01 Funny Faces
And we're live!
From concept to creation, the entire experience of creating a podcast has been daunting—daunting to think about my life story and the stories of others being available for public consumption, and even more daunting to hear my laugh recorded! Recording this episode was also very exciting; I was able to revisit some of the pivotal moments that made me who I am, including some (slightly embarrassing) moments from my childhood.
One of the aspects that made this episode special was the person who interviewed me: my partner, and the editor of Her Royal Science. He has been an irreplaceable element of this podcast coming to fruition. He was and continues to be just as excited as I am about every step forward for Her Royal Science, and about every other aspect of my life. I'm lucky to have him as part of my squad.
I hope this episode encourages you to surround yourself with people who let you dream and support you when you are in pursuit of those dreams. And most importantly, find someone who makes funny faces at you.
The audio of the conversation has been removed from our catalogue due to less than ideal audio quality (thankfully we've gotten significantly better over the years!), but the transcript of our conversation has been prepared for your enjoyment, with minor edits for clarity and brevity.
Igor Tatarnikov: The great part is no one can see what I'm doing with my fingers and face.
Asma Bashir: I know! <Laugh>
IT: So, I can make funny faces at you all day.
AB: <Laugh> It's basically what you do all day.
IT: It's kinda my job.
Her Royal Science jingle
AB: Hey everyone, and welcome to Her Royal Science. My name is Asma and welcome to our very first podcast episode. I'm super excited to get started. I'm not interviewing a special guest today, but he's special, nonetheless, I'm sitting here with...
IT: I would argue you're interviewing a very special guest: yourself!
AB: Am I interviewing myself? Wait, you are interviewing me!
IT: I know, but you're the guest.
AB: It's weird to be the guest of my own show, but I guess it'll work out.
IT: I mean, today, we're talking about the hostess.
AB: We are. We're talking about the Her in Her Royal Science.
IT: Just to jump right into it: why are you doing this?
AB: A number of reasons. I think the main reason that really called me to this passion of mine is I always felt as though I represented a lot more than myself, especially in graduate school because there really weren't that many people who looked like me or had the experiences that I had growing up. I thought, 'I know I'm not the only one,' but I sometimes feel like a singular entity and I wanted to be able to connect with other people, not only based on that singular identity, but also to share the fact that I do sometimes feel that isolation with my peers, people who might not know about that, or might know a little bit about it but don't really have the opportunity to ask me a lot of questions the way they would want to.
I also grew up seeing few people who look like me in very high positions of academia, of industry. For me, the person that I think of when I was a little girl that I saw and just made me really think that science was an option for me was Dr Mae Jemison, who I believe was the first Black woman astronaut in space. I thought she was so cool, and she looked like me! She had her little coif and I remember my mother being the one who showed me her photo. She probably didn't do this on purpose to open up my eyes to the possibilities, but I think she just thought it was cool that this woman who looked like me could do this really amazing thing, and there were no limits to my imagination for my own career.
IT: So, which part of that do you think was unintentional? Was it the showing you a cool picture of someone that did something awesome? Or was it specifically because she looked like you?
AB: I think it was definitely because she looked like me. I think there was something that struck her as important to show me as a little Brown girl, as a little Black girl to be like, 'Hey, I know the world will tell you that there are few roles for you and you have to ascribe to what is expected of you, but guess what? This can be expected of you too. There's a lot more that you can be based off of people who have done it before.' I thought that was really special. My mom, I think, probably put more intention into it than I'm giving her credit for. I think she definitely thought about it, like, 'My child needs to see positive role models,' although I dunno how I feel about that term. But yeah, who I had growing up was basically my mother, and there were so many characteristics that she had that I wanted. I think she also wanted me to have more than just her to look to for that, which was nice.
IT: Yeah. I mean, you guys spent some time actually living in a place where you were not standing out.
