By Andrea Lucy, Experiential Learning Program Lead
To celebrate this year’s Science Odyssey, Canada’s biggest science and technology festival, we are highlighting amazing scientists from across the country! Young adult staff members at Fresh Roots interviewed inspiring individuals contributing to science, to learn more about their personal and professional journey, career, and what advice they have for youth. These scientists surprise and delight us with their unique topics and backgrounds, and the unexpected ways their work connects back to healthy food systems and a healthy environment.
Interview with Sarah Nersesian & Natasha Vitkin
Sarah Nersesian (she/her) is a passionate researcher who loves to share scientific knowledge through illustrations and other visual communication strategies. She obtained her bachelor’s degree in Bio-Medical Sciences at the University of Guelph before moving to Kingston to obtain a MSc in Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Queen’s University. Sarah is currently completing her PhD in Microbiology and Immunology at Dalhousie University focusing on exploring the impact of immune cells on tumour development and treatment responses. With her unique expertise combining scientific communication strategies with illustration and graphic design, Sarah founded Designs that Cell (DTC) in 2017. DTC has grown to a team of talented post-graduate, graduate and undergraduate students who hold advanced degrees and have experience in graphic design, science communication or illustration.
Natasha Vitkin (she/her) obtained her MSc in cancer immunology at Queen’s University, Kingston in 2018 and completed her MPH at Simon Fraser University, Burnaby in 2020. She is passionate about using visual knowledge translation strategies to promote equity and improve population health. She is an evaluation analyst at Cathexis Consulting and a co-owner and senior communicator at Designs that Cell (DTC).
We have a tradition at Fresh Roots of starting our conversations with this question: What vegetable do you feel like today?
Sarah: I feel like I’m just going to say my favourite vegetable, which are brussel sprouts. They’re quite sturdy, and I feel quite stable today.
Natasha: When I used to attend Sunday school, we watched VeggieTales, and I loved Bob the Tomato. I even have a Bob the Tomato bookmark! So, I would say a tomato.
Can you describe your work?
Sarah: We’ll start with the oncoimmunologist. It’s a cross between looking at cancer and looking at how it works with our immune system. My research looks at how a particular immune cell, called a natural killer (NK) cell, functions and helps when our body starts developing cancer. NK cells are one of the very few cells in the immune system that can recognize cancer. Therefore, I think it’s a really promising cell to look at. I’m trying to figure out what features of an NK cell would make it a good immunotherapy. Immunotherapies are different strategies that we can use to activate or enhance a person’s natural immune system. It works differently from traditional chemotherapies which have harmful side effects. I specifically look at ovarian cancer, one of the most deadly cancers in women. The women who get treated for it undergo long chemotherapy treatments that end up being very harsh on their bodies. I’m trying to find an alternate treatment by focusing on the immune system to reduce those side effects so that women can continue living their lives while they’re also getting treatment for their cancers.
Then we’ll flip over and talk about science illustration. As a scientific illustrator, I work on different projects every day. I usually communicate with scientists all over the world, sometimes clinicians, doctors, companies as well. My job is to take complex scientific ideas that they’re trying to communicate and draw it out in a way that is accessible to everybody. It’s a really cool job because I get to essentially learn about all the different types of research that is happening around the globe. It spans from looking at phytoplankton in the sea, to mushrooms and fungi, to illustrating things about cancer and very specific pathways within the cell.
Natasha: I’ll start off with evaluation! In evaluation, our goal is to make other organizations and programs run better so that they can make a difference in the communities they’re serving. I work and consult with different nonprofit organizations and government organizations at all stages of the evaluation process. Sometimes organizations are just starting a new program and they want to see what will make the most impact for their clients. Or they’re applying for funding, and they want to demonstrate the impact they’ve made in peoples’ lives, but this can be hard to do without appropriate data. In that case, I could conduct consultations with program staff and their clients to see what the program’s impacts are. As an evaluator, I’m empowering other organizations to change for the better.
