2014 in review

Happy 2015!

Yesterday I had the great pleasure of ringing in 2015 with a great group of people in Auckland, New Zealand. I’m here visiting long-lost family friends from Serbia, who I haven’t seen outside of Skype for north of 15 years. Our “doček nove godine” (Serbian for “the wait for the new year”) celebrations included a festively decorated carport, a barbecue, and plenty of champagne and tequila. At midnight we took a break from our conversations to watch the fireworks display from the SkyTower which, at 328m high, is the tallest freestanding structure in the entire southern hemisphere. Though the official fireworks display was a measly five minutes long, we were well-prepared for more firework antics and kept a steady stream of them going for 30 minutes. We held most of the fireworks in our hands (don’t do this at home, kids!) and sometimes yelled Harry Potter magic spells like Expecto Patronum and Expelliarmus. Towards the end, whenever there was a short pause between fireworks, we heard neighbours yelling “more! more!!”. Just after midnight, I got a surprise phone call from my mom who set her alarm to wake her up at 5:55am on December 31st in Toronto just so she could call and wish me a happy new year. It was a really fun night with amazing friends and I’m happy that’s how I rang in 2015.

Throughout new year’s eve, I was thinking back on 2014 and what’s happened in my life this year. My proudest accomplishments of 2014:

1. I earned my Masters of Science degree, which included writing and painstakingly editing a 140+ page thesis document and a 30 minute defense presentation and 45 minute Q&A period afterward by a faculty panel. It was exhausting, it was nervewracking, and it was self-empowering to realize what I could do if I chiseled away bit by bit at a massive project.

2. I moved to Brisbane, Australia to start my PhD in a completely different topic than my Masters research. I hit the ground running and dove into the literature, completing my initial thesis proposal document and starting up on some exciting research after learning tons of new techniques. I went to three conferences and although I obviously didn’t have data for a poster yet, they were good learning and bonding experiences. On top of the work itself, I met “heaps” of new people and got to know a new city and its surrounding area. I also learned a lot about Australia and Australian slang!

3. On the fitness side, I ran a half marathon and completed it in less than 2h30m! Although I’ve never been overweight, I have never been a great athlete (nor am I one now) but with my training for this event I again reminded myself what can be accomplished if you work on goals in small increments, and focus on what you can do today to reach an ultimate, seemingly-unachievable goal.

Other events and accomplishments:
-celebrated my champagne birthday with the greatest housemates anyone could have, with a breakfast of mimosas, tea and Sabletine baked goods followed by a night with many of my good friends including old friends that came from out of town
-planned and hosted a variety of events for the Biology Graduate Student Association as the social convenor, including a trivia night, a Euchre night, a skating event, and department coffee hours
-visited Boston for the first time with my partner and his family, and got to spend a great two weeks with him while he was on holiday right after I finished my degree
-published my first first-author scientific paper! This was huge, and I found this out while sitting alone at the airport in Auckland, New Zealand on my layover on the way to Brisbane to start my PhD. Although it had already been accepted weeks earlier, it was really nice to see it there published on an official scientific website after two flights including a never-ending 13-hour one!
-Brad and I celebrated our two year anniversary over Skype, like we do most of our celebrating for now. We also booked our plane tickets to see each other in 2015 and I can’t wait!
-I got to spend time with relatives and family friends who live all the way across the world — because now I live there too. It’s been like finding something that was long lost, and I’ve really been enjoying my time with them.

Overall, 2014 was a great year and I wish the best to all of you for 2015!

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Three months in Brisbane — already?!

Hi all,

Monday was the three-month anniversary of my plane touching down at BNE, so it seems like a good time to reflect on my experiences here so far. It’s really strange–sometimes I can’t believe it’s been a whole three months, but then other times it feels like so much longer! Although I have a ton of work to do for my PhD, I’ve been trying to take at least one full day of the week (usually Saturday) to explore, relax, and maybe go on a day trip.

In the past three months I’ve seen a lot, learned a lot, and started to really get comfortable here. I know which bus routes take me into the CBD, and which ones go to my great aunt’s house. I have a mental image to go with many of the suburb names on the map, and an idea of the topography and landmarks in different parts of town. I know where the post office is, where the university campuses are (although I rarely go to them), where the markets and the malls and the movie theatres are, and where to find cool hidden bars.

A neat back patio on Brunswick St in Fortitude Valley aka "The Valley"

A neat back patio on Brunswick St in Fortitude Valley aka “The Valley”

More importantly, I’m better at understanding the Australian accent and I’ve figured out what arvo, goon, and Macca’s are, among other Aussie-isms (afternoon, boxed wine, and McDonalds, if you’re wondering). Plus Australians are partial to shortening any and every word they possibly can which leads to words like exy (expensive), brekkie (breakfast), and mozzie (mosquito). They also describe things simply as “[something] as” without bothering to finish their thought so you might be told, for example, that a party was “fun as” or that a movie was “sweet as” and you’ll be left to imagine an ending to the sentence yourself. When I first got here these words and phrases were jarring (and honestly downright incomprehensible at times), but now they’re just standard to hear and I wouldn’t be surprised if I started saying some myself fairly soon.

