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  • Writer's pictureDr A Bashir

25 Squid Game

Happy 2022! For our first episode of the new year, I spoke with the multi-talented Olivia Ghosh-Swaby, Neuroscience PhD Candidate at Western University in London, Ontario. In 2021, Olivia was the recipient of the Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship, one of the most competitive doctoral awards in Canada (awarded to fewer than 200 people every year!). She is also one of the founding members of Brain Matter Chatter—a podcast with the ‘mission to raise awareness about issues surrounding mental health in academia’—and is the Executive Director of the Ontario Women's Intercollegiate Football Association. During our conversation, we discussed her fascinating STEM story, her translational work in neuroplasticity, and the importance of mental health in grad school. Towards the end of our conversation, we spoke about systemic inequities and the enormous power disparities between early career researchers and senior decision makers in academia, and I was immediately reminded of the recent Netflix hit series, Squid Game. Drawing on the parallels we discussed, we chose to name this episode in the series’ honour.

You'll find the audio version of this episode on our website, Apple Podcasts, Soundcloud, and more.

The transcript of our conversation has been prepared for accessibility purposes, with minor edits for clarity and brevity.

Olivia Ghosh-Swaby: What the pandemic brought to light was obviously these issues [in] equity, who gets what, who has access to what, who's experiencing what at this point in time, and how much have we looked over it, neglected it, and let it get to a stage where it's kind of crappy for a lot of groups of people? So, I just think that's what the pandemic highlighted, these inequities in humanity and in anything that we do, in different systems and structures that are in place.

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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 Olivia Ghosh-Swaby, a PhD student in the Neuroscience program at Western University in London, Ontario. She is one of the recipients of this year's prestigious Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship—yay! <chuckle>—and is one of the founding members of Brain Matter Chatter, a powerful podcast on mental health in academia. She is also the Executive Director of the Ontario Women's Intercollegiate Football Association, Canada's largest university women's football league. I am so excited to chat with Olivia today about her research, her podcast, and so much more, but let's start from the very beginning—Olivia, what's your story?

OG-S: Oh, you get me with that question every time I hear it! So, where am I going to start? I'm going to start probably—for my science career—[in] Grade 11. The reason being is that's the first time I actually met an academic teaching in high school. She actually obtained her Master's degree in Biology and her class was notorious for being one of the hardest, and I enjoyed being in it because it challenged me. It gave me a chance to really try to be the smart one in class—because I was definitely a keener—and I loved being challenged, and I just loved the science component. So, this was the first time I felt, ‘Okay, I kind of have to prove myself to this academic.’ And so, I fell in love with science, even though I had moments where I was not doing very well, but to just give it a go and to start thinking above and beyond others, which is what higher education really challenges, and I don't think I realized that until my third year in university. When you get a taste of it early enough, it's like, 'Okay, really, is this for me? Is this really what the science world looks like, if that's where I want to go?''

But what really solidified my career after that was more personal. As I moved through high school, one component of that was my courses. The other component was my sports career, which we'll get into later. But the third element of that was moving through a personal affair, where a close family member of mine, actually, my cousin, was diagnosed with a neurological disorder and it kind of brought me into the neuroscience world, and really understanding the level and complexity of the brain. I think that's when I was like, 'Either I'm going to be a doctor or I'm going to be a scientist.’ It was one or the other.

With the neurological disorder, it's known as lissencephaly, where essentially, she was born with a smooth brain. We had no clue anything was wrong until we started to see developmental delays at approximately the three month-mark. My aunt noticed this change in her behavior where [there] was this blinking and hand movement pattern that turned out to actually be seizures or spasms, and so she was smart enough to bring her daughter into emergency. Then, that's when there was a lot of tests. It was a long journey overnight—I made made the trip to Ottawa because I was in Toronto at the time—and we waited. Neurologists were coming in and out, and that's when we finally learned the diagnosis of lissencephaly.

It's like a one in a million genetic-related disorder, neurological disorder, and it showed the importance of grooves in the brain, which many people take for advantage because it's something that we all are fortunate to have. But when they're gone, it's really hard to retain information, to learn, and to develop all the different milestones that you see as you grow up as an infant.

