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.

Three lenses

U of T photographers and their Instagram presences

Three lenses

Students often document their lives at and around U of T. But it takes a particular kind of student to dedicate an entire Instagram feed to campus life ⁠— someone who can see the beauty, as well as the brutality, in our academic surroundings. 

Jenny Qian (@jennybeverlyqian) is set to graduate with a Bachelor of Science in Human Biology, Visual Art and Art History this summer. She plans to begin a Master of Management of Innovation in the fall, and has been running her Instagram account since 2013.

“I think my profile is a good reflection of who I am and how I have changed over the years and so this ability to track these changes is important to me,” she wrote in an email to The Varsity. She doesn’t remember exactly what urged her to create her account, but recalls she started “during a time when everyone around me started to get Instagram. I chose to continue using the platform because I am a visual person and prefer using photos to express myself rather than tweeting or writing a status update.” 

“As of right now,” she continued, “my profile is still very personal in content and so there really isn’t a specific goal other than posting about what I find to be beautiful. Because of this lack of focus, growth on my account is very slow. I am not sure if I will ever change though because I am happy posting about fashion, makeup, and food but also interior design, architecture, and my adventures abroad.” 

“I focus on capturing beautiful moments, spaces, and ideas within my daily life. In a sense, my feed is like a personal visual board of moments that inspire me aesthetically and so colour and lighting play a crucial part in my photographs,” she explained. “I have always been posting photographs of moments that I believe to be beautiful even if the subject can be mundane.”

Adrian Berg (@AdrianUofT), an Employer Engagement Coordinator at the Academic Advising & Career Centre at UTSC and alumni of the university, has similar reasons for posting photos, even though his feed is quite different.

“I tend to focus on architecture I find interesting – especially perspectives and angles that one might not normally notice,” he wrote in an email. “I’ve always dabbled in photography as a hobby (ever since acting as co-photo editor of the University College newspaper as a student many, many years ago) and this was a great creative outlet for my photography.” 

“I fell in love with UofT’s architecture as a student while spending so much time at University College and Hart House. There’s such an interesting contrast on campus of beautiful old historic buildings and striking new architecture.” He explained that as he worked on all three of U of T’s campuses, he wanted to set up his account to showcase their differing styles. Though, he warned, since he currently works at UTSC, the majority of his photos now stem from there. 

“I’m always seeing possible shots as I walk on campus or in the city,” he wrote. “To me, it’s just taking the time to see the amazing things that are around us every day, that we hardly notice while running through our busy days. My best advice would be to slow down, be in the present moment and look around (and up).” He highlighted a photo he took of a staircase in the Science Wing at UTSC as an example. “It would be easy to miss the beauty of the staircase when just walking around campus, but it’s a work of art from an architectural viewpoint.” 

Berg has been running his U of T architecture-focused Instagram account for a little more than two years. Like Qian, he has no specific routine for his account. “Sometimes I’ll go for weeks without posting anything (especially in winter) and other times I might post multiple times in a week.” It depends when inspiration — and the right light — strikes. 

It’s the same for Lauren Reid (@l_h_reid), who’s graduating this summer with a Bachelor of Science in Aerospace Engineering. “I just post when I have pictures that I particularly enjoy or moments I want to remember,” she explains. 

For her, it was a year abroad that prompted her to start posting on Instagram more actively. “I enjoy having an Instagram feed that captures important or fun things that are going on in my life or the lives of those around me so I can look back in a few years,” she wrote over email to The Varsity

I spent 12 months working in England and travelling to various countries where I fell in love with trying to capture some of my experiences to share them with people back home… I loved travelling and capturing some of my favorite moments all in one place was an easy way to document what I was doing and later make it easier for me to re-live some of those experiences and reflect back on some amazing times.”

But her activity on Instagram also turned out to be a great way for Reid to connect with new people. “I also enjoy being able to speak and interact with a broader network of students and STEM enthusiasts [and it] gave me a great opportunity to show some of the opportunities easily available for engineering students. Over [Professional Experience Year (PEY)], I had several people DM me to ask about my travels and experiences and for advice on how they could pursue a PEY in Europe, and some enquired about working after graduation.” 

