When asked how she became a science researcher, Isobel Mouat expressed her outright love of science – learning it, researching it and talking about it, especially with other people.
After moving from Ann Arbor, Michigan, to Toronto to pursue her undergraduate degree in molecular biology, Mouat moved to Vancouver to begin her PhD in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology where she could do just that – learn, research and talk about science with other people who experienced a similar passion.
Mouat didn’t exactly know what becoming a researcher was going to be like, but she was open to learning as she went along. Now, Isobel works hard at every level of this career path – whether it’s searching for the right opportunities that align with life goals, standing out in the competitive environment of the journey towards tenure track teaching, or researching the super complex and important science behind finding a cure.
With all these aspects of a degree in Microbiology and Immunology, the freedom to make it your own opens countless opportunities for a successful career. And that’s what makes it such an exciting field to explore.
Q. What is the significance of your research?
Mouat: Our lab studies how viruses contribute to autoimmune diseases. And I, in particular, study how Epstein-Barr virus contributes to multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis.
Humans are infected with this virus during childhood and adolescence, but generally are not diagnosed with autoimmune diseases until they’re much older. So, there's this large window in time that makes it especially challenging to study in humans.
It’s a really interesting biological phenomenon: that something that happened to you as a child or adolescent can contribute to the diseases that you get decades later. I find this research to be a really interesting conceptual puzzle.
Q. What do you want your research to help you achieve?
Mouat: One thing I've enjoyed about the program is that they're really supportive of opportunities beyond research and beyond the lab to explore what you want to do afterwards. There's a recognition that not everyone getting a PhD is going to be able to be a professor and so I've been lucky during my PhD to be involved in quite a few things.
I've learned that I really enjoy teaching science, which is an obvious progression from my undergrad where I loved talking about science. Here, I've had the opportunity to TA a course, to be involved in some teaching research projects and then this past term, I instructed my first course. So, I think I'm moving towards a career in science education.
Q. What do you think are the biggest obstacles or barriers in your field?
Mouat: One thing I think about is that I went straight from undergrad into a PhD. So, I spent four years working really hard in undergrad and now I'll have spent six more years working really hard. And then it seems that if I stay in academia, postdoc positions are just as demanding. Then you get an academic position that's very demanding. So, one thing I'm starting to think about is if there are any times that it makes sense to take a step back, either for my own wellbeing in terms of if I want to spend three months traveling or something like that or, more importantly, to start a family.
Sort of just asking yourself: how does the timing work when you're in a career path that just progressively gets more and more intense?
In a career path that's so competitive and gets more competitive at each stage as you go along, that’s something I'm starting to think about and that I hear a lot of other colleagues, both men and women, talk a lot about.
Q. What is your advice to aspiring young researchers?
Mouat: Talk to people. Especially to people with different careers and at different career stages. I think a lot of students, especially undergrads and early grad students, see professors as almost non-human figures. They don't feel that they are able to approach professors to ask questions about their life. But they're just people, right? So, I think it's really valuable to sit and talk to people and have a coffee and ask what they like about their job, what they don't like about their job, what their goals are, and what other paths they considered.
With almost anyone, if you start asking them about themselves, they're just this wealth of knowledge and are willing to open up and share. Then through these conversations, they’ll get to know you and opportunities tend to come about.
Q. What do you love about being a scientist?
Mouat: I really love that every day is so different. That some days, you're in the lab all day doing experiments. You don't take your lab coat off all day. And then other days you're analyzing data and you can sit in a coffee shop. Other days you're teaching and other days you're presenting or attending seminars. I just find it really refreshing.
I find that I never get bored. Or if I'm getting a little bit bored of something, I can just design a new experiment and that'll solve that. It's just constantly changing and different and fun.
This article is one of the many stories celebrating International Day of Women and Girls in Science, which takes place every year on February 11. Spearheaded by the United Nations, this day promotes full and equal access to participation in science, technology, and innovation for women and girls. The Faculty of Science is supporting this day by featuring ten inspiring women researchers who are making their mark at UBC and beyond. science.ubc.ca/womeninscience.