Interviews with Scientists: Rachelle Balez
Rachelle Balez is a PhD student at the Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute, whose work focuses on understanding Alzheimer’s disease by generating brain cells from patient skin cells. She is passionate about equality in STEM and has recently returned from Antarctica with the Homeward Bound women in science leadership initiative.
Rachelle is also Chair of the Student Body Committee for the Australasian Neuroscience Society, where she is working to help support the needs of neuroscience students across Australasia. As well as her love for science, Rachelle is a practicing artist with a Bachelor's degree in creative arts and actively works to communicate the beauty of science through art.
Great to speak to you Rachelle! Firstly tell us a bit about your PhD...
My PhD is on neurodegeneration, focusing on Alzheimer’s disease. Although Alzheimer’s is the most common neurodegenerative disorder, there are only a handful of treatments available (that work in the early stages of the disease) and there is still no cure. One of the challenges with investigating Alzheimer’s disease is that researchers cannot access living human brain tissue to study, as everyone needs their brains while they are alive! Many researchers use animals that have been genetically modified to have Alzheimer’s disease as a model to understand what is happening in living cells, however as the brains of animals and humans are very different, this presents its own set of challenges.
To overcome this problem, I use skin cells from people with Alzheimer’s disease (which they are more willing to give up than a piece of their brain) and then chemically reprogram those skin cells into induced pluripotent stem cells. Stem cells usually come from an embryo and are able to grow into just about any cell type in the body. As it is ethically complicated to use stem cells from human embryos, by making induced pluripotent stem cells from a person’s skin cells I can bypass this. Then, once I have re-programmed the patient's skin cells into stem cells, I direct the growth of the stem cells in brain cells, known as neurons.
By using this process, I can culture living human neurons from a patient with Alzheimer’s disease in a dish to study the molecular changes associated with the disease. What is really interesting is that even though the neurons I make originally come from skin cells, when I compare the neurons grown from people with Alzheimer’s disease to those grown from cognitively healthy people, the neurons from Alzheimer’s disease patients show many of the pathogenic changes we expect to see in the human brain.
Using these brain cells in a dish, I specifically look at how the membrane composition of neurons is altered during the disease in response to oxidative and nitrosative stress. I also am trying to understand how these alterations to the membrane change the way neurons communication with each other, in the form of calcium signaling.
Did you always want to be a scientist when you were younger, and why?
The first thing I can remember wanting to be was a paleontologist, as I was obsessed with dinosaurs. That said, I also wanted to be a pirate, train driver and zoo keeper, so I was continually changing my mind. However, from a young age I have always been fascinated with understanding the world around me, with many of my birthday and Christmas presents being science related, like chemistry sets, telescopes, bug catchers, books on animals, rocks, plants and of course, dinosaurs! So, it wasn’t surprising that I ended up as a scientist.
What made you want to pursue a career in your particular field?
I think the first time I considered being a scientist was when I was seven years old. As I mentioned, I wanted to be a paleontologist. I was obsessed with dinosaurs, and I begged my parents to take me to see Jurassic Park. When I saw that scientists could make dinosaurs (even if it was science fiction), I remember thinking that this was the coolest thing ever. Then when I was in high school I remember learning about Dolly the sheep, the first cloned animal, and thinking, scientists are getting closer to making dinosaurs! Although I was interested in a lot of different things at this time (I went to a performing arts high school for music and I also loved doing art), my curiosity for understanding the world around me had never left.
I studied biology, math, art, and music for my final years at high school and was accepted to university to do a double degree in a Bachelor of Science, majoring in biology and a Bachelor of Creative Arts, majoring in fine arts. Up until now, I had simply been following my curiosity, wherever it led me. Then, towards the end of my degrees, my oma (Dutch for grandma) was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. This made me realise the power of science, and that I could harness my curiosity to help solve real problems. It was this realisation that ultimately led me to start an honours project and then a PhD in Alzheimer’s disease and neurodegeneration.
Tell us more about Homeward Bound. How did you get involved, and what was the experience like?
Homeward Bound is a 12-month leadership program specifically for women in science that transcends into a 10-year female leadership initiative. The aim of the initiative is to establish a “1,000-strong global collaboration of women with a background in science to lead, influence and contribute to policy and decision-making as it informs the future of our planet within the next 10 years.” The first 11 months of the program are delivered remotely, while the core of the program content is brought together during a three-week voyage to Antarctica.
I found out about the initiative from my high school friend, now a Postdoctoral researcher studying Antarctic moss, who encouraged me to apply. I was so excited when I was accepted into the program as I am passionate about equality for women in STEMM but have limited management or leadership experience – so this was a perfect opportunity!
Homeward Bound was an incredible, huge, challenging, and ultimately a once in a lifetime experience. What made it so special is that it was a combination of what I am calling the 3 P’s: the program (the Homeward Bound course), the people (the 80 Homeward Bounders) and the place (Antarctica). Each one of these factors is so interwoven with the others I’ve often found it hard to explain one aspect without the others.