AB: Yeah, which was entirely intentional. To kind of give everyone a little bit of a backstory, we lived in New Jersey for a bit, then we moved to Texas, and it was while we were in Texas that my mother made the decision to move us to someplace in Africa. At that point, there was a debate between a couple of African countries and we settled on Kenya and then Zimbabwe. One of the reasons why my mother wanted us to move there was because in the US, obviously, there's a difference in demographics. We are the minority and, in Texas, there's this added element of very overt racial prejudice that she did not want us to grow up embedding into our own psyches at that age, because I was five at the time, and my brother was seven. Moving us to Kenya and Zimbabwe—for not even a very extended period time—was a enough for us to feel like our skin was not a negative thing in that moment; it was just a thing. It was just a thing that we existed with, which was nice. We didn't develop complexes about it at that age, which I think was incredibly smart.
IT: Yeah, you were not the rarity. You were not the odd one and you knew there was a whole continent of people that looked exactly like you because you had been there. It was not this far away land.
AB: Yeah. I kind of feel bad when I talk to people who spent their entire lives in the US—people of African descent—because they obviously have African heritage and a lineage that is so closely related to the African continent, but sometimes I think there's a lack of a familiarity and a dissociation that is natural because you obviously don't speak the languages and the culture is very different. I'm glad my mom offered that to me, not to say that there aren't challenges of living there. We're not Zimbabwean and we're not Kenyan, so there are some limitations obviously, but I think they were different [limitations] and it wasn't embedded and ingrained in race, which I think was really nice.
IT: Yeah. So, what you're trying to do with this podcast has sort of been done for you in a very broad sense. You were shown that the roles that you see around you are not the only things that you can do. There are other people that look like you and they're doing anything you can possibly think of.
AB: I think, yeah, definitely. We're about broadening the definition, but it's not because these people don't exist. It's because sometimes the proportions are not so prevalent that it's easy to see. And I think that's another element of having lived in Africa. I got to see Black doctors all the time, Black teachers, and Black professors, so it wasn't that weird. Obviously also being in East Africa, there were a lot of Indian professors and Indian doctors. There's a cultural heterogeneity that exists there as well, so it's not like it's just this monolith, but I think I didn't associate my skin color with just entertainment, and that was really nice for me. I appreciated that and it's now just about paying it forward. I know how great that felt, and I know there are times where I meet people who haven't had that experience and I want them to know what that feeling is like, that feeling of... I don't know if you've seen that photo of the little boy who visited Obama and asks to touch his head. I think the photo ended up being in the White House at a certain point as well. It was so meaningful for everyone who was a part of that, whether it was the little boy, his mom, the president, his wife, to see this little kid almost find some common ground with this man who is very educated and powerful in many respects. It's about harnessing that feeling and really propagating it to a lot of people or as many people who would like to listen to this.
IT: Yeah. I mean, outside of that, I know we've talked about this a lot, but there's also just the day-to-day of being a student, a professor, being a research associate, wherever you might be. There are all these day-to-day struggles that everyone is faced with, and sometimes they feel they are facing them alone or for the first time, and that's also something that should be talked about.
AB: Yeah, absolutely. Like you said, we've talked about it so much. I'd say in Year 3 of our degrees, that's when you really start to feel the pressure of timelines, when you're wrapping up, if you're wrapping up, papers, and it's such a fundamental part of being a trainee in academia. We talk about it, I think, amongst ourselves in our little nuclear groups, 'Oh, my PI is looking for this. They're expecting this. I'm not ready,' but we don't really talk about it to people right before entering grad school. So, people at the undergraduate level or even before then.
AB: I don't think we talk about it as much with our families either, so they have this inaccurate view of what it means to be a scientist. So much of it is the very mundane, the writing, the reading, staying on top of what's coming out of particular labs that you're working with, et cetera.
IT: Yeah. I think there are times where you do feel alone when things aren't working or you feel like you're the only one struggling as hard. I think, at one point, you put that in the context of also being forced to be a representation of your people, it also adds a whole extra, I guess, level or a whole extra complication on top of that.
