Scaling metabolism and growth: A Ph.D. adventure

In the spotlight of our latest interview, we have Kaïna, a dynamic and extraordinary woman who is getting ready to embark on an exciting Ph.D. adventure at the IBDM, Marseille, this fall of 2023. Kaïna shares with us her dreams, aspirations, and a few invaluable tips and tricks for navigating the challenging path of a Ph.D. Follow along as we delve into Kaïnas passions and personal motivations that led her to seize this remarkable opportunity.

What motivated you to pursue a career in science and can you share your journey and decision-making process in pursuing a PhD? What are your current research interests?

What I like about science is exploring fascinating questions and the answers we uncover. I am a very curious person and like to ask a lot of questions. My academic journey started in health sciences, but soon I ventured into integrated biology, physiology, and neuroscience for my master’s. It was during an internship in a lab that worked on neuroscience that introduced me to biophysics where I was soon captivated by the interdisciplinary nature of science and its diverse perspectives. To further explore this field, I pursued biophysics for my Master-2, investigating life from atomic to molecular scales. Seeking interdisciplinary labs, I joined a lab specializing in quantitative biology and biophysics for an internship, where I will continue for my Ph.D. Their outside-the-box approach perfectly aligns with my interests. I value the “expérience de pensée”- the freedom to hypothesize and question the subject matter. It was important for me to find a lab that resonated with my work style and approach.

Currently, my focus revolves around studying growth at cellular and organ scales. Alongside this, I focus on the in-depth characterization of mitochondrial content, aiming to uncover potential correlations and causal links between growth arrest and internal energy. This exciting challenge involves precise measurement and quantification of growth and energy. From analyzing larval scale growth profiles to establishing causal links at the cellular scale, I am involved in a project that addresses broad questions. The main objective is to understand the non-established role of energy as a constraint on growth. I appreciate the openness of the subject and eagerly anticipate the aspects of data interpretation.

What were the top factors you prioritized when selecting your PhD lab and how do you envision them to contribute to your growth during your journey?

I wanted to step out of my comfort zone and pursue my passion in a diverse and stimulating lab in Marseille instead of Paris. This choice has provided me with a relaxed atmosphere where I can truly appreciate nature. Mentally, I aim to be in a great place and engage in activities that connect me with the city. As I navigate into adulthood, I look forward to having my own apartment and embracing the comfort of solitude. Professionally, I approach this journey with an open mind to learn and expand my knowledge in a methodical way. I am confident that the multidisciplinarity nature of the research team will offer me the ideal environment to pursue both practical and theoretical learning in biophysics. I am excited to explore and document various aspects of my field, gradually building my own expertise along the way.

What are your goals and aspirations for your career beyond your Ph.D.?

This is a big question. I have a strong to explore different countries as a part of my academic journey, But I haven’t decided which part of the world yet. I really enjoy teaching, and I’m excited to have the chance to do so during my Ph.D. However, I’m not sure how I’ll be able to continue teaching after that. My ambitions will be shaped by what I learn in the coming years. Although I am not able to envision my future beyond the next 3 or 4 years, I appreciate the gradual process of understanding and deconstructing my initial expectations of research.

What is your approach towards mentorship and how do you plan to seek support from advisors and colleagues?

Although I am an independent person, I appreciate guidance and support from my advisors and colleagues. In my lab, I am fortunate to be in an environment without a hierarchical structure, and I can freely approach experienced individuals with my questions. I appreciate having my questions answered, even when the answers challenge my thinking. I value thorough information gathering, both experimental and theoretical, and appreciate guidance in finding relevant resources.

To me, mentorship is a reciprocal relationship. I admire my mentor for her appreciation of diverse perspectives and knowledge sharing. It is intellectually stimulating when she challenges my ideas, helping me understand my own thinking processes. I enjoy engaging in discussions and exploring different viewpoints, even if it means questioning my own beliefs. However, I also find value in introspection and often have conversations with myself. I believe it enriches the learning process.

While I do value advice, I prefer it to be given as guidance rather than an order. I trust the value of experience and advice, but I seek a balance and strive to make informed decisions. If I encounter someone who is not an effective teacher, I am confident in myself to persistently ask questions until I fully comprehend the subject. I am open to learning from various perspectives and disciplines to enhance my work. I recognize that there will be areas where I lack expertise, and I am eager to seek assistance and gain a better understanding of those aspects.

