Emily Chang attended one of our “Share Your Story” pop-ups, an ongoing event-series we host to connect the creatives in our community and to collect stories of the everyday woman.
Scientists — the logical, rational individuals of our society. The strict nerds who would snub meaningless chit chat with their smart remarks. They are the elusive beings tucked away in secret laboratories, clad in long white coats and thick horn-rimmed glasses, sporting their odd unruly hair.
Yet, my first impression of Emily was nothing similar. Dressed in the lovely pink of our Thesis shirt dress, she sat with a dreamy gaze in her eyes, with legs elegantly crossed in a ladylike manner. No glasses were in sight, and her hair was styled neatly in a French braid.
Emily gently explained her work in the science field.
“Where should I begin? I guess the very broad general field would be cancer research.”
“To narrow it down a bit,” she continued, “I study the fundamental mechanisms of genome maintenance and stability. Put simply, genome instability occurs when tumour cells mutate at a higher rate than do normal cells. My research tries to identify the underlying causes of genomic instability — the hallmark of cancer.”
Curious to know more about a field so foreign, I asked Emily what her day-to-day looks like as a scientist.
“I’m a postdoctoral research fellow in my lab. However, my role does not only consist of my own research projects,” Emily explained, “but also mentoring and guiding trainees or students on their ongoing research projects. There is a lot of communication and collaborations. Everyone has his or her specific projects in the lab, but we also help each other out.”
“As researchers, we write papers and publish our novel findings in international journals. Currently I am also collaborating with two other labs in similar research field right now on some side projects.”
As Emily went on to speak about her work with other labs, I noted some parallels between the scientific community with the design one — actually, with all other communities. The beauty of a community is collaborations. By sharing our expertise, whether it is the scientific knowledge of two labs or the creativity of two artists or the life hacks of two moms, our knowledge and understanding of the world around us expands as a whole.
“Do you think creativity play a role in your work as a scientist?” I interrupted.
“Yes!” Emily responded, without hesitation, “Creativity enables you to think outside of the box.”
“I also think curiosity and creativity come in pairs. You need to be curious to be a successful scientist. If you’re not curious, you will always be dependant on others to tell you what problems to solve next, what questions to ask next, what experiments you can attempt to do to solve these problems and so forth. It will be impossible to come up with new ideas yourself.”
I nodded and asked, “Do you incorporate creativity outside of your scientist life?”
“Creativity is everywhere,” Emily began, “One example for me is cooking. My husband and I both like to cook. Although we cook easy, quick meals when we are busy, we like to try new recipes when we have time, explore new ingredients, new combinations, and even new ways to present each dish. We have honed our love of cooking by attending advanced culinary lessons in the past, and I enjoy using these technical skills creatively in my every day.”
Emily went on to explain her second hobby — the piano.
“I’ve always been interested in science and music. When I was young, I was torn between becoming a pianist or a medical doctor. I did well in my science subjects, and my music teachers told me that I had great potential for piano,” Emily blushed modestly as she spoke, “and that I had the ear for it.”
“At the end, I chose science as my career and music as my hobby. I became a researcher because I enjoy solving problems and had good mentors who encouraged me upon this path. I had always wanted to help people — like doctors do — and I think I can achieve that in research.”
“Without scientists, we won’t understand how our body works and there will be no development of vaccines or better drugs, or the discovery of combined therapies for physicians to use.”
Touched by her apparent will to help others and how crucial her research work truly was, I confessed to Emily the humorous “scientist stereotypes” I had sketched in my mind.
“I certainly think it’s unfair that scientists are seen as nerdy!” Emily laughed.
“Everyone has his or her own style, no matter what profession you’re in. Scientists might be perceived as nerdy because of what we wear when we work. We wear lab coats, long pants, shoes that cover our toes or glasses for safety reasons. We also don’t wear our favourite outfits as we don’t want to risk staining or dirtying them.”
“I certainly don’t wear my Vestige pieces to the lab! I wear them on my computer days. But it’s true for all professions that comfort comes first. What you wear to go to work doesn’t mean you only style yourself that way.”
As our portrait session came to an end, I thanked Emily for not only enlightening me with a field I knew so little about — but also for her contribution to humanity’s wellbeing. And of course, for dispelling silly scientist stereotypes, and for reinforcing the fact that women can balance both brains and beauty.
// Extra Note // My conversation with Emily continued after the event, as Canada was thrown into the grips of COVID-19. I reached out again to see if she could shed some light on the current situation, from the standpoint of a disease researcher.
“Everyone has to be responsible and do his or her part in this current situation,” Emily responded gravely, “In the science community, we are seeing multiple papers on COVID-19 being published everyday. Everyone is eager to learn and share what they discovered about this virus, either to help in the development of vaccine or to help improve test kits. But these processes take time. So we need everyone to follow public health guidelines, or our healthcare system will be overwhelmed. It is crucial that everyone follows social distancing and self isolation.”
“Last but not least, on top of social distancing, isolation, masks and good hygiene, what is also important is to get good sleep."
"Less has been said about the importance of sleep,” Emily warned, “which I believe it is equally crucial. We need enough sleep to strengthen our immune system — to fight this long battle of viral infection.”
Emily and I hope that everyone is staying safe and healthy during these difficult times. Sweet dreams tonight, and that we will wake up to better days in the future.