We were fortunate enough to have her around with us. A year was her diagnosis or when we expected her to pass, but she ended up living until about three years of age, three and a half... I learned a lot. I was a part of her care. I got to see the resilience of my aunt and I got to see the patient and family and child interaction, and understand the importance of fundamental science to really answer some of these questions, which are very much still not answered on the disorder of lissencephaly. But it didn't necessarily shape exactly the research I do now. It definitely told me that I'm fortunate to be where I am today, that I need to continue taking advantage of any opportunity that I get because not everyone gets them, right?

And this was in my final year of high school into my first and second year, where we're going through her life... I understood that I needed to keep grinding and I needed to keep working hard, not just for her, but for my whole family. And that could go even further back because my mom is the one who kept pushing me to focus on my education as something that I'll always have for the rest of my life.

AB: That's really beautiful.

OG-S: Yeah! She was a single mom, so she didn't get the same opportunities I did because she had to take care of me at the young age of 19! So, she was like, ‘you gotta say smart, you gotta really open up doors for yourself. And don't repeat the same mistakes that I did.’

Everything that I worked for was for her, for my cousin, for my family. And we struggled in that time in both instances, as I was young, and even with my aunt and her daughter. And so, now, moved into university, came in as a strong leader and something that I took very much pride in, an advocate, athlete, applied to the scholarships. Western really snagged me early, and I'm still here eight years later because of scholarship that recognized that work that I did beyond just the grades, but also the leadership and community involvement. And it's continued up until now! And I'm in a PhD in Neuroscience and I have similar recognition with Vanier Scholarship as I did when I entered university. So, it's now just carrying that momentum and paving ways for others, but there's a lot of other identities that cross in there that I haven't jumped into, but that's the quick summary of my story, at least for where things started with science and neuroscience.

AB: Wow, thank you for sharing that. It sounds like it's a deeply personal story as well. Do you know what pulled you into the research side of things, because one could have just as easily been pulled into pure medicine. Was there something about research that really got you going or got you intrigued?

OG-S: What I enjoyed the most about research really is the fact that I could keep asking questions that I was interested in without having to stick to the coursework and whatever you need to have—the adequate training to be a physician. I'm a bit of a multitasker... maybe I'll go with that… or I say yes too much! And so, what's nice about being a student and an academic is you can take on a bit more than just the research itself. You can be involved in other aspects of community engagement, or working in sport, for example—which is something I prioritize— and developing all these skill sets that can go back into my research career and honestly, any other career. But I think what sucked me in was the fact that I could ask those questions and then after that, it was more so, ‘Okay, what part or what area of neuroscience do I think I can have the greatest impact?’ And with the research component, I can keep doing that in different ways with different experiments and different populations, whether that be basic science with rodents or eventually in humans—because I'm big on translation—and eventually I might end up in a career in medicine! This is also the limbo I am in as a third-year PhD student, is thinking where do I want to go next? And it has creeped up again, ‘Do I want to go down the medicine route?’

AB: Is there anything that's deterring you from that?

OG-S: Oh, man. PhD—I'm going to be honest, and this podcast on mental health with BMC really helps shape these conversations—it's hard! Holy moly! It's a lot on you as an individual, on your own self-motivation, on finding the right mentors and right allies to get you into the best position to be successful, and knowing where to go next, how to get those grants, and always thinking of grants and scholarships to actually sustain your career! And that part is a bit daunting, at times. It can be a lot mentally, but I think at the same time, I think I would be a really great doctor after the experiences that I've gone through, yet I don't know if I want to do more school, that's one question. And if I want to stay in academia in the sense of that pressure to move out into something that has a bit more certainty, but still quite a bit of grind behind it... so you win some, you lose some, and that's something I'm thinking about at this point in my career.

AB: That makes a lot of sense. Well, you talked a little bit about asking the questions of research. What is it that you actually study?

OG-S: My big thing is understanding or exploiting these endogenous processes of boosting neuroplasticity. Some really great processes that exist related to neuroplasticity in our brain is neurogenesis, this formation of new neurons in adulthood. We often think when a neuron dies, it dies, which is correct, but we also do have these small pools or little niches of areas in the brain that form new neurons when we're older, so not all hope is lost in terms of regenerating what you may have lost. I want to exploit this process and figure out ways to use neuroplasticity as a tool to enhance cognition, memory, and learning. The tools or therapies that I'm looking at specifically that target these processes are things as simple as exercise, which is translational, right? It's something that we can do in both the rodent and in the human, which is why I really want to prioritize something like that, to really find what's happening at the cellular level in the brain and plasticity-wise with exercise.