“My Instagram does not have a specific, conscious focus other than to simply portray life of a University of Toronto student who loves to go on adventures, skydive, travel and run,” she continued. 

“While I receive DM’s from current UofT students, it is especially gratifying to get DM’s from high school students considering pursuing an engineering degree. Through my Instagram they see me as a normal, approachable student with various other interests outside of school and it seems to light a fire within them where they discover the world can be very exciting then they thought, and it is open to anyone.”

 “Using photographs and personal anecdotes I am able to show elementary and high school students when I spoke at their schools, or at science fairs, that engineering can be fun and adventurous, and much bigger than they ever thought. It is certainly bigger, and better, than I ever thought.” 

“I enjoy being a role model for young people,” Reid wrote, “especially as my background is quite different. I attended a Performing Arts high school and majored in trumpet and dance, so now graduating as an Aerospace Engineer from UofT seems a bit off brand. I love to hear students and parents express surprise.”

“If I can show students who follow me that it is possible and hopefully through my Instagram encourage them to pursue their dreams then I will be very happy. I think my Instagram also resonates with some young people because it clearly demonstrates that being an engineer isn’t just sitting in front of a desk all day. I love aerospace engineering, but I also love to travel and skydive and go on adventures with my friends, and hopefully they see that as well.”

“When I started Instagram was a way to both document my travels and experiences during my PEY and to share them easily and instantly with friends and family back in Canada. That hasn’t changed much. When I learned others were interested – either current undergrad students considering an international work term, or high school students considering engineering, international travels and otherwise just expanding their horizons – then I started to include more, and different, postings. Judging from the number of DMs I receive I think there is an appetite for this information.” 

I love scrolling through and seeing what my friends are up to or following and interacting with other people in the world you might not have ever got a chance to meet or connect with,” Reid wrote. “The platform is so much more than just posting for yourself, it allows connections in places you wouldn’t normally think to look.” 

For all three photographers, sharing images of their everyday lives and experiences is at the core of why they keep posting photos. While they enjoy connecting with others, the number of followers or likes seems less important to them. Most of all, they keep posting what is important to themselves for the simple reason that they enjoy it.

“While I appreciate the likes, I’d keep taking photos regardless,” Berg writes. For anyone interested in starting to post on Instagram more actively, his advice is: “Just do it. Don’t worry about likes, just do what you want to do and enjoy it.” 

Reid seems to be on the same page. “I try not to concern myself with the likes any of my posts receive. It really isn’t about that for me… I also think you shouldn’t take it too seriously. It is social media after all, which means you should simply enjoy using it with your friends.”

Do it for the finsta

Everything’s better in moderation — even Instagram

Do it for the finsta

The earth stood still. I was empty, sore, and very hungover. It was the day after my 19th birthday, and my grandmother was lecturing the hell out of me. “It’s a question of moderation, dear. Moderation.”

My ol’ Nan was right. I’d gone overboard and I’d paid for it dearly.

Although I’ve always backed the whole ‘everything in moderation’ attitude, ever since that traumatic tongue-lashing I’ve really tried my best to keep to it.

I started by applying this motto to social media, but it didn’t exactly go according to plan. I relapsed and wasted tons of time. This sort of pitiful failure is unsurprising if you ask Tristan Harris, ex-Google employee and current design ethicist.

In an interview with WIRED, Harris said that the “the [tech] industry uses design techniques to keep people hooked to the screen for as long and as frequently as possible. Not because they’re evil but because of this arms race for attention.”

Sitting on the other side of the screen, Harris said, are very smart and cheeky Silicon Valley types, whose “techniques are only going to get more and more perfect over time.”

“There’s a whole system that’s much more powerful than us, and it’s only going to get stronger,” he warned.

According to a 1,500-person survey report from the Royal Society for Public Health, Instagram is one of the most addictive social media platforms. The big red hearts, easy scrolling, and multi-layered editing make it irresistible to our insecure, impulsive brains.

The worst part about Instagram is what Nate Ware calls the “expectation gap.” Instagram showcases fantasy and passes it off as reality. Photos are always fun and edgy, happy and friendful. Life is far from that — it’s rough, volatile, and strange. But that triad doesn’t exactly bring in the ‘likes.’

