context of COVID-19 specifically now that everyone has had some time to settle into the new (ab)normal. Lots of common themes come up in each of the COVID-era interviews: the extra importance of science communication at this time, the race to develop effective vaccines, and a cautious mix of concern and hope for our future. I believe that this points to a sense of unity in Biochem, one that we can only hope to see in a good portion of the general population as well, that will make us more successful in combating and surviving this pandemic.

Here’s Biochem’s look ahead at the 2020s: pre-COVID, and now.

Pre-COVID: What do you personally want to bring to science in this decade?

Thamiya Vasanthakumar (PhD Student): This is a hard question. It’s hard to predict what experiments I’ll be running even a week from now. I am a structural biologist and I expect to be one 10 years from now so hopefully I’ll still be determining some interesting and complicated protein structures.

Christopher Chin Sang (Master’s Student): Honestly, a more inclusive and open research environment for everyone, regardless of gender, sexuality, ethnicity and social background.

Sean Ihn (Master’s Student): I want to discover cool things and eventually use it to bring forth new technologies or tools for scientists and the general population. I also want to train the next generation of scientists, I think teaching science would be super fun and life changing!

Nana Lee (Faculty): In the next decade I hope to bring my work in professional development to the next level which includes online videos for global access with partnerships with national training and industry organizations across Canada and possibly the USA.

Ian Yen (Master’s Student): I think for us graduate students to thrive and be successful, it’s important to see if you can find breakthroughs by combining different fields. I think the rotation system played a big role. My rotation with Jon Ditlev taught me about phase separation and that has influenced my ideas, which I’m hoping to incorporate into my research.

Claire MacMurray (PhD Student): To promote crosstalk between science and philosophy. I think of the “philosophical toolkit” as my greatest resource (as a scientist), especially when it comes to conceptual flexibility. I’m keen to communicate (to the world of bench science) precisely why philosophy is integral to our work— a challenge that will likely take plenty of time.

Now – The COVID Era: What do you want or expect the Department of Biochemistry to contribute to COVID-19 pandemic efforts?

Christopher (Master’s Student): Mostly limiting propagation and spread. I don’t expect the department itself to come up with the vaccine, as we only have one lab that actually studies coronavirus. Practicing social distancing, limiting contact between staff members and excessive precautionary measures are all things I expect from our department.

Sean (Master’s Student): I really wish the university or department would start an initiative to combat misinformation. Like making simple-ish infographics to confront popular myths and conspiracy. This hopefully would also close the gap between experts of science and the laypeople. I think I’m going to talk to Alex Palazzo about starting something like this actually. I’ll let you know if we get anywhere with it.

Note: Anyone who is interested in something like this should also check out COVID19 Demystified, a student-run science communication site highlighted by Kate in a recent Transcripts article!

Ian Yen (Master’s Student): As we have seen in recent months, the Department of Biochemistry has been actively involved in COVID-19 research. Although I expect research efforts to focus on diagnostics and therapeutics, I would like to see the department approach these efforts collectively as a team rather than exploiting this “opportunity” to further their own labs. The pandemic affects us all; thus, to be the most effective, teamwork and collaboration must be present.

Claire (PhD Student): Care for the well-being of the members of the department (greater community building efforts), no longer expecting things to carry on as usual (recognition of the need for systemic level changes), welcoming and integrating our new students into the community…

Pre-COVID: What do you want to bring to the world outside of science as a member of Biochemistry?

Thamiya (PhD Student): I think science communication and outreach are extremely important for giving meaning to the work that we do, it is important for the public to have confidence and trust in the scientific community. Gaining this trust should be the responsibility of scientists.

Nana (Faculty): My music. More to follow…

Ian (Master’s Student): I’m very passionate about science communication, about not only what I do, but science in general to anybody. I think the key factor is how you communicate and what you want the audience to get out of it. If you can get your audience to be curious about what you’ve communicated, then I think you’ve succeeded.

Claire (PhD Student): I want to promote well-being through curiosity. I think what draws me to philosophy (as mentioned above) is how it prioritizes or legitimizes the act of inquisition, and this has really fed into my well-being. I’d like to somehow spread the good word, start the conversation, etc. of curiosity-driven well-being.

Now – The COVID Era: What do you want to bring to the world outside of science in the COVID-19 era as a member of Biochemistry?

Christopher (Master’s Student): Awareness and debunking myths! Clarifying facts about propagation and safety measures. Above all, hitting ignorance with facts and destroying alternative truths.

Sean (Master’s Student): I want to bring proper science communication. I think learning science at this level is a privilege and we should educate people that don’t have the opportunity to learn science like us. Educating people that don’t have the expertise and combating misinformation is part of proper science communication. I’m doing this on an individual basis right now but I’d love to get involved in something bigger.

Nana (Faculty): Communication to the general public about what is happening.

Ian Yen (Master’s Student): I want people to become more aware of their actions and behaviors going forward as we enter into this new COVID era. For instance, it is inappropriate to use racial slurs. For those who protested wearing masks, I hope they will realize how their decisions and convenience may impact those around them.

Claire (PhD Student): Compassion for others. I also want to do a better job at turning my thoughts that exist in my head into something that can be shared (into the greater universe). And somehow revolt against capitalism…haven’t figured this one out quite yet.

Pre-COVID: What is an under-developed concept or technique in science that you think will be developed further in the coming decade?