And the second thing that kind of crept up is exercise mimetics. There was actually this really great review paper that talked about some of these mimetics. One that continuously came up in the literature that caught my attention were antidiabetic therapies, and one specifically is Metformin because it tends to target this process of neurogenesis, forming these new neurons. And then on top of that, it helps with some of these other metabolic risk factors that we see in obesity, and we know how obesity is fairly rampant in our population, especially in the Western countries, Canada being one of them. So, 1) I'm looking at exercise: great as a tool in itself in anyone healthy or unhealthy or with neurodegenerative disease, but 2) it's also great in obesity, which is another big area of focus of mine.

And then there are these anti-diabetic therapies that kind of serve these same functions! It can help you lose weight, but also boost this area in the brain in neurogenesis, and then reduce some of these other factors like inflammation. I focus on those processes and the outcome of that is moving from the rodent, which I did quite a bit of work in up to now, and starting to look at that in a clinical human population, which is what I'm working on currently, which is exercising elderly participants who are at risk for diabetes. Those are the ones who tend to carry these attributes of being obese or overweight—have dysregulated, for example, glucose levels or hypertension, et cetera—and see if we can reverse some of the cognitive deficits we see with obesity and other diabetes-related or metabolic-related disorders, especially when they're older: treat it with exercise and see these cognitive improvements.

We do some cool things to look at cognition and I use touch screens, and what's even cooler is that you can use touch screens in a mouse. A mouse will literally use their nose to play with the screen, and I can test and look at their cognition, but what's even better is the work that I'm doing now translating into the human side is I can use those exact same touch screen tasks in the human. And I can say, ‘Okay, if our findings are fairly similar in this population, that means my rodent work is fairly representative of what we might see in a clinical human population.’ So, that's a little bit of the right of the mill of what I do. <Laugh>

AB: That’s amazing. And I love how translational it is. It's something that I've always appreciated about a lot of the neuroscience programs around Canada; there's always this push, ‘How do we make this applicable to our human population?’ I love that. And congratulations on the Vanier. That is amazing! I saw your photo pop across my Twitter feed and I was just like, ‘Yes!’ <Laugh>

OG-S: I love that! <Laugh> And I'm glad they selected my photo. I was like, ‘Whoa, you chose me to be on this cover! That's great!’

AB: How daunting was it to venture into that space of applying for the Vanier? I know there's a lot of pre-selection that takes place within the university, but putting your name in, how did that feel?

OG-S: It was a lot, it did definitely take a lot out of me, but it was worth it in the end. And now, I'm kind of secure moving forward in my own research, but also in just living as a PhD student! What you'll learn is that PhD students, especially in Canada, don't get paid very much and so I feel like I'm now making a livable amount on top of the other things that I also manage, so it's made things a bit easier for sure, and I'm very fortunate to have this opportunity and I hope that it also gives me a platform and stage to continue talking about not just my research, but all the other stuff that I like to do.

AB: Mm-Hmm <affirmative>. And speaking of all the other things, as I mentioned in the intro, you also run a podcast, Brain Matter Chatter—love the name, by the way. What's the origin story? At what point did you come together with the other individuals who are also a part of the podcast and say, ‘We need something like this.’ What was that initial moment like?

OG-S: The pandemic definitely brought things to light because, as we were chatting a bit earlier, we talked about the fact that you're supposed to kind of return to your lab as if this pandemic didn't happen and your productivity [didn’t] decrease to nearly zero during that time. Honestly, students are struggling. Graduate students are often the last thought about when it comes to resources for mental health and academia, or even just talking about it, and it being something that is a part of the culture. Everyone knows that the graduate student life is a grind. It's a lot of work. It's cutthroat. It'll have moments of highs and lows. And it's just accepted, when it shouldn't be; that's not okay.

Our group was like, ‘This would be great.’ And honestly, the one who led this initiative, Ruby Malik, also really great friend of mine and great scientist as well, doing her PhD here at Western—she was like, ‘This is something that's been on my mind. Let's find some leaders within our graduate society,’ which is the Society of Neuroscience Graduate Students. ‘Let's do it. Let's just talk about it. Bring forward some insightful conversations with other scientists with other academics or former academics about this culture, about mental health as graduate students and just as academics in general, moving through different stages in our careers.’