In terms of science communication, I’ve always loved sharing information and giving presentations. When I was in grade six, I volunteered to give a presentation of my report even though it wasn’t a requirement! When I was doing my Master of Science degree in cancer immunology, I was trying to connect two different protein pathways that weren’t traditionally connected. I found it very helpful to have an animated diagram to show the interaction of these pathways. It was then that I started really becoming interested in communicating science. That’s also where I met Sarah. We were doing our Master’s degrees in labs next to each other. I think a diagram, tweet, or Instagram video is an innovative way to communicate science. Through Designs that Cell, I’ve continued developing my illustration and communication skills. Specifically, I focus on communicating information with lay audiences as opposed to scientists.
WHAT WAS YOUR PATH TO YOUR CURRENT WORK?
Sarah: Growing up, I always loved art. I grew up in a conservation area, so I was always in the woods. I ended up focusing a lot of my art on natural things that I saw around me. When I applied for university, I really wanted to apply for painting. However, my parents suggested I should focus on getting a science career, and perhaps I could do painting later on. I am happy it worked out that way because I got into research during my university time. When I was trying to communicate my research to my peers or colleagues, I was able to use my art to engage people and clarify the ideas and those complex scientific concepts. From there, I stuck on that path. During my master’s degree, I started Designs that Cell . It turns out that there are quite a few people who also really have a love and a passion for both art and science, and that is who makes up the Designs that Cell team today.
In terms of my passion for research, I, unfortunately, had to grow up watching some family members deal with women’s cancers and the harsh side effects. So, it’s always been a passion of mine to research women’s cancer. I started in breast cancer and then quickly found that ovarian cancer was a very high-need research area. It has a moniker, which is the “silent killer”. It sounds scary because it is. Women don’t end up actually showing any signs or symptoms until the tumour has already spread in the body. At that point, treatment success is very low. We don’t really have any good screening methods and the treatments that we are using are effective only for a few months. We need new strategies and treatments. Something I personally like is a little bit of a challenge, and ovarian cancer is definitely a challenge.
Natasha: I was always very science-oriented. In my undergraduate program, I specialized in cancer research. But as I was pipetting things on my prostate cancer cells for the umpteenth time during my Master’s of Science, I realized I didn’t see that as a long-term path for me. I didn’t feel like it was satisfying my desire to connect with people and help them in a more direct way. Maybe what I pipette onto my cells will lead to something in 20 years, but not in the immediate future. So that’s what led me to pursue a Master of Public Health degree, which I completed last year.
It was during my Master of Public Health degree that I learned about evaluation and took a course on it. My friends were also participating in the Student Evaluation Case Competition run by the Canadian Evaluation Society, and they asked me to join their team. We won the Canadian competition last year and represented Canada at the World Championships . After I graduated, I was looking for a job and thought maybe I’ll throw my hat in the evaluation ring. My current employer, Cathexis , was one of the sponsors of the Case Competition. I remember when I joined the team, my boss said, “I remember you from your Case Competition presentation!”. So that’s how I started in evaluation.
WHAT MOTIVATES YOU TO KEEP DOING WHAT YOU DO?
Sarah: With the science illustration, my motivation is being able to continue with my art in a way that is productive. I think the best example right now is in this public health epidemic where we need science communicators more than ever. Scientific illustration, I think, provides a very unique mode of communication that is a little more accessible than perhaps using some complex scientific terms in the text. When you focus on illustrations, it’s really easy to get a point across in a way that people can see and they can act upon. For example, the infographics talking about vaccine hesitancy or talking about the importance of wearing masks, we can show how that is important. We can show things that are hard to describe. We don’t see viruses travelling through the air, but we can illustrate them.
For my ovarian cancer research, I think an important thing for me is constantly engaging with patients. Engaging in activities of public outreach where I get to talk with patients, and speak to them about their experience is the best motivator for me. But I also just love the science. I love the challenge. I think every scientist says this, but I think personally, I’m working on a therapy for women in the future and I really hope that I get to see it implemented.
Natasha: I always like seeing the endpoint of my work. So for instance, at Designs that Cell, an illustration that we had worked on six months ago got published today. I’m often waiting for our images to finally be shareable and to celebrate the achievements of the author. I always enjoy being a part of that story, because often they’re communicating some really cool research.
