For our third episode of Season III, I spoke with bilingual neuroscientist Hajer Nakua, a PhD candidate who uses magnetic resonance imaging to investigate the relationships between brain organisation and mental health at the University of Toronto. As part of her recently awarded Fulbright Scholarship, Hajer is currently pursuing a research exchange at Stanford University while she continues to grow her far-reaching platform as a science communicator. During our conversation, we discuss how she—inspired by SciComm phenom Samantha Yammine (a.k.a. Science Sam)—began using social media to reach a global audience of English and Arabic-speaking individuals. We also explore the challenges of a healthy work-life balance as she works towards completing her degree during the COVID pandemic, and discuss the added nuance of being a visibly Muslim woman in neuroscience. The theme of finding meaning in one’s work was ever-present during our conversation, and I couldn’t think of a better title for this episode other than ‘Fulfillment’.
The transcript of our conversation has been prepared for accessibility purposes, with minor edits for clarity and brevity.
Hajer Nakua: We are much more than our productivity, and what we bring to science is not our productivity, it's our ideas and our commitment to improving knowledge discourse.
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Dr Asma Bashir: Hello world, and welcome to Her Royal Science. Thank you so much for joining us for today's episode. Today, we’ll be chatting with Hajer Nakua, a Neuroscience PhD candidate studying the relationships between brain organisation and mental health at the University of Toronto. She previously completed her Bachelor’s in Psychology, Neuroscience, and Behaviour at McMaster University, and currently does a lot of science communication work via social media in both English and Arabic. I'm so excited to chat with Hajer about science, identity, and her work as a science communicator, but let's start from the very beginning. Hajer, what's your story?
HN: When it comes to my story, I'll just share a little bit about my upbringing and how I got really into science.
I got into science at a super, super young age, probably around nine or ten years old because my dad is actually a scientist. We had a lot of random books about science. I used to always read a book called The Young Scientists that had all these experiments, and so it was just something that seemed really fun and exciting because, to me, science was about putting a bunch of things in a tube, something changes color, some sort of explosion happens, and then foam gets everywhere. That was really fun, and that was a really nice introduction to science, and because of that, I feel like science was always at the back of my mind, no matter what I did.
Soon, it didn't just become science as a discipline; it kind of became science as a way of thinking. I started to really enjoy researching random topics. I had a phase where I was really into planets when I was younger, when I was probably 12 or 13. I had a phase when I was really into animals and searching up big cats. I would get really deep into all these books that I could find and read about it... I would say that I was perhaps a little bit unusually exposed to science and it just carried with me throughout my life.
I think the moment, though, that I decided to be a scientist was a lot later than this, you know? This was sort of like the precursor to why I thought science was always really cool but I wasn't sure if it was the life that I wanted to live. The gap is quite large because I decided to go into science when I was about 20 years old, so we're talking about a 10-year difference. There was a point when I realized in high school and undergrad that liking in science and being a scientist are two very different things. You can like science because experiments are cool. You love learning new things. You love inquiry and satisfying your curiosity, but being a scientist is a lot more than that, so I had to really figure out whether I liked science enough to want to be a scientist or whether I liked science enough that it was just going to be this peripheral part of my life. After a lot of thinking, I decided that I liked science enough that I wanted it to be a big part of my life, and that's what led me to go into STEM and pursue a career in science. And now I am, I would say, a neuroscientist.
AB: And how did neuroscience come into that story? You mentioned planets and you mentioned animals, and now you're studying the brain. How did the brain become the centre-point of the work that you're doing now?
HN: It could seem like a farfetched jump to go from animals to the brain, but it's not as farfetched as one may [think]! I think because of the fact that I was really into reading and learning new things, I found that I naturally was curious about human behaviour; I used to observe a lot of things, and think about why people behaved in a certain way. So, human behaviour was something that really interested me, more of a topic of inquisition, and neuroscience became kind of popular at that time, and so I thought if I wanted to understand human behavior at its deepest core, I probably need to study the brain. That's why I went into Psychology, Neuroscience, and Behaviour, and because it was interdisciplinary, there was a lot of these psychological foundations to understand how people were thinking about human behavior, but there was also the neuroscience element that allowed us to better understand what that means at the neurological level.
