Meet the Scientist
Brittney with her 'decorated' (cluttered) desk
PhD Candidate at McMaster University
What scientific field do you work in?
Comparative physiology (zoology)
"...I was pulling all-nighters to get the lab work done..."
Could you briefly explain what your job involves?
I’m a graduate student in fish physiology. Sometimes I do experiments on live fish like measuring their metabolic rate or tolerance to low oxygen. A good chunk of my time is also spent in the lab analysing fish tissues for metabolites, enzyme activity, or other data.
Outside of the lab, I’m a fledgeling freelance science writer. I spend a lot of time flipping through scientific journals and looking for something that strikes me as a good story to try to pitch somewhere.
Do you have any secret talents?
I used to be really good at Guitar Hero (do people still play that?). I could even clear that crazy Dragonforce song on expert once upon a time.
I still can’t play an actual guitar though, despite a whole semester of music class in high school.
When did you decide you wanted to work as a scientist?
I always liked animals and gravitated towards TV shows and books about them. Like most other first-year students in my undergraduate program, I knew I liked biology but didn’t know what to do besides medical school. I started taking lab courses and volunteering, and soon decided that research was what I really wanted to do.
Have you taken part in any research? If yes, what was your most exciting project?
Oh yes! My most exciting (infamous? crazy?) project was finally published a couple of months ago. We investigated how fish cope physiologically with low oxygen conditions, and how/if their coping strategy changed when fish were only exposed to low oxygen for part of the day, compared to the entire day.
I measured a bunch of metabolites (like glucose and ATP) in the fish across a daily cycle. Metabolites give us a snapshot of what is happening in a tissue and can change within minutes or sometimes even seconds, so I had to measure them many times over the day.
We (because I had a lot of help from my labmates!) ended up doing these huge experiments starting in the late afternoon, and involved sampling fish at 7 pm, 8 pm, 1 am, 7 am, 8 am, 12 pm, and 1 pm. We used close to 400 fish (!) in this project. Due to the nature of some of my measurements, I was pulling all-nighters to get the lab work done in-between sampling periods.
"A good fish biologist never leaves home without her rubber boots!"
What's your favourite food?
I really like stir fry and fried rice. I’m not much of a chef, and it’s one of the few things I can make without burning the house down.
What educational pathway did you take to get to where you are now?
After high school, I got my BSc in Biology (Physiology) at McMaster University. I started volunteering in a lab in my third year, stayed on as a fourth-year thesis student, and then stayed on again as a graduate student. Sometimes you get lucky and find a good place for yourself right away.
What was the best thing about your job?
The flexibility. Because my days are structured around getting X things done by a deadline, and not around working Y hours per week, I can be very strategic with my time. Sometimes this means very long hours in the lab or working weekends, but sometimes it means working from home, leaving early, or taking random days off.
"I used to really good at Guitar Hero!"
What was the worst thing about your job?
The uncertainty is tricky for me to wrap my head around. Academia is a “gig economy” for a lot of people: postdocs, adjunct teaching positions, MScs, and even PhD positions are often contracts with only a few years of job security/funding. It’s hard to face the prospect of getting ready to pick up and move, and always having to look for your next job.
The other worst part of my job is that fish are kind of gross and slimy. Cleaning out the filters is not fun.
If you could take one thing with you to an island, what would it be and why?
My polka dot rubber boots! A good fish biologist never leaves home without her rubber boots.
Do you have any advice for young people who are interested in your career path?
I’d like to pass on some great advice that Prof. Allison McDonald gave at a Women in Science event hosted by SETAC: always apply. Don’t psych yourself out of applying to schools, programs, scholarships, awards, etc. because you don’t think you’ll be competitive for it. You’re way better than you think you are!
Ask Brittney a Question