How do you navigate potential challenges and foster a supportive environment for yourself as an under-represented minority in academia, particularly as a woman of color?

I have often contemplated whether my way of thinking aligns with that of a scientist due to the way I represent myself. While I don’t wish to change who I am, I recognize the need to break social barriers and broaden my perspectives. Growing up, I only realized I was a minority due to systemic racism, which I encountered particularly during high school through jokes and stereotypes. Despite not identifying with black identity, I have had to confront these stereotypes and assumptions.

I am uncertain about the reasons behind the underrepresentation of diverse women in IBDM. It could be due to various factors, such as a lack of representation in this field in the first place, selection processes, or the demographics of the city. I am familiar with black women in the health field, but their absence in scientific fields troubles me. Nevertheless, I have managed to develop myself within a conscious and inclusive environment that acknowledges systemic racism.

While the mentality of people may not have evolved, I was careful in selecting my social circle. However, this has also made it necessary for me to be cautious when entering new social circles. Despite these challenges, I strive to see myself as a scientist within a scientific environment and refuse to let my image limit me. I hope to navigate this journey without having to prove my worth or endure discrimination, both as a person of color and as a woman.

How do you plan to expand your professional network and connect with researchers and professionals in your field?

I understand the importance of building my network, and I plan to attend summer/winter schools and conferences as opportunities to expand it. I am only able to envision networking this way, but I am sure it would evolve and grow gradually.

How do you plan to prioritize your mental health during your Ph.D. journey?

For the past two years, I have learned to prioritize my well-being and avoid excessive pressure for success. During my student years, I had to work and support myself, which led to burnout. Additionally, being involved in the student association took a toll on my mental health. As I approached my Master’s program, I decided to take a slower pace, avoiding last-minute work and self-imposed stress.

Viewing the Ph.D. as a four-year mission, I have plans to explore new activities and passions. I aim to learn diving and reignite my interest in sports, such as yoga. Research is a very cerebral activity and I would like to stay connected with my body. Taking advantage of Marseille’s natural beauty and climbing opportunities are some other activities I am enthusiastic about.  I also have a passion for creative endeavors, such as designing clothes and engaging in art, particularly painting. I also love music and enjoy attending concerts with my friends.

How have your teachers and mentors influenced your personal and academic growth?

I have always been drawn to teaching, and my teachers have been a great source of inspiration for me. One particular teacher during my neuroscience course in my bachelor’s degree made a significant impact on me. She played a crucial role in designing our Master’s program and guided me in choosing my path. I had the opportunity to intern with her research team, where she provided valuable advice and helped cultivate my interests. Her teaching style was captivating, making me curious and passionate about the subject.

What advice can you offer individuals who are unsure about pursuing a PhD, and are at a crossroads between their desire, confusion, and doubts?

I can offer advice based on what has helped me personally. One effective approach is to identify the subjects or topics that you find most intriguing during your studies. Actively engaging with these subjects through coursework and personal exploration, such as through independent research or asking questions, can help you determine your genuine interests. This approach allowed me to delve deeper into the subjects that truly fascinate me. When you invest effort in understanding a topic, it’s essential to bring your own perspective to it.

It’s important to note that not everyone chooses to pursue a Ph.D. Some of my friends have opted to explore other areas within the field of science. It’s perfectly acceptable if not everyone wants to delve deeply into a specific research question. There are multiple paths to finding fulfillment and success in the sciences.

In her interview, Kaïna candidly shares her unique educational journey and how she secured her Ph.D. position. It is essential to recognize that each person’s path is distinct, making it valuable to select an area of study based on individual interests, passions, and life priorities. Seeking mentorship and support that aligns with personal preferences can greatly aid in achieving growth goals.

Throughout the academic journey, mental health should be a top priority, given the challenges and potential isolation experienced during a Ph.D. program. It is crucial to openly address and support common feelings of Imposter syndrome and loneliness within the community. Providing mutual help and support is vital for the well-being of all members of the scientific community, fostering a caring and resilient environment.

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