Beautiful jacaranda trees that bloom for over a month in the springtime

Beautiful jacaranda trees that bloom for over a month in the springtime

Now, a bit about the weather and seasons. When I first came to Australia, it was the beginning of August which is considered winter here since the seasons are obviously flipped on this side of the equator. However, since it was 20+ degrees Celsius and sunny most days, it didn’t feel anything like what a Canadian would call winter and it seemed like overkill to see restaurants advertising “warming soups for winter!” True, at night it dropped to 10 degrees and you had to pack a sweater or light jacket for walks home, but when you’re used to -10C as an average winter day, +10C is phenomenal. One odd thing that I didn’t think about before coming here is that Brisbane is much closer to the equator than Toronto is (27.5 S vs. 43.7 N) which means that there’s less seasonal variation in the length of days. In Toronto, winter days are a good six hours shorter than summer days, and most of the daytime hours gained are in the evening. Here, it seems like the majority of the daylight gained in the summer is on the dawn side, so that sunrise is before 5am, while the latest sunset is never after 7pm. Since I often come home after 6pm, the only times I see Brisbane in the light is on my walks to work and on the weekends; because of the rareness, it’s actually strange to see places during the daytime. Because of the early-morning sunshine, Brisbanites on average seem to be early risers. The hot climate also means that any outdoor activity becomes unbearable real fast, so most running and biking clubs meet between 5:30 and 7am! A few weeks ago I had to wake up at 5am to take a bus to the coast, it was already bright out, and at 5:20am as I walked to the bus stop I saw there were already packs of cyclists zooming by on the bike lanes.

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When I first got here, I loved how different plants and animals are from the ones back home or in Europe–I still do. We have a trio of possums that live in our backyard, climbing from one palm tree to another with long tails for balance. It seems like they’re a family since one of the three is smaller, and jumped onto its mother’s back when it spotted me. There are also enormous bats called flying foxes that wake up and take to the skies around sunset–once I saw a whole cloud of about 200 bats fly by! I also had a closer encounter with a bat one night soon after I arrived. I was at yoga in the park in South Bank, the cultural precinct by the river, and during the final relaxation pose I heard some rustling above me in a tree and opened my eyes and I was suddenly staring at an upside down bat that was staring right back. After another minute frozen like that, it let go of the branch it was holding on to and did a bit of a dive toward me before it unfurled its wings and flapped away. Just another thing to add to my list of “things that don’t happen in Canada”! There are “heaps” of other cool animals and plants as well, but I’ll save those for another time.

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Taking in the Riverfire fireworks show over the Story Bridge

Three months ago, after over 24 hours of travel in three planes across 15,000km and four airports, I was welcomed into Australia by a customs officer who called me “mate” not once, not twice, but three times.

Australia, I reckon our mateship is gonna be sweet as.

Outreach in motion

Tonight I had the honour of attending a swim training session for the Can Too Foundation (http://www.cantoo.org.au/). Can Too is a Health Promotion Foundation that funds cancer research, which is admirable and amazing but to end the description there would be doing the program a disservice.

A lot of charity fundraising is done through bake sales, barbecues, and the sale of other foods which are not be the healthiest around. Can Too’s fundraising is instead focused on training people to prepare for a long distance run, swim, or ride. All the while, the participants collect donations in support of their major athletic events and cancer research. They tackle their goal of improving health not just through the funding of scientists and research, but by also encouraging participants while they train for major athletic feat.

The Can Too Foundation invites both beginner and experienced athletes to train for their events, which include full marathons and triathlons! They are trained by professional coaches who, as far as I know, donate their time and expertise to the cause. The participants give their all, training several times a week for several months, and proudly complete their races together. These athletes are motivated, inspired, and empowered to reach their personal fitness and fundraising goals. The donations then directly fund cancer researchers like my labmates, who are researching prostate, breast, and blood cancers. Although my research is in cartilage regeneration, some of the participants expressed interest in my research as well, and joked about wanting to be signed up for cartilage repair as soon as it becomes available. It’s always nice to get out of the lab and see the real, human side of what we are working toward.

My supervisor gave the Can Too organizers, coaches, and athletes an overview of the research we do, what’s already been discovered within the field, and an explanation of what we’re trying to achieve. Afterwards, we answered any questions the group had, including an interesting one about what drives us. As athletes in training for what is quite a large undertaking, they definitely know that drive is important, and wanted know what pulled us to research and what keeps us there for the long run. Our answers generally expressed that there is a global gap in our knowledge of how to keep people healthy, and we are motivated to keep researching because we want to benefit humanity. Many of us also mentioned an early interest in science, and thinking of scientific research as a series of fascinating puzzle to be solved.