AB: Absolutely. I think that's something that we will talk about in future episodes, the fact that apart from just being a graduate student, or being anywhere or in your career, whether it's a graduate student or postdoc—
IT: Being the only professor...
AB: Yeah, I think having that singularity, the fact that you are the only person of your kind doing this job means that you are an embodiment of your community, and that sometimes is a good thing. You feel nice; you feel like, 'Okay, I'm doing a good job of representing my people,' but then if you feel like you're slipping, then you feel like you're doing a bad job at representing your people. That is tough. It's tough to not exist as a singular human being with your own thoughts and opinions. I've heard a lot of stories about this, but thankfully I was not in the US at the time when the curriculum was about history of America and slavery. Usually when you're the only person of color in the class, they turn to you and go, 'So, why don't you give us the Black perspective?' And sometimes that happens even in the academic setting where when something happens in the world. The understanding is, 'Oh, we can go talk to this person that it's happening to' or 'the person who looks like the people I'm seeing on the news—let's talk to them about it.' And it comes from a place of compassion, but it's sometimes really hard. It can be overwhelming.
IT: Yeah. I mean, you don't always want to be the teacher.
AB: Yeah. You're the teacher, you're the PR representative, you are absolutely everything, and sometimes you don't feel like you signed up for this role. You just came to school the way everybody else did. You've lived your life. You've been a teenager and you've decided that this is what you wanna do for this chapter of your life, and then all of a sudden you've also taken on all of these other responsibilities that you didn't sign up for. When did I write my name? <Chuckle>
IT: Yeah, it's been forced upon you. Not voluntary in any means.
AB: No, it wasn't, and sometimes you feel like it's not your fault that you have to take that on anyway, because if there were more of you, there wouldn't be this feeling of, 'Oh, we need to go to her to explain the situation.' There would just be a group of people and they can talk to whoever they want about whatever's happening.
IT: Yeah, and there's just an understanding that grows from being exposed to a community.
AB: Yeah, it takes away a little bit of everyone's ignorance because we're all ignorant to a certain extent about each other. We know the most about ourselves and how we relate to one another. I think for me, particularly in the setting where I do have to code switch in many ways, I know my own culture and I know the predominant culture very well because I've had to learn it. I wouldn't be allowed into this society and be able to function the way I want to and succeed the way I want to if I didn't. And I've seen that happen where someone who's English maybe isn't as strong or whose accent is thicker, someone who is closed off and doesn't speak as much—those people get shunned. They get pushed out of our society, at least the academic society that I'm a part of right now. So yeah, I think I know two cultures and that's one of the burdens of being an immigrant kid, and you can speak to that as well.
AB: You have to code switch all the time. You're so familiar with these two worlds and you have to be, or else you just cannot survive.
IT: Yeah, you learn a whole new different way of being. There's this stressful period of adjustment where you figure out, 'Oh, these things are unacceptable to do that I usually can do or have done in the house my whole life.' All of a sudden, that's not okay. 'That makes people look at me funny' or whatever it might be. You very quickly and sometimes painfully learn these lessons.
AB: Yeah. It's weird. In the home we spoke English—both my parents were speaking English to each other and spoke English with us as kids—so that really wasn't the thing that differentiated me from other people, but it was little things like fasting and being in a public school, or coming in after Eid and having henna on my hand, and people going, 'Ew, what's that?' And then 10 years later them gonna to Coachella and having it on their hands. And you're like, 'You're same person who made me feel bad for having these designs on my hand, making me feel like I was dirty or weird or different!'
IT: To kinda switch gears now a little bit, how did you get to where you are academically? What is your science story?
