Written by Nóra Lehotai and Sophia Hernandez.
In this episode of the MIMS Spotlight Series, I chatted with Sophia Hernandez. Sophia was born in the Philippines where she earned her bachelor’s degree in Molecular Biology and has been traveling around the world gaining research experience in different labs in the USA, UK, Switzerland and Sweden. Her parents have both scientific background while her brother took interest in business. Sophia joined MIMS in August 2020 as a new member of the Bushell lab.
Can you tell us about your role at MIMS, what are you working on now?
I am a PhD student in Ellen Bushell’s lab. I formally started my PhD in February 2021. I am working on developing gene knock-down tools to study the malaria parasite. Knocking out essential genes result in the Plasmodium parasite’s death which makes it difficult to study these genes. For my project I am trying to develop a scalable conditional system so we can chose when to remove the gene.
Picture: Sophia with her parents at her Bachelor's graduation. Credit: Sophia Hernandez.
What were you doing before you joined MIMS and what attracted you to start a position here?
Sophia says that before coming to MIMS, she was working at the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub in San Francisco (similar to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation but with Facebook money).
I was engineering dengue virus antigens that contain epitopes of broadly neutralize antibodies of dengue.
I got in contact with Ellen while I worked at the Sanger Institute in Cambridge. I heard many good things about her as a scientist and supervisor, I thought that for my PhD, it is very important to have a great supervisor for my training. Plasmodium was also a field that I have been interested and worked in for a while so I thought it would be a good match. I went to Umeå for my interview, I talked to the people in the lab and overall got a very good impression about the atmosphere and people.
How was it to start at a new workplace during the pandemic?
Getting to Umeå was a bit hard-says Sophia. I was supposed to arrive in April 2020 but then the world went into lockdown, and I managed to travel only in August. It was also weird to see that there were not so many people around, but I know that in Sweden at least I am able to work in the lab unlike in other places. Slowly I am meeting more people at the department.
If you would not have your current profession, what do you think you would be doing?
I really like cars. Maybe an engineer or mechanic. Otherwise working in a café and baking. I like how baking is like following a protocol and I enjoy seeing [and eating] the end result.
What do you do in your free time and what are you most enjoying in living in Umeå, Sweden?
I like arts and crafts and building things. My dad like to tinker with cars and items at home. He enjoys fixing broken things by himself. My mom likes to knit and make things by hand, so I guess, these all come together in my hobbies.
I try do more sports, I go to Iksu often with lab mates for swimming, body pump, spinning. Swedes are very sporty, and I picked this up as well. It is a good use of my time. I like hiking and going on walks. In winter I ski. Ski tracks are so easily accessible here!
At home, I like to bake, cook and watch series on Netflix (sitcom, true crime, documentaries).
What I find very special here in Umeå is getting to see the aurora. I learned how to take good pictures of it and whenever there is a good forecast I go to Nydala, sometimes with Claire Sayers a post doc in Oliver’s lab, and we take pictures together.
Picture on the left: Sophia (right) is skiing in the forest with Debojoyti Das (left), Maria Ivanova (middle). Picture on the right: Aurora borealis dancing over Nydala in Umeå. Credits: Sophia Hernandez.
Is there a little known/interesting fact about yourself?
I am into car racing. I would love to try it! I like watching races, mainly Formula1 but sometimes rally too. I enjoy the strategy, the teamwork, the different pieces coming together for the driver and car... However, I am not sure that I will be a good driver, notes Sophia with a laugh.
Sophia’s experience with the Forskar Grand Prix
I joined the local competition in Umeå last year in November because I have a general interest in science communication, and I saw this opportunity in an email, plus I wanted to improve my presenting and communications skills.
She explains that presenting is not something which she generally enjoys and it takes a lot of time for her to prepare.
There were a couple of scientists from Umeå University and SLU who joined the local competition. We received training from a professional science communicator, which was really nice. I won the local round and the final was supposed to be by the end of 2020 but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it got postponed for 2021.
Sophia says that the final in Stockholm was very nice.
We got a coach again and I got to meet the other finalists, it was a good selection of different topics, I made some new friends. I definitely learned a lot. I feel intimidated by live audience, therefore I feel proud of myself to be there and do it. It was nice to feel the support and feedback of others.
I asked her about the slideshow she presented with the vibrant and funny pictures and memes:
I really like making PowerPoint presentations because I like to use visual images and other elements to illustrate my thoughts.
When I ask her what her message would be to encourage others to sign up to this or similar events in the future, she says:
I would encourage people to join this event in the future. Science communications is important, and you can learn so much about how you should talk about science for a non-scientific community. The training was very useful; you learn what to include and how to make it understandable.
Sophia Hernandez finished second place in the final of Forskar Grand Prix 2021. Congratulations to Sophia!
Get to know more about Forskar Grand Prix: https://forskargrandprix.se/