AB: That story actually sounds really similar to my own, because I also did an undergrad in Psychology and made it very interdisciplinary by doing a lot of neuroscience courses, because I was so intrigued by human behaviour, and then the biological basis of behavior became even more interesting to me. And then I went on and did a PhD in Neuroscience as well, so I'm kind of just grinning at what you're saying <laugh>.
HN: It's so nice that you say that because yeah, it's really interesting to have a unique fascination with something when you're younger. And even my interest throughout the years when I was exploring science as a kid, all of my interests were really about observing how we as humans interact to learn new things, all of that was part of human behaviour, and so it's really interesting coming from that, and looking back in hindsight [realising] I guess I was always interested in human behaviour.
So, my PhD topic, or I guess the goal of my PhD, is really to better understand the biological basis of mental health conditions or situations in children, and how I'm doing that and how I'm interested in doing that is to better understand brain organisation.
And when it comes to the neuroscience side, which I think a lot of people are more interested in now, we actually use magnetic resonance imaging—or I'll just call that MRI or brain imaging—to characterize features of the brain. Once we characterize those features, we get a better sense of brain organization. We use that information and see whether any changes in brain organization [are] related to changes in mental health symptoms or not. And that's how we start to tackle this really big and hard question: Is there a biological basis of mental health and what does that look like? It's a very hard question, and my PhD is specifically focused on brain organization and mental health symptoms to try to carve off one edge of a very, very hard question and problem.
AB: Mmm. Are there certain mental health conditions that you're most interested in, or have popped up as lines of investigation at this point of your PhD?
HN: I would say that I'm most interested in mental health symptoms, so we'll say things like anxiety, withdrawal, depression, aggression, delinquency, or rule breaking behavior in children. And I'm interested in exploring this relationship across the mental health spectrum. Some of the population I work with are children with autism, children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, but also typically developing children that do not as of yet have any mental health condition. And so, I'm interested in, are there shared relationships between brain organization and mental health across a large population of children that have different mental health diagnoses?
I think that's really useful because it could tell us that maybe these relationships that we call brain-behavior or brain-mental health relationships are actually the same across the board. That is really useful to know, because that may tell us that the risk of developing another mental health condition, an anxiety disorder, for example, is actually the same with everybody, or maybe it's different. Maybe there are some mental health diagnoses that are at a greater risk of developing an anxiety disorder later on in life. And so that's how I tackle linking mental health symptoms with mental health diagnoses, but also looking at it much more broadly to find shared relationships across different groups.
AB: I love that. And it's such a meaningful project. It could have massive ramifications to the healthcare system around the world, because mental health, though it's being discussed more and more in the Western world, it is obviously something that affects everybody, and conversations are starting to take place all over the world about mental health, not only at our age, but also in younger people, [asking the question of] how we can possibly prevent mental health issues from being a lot more exacerbated later down the line. I love that you're studying this and it sounds like you also find it quite fulfilling, which I think is really important. Would you say so?
HN: I would say so, definitely. Definitely intellectually satisfying because these are really difficult problems that have to be really well thought-out, so that's really enjoyable, but it's also enjoyable at the human angle. Doing research is a lot of work and it's definitely not easy, as you probably know. And it's really important that you feel like the work that you're doing is actually impactful. Once you stop feeling that, it's really hard to push through the really difficult days of research.
AB: But also, I think you find a lot of fulfillment in your SciComm work. Can we talk about that a little bit as well?
HN: Of course!
AB: Alright, when did you first realize that you wanted to be a part of the SciComm community and how did you get started?
HN: I would say this: this is, I feel like, a similar story with a lot of PhD students, but when you're doing a PhD, it can be a little bit of an isolating experience because nobody really understands what it's like to do a PhD, unless you did a PhD. I found that I was having a lot of conversations with people about the research that I did, [and] what it really means to be a neuroscientist. I thought, ‘wow, there's not that many PhDs in my community, women who are pursuing PhDs in my community, particularly in science, [and] there's not a lot of neuroscientists that people can ask questions to.’ And neuroscience was just becoming a pretty hot topic; a lot of people were talking about it, and so I thought, you know, let me just try this thing that I'm seeing.