AB: My science story starts when I was very young. I always loved science. I think I just loved school because I would describe the subjects I liked in school and end up listing off all my subjects. I really loved English. I really loved math. Science was one of the subjects that I really enjoyed. I always asked a lot of questions as a child. I'm shocked my mom isn't sick of me because wow, thinking back to who I was as a little kid, I was almost too curious, way too inquisitive, but she humored me. She allowed me to feel like having all of these questions was okay and encouraged.
IT: I was gonna say, I don't think it's humored. I think she fostered your enthusiasm!
AB: Which was great! I definitely would not be here without her. Having her as a mother has contributed so much to who I am as a human being, beyond my scientific achievements—if you could call them that—but definitely who I'm as a person. Throughout elementary school, loving science kind of set the foundation for me going into university. I started university as a psych major, because I didn't really wanna be pre-med. It seemed very competitive, and I knew that I could customize the degree that I wanted to get with a psych degree as opposed to going in with a biology major. I loved the brain, I loved learning about the human self, so going in as a psych major [made sense].
I started my undergraduate degree in Richmond, the American International University in London, and then I transferred to Boston University. As I was picking courses for my first semester at BU, I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do for my general science requirement. I had already done human biology, which I loved, at Richmond. I couldn't take a similar course at BU—you had to take two very different subjects—and I saw Neuroscience there. I walked into that class in September of 2012. That week, I can honestly say change the trajectory of my life because the professor Dr. Paul Lipton—who's now at Princeton—had a way of teaching the class that was so engaging, so exciting. It was perfect. It was everything that I wanted university to be for me; I think we all go into university with a certain picture in our minds.
AB: Yeah, and this is what I wanted it to be. It was great, and I thought, 'Okay, I have to do something about this. How do I take more neuroscience courses?' I really didn't want to change my major at that point. My goal was to finish my undergrad in three years and I was going to do it. By switching to neuroscience, that would mean taking on a lot of extra courses. So, at the end of that semester, I talked to Dr Lipton and he said, 'Why don't you just do a graduate degree in neuroscience?' And I went, 'OK, cool.'
I finished my undergrad at BU as quickly as I could. In 2014 I started looking into options. My family was moving westward, and so I saw the Neuroscience program at UBC. I was like, 'This is awesome.' I applied and then Dr Wellington reached out to me. We had a little conversation over email and then the decision was made. I went to UBC, the University of British Columbia, and I've been here ever since.
IT: How have you liked being in Dr. Wellington's lab?
AB: I've loved it. I think she is the mentor that I need and have needed for the last four years of my PhD. I mean, we've talked about this so much one-on-one, but so much of being a principal investigator, a supervisor, is mentorship. A lot of times, we associate PIs with securing money, getting grants, writing papers, going to conferences, but so much of their passion comes from seeing the next generation of scientists make it. It's very obvious that she cares so much about who we are as human beings, how we're developing and the next steps that she's trying to prime us for. And in my case, I'm hoping to pursue a postdoctoral fellowship and she's doing everything in her power to make that happen. Whether it's making sure that I have the capability to multitask and I have the capability to talk to people who are at higher levels of academia, being able to collaborate with industry partners, the skillset that she's really trying to hone, I can see it now. I think at the very beginning, I just thought she's asking way too much of me, but she knew what to push and how to push in order to get me to a stage where she was happy and went, 'Okay, I did my job here.'
IT: Of course. And looking back at you in 2015, when I met you, you were a completely different woman. I don't think you would be the person that you are if you were just getting a graduate degree or if you were just working. I think a lot of it has to do with the people that you surround yourself with.
AB: Most definitely.
IT: The growth has been immense. And to speak to the point about PIs, principal investigators, and how they learn to push, they always are there to catch around you. For example, when you're working on a grant in your first year—
AB: Oh, I didn't touch a grant until like Year 3! <Laugh>
IT: <Laugh> Yeah, the first grant you work on, you put together your little figure.
