Interviews with Scientists: Lucka Bibic
In our latest Interviews with Scientists, we spoke to the brilliant Lucka Bibic (aka ‘Spiderwoman’). Lucka started her studies at the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia at the Faculty of Pharmacy, and finished them at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, obtaining her MPharm qualification. After spending a year in Sydney, Australia, where she worked as a pharmacist while studying Academic English, she was awarded with BBSRC DTP scholarship and started her PhD studies at the School of Pharmacy, UEA in the UK.
Lucka is now looking at how spider venom toxins can be used to treat chronic pain. During her PhD, she worked with the Naked Scientists at the (University of Cambridge, organized PPD-credited workshops called “From Geek to Low-Tech Speak”, won the prize for the best 3MT (‘3 minute thesis’) presentation at the UEA School of Pharmacy Research Day, and created VR Game “Bug Off Pain” on the idea of her PhD. She believes that the spider venoms could be the next game-changers in pain pharmacology.
It’s so great to speak to you Lucka! First tell us: what is your PhD in?
My colleagues usually refer to me as a spiderwoman: a title that’s been given to me as I work with spider venoms. I know that spiders can induce fear, but they might also come in handy when treating chronic pain.
In my PhD, I am seeking compounds in specific spider venoms that can be turned into potential painkillers. These toxins can be either small compounds or peptides – short stretches of amino acids which could trick the brain web and shut down painful stimuli.
Besides doing scientific research, I am also a big fan of virtual reality games! As part of my PhD I, together with Justinas Druskis and Sam Walpole, created a virtual reality game on my research called Bug Off Pain that was launched this October at the Norwich Science Festival. Here, virtual reality was used as a tool to engage people with my research and now you can easily download the game on www.bugoffpain.com and play it from your sofa at home!
Did you always want to be a scientist when you were younger, and why?
Well, not really. I am not even sure how I turned out that way. It fascinates me still!
What made you want to pursue a career in your particular field?
Ever since I was very little, I wanted to be on the Disney Channel. I love acting, singing and dancing; like Emma Stone in La La Land! Or being a vulnerable badass like Wonderwoman. Even now, these two are my idols. But every time I opened my mouth, a cacophony came out. So, as soon as I discovered that I’m pretty bad at singing, my Disney career was over. But I’ve always had this very strong sense of curiosity and I started wondering why my singing was bad. I wanted answers. Good answers. Then I found a paper which demonstrated that the brains of bad singers might be to blame for their inability to hit the right pitch. Then, I became fascinated by these brains that can’t hit the right pitch and somehow, along the way, I came out as a scientist.
What advice would you give to someone just starting their PhD?
I would say – first, communicate with your supervisors. Tell them if you’d like to learn a specific technique or develop some additional skills, just tell them. They aren’t mind readers. Also, try to get to know your supervisors - learn how they work and how to get the most out of them. Apart from learning how to communicate with your boss, learn how to communicate science to a layperson! Also, your PhD is your project so try to “own it” – manage it and be responsible for it. From time to time you’ll find yourself in a different world where only your PhD project exists – but try not to spend too much time in this world as it helps to get out from time to time. The last bit of advice I can think of now is probably to read the PhD comic strips, sign up to Twitter, and surround yourself with other PhD students that are going through the same process as they might be of great support to you at some point!
What did you enjoy most / are you enjoying most about your PhD?
Apart from attending the conferences and chatting with some of the most eminent researchers in my field, I feel that a PhD gives me a unique opportunity to question everything. I think that learning how to think in that way is what I find most exciting.
Tell us a bit more about what you’re working on at the moment...
So, imagine spider venoms as a cocktail of lots of different compounds. Currently, I am putting a lot of different spider venoms through a machine that helps us to divide all these compounds and then probe these separate compounds on the receptor in the brain that allows us to feel the sensation of pain. Sounds exotic, right?
What does a typical day in the lab look like for you?
Wow, that’s the most difficult questions as no day is quite the same! I’ll try and describe how today looked:
So, it’s Monday and I usually quickly pop into the lab in the morning to check on the brain cells that I am growing in plastic flasks in the incubator. I can see that they have expanded over the weekend so later today I will “re-home” them into new flasks so they have more room to keep dividing. This means that in a few days I’ll be able to test whether the compounds from the spider venoms have had any effect on these cells. Today, I also need to present my work at the UEA, School of Pharmacy seminars - so I’m also trying to manage my nerves before the talk. After the seminar I’ll plan my other experiments for the whole week, read some scientific papers, and discuss some of the data with my supervisor.
If you weren’t a scientist, what do you think you’d be doing?
I think I would probably be a writer. I have the most exciting time when I’m reading – everything from scientific papers to novels. So when I sit or lay down with a new book and open it, I get transported into the worlds and the lives of characters. There’s a spark of magic in that, you see… The stories, scientific and non-scientific ones, allow me to venture into a world of magic and play there.
Outside the lab, what do you enjoy doing?
Apart from reading, long-distance running and swimming, I also have the travel bug! I love how travel helps me to see the world differently: try new things, meet new people, fall in love with fascinating ideas, visit amazing places and learn about other cultures. Sometimes I get to find my tribe – people who speak the same language as me. Not English, or Spanish, or Slovenian, but that language of others who know what it’s like to change, grow, experience and – most importantly – learn. And then I leave. This is probably also the hardest part about travelling, and it’s the very reason why we all “run away” again.
What is it about your field of research that gets you most excited?
I believe that every field of research in science is exciting! I don’t see science as a set of facts and vocabulary to memorize but as a creative quest – an ongoing adventure in the search for knowledge about the natural world. So I guess what gets me the most excited is exploring a question we don’t have answers to. That’s the challenge, that’s the adventure in it.
Which scientists working today do you most admire, and why?
I think it would have be Maryam Mirzakhani; the only woman ever to win the Fields Medal, math’s highest honor.
She was studying the dynamics and geometry of complex surfaces, which by the way, I don’t know anything about; but in reading some of her papers and watching her interviews, she inspired me. For me it was so fascinating to see someone whose work was driven by a certain pure joy – and couple that with her ambitious spirit and you get someone who goes deep into the heart of the mathematical matter – only because it’s fun!
What’s your favourite science joke OR science quote?
My name’s Bond. Hydrogen Bond.
What do you think is the greatest scientific discovery of all time?
Number zero. It might be hard to digest, but for me the most imaginative discovery is the number zero. Think about it this way; numbers in general evolved from the necessity of counting. Our ancestors used different symbols to denote different quantities – but only quantities that we can count! But what about nothing? How can you denote nothing? It’s imaginative at best and radical at worst.
What I also like about this “zero” discovery is that is has many inventors who all contributed to its shape. And now – the number zero is one of the most important numbers in computing!
Wow, what a brilliant interview Lucka! We’re feeling incredibly inspired now!
If you want to connect with and find out more about Lucka, here are the links you need:
Follow Lucka on Twitter: @luckabibic
Connect with Lucka on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/lucka-bibic-2154216a
View Lucka’s profile on Research Gate: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Lucka_Bibic2
Download and Play ‘Bug Off Pain’: www.bugoffpain.com