I'm really inspired by Samantha Yammine, who’s Science Sam (@email@example.com) on social media. She was a really big part of the inspiration for me to do this. I thought that it would be cool for me to be able to share neuroscience research and my life as a scientist, I thought it would be kind of cool if I shared this in Arabic because there's quite a gap in knowledge when it comes to the research that happens in the Western world, [in terms of] it getting translated in other languages. There’s a huge gap in time, so I thought, you know, it would be cool if I made a bilingual page that would allow me to disseminate a little bit more information that may not be accessible for everybody in Arabic-speaking countries.
AB: You are catering to a much broader audience because you're not just doing SciComm in English. Are there any things that you have to keep in mind when you do the work that you do?
HN: Definitely. I would say the biggest challenge even beyond whether it's bilingual or not is the balancing between needing to get things done for a very hectic PhD and SciComm work. That's constantly a challenge that you are always facing, so that's definitely, I would say, the biggest challenge. I know that the last year has been super intense for me when it comes to the PhD, so my SciComm work has sort of had to take a back seat.
But in terms of specifically being bilingual, it can be a little bit challenging because it's not always clear what the right terminology is to use, when you're thinking about something in two languages. There are certain norms that we would communicate with in, you know, the English-speaking world or the Western world, but they may not be the same norms when you communicate them to the Arabic-speaking world. It's not a one-to-one translation; a lot of thought has to go into communicating an idea for those who live and grew up in a different culture. And how is it best to communicate that idea? Every time I'm crafting a post or information, I'm crafting two separate things meant for two different cultures, and that can definitely be a lot more work, but it's also very fulfilling because that is really why we get into SciComm—the entire idea is that we want to make sure that science is accessible to many people and certain people have unique vantage points that they could use to their advantage. That's sort of what I decided to do and it makes the challenges worth it. There definitely are challenges when it comes to, what are a society's baseline understanding of the brain, for example? Are there certain norms that are important to include when I'm making a post? And I speak Arabic, but I have not grown up in the Middle East. I was born and raised in the GTA or Toronto, Canada, so not being part of a culture <laugh>, but sharing their language also has its own challenges because it's important for me to make sure that I don't accidentally explain something in a way that would not take [into account] any of the sensitivities of their culture. There's a lot of people that have to help me in this journey. I have my parents helping me in terms of the Arabic and understanding certain cultural norms that are important to keep in mind when communicating anything, and I wouldn't be able to do it without them.
AB: I'm so happy you mentioned that. As people are doing more and more outreach work, especially over the last, I'd say year, and as people are becoming more and more culturally aware, I think people forget to seek out experts in a particular field to help them navigate that new space.
HN: Mm-Hmm <affirmative>.
AB: For instance, a lot of people learn Spanish is a second language in the States—just as an example—and they feel like they can travel to a predominantly Spanish speaking country and feel like they can navigate that world and that culture seamlessly, when really what you’ve learnt are the words. You're not learning all the nuance of what you were just talking about, the culture, the way people interpret certain words. I think it is so, so important that you mentioned that and I'm hoping that the audience can apply what you're talking about in other spaces as well.
I do want us to talk a little bit about your identity as a person, because you mentioned that you do speak both English and Arabic. I also know that you wear the head scarf, the hijab. What has been your experience walking through academia over the last, I'd say six, seven years—throughout your undergrad and now doing your PhD—as someone who is visibly Muslim? Are there good things, bad things? What has been your experience?
HN: I imagine I share many similar experiences to many other Muslim women in academia, but the biggest and very prevalent thing is, every little thing that you may do may have an assumption that people would have that they'll vocalize to you, and then you'll have to correct that assumption. That can be very exhausting because you're spending so much time correcting assumptions as opposed to engaging in intellectual discussions, which is what we love about academia. That's something that I definitely find frustrating. There are definitely perceptions about how Muslim women are. If you're not perfectly in the prototype that people expect you to be, people can be very confused about how to deal with you. I think the biggest thing for me navigating the space was there was a huge push that Muslim women had very unidimensional personalities, and all of us had the exact same story, and that if you talked to one [you’d] know the rest. We were just ambitious go-getters, but we did not have an actual personality.