IT: You throw it to them and you're like, 'I hope it's good enough,' and they do everything around that. Then as you get more experienced and they know they can rely on you more, they say, 'Okay, can you write the figure legend? Can you write a bit of the text? Can you write the methods? Can you write a bit of the intro?' And then it really comes to the point of, 'I want you to write a rough draft. I want you to have a basic understanding and a basic draft for me to edit off of.' It's almost one of those things where you don't realize the growth you're having. It's so gradual, and then you look back and you're like, 'Wow, I can write 2000 words in a day!'
AB: Half the time I write way too much <chuckle> and then cutting down is the issue now, whereas before I'd struggle to write a paragraph.
IT: Yeah. And it's partially confidence, partially knowledge of the field, but it is great to see.
AB: Absolutely. Speaking of UBC and you knowing me for the past four years, I mean, that's where we met. We met in our courses for the Neuroscience program, in Neuro 500 and 501, which was just an interesting experience for everyone who partook.
IT: It brings people together.
AB: Yeah, torture does that, right? <Laugh> No, obviously I don't think we could categorize it as torture, but I know that there were certain aspects of the course that we definitely relied on each other as a class to pull each other ahead. It was the perfect example of the zone of proximal development. There were certain kids who were really good at certain modules and then other kids that were better than other things, and we just kind of pulled ourselves up to each other's level.
IT: Absolutely. The problem with that course was it turned out to be really flexible and accommodating where if you struggled on the midterm and the final, they took a better, more thorough look at your final project. If you struggled on the final project, they kinda said, 'Okay, well at least you did it, and we're gonna really take your midterm and your final into account.' But at the beginning, I remember them saying, 'That's it—there's no scaling. You're not undergrads anymore. You're not babies. This is real world.' And I think that was a disservice because I think a lot of people were very psychologically tense throughout that whole thing.
AB: Yeah, absolutely.
IT: And you can see the tension leave in the second semester when people get their final grades in February or March from the previous year, people release because they realize, 'Oh, I didn't do as badly as I thought.' And it kind of changes. And I think people start to enjoy the class more.
AB: The crazy thing is you just said, 'you start to enjoy the class in March,' then the course ends in April, and that's it. You don't have to take any more courses if you're doing your PhD. I think they would do everyone a service if they were very upfront and said, 'We have to be flexible because you're at graduate level. At the graduate level, there's a lot more to take into account. We want to know how you're learning. Are you applying the skills that we're trying to teach you?' Because that's really what they're doing. They're teaching you critical thinking. They're teaching you how to learn, how to absorb information, and how to massage it, how to think about it on a very deep level.
IT: And on a very surface level, it's how to read papers by giving you the baseline to understand what the terms and the experiments mean. I think coming in people had gaps in protein biochemistry or imaging or MRI or human experiments or electrophysiology, and those papers seem daunting and impossible to read until you're kind of taught what you're reading.
IT: What is your reason for talking to people? Why are you doing this interview-style podcast?
AB: <Laugh> So, I'm laughing because I can recognize the selfishness in myself in wanting to do this. I've always been just intensely curious about people, right? Their life stories...
IT: I can very much attest to that. We had so many late conversations.
AB: We did! That was the foundation of our friendship because I wanted to know what made you you, what did you see...
IT: I'm a complicated man.
AB: But yet very simple! <Laugh> It was extraordinary!
My mom always says this: 'When you meet people who have all of their adult teeth, you have missed out on years of who they are and how they've come to be, how they became the person that you see before you.' And now we're meeting so many people, especially through conferences and people visiting the lab, and as much as their science is interesting and I'll always find that aspect of their life intriguing, I care so much also about the people: the mistakes they've made, how they've overcome those personal mistakes, the hurdles that have been created by society that they felt they've had to overcome. And to quote my mom yet again, she always used to say when I was younger, 'If I see a stone and I hit myself on that stone, I'm gonna make sure I tell you about it. There's no need for you to make the same mistake I made simply because I'm trying to teach you a lesson. That's unnecessary. We can learn lessons together; as I'm continuing to grow, you can grow with me.'
