Women in STEM: Neuroscience PhD candidate and science communicator Kath Intson

PhD candidate discusses research, using Instagram to spread diversity in science

Women in STEM: Neuroscience PhD candidate and science communicator Kath Intson

Kath Intson is a PhD candidate at U of T’s Department of Pharmacology and a popular science communicator on Instagram, with the handle @weekday_neuroscientist. Her neuroscience research could lead to a better understanding of various neuropsychiatric disorders.

Intson’s doctoral research centres on neuropsychiatric disorders

The malfunction of a receptor for a neurotransmitter named glutamate has been linked to the development of neurological disorders, such as schizophrenia, autism, and Alzheimer’s disease.

Intson studies the effects of altering the ability of the glutamate receptor in mice, under the supervision of Professor Amy Ramsey. She specifically studies the NMDA receptor.

To function properly, the receptor requires a protein subunit called gluN1 to function, which is produced from the expression of the GRIN1 gene. By performing a technique called ‘gene knockdown,’ Intson can suppress the gene’s expression.

This suppression enables her to examine the effect of a malfunctioning gene on mice. The results of Intson’s research could help advance knowledge of human health, due to the similarities between the anatomy, physiology, and genetics of mice and humans.

Intson’s secondary project examines how environmental factors can influence organisms to develop characteristics associated with schizophrenia.

Paired together, these projects could enable Intson to better our understanding of schizophrenia, as the disorder is a result of both genetics and environmental factors

Representation and science communication 

Intson developed her Instagram account in response to snarky messages online from users skeptical that Intson is a PhD candidate.

In a social media post online, Intson explained that it’s normal for scientists to have a life outside of their research. “It doesn’t matter what I look like on Instagram,” she said to The Varsity, summarizing her post. “I can still be a scientist.”

The post garnered attention, which encouraged Intson to post more science-related content on her account.

With her Instagram account, Intson strives to represent a “voice in the diversity that is STEM.” The ability to communicate with her followers on Instagram is essential for this.

“I think I just love chatting with people more than anything,” Intson said. “And if something that I post can spark a conversation, then that’s the whole goal of the account.” 

According to Intson, Instagram science communicators are pushing the idea that there is no ‘one image’ of a scientist — something that Intson strongly supports. 

“I think it’s true that literally every single person that I pass on the street could be a scientist,” said Intson. “I don’t conjure that one image.”

Representation to Intson means that leadership positions across professions are represented by people of races, genders, and orientations proportional to the diversity of individuals in these fields.

Role models and the experiences of women in STEM 

Intson credits her women mentors for giving her confidence and “arming [her] with the tools that [she] needed to go forth and conquer.”

Understanding the career trajectories, challenges faced, and work put in by her mentors has been especially valuable for Intson. 

“Just seeing somebody who’s in that position as a woman has been very helpful for me,” she said.

Women in STEM: Mehnaz Ahmed

Recent Master's graduate discusses representations in media and challenges of academia

Women in STEM: Mehnaz Ahmed

This year, Mehnaz Ahmed completed her Master of Science at U of T’s Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology. In addition to conducting scientific research, Ahmed has participated in Dove’s Project #ShowUs, an advocacy project that aims to better represent women and non-binary individuals by creating a library of stock photography for use in advertising and media, and was a mentor to undergraduate students like me. 

The hidden challenges of academia

As a graduate student, Ahmed investigated the relationship between the activity of an enzyme — named peripheral glutathione peroxidase — and the cognitive performance of individuals at an early stage of vascular dementia. Vascular dementia is a neurological disorder caused by impaired blood flow to the brain.

She described the challenges she faced as internal ones. “In essence doubting myself and wondering if I would ever be successful in research or in science overall,” she wrote in an email to me.

What helped her overcome these obstacles, she wrote, was changing her perspective: “redefining what success [means] to [her] in terms of establishing a certain work-life balance.”

But striking a work-life balance is a challenge on its own.

To reach this balance, she planned for “things to look forward to after a long period of working,” which helped prevent feelings of burnout or demotivation, which can stem from long-term work.

Having completed her Master’s degree, Ahmed is in the process of choosing a path that will enable her to pursue a fulfilling career.

She is motivated “to build a life that is worth living according to [her].” Ahmed also believes that “material items will [neither] make [her] happy at the end of the day,” nor contribute to her efforts to make positive change in the world.

Mentorship as a tool for growth

Ahmed was my Senior Peer Mentor in U of T’s “First in the Family” program, which connects first-generation university students to mentors, with the aim of easing the new students into university life. We eventually fostered a close friendship.

“[Being a mentor] gave me the validation that I had important knowledge to share and reminded me that I had overcome the same difficulties my mentees had and I was able to hopefully serve as a source of support,” wrote Ahmed.

Ahmed’s own mentor, Dr. Krista Lanctôt, a Senior Scientist at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, played an important role in her development.

Ahmed noted that having a female supervisor and mentor is crucial as she “was able to see that conducting productive research was possible while still living a fulfilling life outside of the lab and juggling a family as well.”

“Don’t be so hard on yourself. You’re doing a lot better than you think.”

Dove created the Project #ShowUs initiative alongside Getty Images and Girlgaze to create a stock photo library of women and non-binary individuals.

Ahmed was photographed for the project by Alia Youssef, who had previously captured Ahmed’s image for Youssef’s “The Sisters Project,” which strives to dismantle discriminatory beliefs against Muslim women.

Participating in Project #ShowUs was important, wrote Ahmed, as it reinforces “the notion that these images of beauty in all forms must first start with appreciating the perspectives of women.”

The importance of a diverse representation of people in the media was noted by Ahmed, who added that “not all women and Muslim women are similar and they can often be painted with the same monolithic brush. The more representation there is, the more people will be comfortable being themselves.”

Ahmed added that the particular stereotype of Muslim women being reserved has sometimes been a challenge for her.

“There have been instances when I describe potential career trajectories [to others] where I can’t help but feel a tiny instance of being judged, in terms of not conforming to what others may perceive me as,” she wrote. This has sometimes created a pressure for her to perform to a certain standard, to challenge these expectations.

Ahmed’s advice for women pursuing STEM is to believe in yourself, be curious, and be resilient.

“Whatever is meant for you will not pass you.”