It was an easy ‘yes’ and all of us are really excited about the work that we're doing—with our season finale coming out soon—to continue talking about these conversations and hearing from others that we're not alone in this. We need to start really changing the conversations about how we support graduate students, how we support academics as they move through different stages in their careers. And how do we change the culture and change the system?

AB: Mm-Hmm <Affirmative>, do you have an answer to that question? What can we do to change the system?

OG-S: I do not, but I seem to be working in that sphere a lot, and that comes with the equity, diversity, and inclusion element. There's a lot of students that come from underrepresented groups—that are moving through, at least the sciences, specifically in academia—who tend to be even further behind in support systems and environments, and that's often ignored and neglected because of the metrics that we have in academia, right? It's about publishing. It's about getting the grants. It's about having a good PI that'll support you in this, and having mentorship from those who often do not look like you. So, how the heck are you supposed to move through your career similarly as someone who comes with a bit more privilege, right? Again, it's cutthroat; it's a matter of who sees your application at the right time, who sees your manuscript at the right time. All of that, it's all dictated by those things. And sometimes it feels out of your power.

AB: Yeah! That's the truth of it. Like we're playing a game and we don't really even know... Have you watched ‘Squid Game’? <Laugh>

OG-S: <Laugh> yeah! Yeah, I have.

AB: You don't even know who you're playing the game for. You don't know who's watching, who's spectating. You kind of have an idea of who's in power there, but there's so many big people behind the scenes that you really do feel like a small person almost all the time. I know there were moments where I felt like that and I had to learn on the job, like, ‘Okay, this is an important name to know... this is a person who, if they walk into a room, for some reason, people react in this manner.’ It was almost like getting a reintroduction to the music world or something, like, ‘by the way, this is Beyonce. She's important because...’ <laugh>, it was kind of like that. And I don't know if I bought into it... I struggled. I was like, ‘Okay, this person did a lot of amazing things, but does that mean that someone else who didn't isn't worth our respect,’ you know?

OG-S: Oh, yes! Well said.

AB: Maybe they weren't able to do that thing because of the powers that be, those people behind the scenes, the people who, if their manuscript happens to be on the editor's desk, [the editor will] go, ‘I know that lab. I'll pass this along to review.’ Versus ‘Who is this person? What lab is that? What university is that? I'm sorry. You don't even qualify. You don't meet my standards.’

OG-S: Yeah! That just says something too, who the powers are, right? Like, who are these people? And are we getting the right voices in there as well, for some of these big decision makers? That could be the difference of one group of people moving forward in their career and other groups who aren’t.

AB: Mm-Hmm <Affirmative>, absolutely. I do want to talk about your own mental health, if you don't mind, because you are balancing so much. You have your academics, your sports, you’re the Executive Director of this massive football league, and you have your EDI work as well, you have the podcast... what do you do to prevent burnout, because <laugh> just looking at all those things, I'm like, ‘Oh my goodness, I hope you're taking care of yourself. I hope you are not burnt out.’ And if you have burnt out, what do you do to recover?

OG-S: Oh, yeah. Great questions! For some reason I tend to thrive on being busy, so that's one thing that I picked up throughout my undergraduate, even high school, career, and up until now. But I mean, there have been moments—and I will be honest—of burnout, for sure. I had a forced break, because I unfortunately did get COVID, so I had to stay home and I actually had to do a little staycation and recover, and then focus on a little R & R. And I didn't realize how much I needed that until I came back into the real world and had to go back to work. Although I was very behind, I was like, ‘Man, I was tired, stressed, and not thinking about my myself in that sense.’

And then, even before that, especially during times that are super busy and heavy, there's moments where I will literally hang out with my partner and then something small went wrong, and I will start crying. And I'm like, ‘What is happening? Why is this a thing?’ <Laugh> ‘Why are these tears rolling?’ I wouldn't say it was to the point where I think I am struggling with mental illness, fortunately; I think I'm lucky in that aspect, but I think it's moments of, ‘Okay, wait, I just need to revisit where I am in this present moment.’ And [I ask myself] if I'm in a space that I'm happy and I'm in a space that I am actually thriving, or am I really taking on a lot of work, but also even being slower on that work because I haven't taken a chance to actually rest and be even more efficient when I get back to it? All of those things have definitely come across my table, and there's moments where I just choose not to do any work in a day, to kind of recover and bounce back.

