Happy to answer your questions about careers, science and everything in-between!
Before uni, I finished primary and secondary education in Romania. Then I did my undergrad and PhD degrees at the University of Edinburgh.
I received a Bachelor of Science (BSc) degree in molecular genetics and I got my Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree in human statistical genetics.
I am currently in my first 'real job' after having been a student for 21 years!
My job title is simply 'Scientist'!
Favourite thing to do in my job: Science, and slaying dragons.
Scientist by day, gamer by night, geek always.
I grew up in Transylvania, which is a real region that can be found in Romania. Transylvania is where Dracula comes from, although I have never met him myself. Even so, while I am walking around its castles, dark forest and misty mountains, I can easily see how these would be the perfect setting for vampire stories.
When I was 18, I moved to Edinburgh in Scotland so I could go to university. I studied biology (genetics in particular) because I wanted to know more about how our bodies work. It was not easy leaving all my friends and family behind, but now, 7 years later, I’ve made some great new friends with whom I enjoy travelling (we went to South Africa to see two of them get married!) and playing board games and roleplaying games such as Dungeons and Dragons. This is a picture of us in South Africa. We get along really well, so this is the only time they (literally) drove me to Wit’s End.
I also enjoy playing video games either alone or together with my boyfriend. I like role-playing games the most, since they are rich in story and character interaction. Some of my favourite games are the Mass Effect series which take place in space, but I also enjoy games set in a fictional, magical past, such as the Witcher series, the Elder Scrolls games (such as Skyrim) and Dragon Age.
My journey as a scientist can also be described using my hair. When I started university, I decided to experiment so I dyed my hair red. When I started my PhD, I thought it was time for a change so I dyed it turquoise. I think this was a failed experiment, so I wanted to change it back to red. The blue colour, however, was stubborn, and instead of going away, it became more intense, while the red kept getting washed out. This is when I tried a different approach (by using a different hair dye), which had limited success – the red colour stayed, but so did the blue, so I ended up with purple hair. Persisting, I ended up gradually washing out the blue, which is how my hair turned pink. Three years later, I am now almost back at the red I started out with.
This process is just like a science experiment: you start by asking a question. You set up experiments to try to answer this question. Your experiments will end up failing several times, but you will learn something new from each failure. You will never have a straightforward path from question to answer, but you can apply what you have learned to tweak your experiment until you finally get the answer you were looking for.
I try to find new drugs to treat diseases, with the help of computers and data!
I do DNA wizardry! No, it’s nothing quite so magical and glamorous. Read on for the full story..
Ever since I read my first science book (it was a book about how the body works and it had many pictures in it), I wanted to learn more about the world around me. This is how I ended up studying the sciences (biology, chemistry, physics) in high school.
I continued to learn about biology at university, focusing on genetics, as I am fascinated by how we are the products of recipes (called genes) written in DNA, which is like a biological cookbook that tells our bodies how to make us. The recipes in this cookbook are broadly the same in all of us, but some may contain typos (called mutations) that cause the end product to be different.
Sometimes these mutations are harmless: for example, a cupcake recipe that asks for blue instead of green food colouring – the end product will still be a cupcake that tastes the same, but looks different. A mutation like this is responsible for the blue or green eye colour some of you may have.
Sometimes mutations can be harmful, giving the wrong instructions, like the cupcake recipe calling for onions instead of eggs. These mutations can cause diseases such as cancer or increase your chances of developing dangerous conditions such as a high blood pressure or diabetes.
What I do for my work is take lots of people, measure a specific trait (such as blood pressure) in all of them, read their DNA recipes (this is called DNA sequencing or genotyping) and find the typos that seem to come up more often in people who have high blood pressure and are seen only rarely (or never) in people with lower blood pressure. Once we know what the recipe does and how the typo changes its end results, we can try to correct it by correcting the typo (this is called gene therapy) or by leaving the typo in, but providing a ‘corrections’ page in the form of drugs.
My Typical Day
Wake up, go to work, make tea, get computer program error, bash head on keyboard, fix problem, eat biscuits, get new computer program error..
At 8:15, my alarm rings. I stay in bed for 15 more minutes, gathering the willpower to get up and go to work. At work, the first thing I do is make myself some tea (I don’t consider myself grown-up enough to drink coffee). I don’t make a cup of it, I make a whole jug. Yes, a jug. The combination of the hot water tap being far away and me being lazy means that until lunch, I only have as much liquid to drink as I fetch on this morning trip, so I might as well make the journey to the tap worthwhile.
Once I have my tea, I turn my computer on, and try to run one of the programs that does the complicated statistics and maths for me that I do not understand myself. Sometimes, I get a reasonable answer and sometimes, I get a jumbled mess – probably because I messed up somewhere. In these cases, I go back to try to fix the error (called a ‘bug’), and hope for the best! I often joke that I spend 95% of my time figuring out how to tell the computer to do what I want it to, and so only have 5% of the time to look at, and make sense of, the actual results!
I am not the only one who faces such problems on a day-to-day basis, every researcher does in some way. Doing research is not simply asking a question, pushing a few buttons (or doing a few experiments) and receiving an answer, it is about getting REALLY creative with your problem solving, about not giving up even when it seems like everything is plotting against you, and about learning something new along the way.
After a day of hard work, I can’t wait to go home and reward myself with some well-earned rest, in the form of video games!
What I'd do with the prize money
I would create a science-themed board or card game.
My institute does a lot of outreach and communication activities throughout the year. These are held either at the institute (such as the Doors Open Day or the ‘So you want to be a biomedical scientist’ event) or are part of larger communication activities (such as the Edinburgh International Science Festival).
We are constantly developing new activities to suit the topics we are trying to discuss, so there is always need for new resources. I would spend the prize money on turning an aspect of genetics into a card or board game.
How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
I Am Batman. Alternatively: Reliable, Geeky, Sarcastic.
What's the best thing you've done in your career?
I used Star Wars and Game of Thrones as the central topics of a presentation about my work, and it even made sense. Also, I did a stand-up comedy sketch about my work and it made people laugh!
What or who inspired you to follow your career?
My parents – they are chemists by training and in addition to story books, they got me colourful books on science too, so I wanted to be a princess and a scientist at the same time. Sounds like a new Disney princess in the making – you heard it here first, folks!
Were you ever in trouble at school?
Generally not, but I once hit a bully so hard I gave him a nosebleed. He was picking on my friend.
If you weren't doing this job, what would you choose instead?
A computer programmer who creates video games.
Who is your favourite singer or band?
My all-time favourite is the metal band HIM, and I generally listen to rock and metal. However, my dirty secret is that I know the lyrics to most of the early songs by Britney Spears and Shakira.
What's your favourite food?
Pizza and chocolate cake. Though not at the same time.
What is the most fun thing you've done?
Playing LasterTag in the dark with my friends, while we were all wearing glowing face paint.
If you had 3 wishes for yourself what would they be? - be honest!
1. Better weather in Scotland. 2. The ability to teleport anywhere when I want to. 3. A debit card that always has the exact amount of money I need.
Tell us a joke.
What do you get when you cross a vampire and a snowman? Frostbite.