AB: I think there's so much exponential growth that you can then do if you're talking to people who are at the same stage as you or people who are a little bit ahead in terms of their career plans, and that's what I'm really excited about. I'm so excited to meet people. I'm excited to have great conversations and to grow as an individual and share that growth with all of you. Some of my best conversations with my supervisor, Dr Wellington, have been, 'How did you get here? What was your first postdoc like? What was your favorite type of experiment to run?' Even in the last 25 or 30 years of her career, so many things have changed in the lab. We've, just in terms of technology, moved so far ahead. It's extraordinary to hear her stories. Just earlier this week, she was telling us about mouth-pipetting, and we can go into the detail of lab work in future episodes, but it's just crazy to think that we've come so far. I love that. I love knowing the human being behind the name in the paper, because you see 20 names on a paper that has taken years to put together, and now we're putting personality behind that.
IT: Yeah. Outside of that, it's also just exposing people to kind of the daily life, the everyday humdrum, what does it actually mean to do science? And I think that's another part that people often misunderstand or miss out on. Not a lot of people understand what it is I do as a graduate student.
AB: And that includes our parents!
IT: Yeah. It's, 'What is a comprehensive exam? What are experiments? Grants?' It's all very hidden, and I think sometimes that can lead to people coming into the field and feeling like they're feeling things for the first time when, in truth, everybody has felt those things and it can be isolating and hard if you think you're dealing with this alone. I think [it's important to] have some semblance of something you can look up to and find out that you're not alone, or there are other people like that, or this is how this person dealt with this issue. Especially being a minority on top of that, you're dealing with extra challenges of having more eyes focused on you or people potentially waiting for you to stumble so they can point it out. There are all these extra pressures, and I think hearing some of what someone else has gone through, what they have done, how they have dealt with it, how they feel they could have prevented their mistakes, where they should have ran, where they should have stayed, I think those are important things to hear.
AB: Very much so. I agree, 1000%.
Her Royal Science jingle
AB: Let's wrap up. I wanna thank the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health for their funding support. Their team, especially their administrative team, has been absolutely phenomenal when it came to putting this together. This started as just a random dream I had in January of this year, and I told you about it and you thought it was a great idea. Then I told Emily Wight about it as well; she has been extraordinary and supportive throughout this entire time.
I also, on a selfish note, wanna thank my parents. I'll tell a little anecdote as we wrap up: when I was a child, my dad worked for Spanish television, Univision. When you're a kid and you see your parent doing a certain thing, for some reason, you wanna try it out yourself.
IT: Absolutely. I mean, I was wearing a stethoscope and running around trying to listen to people's hearts!
AB: <Laugh> I guess, as a kid, you just mimic what you see in many respects, whether that's good or bad. In my situation, we had a little camcorder at home and for some reason, my brother and I decided we were gonna make the news. We were in Hackensack at the time, so we called it Hackensack News Center, HNC, and we would do research. This was in the summertime, right after I turned seven. We had internet, but we had dial up at the time, so we had to disconnect the phone line and connect it to the modem, then you couldn't get phone calls in that time. And then, the beautiful song of dialup would be sung and you'd connect to the internet. We'd do research and find out the major news stories of the day, we'd write it up, and we would record the news around 4:00 PM that day. I'd put on my blazer—I had one blazer at the time, now I have two <chuckle>—and then my parents would watch our news after the official news. They'd watch ABC7 Eyewitness News in New York at 5:00 PM, and then they'd watch our bootleg version at 6:00. Anyway, what I'm trying to say is I've always had a love for telling stories, stories that aren't told all the time.
This is just the continuation of a dream that I had as a seven-year-old, and I'm so excited to get started. So, massive thanks to my dad for being the person in telecom and to my mom for being everything that I wanted to be as a young person. I have to say my team is absolutely extraordinary, and as time goes on, you'll hear more and more about the people who have made me who I am today, because I probably won't be able to list 'em all off tonight.