That’s what the ‘finsta’ is for. These friends-only accounts are for broadcasting legitimately funny, authentic, self-deprecating things — certainly not for the public to see.

However, it seems like the ‘finsta’ is still an all-too real representation of how superficial we are. But is it really that surprising?

Outside of social media, everyone’s got an image they want to convey. If you’re with strangers, even acquaintances, you’re polished: you watch your language, you dress nicer, you make an effort. But around tes amis, there’s none of that pressure; guys can be dudes. Instagram is just a modern example of behaviour that’s been raging since time immemorial.

Some take the polishing too far, though. The worst offenders on this front are Instagram ‘influencers,’ the biggest, cringiest phonies on social media. Influencers gush out streams of random quotes, workout videos, stunning pictures, and passionate monologues. They claim to motivate and inspire, but are often just walking billboards for big, faceless companies.

Take the Fyre Festival. After being offered cash to promote the event, over 400 influencers took to Instagram to talk it up. The ‘festival’ ended up going down flames with acts backing out, workers being shortchanged, and hundreds of ticket-holders getting scammed.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. In some cases, Instagram may be used to help. Last year, Bruce Hardy and Jessica Castonguay argued that “social-media use may actually decrease anxiety for young people under the age of 30.” It was a contentious argument, and there are tons of people who believe otherwise. As Jake Pitre wrote in The Globe and Mail, “other studies have shown that social-media use in adolescence is linked with poor sleep quality, anxiety, depression and low self-esteem.”

It’s real murky territory — which is why, more than anything, it depends on the individual.

The key, as my grandmother rightly told me, is moderation. Most things — Instagram, inspiration, Alexander Keith’s, tequila — are great if consumed slowly and mindfully. It’s only when you go overboard that you end up empty, sore, and regretful.

Doing it for the ’gram

From vacation pics to body positivity — why are we still posting our lives on social media?

Doing it for the ’gram

Facebook has been going through some stuff recently: alleged election-meddling Russian agents, a leak of 87 million users’ data to Cambridge Analytica, more election-meddling scandals, a $119 billion loss in July, and more.

But even as an increasing number of users try to ditch Facebook’s original platform, the company still has one major thing going for it: Instagram. Facebook bought Instagram for $1 billion in 2012, and its value has since increased to over $100 billion. While Facebook broke records for most money lost in a single day, Instagram reached one billion users in July, up from 800 million just last fall.

These gains aren’t particularly surprising, given that so many of the people I know who use Instagram seem to genuinely enjoy doing so. And that’s what separates Instagram from so many other social media networks that a lot of us still use just because they’re so inconvenient to leave cough, Facebook, cough.

I have numerous friends who actively espouse their love for Instagram. What’s more, the social network has become a powerful platform for activism — which is more than can be said for most other sites.

In case you couldn’t tell, I generally count myself among the Insta-fans. For me, the appeal initially lay in the artistic aspects. Much as it may inspire some eyerolling from non-believers, I maintain that Instagram is a wonderful creative outlet, even for those of us who don’t typically think of ourselves as artists. As I delved a little deeper, however, I found myself more entranced by the communities that put down roots on Instagram in its early days and have since flourished.

Of these, a personal favourite is Body Positivity (BoPo), a movement largely centred on sharing images of bodies that do not conform to societal ideals. Largely targeting people in recovery from disordered eating, BoPo is pretty niche, but the most popular accounts, including Tess Holliday’s and Megan Jayne Crabbe’s, have amassed over a million followers each.

A recent op-ed in The New York Times also detailed the utility of Instagram for finding self-representation as an ethnic minority, in this case as an Afro-Latina, when representation in mainstream media remains elusive. These groups, which are easily discoverable through tags, give millions of people the chance to see other people who look like them and have been through the same experiences as them.

For many of these communities, Instagram is a natural fit. For one, putting imagery front and centre lends itself well to groups seeking to normalize certain aspects of the physical self, be it body mass, disability, or race. Just as importantly, Instagram has traditionally served a different social function than its competitors: it is less of a hub to connect with friends and family and more of a place to explore photography, art, and other content that interests you.

