August's Feature: Dr. Victoria Forster
When I was seven, I was diagnosed with leukemia. I spent three years in and out of hospitals receiving different treatments to get rid of my leukemia. Before that, I had always known I wanted to be a research scientist, but I was more interested in space and engineering than biology and medicine. While I was sick, I asked my doctors and nurses so many questions about what was happening to me and what all of the different drugs were doing to my body.
1. Tell us a little bit about yourself
I’m Vicky and I’m a postdoctoral research scientist at SickKids in Toronto. I focus on childhood cancers and I use models of tiny organs called organoids to try and understand how cancers develop. My story of why I became a childhood cancer research scientist is perhaps, a little unusual. When I was seven, I was diagnosed with leukemia. I spent three years in and out of hospitals receiving different treatments to get rid of my leukemia. Before that, I had always known I wanted to be a research scientist, but I was more interested in space and engineering than biology and medicine. While I was sick, I asked my doctors and nurses so many questions about what was happening to me and what all of the different drugs were doing to my body. They were so patient and always took the time to talk to me. This really fuelled my interest in medical science and fast-forward to when I went to college, I decided to study for a degree in Biomedical Sciences. After this and some great summer work experience in a cancer research lab, I decided I wanted to do a PhD. A combination of luck and determination led me to do a PhD in leukemia biology, the same disease I had when I was younger. I currently work at SickKids on projects involving childhood leukemias, brain tumors and colon cancers. As well as this, because of my early experiences – I’m an advocate into more research for what happens to cancer survivors after they are successfully treated. What a lot of people don’t realise is that many people who survive cancer actually have long term health impacts from their treatment. These can affect them for many years after their cancer, sometimes for the rest of their lives. Scientists are beginning to look at these side effects and figure out if there’s any way to manage or prevent them, but this is a really new area of research and it needs lots more funding and people doing the work.
2. How do you believe we can inspire more young girls to pursue STEM and specifically, what advice do you have for those looking to pursue their own research?
Girls really can be anything they want to be, I hope we eventually get to a time where this is an obvious statement that does not need to be said. But for now, so many girls are not always brought up to believe that they can be scientists. I think we are making progress on giving women in science platforms to be role models for the next generation, but we still have a long way to go. I think the phrase ‘if you can see it, you can be it’ is very true. We need women to be represented in every area and at every level of science, we need to invite them to speak at events, especially in fields where they are very under-represented, such as physics, computer science and engineering.
My advice for anyone who wants to be a scientist would be not to specialize too early... other subjects from arts to humanities are really amazing at building skills that scientists need. The best scientists that I see are often great at communicating with others, good at leading and managing teams and projects and are supremely creative thinkers.
My advice for anyone who wants to be a scientist would be not to specialize too early. When I was at school, if you wanted to study sciences at university, you had to specialize very early and drop most other subjects. But other subjects from arts to humanities are really amazing at building skills that scientists need. The best scientists that I see are often great at communicating with others, good at leading and managing teams and projects and are supremely creative thinkers. Scientists solve problems. The best way to develop these skills is to stay well-rounded. Join sports teams at school and university, join societies that aren’t directly related to your subject, spend time playing a musical instrument if that’s what you enjoy, but never think that because these activities aren’t helping you directly with your science studies, they aren’t worth dedicating time to. They are.
3. What is the role that mentorship has played in your own journey and why do you think that mentorship is important in STEM?
Mentorship is incredibly important to me. I’m lucky to have had several people who have mentored me and helped me during my time in science. I have had a couple of ‘formal’ mentors, but also just lots of people helping me out and giving me great advice and opportunities. I think a key thing to say to young, aspiring women in STEM is don’t be afraid to ask for advice. There are many women in science on Twitter and Instagram who are often happy to answer questions about their work and careers, don’t be afraid to try. Also, don’t be discouraged if you don’t get a reply. Science is a busy and demanding career and it probably isn’t intentional! Talk to people, have great conversations and you never know quite where it might get you. Some of the opportunities I’ve received came from just having nice chats with passionate people who obviously saw something they liked in me. Often, I didn’t even ask for anything in particular, things just came together.
4. What is your biggest challenge you’ve faced to date and how did you overcome it?
If you’d told me I would manage to get my dream job in my dream place when I was feeling so demotivated and doubting myself a few years previously, I would have never believed it. But, I persevered and got my dream.
A year or so after my PhD, I had some difficult issues in both my work and personal life. At work, I was very demotivated as my PI had me doing continually very monotonous work and I was still trying to get the last few bits of data together to publish my PhD work. We then had a really bad argument where he accused me of doing some very unprofessional things, which were completely unfounded and really shocked me. I became very down about my work and career as a scientist and found I wasn’t enjoying being a scientist at all. Luckily, I was able to make a plan to get out of that situation. I published my research and switched supervisors and even decided to apply for a grant for myself to work on something that had always interested me – a side effect I’d had on treatment for leukemia as a child. I got the grant and the project went really well. It really re-ignited my passion for science and we published several research papers from it. From there, I knew I’d always wanted to work abroad and I decided to set my sights on working at SickKids in Toronto. I got a travel grant from the European Association for Cancer Research to send me to SickKids for a month on an internship. From there, I had lots of meetings and met some amazing scientists, one of whom would eventually offer me a position in his research lab. In February 2017, I flew over here to begin my new job and I’ve been here ever since. If you’d told me I would manage to get my dream job in my dream place when I was feeling so demotivated and doubting myself a few years previously, I would have never believed it. But, I persevered and got my dream.