Maria O'Hanlon Interview

Maria O’Hanlon (@abioblog)

  • Biology PHD Student

  • Researching Parkinson’s Disease in Fruit Flies

  • Based in the United Kingdom

What is your job?

I am a second year Biology PhD student at Teesside University, based at the National Horizons Centre researching the roles of mitochondria in Parkinson’s disease using a fruit fly model. Although it can seem confusing, completing a PhD is essentially a job, because even though we are called students, completion of it all requires full-time research. PhD programmes in the UK are typically funded for 3-4 years, and I have just started my second year – so this is my job for the next few years!

What was your STEM journey?

Well, it was very up and down!! I applied for Biological Sciences at university initially, but unfortunately did not get the grades after my final exams, so these universities rejected my application. This was obviously horrible, but I was lucky to be accepted onto a 3-year Biological Sciences course at Nottingham Trent University (NTU) (UK).

When I started at NTU, I realised that I enjoyed the biomedical modules the best and was told I could transfer to a 4-year Biomedical Science at the end of my first year, if I got high grades. I worked incredibly hard and was able to transfer, which was amazing. During my third year I was able to do a year-long industrial placement in a hospital laboratory. I was essentially volunteering for a year in a histology laboratory and was able to complete my Biomedical Scientist training portfolio, becoming a registered biomedical scientist. Working in histology meant that I received a lot of hands-on experience dissecting tissues or organs that had been removed during operations/surgeries, but I always felt like I wanted to know more. Working as a scientist in the hospital helping in disease diagnosis was very interesting, but I wanted to be on the side that researched the diseases, and that is when I discovered scientific research.

Following my graduation with a BSc in Biomedical Science, I began an MRes (Master of Research) in Medical and Molecular Biology at Newcastle University (UK). I worked in the Institute of Genetics, on a project looking at mammalian mitochondrial DNA. This ignited a passion for mitochondrial biology, which is why I applied for my current PhD at Teesside University (UK) and for which I am currently in my second year.

When did you first realize you wanted to do STEM?

If I’m being honest, I absolutely hated STEM for a long time, and it wasn’t until I had a very dynamic secondary school (high school) biology teacher who was passionate about science that I started enjoying the subject. When I was younger, I found many STEM subjects to be very dull, probably because they were mainly theoretical – very boring to my 7-year-old mind! This was until I was around 14 years old and started to participate in practical experiments at school. My biology teacher was amazing – she was so enthusiastic about diseases, and spoke frequently about STEM careers, and eventually, it started to rub off on me and I gradually became more and more interested in science and pursuing a career in that field. When I started looking at university courses and began gaining more experience, I knew that I had made the right decision because the buzz that I got when I work in a lab is like nothing I can describe.

Who were your role models growing up?

When I was really young my role models came from my family members. My parents both have incredible work ethics and taught me that you can’t have success without working hard but also, that you should just always try to be your best, and that is all anyone can ask of you. I’ve always internalised that and tried to be the best version of myself and show that through my work.

In terms of science, my role model was definitely my secondary (high school) biology teacher. She had previously worked in research and her passion for biology really ignited an interest for me in specifically diseases and genetics that I didn’t know that I had. I saw her passion and knew I wanted to be exactly like that, which is why I so openly talk about my research as often as I can.

Did you ever want to do anything else?

Yes, actually I debated a few different careers throughout the years! When I was first looking at going to university to study at undergraduate level, I thought about veterinary medicine because I love animals, but ultimately it was the interest in the ‘why’ that made me choose to go down the biology route. Once I completed my undergraduate degree I also thought about postgraduate medicine for a while. Although I think I’d be good at communicating with patients, I am RUBBISH under pressure and cry very easily, so I didn’t think I’d make a very good MD if I was constantly crying when talking to patients!! Ultimately as well, I think I knew deep down that I loved research, I think I just tried to talk myself out of it because I didn’t think in a million years that I would get onto a PhD programme.

Have you ever had any major setbacks (in STEM or otherwise)?

Definitely! Two moments in particular stand out in my mind. The first was when I was getting my results to find out if I would be able to go to university and complete my undergraduate degree. On results day, I found out that I had pretty much bombed every single exam. It was absolutely heartbreaking. I didn’t get into any of the universities or courses that I had applied for and my confidence really took a knock. I was able to go through a process in the UK called UCAS clearing (Universities and College Admissions Service) – where universities fill up their places by offering students places with lower grades than they expected to receive. This meant that I successfully got into Nottingham Trent University (UK), but for a long time this setback meant that I had no belief in myself and when I eventually realised I wanted to do a PhD, I thought I wasn’t good enough.  

The second moment happened during my postgraduate Master of Research (MRes) degree. I wanted to gain more laboratory experience following my BSc degree, so applied for and was accepted onto an MRes at Newcastle University (UK). This programme was split into two sections; the first 6 months were taught modules with exams at the end, and the final 6 months were spent in a laboratory completing a research project. Unfortunately, I ended up failing one of my taught modules, and I was absolutely devastated. I’d never failed at anything academically until that point, and I felt like my world had ended. I was embarrassed and again, my confidence just dropped. It was hard work, because I had to then complete the research project whilst also revising for a resit exam, but I passed it and completed my MRes. Again, I didn’t think that I’d ever get onto a PhD, especially after I had failed a module, but I worked really hard, and was pleasantly surprised when I was eventually accepted. Since then, I’ve never looked back.