Now that Instagram is on its way to being the “next Facebook,” however, there’s a chance that a lot could change. The recent uptick in new monthly users — while Snapchat, Facebook, and Twitter have all reported a slowdown — reflects an intensified, systematic effort by its owners to make sure that the social media network is constantly improving, which is admittedly a strategy first adopted by Facebook.

However, one consequence of many recent changes is that Instagram really is starting to feel more like Facebook; the creative side has been downplayed and the social side emphasized. You’re not posting that vacation photo because it’s pretty; you’re posting it because you want your followers to see how pretty your vacation was.

The other problem with this ethos, naturally, is money. When Facebook says it wants to make Instagram “better,” they don’t mean by making it more enjoyable or beneficial to the user; it means bringing in more eyeballs to look at more ads.

If indeed Facebook is losing steam, then Instagram will inevitably need to be retooled, given that, in its current state, it is not particularly profitable. That means prioritizing advertisers and sponsored content over the user experience.

Exhibit A: A healthy dose of ads for weight loss programs, mixed into my Body Positive feed. The algorithm doesn’t care about safe space, and if Instagram is no longer a safe space, then it will no longer be the place to grow a community.

Obviously, I can’t knock Facebook for wanting to profit off of its $1 billion acquisition. But, if Instagram goes the way of Facebook and is transmogrified from a friendly, artistic space into one that is shaped solely by the single-minded aims of Silicon Valley, I truly think that it would be a loss. I can only hope that the folks at the helm understand the reasons why Instagram is so loved right now. 

#keepinstagramchronological

An algorithmic feed could hurt Instagram artists

#keepinstagramchronological

Early Instagram users remember the app as a place for serious photography, before Facebook acquired it and selfies, food porn, etc. invaded photo streams. In response, some members adjusted to the influx of mundanity by forming a community for artists of all sorts. It has developed a culture with its own jargon, from ‘instameets’ to ‘collabs’. Now the coveted app is receiving backlash — similar to what Twitter recently was subjected to — regarding its upcoming implementation of an algorithmic feed.

On March 15, Instagram’s blog announced it will help people “See The Moments You Care About First.” According to Instagram, most people see only 30 per cent of the content on their feeds. By using an algorithm, Instagram is wants to prioritize content that you will most likely be interested in and place it at the top of your feed.

The Instagram blog post goes on to say, “If your favorite musician shares a video from last night’s concert, it will be waiting for you when you wake up, no matter how many accounts you follow or what time zone you live in. And when your best friend posts a photo of her new puppy, you won’t miss it.” Unlike Facebook that is intended for people to add their friends, Instagrammers follow friends and strangers alike, as long as they have a feed they admire.

For Instagram, an algorithm based on popularity will hurt those who use Instagram to promote their work and products. Instagram is about discovering new artists and places to go, and users often collaborate to support each other; implementing this algorithm will hinder that communal activity.

An algorithm also ensures you will see the same accounts, rather than a mixture of posts. Those who argue artists and small businesses should just learn to play the algorithm game do not understand what makes Instagram unique. Forcing people to ‘play the game’ will only make Instagram less accessible to people just starting out.

Getting rid of chronological feeds also ruins the timely interaction that is integral to the app, much like Twitter. By pushing the photos you tend to like the most to the top, people will miss giveaways and other time sensitive posts. Somehow, Instagram missed the fact that its platform is about so much more than following celebrities and friends.

There is so much excitement when someone posts a comment to your post and follows it up with a direct message; before you know it, you have made an Instagram friend. Or maybe you posted something that only received 12 likes, but somebody commented and offered you your first freelance job.This kind of spontaneity is less likely to happen if you only see what Instagram thinks you want to see.

Instagrammer Sarah Heard created a change.org petition to keep Instagram’s chronology, because Instagram promised to listen to feedback. To date, it has received over 330,000 signatures. One petitioner argued that the point of Instagram is to document moments and getting rid of chronological postings would end that. Instagrammers fear it would become another Facebook, a platform that many petitioners would quit because of the algorithm.