People would always used to tell me things like, ‘oh my God, I would've never imagined you to be so funny!’ Like, what about me prevented you, why would you make that assumption that I wasn't funny initially? That is a plug, ‘cause if my family’s out here listening to this, they're going to be like, ‘you're not even that funny,’ but I am, I am actually, it is true! People do find me pretty funny!
But it's interesting that that's just not part of the prototype, so when you show more of your personality, there's a lot of confusion about like, ‘I just thought you were just an ambitious go-getter; I would never have imagined that you can crack a joke here or there.’ Just constantly hearing things about what they thought you were, what you were supposed to be, how you were so different than how people portray Muslims in the media. And those are a lot of the discussions that happen. It is frustrating because so much of your energy has to go towards either correcting those assumptions or dealing with vocalizing your concerns about those assumptions. And I think that happens all the time to all of us and, and I think it still happens even though we've been a little bit louder when we’ve talked about it.
AB: Do you think that would change with a greater increase in the number of Muslim women, who are visibly Muslim, in academic spaces? Or do you think it's just a matter of time and the culture just needs to be expanded a little bit more in the media, because if you have one view of what a Muslim is—you watch Netflix and the only story is, a Muslim girl meets some boy and he goes, ‘I like you better without a scarf.’ And she goes, ‘Okay!’ And she takes it off—if that's your only exposure to Muslim girls... Sorry, I might cut that out! <Laugh>
HN: I like it though; I approve! I was like, yes, Asma, we're going there! <Laugh>
AB: <Laugh> It's just, it's a little unfortunate that that's the only viewpoint that people have of us. We're either flimsy in our faith and we'll do anything to appease, I don't know, greater Western norms or something like that... What do you think should change in order for the greater view of us to change?
HN: That's a really good and important question. I would say to answer your first question, I definitely do think things will change and they have changed, as the number of visibly Muslim women have increased in academia or just academic spaces in general, like, even in undergrad. Just because people can say, ‘oh my God, look, all these people are breaking the stereotype or this prototype I had; maybe the prototype is wrong.’ And so, their brain is kind of rewiring their own heuristics, so I think that's a natural evolution that will happen. And I think it has started to happen for sure. But I sort of came in when there weren't that many visibly Muslim women, and mind you, my story in academia is very short, so this wasn't a long time ago, but I came in when there were not that many visibly Muslim women and the assumptions were just so prevalent because they only have a prototype, and then you're not that prototype. And they were not sure how to recalculate, like, ‘where do you fit in this?’
Now things have changed a lot, and I think the next thing that does need to happen is that there needs to be a genuine acceptance that everybody has their own personality. Muslim women are not a monolith, and we need to communicate with people based on themselves, not based on what we think about them, not based on how they've been represented in the outside world, because unless we do that and we understand that, then there's always going to be certain assumptions that come up, and it's always going to be visibly Muslim women constantly correcting assumptions.
And I sort of made the joke about being funny, but on a more serious angle, there's also other assumptions like, ‘Oh, were your parents supportive of this?’ And I got that question a lot. ‘Like, do they support your goals?’ And that's such a weird... I've never thought about asking someone, ‘Hey, do your parents support you having a PhD?’ That just seems very intuitive. Like, someone's parents are probably out there bragging on all the WhatsApp group chats that my daughter's doing a PhD. That seems like the more intuitive thing, but there's always this question that I get asked and it's really the assumption that, ‘oh, what I guess your kind isn't really educated, so maybe you're just the odd one out. How do your parents feel about that?’
Those are more of the real struggles, because then you have to explain that it's very normal in your family that women study, and then there's a whole discussion about the history of women. And then it gets so far into it. And then you're like, ‘I, I came here to do some neuroscience.’
AB: I know! It's honestly very, very unfair. And I guess this next question is a perfect addition to this conversation. What do you think mentors should do and could do to change that narrative?
HN: That's a great question. One important thing is, mentors, who are typically university faculty, have power over the type of research that's being done, the type of dynamic that happens in the lab, so mentors have a huge role to play, for sure. Obviously, they cannot control what individuals say, but I think the biggest thing is labs that tend to have more people from different backgrounds, regardless of what those backgrounds may be, tend to be more easily accepting and their conversations are much richer, so even if one may be talking about the history of their family or something like that, someone else has a story, so it's not that you're on the hot seat, which is what we feel. We feel like we're on the hot seat, which is different than it being a discussion.