In terms of what keeps me going in evaluation, I really enjoy working as a consultant. Number one, because it sounds super fancy. Number two, because I get to work with a variety of clients in different fields. They’re all doing really important work, but really different work and it’s an opportunity to see what’s going on. For example, I’m working on a project about STI testing among queer youth. As a gay woman, this work felt especially meaningful to me. At the same time, I’m working on a large project with a cancer control organization. That’s been interesting because I can use a bit of my cancer background and knowledge to inform my role. As a consultant, I enjoy being able to see what’s happening across Canada at different organizations.
HOW DOES YOUR WORK RELATE TO FOOD SYSTEMS OR THE ENVIRONMENT?
Sarah: There are environmental risk factors when we talk about ovarian cancer. There’s also a really strong link between the immune system and what you’re putting into your body and how you treat your body. Something that is always considered in treatment is the state of the patient. We’re not just giving the same treatments to everybody. We have to consider how their body is going to react, how their immune system is.
In terms of scientific illustrations, it always relates to the bigger picture, the environment, and the world we live in. A lot of what we end up illustrating is related to climate change, and the way that the world is changing around us. We’ve done quite a few projects on how climate change is changing the ecosystems that we live in, and how that impacts the organisms that we study. And obviously, that impacts the food we are able to grow, and ultimately affects things like food shortages in the long run. We take this big picture into consideration with our illustrations. Sometimes when we end up focusing on one cell, we forgot that this one cell exists in this much larger environment. The environmental changes can impact that one cell in so many ways.
Natasha: Food systems and the environment connect most directly with my evaluation work. Cathexis has done a lot of evaluations with nonprofits working to improve food security, particularly among low-income people. A project I’m working on now is with a charity that distributes food and harm reduction supplies to people experiencing homelessness. When I work with organizations like these, I’m also indirectly benefiting everyone they serve. My hope is that if I can help organizations gather meaningful data, this will increase their funding and they will be better able to make a difference in the lives of their clients. As well, Cathexis, the evaluation company I work for, is a Certified B Corporation. We’re interested in how our work impacts the environment. Every month as a team, we look at our key performance indicators and one of them is about our environmental impacts. Pre-pandemic, a discussion that we would have is around travel, and whether the pros outweighed the cons of the carbon footprint.
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR YOUTH TODAY?
Sarah: I’d just say to follow your passions. Don’t do something because you think it’s going to end up in a career or a job. Just find what interests you, find what you’re passionate about, and find a way to make that into a job. And if it doesn’t exist, then don’t be scared to take a risk and bring it into existence. There was nothing that fit what I wanted to do and so I made a company to do that. Obviously, that’s not something that you might do at a high school level, but eventually, down the road, you could. Follow your passions, take courses and participate in activities that you feel passionate about and that makes you happy.
As a woman in STEM, as a Middle Eastern woman who works in STEM, but also scientific illustrations, there have definitely been some experiences that have made me feel like I’m less than other people who might be sitting at the same table or sitting in the room. Something that I always like to say is that you definitely don’t have to be the smartest person in the room, but you might think of yourself as being just as capable as anyone else who’s there. You might not have the same inherent knowledge, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t work towards having that knowledge. That all comes from confidence and understanding your capabilities, which is something that’s hard to have, especially as a woman, but is really important. Women are one group of that, but then of course, there are tons of other underrepresented groups. If you belong to any of those groups and you feel like you don’t belong, know you do. It’s just you might have a little bit of a taller mountain to climb than some others.
Natasha: My advice for today’s youth is to reduce the pressure you put on yourself. When I was younger, I was the kind of person who felt like if I wasn’t getting 100% on a test, then I had failed. While you should always try your best, you shouldn’t base your self-worth on how well you do on a test or an exam. Especially in my undergrad, I felt I had no time to socialize because I was always studying. But once you graduate, your GPA doesn’t matter too much. It’s more about your experiences, your skills, and how you present yourself. I would advise my younger self and other young people to just try and relax and not put too much pressure on themselves to achieve 100% all the time, because it’s not going to happen and it always comes at the expense of something else.
I would also say to be open to new opportunities because you never know what will come your way and who you’ll meet! This time last year, I never expected to be working full-time at an evaluation firm and to own a small business. Sometimes I look in the mirror and remind myself that I am a business owner. I met Sarah for the first time when I came into her lab to borrow supplies for my experiment. I never would have imagined that years later she would ask me to become her business partner! Keep yourself open to opportunities and put your best self forward because you never know what will happen.