Chronological feeds give variety, which allow people to support more than just their favourite artists and friends. Instagram should at least offer an option to have a chronological feed. That way, all parties are satisfied.

Instagram is more than just a social media platform for friends to connect; it is a community for artists, entrepreneurs, and the general public. Facebook might own it, but it is not Facebook. Seeing as how Instagram survived Facebook acquiring it, then perhaps Instagrammers can also adjust to this algorithm too. Serious enough users will hopefully still peruse their entire feeds. Having the top few posts out of order might not be ideal, but hopefully it will not kill Instagram’s sense of community.

Modern art according to ‘uoftdrizzy’

Creator of U of T's fake-Drake Instagram account discusses upcoming feature at the Contact Photography Festival

Modern art according to ‘uoftdrizzy’

BY NOW you’ve probably seen ‘uoftdrizzy’ on Instagram, but starting May 1, you’ll get to see the locally-viral Instagram account as a public art installation for the twentieth anniversary of the Contact Photography Festival, one of the world’s biggest photography events. The account uoftdrizzy rose to Instagram fame through its edited photographs, which depict Drake as a UTSC student. The photos are accompanied by captions that turn Drake’s lyrics into accounts of U of T student life, specifically lamenting things like grades and student debt. 

“I wanted to do something creative and funny and just loved the absurdity of the idea of Drake being a UTSC student,” says the anonymous artist behind uoftdrizzy. The account has garnered almost 17,000 followers, including Drake himself.

Posters of uoftdrizzy’s Instagram posts — including new pictures taken at the St. George Campus — will be posted across U of T’s downtown campus throughout May. According to the project’s curator, Bethea Arielle, the goal of the poster-sized installations is to “explore the concept of an analog feed,” and have it stand out among the “noise” around campus.

Arielle decided to include uoftdrizzy in the festival because she saw it as an opportunity to give “a platform to an emerging artist.” Ultimately, she wanted something that students could connect to. Arielle hopes the relatability and familiarity of the installations will help students that are intimidated by the art world to develop an interest in art. She hopes the posters’ presence around campus “will help bridge the gap of art appreciation and encourage creative expression in the student population.”   

Instagram as a platform for modern art

The public art installations of uoftdrizzy are igniting a discussion regarding the relationship between social media and the contemporary art world. “Remember when Instagram was just a site where people would post filtered photos of their meals? I think [it’s] moved way beyond that. Social media allows people to challenge old-school ideas of what art should look like,” says the artist behind uoftdrizzy.

“[Social media is] a pretty new style of exhibition, a new way of experiencing art,” agrees Blair Swann, art editor of The Hart House Review. Swann uses Richard Prince and Amalia Ulman as examples of Instagram artists that are changing “the way social media and contemporary art intersect.” 

Swann also notes his own critique of the fake-Drake Instagram. “[I] see a bunch of pictures of campus with Drake stock images crappily photoshopped in,” he says. “[The] critic in me says there’s no way anyone can mistake this for art.” 

“I’d classify [uoftdrizzy] as more a humorist rather than an artist,” says Tobias Williams, the curator of Vulgar Era, an art exhibition hosted at Toronto’s Xpace Cultural Centre. “However, there’s a definite similarity between the methodology of [uoftdrizzy] and the way that an artist creates work. They are both driven by commitment to concept and perspective, as well as a certain amount of open-endedness.” 

“Art is often about challenging perceptions, so I wholeheartedly believe uoftdrizzy deserves to be recognized as an artist,” says Arielle. She likens the art world to a continually transforming “hierarchy.” 

On the other hand, uoftdrizzy notes that it’s perfectly fine if people don’t take their Instagram seriously. The artist was initially surprised that contact decided to use their Instagram feed, since contact traditionally features “high-art.” Nonetheless, uoftdrizzy sees this as an example of how the art world is transforming. 

“[People] want to be exclusive about who’s allowed in their little art club, and the reality is, art doesn’t belong to a single group of individuals and their version of it. My [response] to them is to be more open-minded about what they consider art to be and how to see artists,” says uoftdrizzy. “And if they’re still mad, that’s okay, I’m going to keep creating. I’m not asking for their approval.”