Thamiya (PhD Student): Cryogenic electron tomography (cryo-ET). Structural biology techniques that we use today generally involve studying the protein in isolation. Cryo-ET allows us to look at the protein in its natural environment in the cell, see how it looks and functions in vivo, and gain more insight on interaction partners that we wouldn’t observe when studying it in isolation. Technical hurdles that make this technique challenging to use currently but I think we will develop methods to overcome these challenges over the next few years.

Sean (Master’s Student): I definitely see quantum technologies taking off during this decade. I read this article last year and got really excited for what it has in store. I think quantum tech can help us tackle the immense big data problems that we are facing more and more as scientists.

Nana (Faculty): Artificial intelligence and machine learning, and considering how we can use these tools effectively in research and education.

Ian (Master’s Student): I think techniques like cryogenic electron microscopy (cryo-EM) cryo-ET. I think with increasing power in resolution, data analysis, and image processing, we can expect cryo-EM and cryo-ET to get even more powerful in terms of the structures they can solve.

Claire (PhD Student): The way we understand evolution is changing entirely. So much of how we perceive evolution involves Darwin and Mendel- this needs to be reassessed. Current theory only goes so far to explain what life is… it doesn’t seem to account for the fact that organisms are playing an active role in shaping their environment.

Now – The COVID Era: What is an under-developed technique in science that you think will be further developed in the process of resolving this pandemic?

Christopher (Master’s Student): Liquid-liquid phase separation in viral infection. There’s so much mounting evidence that viruses use liquid-liquid phase separation to successfully infect mammalian cells at different stages of their life cycle.

Sean (Master’s Student): mRNA vaccines.

Nana (Faculty): Vaccine design for an RNA virus.

Ian Yen (Master’s Student): I strongly believe the process of developing a safe vaccine will be drastically altered in both time and protocol. It used to take years before a vaccine could be safely distributed; however, the urgency and desperation following this pandemic has forced R&D to move forward much more quickly. This, I believe, will have lasting effects for the development of future vaccines such as the potential to cut trial times down.

Claire (PhD Student): Process ontology, the theory that “everything flows, change is constant, etc…”

Pre-COVID: Make one bold prediction about anything in the coming decade.

Thamiya (PhD Student): From what I’ve heard, quantum computing seems to have the potential to revolutionize biology and many other fields.

Christopher (Master’s Student): I think the discovery of life on other planets will make us take a step back on our understanding of the living and what is required for life as we know it.

Sean (Master’s Student): For some reason, I REALLY hope we can find some kind of extraterrestrial life in the form of microorganisms! That would be so awesome and give us tremendous insight on how life forms and completely change many ideologies and paradigms that were established within the confines of Earth!

Nana (Faculty): More of the new generation will embrace minimalism, to leave a less global footprint and be more interested in purchasing experiences and not so much “stuff.” On the lines of minimalism, no-tech schools (grades K-8) will come back.

Ian (Master’s Student): I don’t want to be pessimistic, but I feel like we’re going to see a lot of grad students having an “identity crisis”. Science is becoming more competitive; we are expected to get more data for just one paper. It adds a lot of stress and time spent in the lab, people tend to lose their identity in the sense that they don’t know who they are outside of science anymore. It’s kind of like a trained professional athlete who has been running their entire life, and all of a sudden having an accident and you can no longer run. So if the department is not having these frank discussions with graduate students I think we’re going to see more and more of this as well as resulting depression.

Claire (PhD Student): One, capitalism will fall. I think that’s more of a wish as opposed to a reality. And I’m not really sure what I mean by this…I think I’m referring to the way society is structured, the way it operates; things have got to change.

Two (there’s 2a or 2b): either everyone will rise up in anarchy against the evils of television, or 2b) television will lead to our demise. If it’s 2b, we will be left unknowing how to actually have conversations with each other and will exist in isolation. That’s the end of the world right there, when we no longer know how to have conversations. However, if we realize that life is still meaningful without instant gratification, then perhaps our ways will change.

Now – The COVID Era: Make one bold prediction about the COVID-19 pandemic.

Christopher (Master’s Student): Nothing will change. Once we have the vaccine, life will return to normal as if nothing happened. But our current normal is exceedingly dangerous and unacceptable.

Sean (Master’s Student): I think governments might have to take drastic measures to ensure that enough people get the vaccine, meaning people opposed to it might be forced to take it. I don’t wish this upon people, nor do I wish for governments to have that kind of authority, but by the rate of the spread of vaccine hesitancy, vaccination by choice might be ineffective at eradicating COVID-19.

Nana (Faculty): It will cause people to reflect on what they value most in life and they will reprioritize the way they live.

Ian Yen (Master’s Student): COVID-19 will “force” governments to re-evaluate not only their own pandemic responses to be better prepared (let’s face it, this is certainly not the last one) but also the relationship shared between humans and the environment (whether that means banning wildlife feeding, etc.).

Claire (PhD Student): Society is like a slinky; we’ve been repressed and our old habits (as we transition out of this period of repression) will reach new heights (perhaps much to our downfall).

2 thoughts on “Who Could’ve Predicted This? A Look at Biochem’s Decade Ahead”

    • Very thought-provoking, Emily. As a lay person reading this article, I really connected with the ideas related to Science and philosophy, evolution, handling misinformation, and maintaining well-being. You’re all doing such important work!

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