What’s one thing you’d like to change about the STEM community?

One of the things I wanted to change when I was younger is how inclusive STEM is in terms of location. When I was growing up, it seemed like all of the amazing STEM opportunities were in the capital of the UK, and as a young woman from the North, I found this disheartening. However, I do feel like this is all starting to change and there are some amazing research institutes all over the country now. For this reason, I am keen to do a lot of outreach in the area that I’m from because I want people to see that you can be local and still work in STEM.

As well, I’d love to see more representation by Women in STEM. It’s probably the same for everyone, but whenever I thought about in particular, a scientist when I was younger, I would think about an old man with wild, wiry hair – think crazy scientist. Perhaps because of this ideology, women are massively underrepresented in STEM and therefore, a lot of young girls don’t aspire to go into STEM careers – for me this is notable in young scientists. It doesn’t even have to be young girls really, I want people to see that actually, anybody can go into STEM – there should be no stereotypes.

What’s your message for young teens wanting to do STEM?

If you are interested in STEM at all, it is an amazing, interesting and incredibly rewarding field to work in and I would absolutely encourage you to pursue a STEM career. Personally, for me as a scientist, I love the fact that what I research will hopefully one day benefit people. In terms of qualifications, STEM courses are typically very versatile and can be applied to many careers, so you are opening yourself to a world of possibilities by choosing to study STEM.

As well, if you have any doubts or questions about the field, then reach out and try to find someone who already works or is studying in STEM - ask them some questions! If you don’t know any of these people in real life, then try and find some on social media. There are many STEM people on Instagram and Twitter, many of whom are very approachable. From personal experience I absolutely love it when students reach out to me on Twitter/Instagram and ask me about STEM, careers or even my research. Other than that, I’d just say good luck and enjoy!

What is your favorite science joke?

Sorry it’s a bad one!!

What do you all an acid with an attitude? A-mean-oh acid

What is your most embarrassing moment in your life?

I honestly can’t really think of one truly embarrassing moment… I’m someone who has very little shame and I will totally own my embarrassing moments.

I’ve consulted with my Mam about this and she thinks it should be a particular moment when we were on a family holiday in Italy. I was around 16 years old and I had put a beautiful dress on to go out for an evening meal. We were walking down a path when a German lady came running up behind me, tapped me on the shoulder and started speaking rapidly. Unfortunately, I don’t speak German, but she was gesturing my dress, so I thought she was saying she liked my dress, and I kept saying thank you, but she wouldn’t leave me alone. It wasn’t until my Mam walked behind me that she realised my dress was tucked into my underwear and all you could see was my bare bottom. I was horrified at the time but found the funny side very quickly afterwards. It’s a story that still gets brought up in the family and no doubt if I ever get married it will be in my Dad’s speech – one of those family holiday moments I won’t be forgetting in a hurry!

What is your favourite food?

Pizza! If we’re being specific – pepperoni pizza.

What can be done to make STEM more diverse?

Diversity is so important because it leads to better problem-solving, especially in STEM careers. I think ultimately, to make STEM more diverse, we need to be targeting children. Outreach is one way of doing this and is an important tool that can be utilised to show young children from all different backgrounds, ethnicities and sexualities that they can go into STEM, and STEM will accept them.

As someone from an industrial town where there are some areas of deprivation and higher levels of unemployment, for me, this means going into or talking to the local schools that I attended, underrepresented schools, colleges, sixth forms, anywhere that teaches young people – and talk about how I was a first-generation university student, what I do, how I got here, and show them that if I could do it, they can do. This sort of thing should be done in all areas, where individuals from underrepresented backgrounds in STEM talk openly about their achievements and hopefully, inspire the next generation of diverse STEM students.

How has your identity impacted your career in STEM?

This is a hard question to answer, because I think as I’ve gone through the start of my career, I’ve changed a lot. My confidence has definitely increased massively since I first started out, and I think that’s because of a lot of the opportunities working in STEM has given me, such as delivering presentations and co-supervising students. I’m naturally quite sociable, and I enjoy talking to new people, so networking is always something I’ve enjoyed, which is advantageous when you work in STEM.

However, other parts of my personality I did try to suppress for a while. I’m bubbly and creative, but I always thought that would hinder me in STEM, I think again, because of the preconceived ideas of what a scientist should or shouldn’t be. It wasn’t until I started writing my blog and posting on my social media about my research that I started to let that side of me come through. Thankfully, through those channels, I’ve connected with other scientists who are just like me and now I feel like I can be bubbly/enthusiastic when I talk about my research and I can also demonstrate my research creatively, and it won’t negatively impact on my career, in fact, it will hopefully make it stand out.

huge thank you to Maria O’Hanlon for joining us today! Be sure to subscribe to receive more STEM-related content coming to your inbox.

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