I think the first thing is making sure that labs are as diverse as possible, not because it makes labs more productive. I don't like the business argument that we need to have more diverse labs because diverse labs produce more... That's not why we need to have more diverse labs. We need more diverse labs because this is how we get to know each other. We're having enlightening conversations about whatever history that we want to talk about, or anything like that. So that's number one. Number two, I think that mentors should be really open about giving all of their students this space to sort of share any considerations or expectations that that student may have. It's not easy for a student to bring that up. It's not easy for a Muslim student to say, ‘Hey, like I need a prayer space actually.’ Some people are very comfortable doing that, some people aren't. It seems like a lot to ask and I understand why that would be the case. The mentors should know enough [to] bring it up, whether that is, ‘Hey, do you need a place to pray? Or is there anything else that you need from this lab, something that is totally not related to science that would make you feel more comfortable in your time here?’ We spend a lot of time in the lab; if it is not a safe space, it is definitely a really unpleasant environment.
Those are the two big things that I think mentors can play an important role in because the easy answer is, the mentor should do more research about these groups, but that doesn't necessarily tell them anything about who an individual Muslim is, so I'm always wary about saying, ‘Oh, you should read about how Muslims think,’ when we're trying to break the monolith. It's more like you should actually give the individual that you're mentoring the space and time to communicate with you in terms of what they feel they need to be more comfortable in this space.
AB: Mm-Hmm <Affirmative>. I was even thinking with respect to holidays, asking for time off for Eid or something like that... I remember feeling hesitant to even bring it up because I wasn't sure what the reception was going to be. Eventually it ended up being fine, but did you have any kind of feeling of, ‘can I ask for this, should I ask for this? Are they going to think I'm being too demanding?’ Perhaps you didn't, and I'm really happy if you didn't, but I was wondering if you could speak to that as well.
HN: I would say that I have always been someone who just asked for things. Just to make sure I'm being fully honest, I've never been a shy person, so I was someone who would say, ‘Hey, I need a prayer room’ without being asked.
One of the bigger things, and this is where I did hesitate: in Ramadan, I wanted to change my work schedule and say, ‘Hey, I'm gonna start a little bit later, and end later. I don't wanna be as productive because I want to spend time with my spiritual development.’ That was the first time that I felt like, ‘wow, is that a lot to ask?’ But then I was like, ‘it's actually not a lot to ask because I work really hard throughout the year.’ And it's not that we have to earn time for spiritual development, but if we did, I felt like I deserved it. I did ask and I explained what Ramadan was, and it worked out that way and I find that, in my experience, people are really willing to accommodate. It's just important that the mentors, or whoever has some sort of power or higher status, they're the ones that are very open to starting the conversation because it is intimidating to say, ‘Hey, I have 30 full days [of fasting] and those 30 days are going to be very different. I may not make it to morning meetings; I prefer not to have morning meetings.’ That does seem like a lot to ask—you want your supervisor to like you!
It's really on the mentor, the supervisor, to start those conversations. But yeah, I would say it was Ramadan where there was a lot of changes to my schedule, and that was the first time I was like, ‘Okay, this is a lot,’ but I still sort of pushed through those feelings because, what you bring into science is everything about you. It's like your entire life experience. And none of that should be taken away from you, or reduced because you want to be the perfect student or employee. You are the perfect PhD candidate, student, employee, or academic, because you're bringing your best forward and your best comes with your entire life experience.
Everything we ask seems like a lot to ask. It seems like, man, are they gonna feel, ‘Wow, this person feels entitled to ask me such a thing.’ but in reality, we're the ones doing the research, you know? That’s how I had to think about it, that if I do good work throughout the year, I am for sure allowed to take a little bit more time off and be a little bit less productive, because we are much more than our productivity. And what we bring to science is not our productivity, it's our ideas and our commitment to improving knowledge discourse. When I thought about it like that, which is very different than how we've been trained to think about it, that's when I just started feeling like, ‘Okay, there's no reason for me to feel bad about taking two days off on Eid.’