Over the first 11 months we focused on becoming familiar with the main components of the program, which included strategy mapping, management and leadership tools, networking, and visibility/communication. Then once we all came together on board our ship to Antarctica we focused on how to apply those tools to ourselves and one another. Homeward Bound taught us skills to lead ourselves first, so that when in a position to lead others, there will be true conviction to drive our purpose.
For me, one of the strengths of Homeward Bound was we weren’t getting to know one another as scientists, but as friends, through hard work and fun formative experiences such as doing the polar plunge or dancing like no one is looking during one of our silent discos up on deck before dinner. There were moments when we had baby penguins pecking our pants as they begged for food, watched minke whales scratch their heads on sheets of ice, and followed orcas as they hunted amongst icebergs. It is these experiences that will ensure we stay connected with one another and work together to help effect the change we want to see in the world.
Why is it so important to have initiatives like Homeward Bound that empower and support women in STEM to become leaders?
Initiatives like Homeward Bound are incredibly important as our world is changing rapidly in a way that is affecting us all, and if we are to meet and overcome the global challenges facing us, humankind will need the best minds, regardless of gender or background, to help tackle these problems. There is clear evidence to support the notion that diverse teams with an equal gender balance solve problems more effectively and work more efficiently. Unfortunately, this is not happening. The balance of power at decision making tables has, for generations now, rested in the hands of men. Research indicates that on average female leaders, in comparison to men, have a stronger legacy mindset, are more trustworthy with assets, work to generate collaborative networks, and create a sense of inclusiveness and belonging in the teams and organisations they lead.
When you look at some of the most pressing global issues, like climate change for example, it is pretty clear that in many places the world is facing a leadership crisis, where the science behind the problem and the solutions is being ignored. The planet is our greatest asset, and in the hands of male leadership it is rapidly reaching breaking point, which will be to the detriment of us all. If you apply the strengths of female leadership to a problem like climate change, it would suggest that the legacy mindset of women and trustworthiness with assets would recognise the central importance our planet has to our survival of all life on earth. In addition, the female strengths of collaboration and generating a sense of inclusiveness would be powerful tools in helping nations across the plant work together to act against climate change.
Understandably, if we are to solve complex problems like climate change, science, in its many forms is going to provide the foundation to the solutions. Thus, by providing women in science with visibility, leadership tools and global collaborative networks, initiatives like Homeward Bound are working to elevate more women into positions of decision-making so that we can help inform and guide the direction of our planet's future.
What do you think are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM, and do you think things are changing for the better?
I believe the biggest challenges facing women in STEM vary greatly depending on the country, economy and culture. In Australia, I think one of the biggest challenges for women in STEM is the pressures that come with starting a family. In most places women are working in systems designed by men and essentially for men, who are often unable to foresee or understand the challenges and pressures placed on women, especially in the context of motherhood.
Small changes at the institutional level like flexible work hours, meetings scheduled during school time, and funding to support childcare during conferences can help to support women in STEM. Bigger systematic changes include really taking into account the effect maternity leave can have on a female researcher’s publication rate when awarding grants and working to remove the unconscious bias favouring men when research funding is distributed. If we are going to see institutional changes that support women so that they don’t need to choose career over family, then we need women at the decision-making table as they are in the best position to inform what is needed.
In other parts of the world, the challenges facing women in STEM are much deeper. Institutional changes can only occur when there has been cultural change and the problems acknowledged. However, for many women in STEM they are still not seen as equal in their ability to men. This is harder to address and can often take a generation, though anti-discrimination legislation can help to create a framework where women’s rights are formally recognised so that this behaviour can be called out. Again, we need more female leaders who act as trailblazers to help light the way for others to follow.
To achieve this, women need to be connected so that they have the support of one another to help mobilise institutional, systematic, and in some places, cultural change. These are big challenges which cannot be tackled alone. Initiatives like Homeward Bound are working to connect women with one another while providing them with the resources and skills to help effect change.
I do believe things are changing for the better. My university (University of Wollongong, Australia) and my institute (the Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute) are very supportive of women in STEM, with both working to change the system and address the needs of female researchers. There are also public conversations on a national level identifying the challenges women in STEM face and organisations are being called out on gender bias. The rise of many women in STEM support networks like 500 Women Scientists and Superstars of STEM, act to not only connect women with one another, but also generate discussion about the inequalities that exist while providing solutions to address these.
You describe yourself as an artist, as well as a neuroscientist and explorer. Tell us a bit more about your artwork...
For me, science and art are two sides of the same coin as they are both fed by a curiosity to explore and understand the world around us. To be an artist you need to think creatively, and these skills are also essential as a scientist as we are trying to solve complex problems. I believe art is an effective tool to communicate science to a wider audience. Art is a way to engage curiosity and imagination, creating an emotional response in a way that a graph of scientific data cannot.
