Madeleine Bonsma-Fisher is a PhD candidate in biophysics. PHOTO COURTESY OF MARTIN LIPMAN/NSERC Image has been cropped

Madeleine Bonsma-Fisher is a PhD candidate in the Department of Physics in the lab of Dr. Sidhartha Goyal, specializing in biophysics. Bonsma-Fisher’s research focuses on applying physical concepts to solve biological problems. 

Unlocking science: knowledge behind closed doors

The way bacteria defend themselves against viruses is the focus of Bonsma-Fisher’s research.

“Just like us, bacteria can get sick from viruses,” wrote Bonsma-Fisher, “except that, for bacteria (which are just single cells), this often means imminent death.”

One of the ways that bacteria fight against illness is through the CRISPR-Cas system, an adaptive immune system. 

Bonsma-Fisher tries to “understand how CRISPR-Cas immune systems change the way populations look and behave” by “using mathematical tools from physics to create models of bacteria and viruses.”

An open source project she has been working on, in collaboration with over 30 colleagues internationally, is named phageParser.

As its source code is free to use and adapt for the public, Bonsma-Fisher hopes that the project “will make it easier for people to explore and use all the available information about CRISPR immune systems in known bacteria.”

“Science is largely funded by the public and should be accessible to the public,” she noted. “The problems we need science to help us solve are becoming so large and complex that not one person or group can do it alone.”

Fostering resilience through “failure” in research

A challenge highlighted by Bonsma-Fisher was accepting the inevitable delays and setbacks that happen in a research project. 

“It’s hard to look at months of work and realize it will never see daylight,” she explained, “but I try to look at slow or ‘failed’ projects as part of the process.” 

Bonsma-Fisher has since reframed these setbacks as learning experiences. “It’s like doing a homework assignment to learn something: trying something that doesn’t work or doesn’t have an obvious point is still not a waste of time.”

“I always learn things, and I think that learning to enjoy the slow process has made me a more resilient person and a better scientist,” added Bonsma-Fisher.

Subtle pressures facing women in STEM

Another challenge she has faced has been subtle forms of prejudice due to her gender.

“I have experienced many microaggressions over the years: each one by itself is hardly worth mentioning, but some people describe it as ‘death by a thousand cuts’ — eventually the never-ending low-level discomfort wears you down.”

Microaggressions are “subtle, often unintentional, [forms] of prejudice,” according to an article from Psychology Today

Examples of what she has experienced include “overhearing people saying sexist things or making sexist jokes and not being called out, having people say or imply that I experienced some aspect of my success because I’m a woman, [and] being asked on dates by male colleagues who were older or more senior than me.”

Another experience includes her repeated encounters of people who are “completely unaware” that systemic biases exist against women.

As a result of these experiences, she has felt pressured to change the way she dresses. She avoids appearing “too feminine” to blend in better with her male colleagues. 

“The feeling of not belonging is reinforced by things [that] imply that women are newcomers and outsiders in science,” she wrote, “even though this isn’t true.” 

Women who “stick it out in the face of hostility”

As she has progressed through her academic career, Bonsma-Fisher has noticed a drop in gender diversity. 

According to Bonsma-Fisher about a third of the students in her undergraduate program was comprised of women, while her graduate program only comprises about 10 per cent. 

“In terms of other underrepresented groups of ethnic, gender, and sexual identity,” she wrote, “my experience is that physics is woefully lacking.”

The issue of diversity in physics was discussed in an article by The Varsity, which noted the number of women in physics is lower than in biology or chemistry.  

A contributor to the imbalance, wrote Bonsma-Fisher, has been “a continual stream of microaggressions,” referring to a 2016 paper in Physical Review Physics Education Research.

“In a recent study, 74% of surveyed women undergraduate physics students had experienced sexual harassment in a physics context,” she further noted. “Faced with that kind of environment, why would anyone want to stick around?”

“These kinds of systemic biases are almost invisible to any individual woman in, say, a physics undergraduate program,” wrote Bonsma-Fisher, “but it can be very sobering (and it was for me) to learn that the system is subtly stacked against you, mostly in ways that will never be obvious to you.” 

Advice for students pursuing a career in STEM

When asked for advice for other students pursuing a career in STEM, she wrote that it’s difficult to give general guidance, as “what helps one person is often specific to their situation and might not help another.”

“But I think some things apply in general: the system does suck in a lot of ways, but there’s no one right way to do science and be successful.”

Rather than feeling out of place, she encourages students to remind themselves that “[their] perspective and unique experience is important and makes science better, and it’s okay to be yourself AND be a scientist.”

“I wish I knew then that there is no one kind of person who is meant to be a scientist, and also that “academic success” isn’t the only, or even best way to contribute to science.”

“I saw only a narrow path forward at that time that was basically just get good grades, go to a prestigious grad school, and write good papers. I would tell a younger me, ‘you belong in science,’” wrote Bonsma-Fisher.

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