My favourite moment of the night was when one of the participants told us it was nice to have faces to put to the vague terms “scientist” and “researcher”. She said hearing about the research firsthand and meeting us was really nice, because she could now think of us when training and know where some of the funds are being allocated. They seemed to really enjoy hearing why we care and why we show up every day to keep chipping away at the research puzzle, even when certain questions have been asked for decades without a definitive answer. We believe that the answers are out there, but it will take many more years and many more researchers to discover treatments and cures. Can Too’s values are “fun, fitness, friends, and fundraising”, and they stay true to their values. We were received warmly and later thanked for our time and our dedication to research.

I’ll finish off with a motivational message from their webpage that fits well with both long-term training and long-term research: “There is a stretch goal in all of us and with a desire we all CAN TOO do anything we set out to do. We just need to take that first step, join Can Too and anything is possible!!! We believe we CAN TOO!!”

Introductions are in order

Hi!

My name is Ena and I’m a scientist in motion. That phrase sums up three things that I value, but I’ll start with the most literal one.

Firstly, I’m a scientist that likes to move. I like the rush of alpine skiing, the calm of running, the quiet energy of yoga, the smoothness of a good bike ride, the rhythm of rollerblading, the technical puzzle of a tough climb. It’s easy to forget how great it feels to move, especially when other parts of life start to crowd out time that used to be set aside for physical activities. I had built a good, steady jogging habit back home this summer, logging almost 300km, and I proudly ran my first half marathon three weeks ago! However, I haven’t made time for running or any other kind of fitness since then and it’s time to change that. I hope to remind myself (and maybe others!) how enjoyable it is to get outside, sweat and push your limits.

Run a half marathon: check! After years of wanting to run a half marathon, I finally checked it off my bucket list!

Run a half marathon: check! After years of wanting to run a half marathon, I finally checked it off my bucket list!

Second, I’m a scientist that likes to move. I know, I already said that; this time I’m talking about movement on a larger scale. I like to travel and explore new places, try new foods, and learn new languages. Two months ago I undertook my furthest move ever by flying in three planes for 22 hours. I crossed the dateline, never experienced August 2nd 2014, and set foot on a new continent. I’m now a Canadian expat, living a mere 15028km away from home for the next three or four years. My new home is Brisbane, Australia, which gets an average of 8 hours of sunshine a day, 261 days of the year. In contrast, Toronto averages just 5.5 hours of sunshine a day, and I won’t even mention the cold (yet). I’ll be talking about similarities and differences between the two countries, and sharing pictures and stories of new adventures and friends. I’ve got less than a handful years to explore this side of the globe and I intend on using the time well!

Move across the world: check! Ottawa's not Toronto but let's call it 15309km ± 500km

Move across the world: check! Ottawa’s not Toronto but let’s call it 15309km ± 500km

Finally, the scientist bit (aka the reason I’m calling Australia home for the next several years): I’m a new PhD student and my field of research is cartilage regeneration using stem cells. In the first two months of my PhD, I have learned an enormous amount. I completed my Masters of Science in Biology in April, but it was in a completely different field and I’d primarily learned three things: cell culture, western blotting, and confocal microscopy. Here, cell culture is still a large part of what I’ll be doing, but I’ll also be handling mice (and hopefully sheep!), as well as using flow cytometry to characterize and sort cells, running PCR to determine gene expression patterns, slicing frozen tissues on a cryostat to prepare them for a variety of stains, isolating and quantifying DNA, RNA, and proteins, optimizing cell loading into hydrogels, and more. Don’t worry if you don’t understand anything I just said– I didn’t understand it myself until recently! I’ve already learned the basics of these techniques though and I dove headfirst into the literature when I got here, so I’m feeling ready to tackle my project on cartilage repair. As an obesity epidemic coincides with an aging population, we will experience great social and financial losses due osteoarthritis, which is a major cause of pain and disability. My aim is to create a stable, functional cartilage repair construct that will improve quality of life for people with degenerative joint diseases. It will be challenging but if I can do anything that will advance the field, I will be satisfied. I’ll be writing about difficulties and triumphs as I move through my program and project and I’ll also write about other interesting science news as I hear about it.

Complete my MSc: check! I couldn't have done it without my family, friends, and Waterloo waterfowl.

Complete my MSc: check! I couldn’t have done it without my family, friends, and Waterloo waterfowl.

That’s all for my first post! Thanks for reading, and feel free to leave comments. I’ll be writing weekly from now on — until then, keep moving!