We've sort of been taught that science is all about our productivity, and the way that it's structured right now, it definitely is. But I'm hoping that we move toward, you know, the olden days in science, where science was about sharing ideas and knowledge, and that can happen at any time during the year. And it doesn't have to happen every day during the year.
AB: Speaking of productivity, I'm wondering if you'd be interested/willing to talk about what it's been like to be doing a PhD during the pandemic. What was that like?
HN: We're really going there, Asma! Like, you really dropped this question on me!
AB: Sorry! <Laugh>
HN: How much time do we have?
AB: As much time as you want, because you have such a beautiful vantage point of making sure that you recognize that productivity is not the ultimate end goal, and as much as people said that during the pandemic, and supervisors started being a little bit more sympathetic, I also saw on social media that graduate students and other trainees were still feeling the burden to be as productive, if not more productive during the pandemic than they were pre-pandemic. And it kind of bothered me because there's literally a global pandemic happening! You shouldn't have to feel the need to be productive. Maybe just surviving is enough! But I'm wondering how it was for you. Did you feel like you had to maintain some level of productivity, or did you walk into the pandemic with a very similar vantage point to the one that you just shared that, you know, productivity isn't everything?
HN: So, I would say in full transparency that the vantage point I shared about productivity is more of an intellectual idea that I'm hoping to adopt. It pushes me to like, you know, reframe things, but that doesn't mean I'm always good at it. There's always a pressure where it's like, I understand the way that we view productivity is wrong, but if I want a position in academia, I still have to abide by these rules. That's sort of the chokehold that we're in, and I would say definitely, in the pandemic, there [were], like, three weeks where people in academia just kind of had off. Nobody bothered you. But I think, after that, there was a really strong push of like, ‘Oh wow, we're not commuting. We're working from home. We can work even more hours! I can join meetings at 6:00 AM because I don't need to commute to the lab.’ And there was a huge push of absolute productivity, no more work-life balance. People were like, ‘I have nothing to do, so I might as well work extra.’
You see that on social media, so there's some social pressure for you to also want to work extra. And so, I would say that, yeah, doing a PhD in the pandemic—and I did about so far 50% or more of my PhD during this pandemic—it was extremely tough because my favorite part of being part of the science community is the socializing. It's having the really nice serendipitous science discussions, going to conferences, sharing ideas. That's why I got into this, but the pandemic took all of that away and sort of left the really tough, grueling parts of science, which I still like, but I don't like all the time.
There were definitely very subtle social norms, where we're sort of all working all the time, and that was of the norm. And so, if you are not working all the time, you just felt like, ‘Wow, someone else is going to get more papers out of this than me. Maybe I need to work harder.’
I found that my work-life balance was atrocious. There was no balance during the pandemic and I worked a lot more than I typically would ever allow myself to work. And as we are sort of in this weird sort of back to normal—one may call it a ‘faux normal’ phase—I'm really working on getting my work-life balance a lot more in order, because doing a PhD in a pandemic is really tough. There's a lot of emotional difficulties too. You compare [yourself with] people who are being super productive and ramping out their papers, and you are being really productive and working a lot, but you are not ramping out papers. There's a lot of that going on.
In general, it’s definitely not a fun place to be, and I am looking forward to a little bit more normalcy to remind me why I got into science, which is really about the exchange of ideas.
AB: If you could close your eyes and picture your life in perfection, <laugh> I don’t know if that's even possible—so many things can happen, could happen—but if you close your eyes and you think 10 years from now, is there something that you know needs to be a part of your life?
HN: I would say fulfillment, and I know it's an intangible thing, so I am going to answer it maybe differently than others, but I think the most important thing is that whatever you're doing, it does not have to be work because we are way more than our work. But it's constantly feeling fulfilled... that always needs to be a part of my life, and as long as I am deriving or getting fulfillment in what I do, then that will be what I consider the ideal life.
Every career or path is tough, and if you're not getting fulfillment, it's really hard to push through the tough times. And I think that's something that we all learned about in the pandemic; when so much of what we like about [our work] has stripped away, do we still like what we do? That's an important thing that we all have to contemplate for the future.
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