What I've done recently is prioritize my weekends as days that I don't book meetings, that I don't do any work. I mean, I still do research because being a PhD student, your hours are super blurred, so you could be doing work at any moment in time. There's always something to do. But now, I've been like, ‘Okay, on my weekends, I won't do that. I'll actually take time to do stuff that I love.’ Tends to be playing more football, tends to be watching a lot of TV, and I have no shame about that! I feel guilty for sure, but I'm starting to get over that guilt phase now that I've kind of added it in to my tool belt of recovery, maybe a month ago. I wish I started it earlier, but those are the things that I do.

I think the moments of burnout for myself is just when things aren't going right—when experiments aren't going right, there's something that I really try to advocate for and I still got rejected for it, I'm not performing well on the football field—all of those things definitely still add up, but I've been really fortunate to have some great friends to keep me grounded. Now, I'm setting up boundaries for when I want to do this work and when I don't, and I have said 'no' a bit more; that definitely helps. And people understand now; they do understand I'm busy. And stuff like this, talking with you has been awesome and it keeps me going—I just love to chat as you can tell. [If] other people want to hear me talk, it's still a break for me [rather] than doing research and doing other work.

AB: Do you think the pandemic affected the way—not necessarily the pandemic, but even the BLM resurgence last year after everything that happened in the summer of 2020—affected how people received you?

OG-S: Oh, that's a really good question... I think so. And I don't know if that's a good thing, because I wish I was received the same way prior to all of this, you know what I mean? I've been in this work for a while before the BLM movement, whether it be in sport, whether it be in academia, and I think the listening started to happen a lot after. Like, I wonder at times if I applied for the Vanier Scholarship maybe prior to the pandemic, prior to the BLM movement, if it would've just gone over the desk and not even looked at, you know what I mean? I don't want that to ever be the case, but a lot of what I had chatted about in that application was the EDI work that I've been championing for a bit of time in both the sport and academic spheres.

At the same time, I'm not mad at it because I have a platform and a voice to keep moving this forward and it's just a matter of how long will this stick, and I hope it does. And I'm sure other advocates in this sphere feel that… Maybe they feel the same. Maybe they don't. But now, I think it just helped put the gravity of people's experiences, people's identities into perspective in anything that they do and that it can't be ignored or unrecognized or looked over, or even people can't be as ignorant as they could have been maybe prior to the pandemic, so not even that long ago. So yeah, it's weird to say it out loud. I think it's kind of crappy in retrospect, but also great for, hopefully, my future.

AB: It was a question that popped into my head because you've obviously been passionate about this for a long time, but there's no doubt in my mind that even for me, pre-pandemic, pre-summer 2020, there were certain things I was doing that would just be considered a thing on the side, really not that important to the core aspect of who I was as a trainee.

OG-S: Oh, yeah!

AB: Then it kind of became cool, like, ‘Oh yeah, we should care about this kind of stuff.’ And I just wondered—because I felt that shift and was almost irritated by that shift—I wondered if you felt the shift and how you felt about it... Thank you for answering! I'm sorry for asking.

OG-S: No, no, don't say sorry! I think it's an awesome question. I also think What the pandemic brought to light was obviously these issues [in] equity, who gets what, who has access to what, who's experiencing what at this point in time, and how much have we looked over it, neglected it, and let it get to a stage where it's kind of crappy for a lot of groups of people? So, I just think that's what the pandemic highlighted, these inequities in humanity and in anything that we do, in different systems and structures that are in place. That's how I've always looked at it, but then at the same time, it's popped into my head. Your question was kind of great at asking that, ‘Wait a second, would this be seen in the same prior to the pandemic than it is now?’ So… tough reality.

AB: It is. It's definitely a tough reality. It allows us to remind ourselves, though, that our value and the things that we do are not valuable only because someone else says so.

OG-S: Yes!

AB: So, this work was not suddenly more valuable because of everything that transpired over the last year and a half or the last two years, but perhaps someone else began to see it as such, but that didn't change the fact that whatever you were doing was very important and was meaningful to us as a community of minoritised individuals, and so my commendation of you does not change pre- or post-pandemic.

OG-S: That's the best way to sum up that question and what you asked, and the value of anyone's work that they're doing. Yeah, really well said! <Chuckle> Yes.

AB: Thank you so much, Olivia, for having this conversation with me; it's been such a pleasure.

OG-S: Thank you so much, and I'm really glad you asked me to come onto the podcast, and hopefully others really enjoyed our conversation today.

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