My artworks draw from my science research for inspiration. Last year my father, Didier Balez, and I collaborated on two pieces for a science-meets-art cultural festival called CoLABS, held in Western Sydney Parklands. At the time of putting the proposal together I was preparing induced pluripotent stem cell lines for karyotyping, which would result in these great images of chromosomes. It was from this work that I drew inspiration for one of our pieces called Curious Chromoscope.
The work consisted of 23 pairs of steel chromosomes ranging from 0.5 to 2 m in height, that were arranged in the landscape around a 1 m long kaleidoscope which was used to view the chromosomes. The installation created an interactive environment for the audience to explore the science behind chromosomes and consider how they act as a symbol for the unique qualities of each person while simultaneously linking them to the wider community of humanity and life.
At the moment, I am in the process of co-organising an art fundraising exhibition to raise money for motor neuron disease research. The exhibition will feature photographs and images from the lab taken by medical researchers at my institute. During our work as scientists we often produce some amazing images that are rarely seen outside of scientific journal publications. This exhibition will be an opportunity to showcase some of these images to a wider audience, while raising money for a great cause.
What advice would you give to someone just starting their PhD?
Find a supervisor and a project you love. There will be times you will struggle with motivation towards your project and if you have a good supervisor they will help guide you and keep you on track. However, there may also be times you are having issues with your supervisor and if you are passionate about your project, this will give you the drive and motivation to push through potentially challenging times.
I would also recommend getting involved in the wider scientific community. Become an active member of a science society and help organise workshops, community engagement events, or conferences. Not only is this a great way to network and meet new people, but it also helps diversify your skill set outside that lab and can be highly rewarding.
Remember to have fun, keep learning and to look after yourself – it can be challenging to maintain a healthy work/life balance at times.
If you weren’t a scientist, what do you think you’d be doing?
If I wasn’t a scientist I would probably be an artist, though I am kind of doing that anyway on the side! I love science and believe it has so much to offer the world, I couldn’t imagine not being involved in science in one way or the other.
What is it about your field of research that gets you most excited?
The plasticity and adaptability of the brain. There is still so much we don’t understand about how the brain works, how thoughts and memories are made and stored, or how the brain can change its connectivity in response to different stimulations or damage. It is our brains that make us who we are, but we still don’t understand a lot of this.
What do you think are the biggest challenges currently facing life scientists and their work?
I believe one of the biggest challenges facing life scientists and their work is cuts to research funding; a lack of investment in the industry. I find this is incredibly frustrating as in Australia it is estimated that for every $1 invested in my field (medical research), there is a $3.20 return. That’s pretty good value for money, not to mention the health and wellbeing benefits!
One of the consequences of reduced funding is that researchers are under increased pressure to publish in order to remain competitive for grants. This restricts the creativity of researchers with grants written for ‘safe science’ based on predicted results. The issue with this is the currency of science is discovery and problem solving the unknown, something that in its essence is not predictable. Many researchers comment that their most high impact work has not come from projects that were directly funded, but from projects funded on the side. The flexibility and freedom needed for true research innovation is slowly being squeezed out of life sciences due to the lack of investment and funding.
Which scientists working today do you most admire, and why?
I admire my supervisor, Dr Lezanne Ooi, as she is an absolute powerhouse. I was one of her first students and over the course of my honours project and PhD I have watched her bring in high profile grants, establish and grow her lab, as well as start a family. Dr Ooi has always encouraged me to take up opportunities outside of my PhD, like becoming involved in scientific societies, community engagement activities and science communication. I really appreciate this as not only have I have found these activities highly rewarding, I also believe scientists have a responsibility to share their research with the non-scientific community as science underpins and informs so many aspects of our lives.
What’s your favourite science quote?
Coming back to Jurassic Park again, I love the quote: “Life will find a way…” Even though it may not be 100% science related, working with stem cells and their ability for continued self-renewal and capacity to grow into just about anything, I find myself saying it quite often. When you pause to think about it, the power of survival driving life is astonishing. We are all the continuation of life in some form or another for millions of years, as it is passed from one cell to the next! Life will, find a way!
What do you think is the greatest scientific discovery of all time?
Big question! I’m not sure if I have a greatest scientific discovery, but one of the ones I am most thankful for is painkillers and anaesthetics! That you can stop a headache with a pill, be cut open during an operation, or even have a limb removed without your mind registering pain is incredible.
Wow, what an incredible interview Rachelle. Thank you so much for sharing all this with us, and we look forward to continuing to follow your journey in both science and art. Keep on trailblazing!
Follow Rachelle on Instagram @chelleabell
Follow Rachelle on Twitter @chellebalez
Connect with Rachelle on LinkedIn here.
Articles by Rachelle
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