32 A Whole New World
For our second episode of Season IV, I had the privilege of speaking with Refilwe Mpai, a Neuroscience PhD Candidate at McGill University. Future Dr Mpai is an educator through and through; before attending McGill for her undergraduate degree in Psychology, she taught swimming, then ballet. Now, Refilwe is a member of McGill’s BrainReach program, where she teaches neuroscience to Grade 9 students.
You’ll learn more about her international journey from Botswana to Canada in this episode, aptly titled A Whole New World. We also discuss her ongoing doctoral research diving into the neuroanatomical manifestations of child abuse and depression in the brain. Specifically, she is interested in the dynamic nature of cerebellar perineuronal nets and how they may be altered in major depressive disorder and early life adversity. Lastly, we chat about her growing podcast, Journey Abroad, where she creates space for Africans living in the diaspora to share their life stories. Refilwe and I hope you enjoy our conversation as she encourages us to let courage and curiosity guide our journeys.
Please note that there will be brief mentioned of suicide when discussing Refilwe's doctoral work (TW/CW).
The transcript of our conversation has been prepared for accessibility purposes, with minor edits for clarity and brevity.
Refilwe Mpai: Let your curiosity guide you. Don't be afraid to try different things. I think there's a lot of power behind trying and exploring different things. You can see what you like, what you don't like, and better get a sense of what you wanna be doing.
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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 Refilwe Mpai, a PhD Candidate in Neuroscience at McGill University, where she also completed her Bachelor's in Psychology. In addition to teaching neuroscience to Grade 9 students through McGill's BrainReach program, Refilwe is also the founder and host of Journey Abroad, a podcast that highlights and celebrates the stories of Africans in the diaspora. I'm super excited to chat with Refilwe today about her ongoing research on the effects of mental illness on neuroplasticity, about her experiences as an international student here in Canada, and about her amazing podcast, but let's start from the very beginning—Refilwe, what's your story?
RM: I was born and raised in Botswana. I spent most of my life in Gaborone, so I did most of my schooling there until my final year of high school, which I did in California, at a school called Menlo. I've always liked the sciences, particularly chemistry and biology, but I've also been good at other fields, so it wasn't exactly obvious to me what to focus on as I go forward, particularly as I was looking towards university. So, I used my year in California to really explore other fields that I didn't necessarily have the opportunity to explore while in Botswana; these were things like Intro to Law, Anatomy... I took a dance class, I took a Shakespeare class, really trying to cover it all and see where exactly my interests lie.
At the end of this year, I still wasn't any clearer on what exactly I would be doing, so I decided to take a gap year to figure all of this out. I must mention also that, at the time, I had applied to McGill already and gotten in, so I just deferred my application by a year. Besides taking the gap year to figure out what exactly I wanted to study in university, I also wanted to use this year to kind of recalibrate, re-center myself. The year in California was a big adjustment for me. It was very challenging. I had a really hard time adjusting to life there. It was just so different. I had extreme culture shock. I was very homesick, extremely anxious while I was there, so I wanted to take that time to, you know, deal with all of that and just refocus on myself, re-establish who Refilwe is. I think that was a bit of a destabilizing year for me.
So, during this year I taught swimming to children ages 2-11 mostly, as well as an adults' class, but I especially enjoyed working with the children. That was my thing during that time. I was especially interested in how children learn so quickly, especially the two-year-olds. I think of some two-year-olds who would come in and be crying and screaming, not wanting to get into the water, but after a few lessons, they'd be jumping in by themselves, turning on their backs and kicking their feet across the width of the pool, which is remarkable. I didn't understand that, or I didn't know at the time that two-year-olds could absorb information like that, or could learn that quickly or understand that much. I really enjoyed that experience, and at the end of the year, I still felt like I wasn't ready to be going abroad yet or to be starting university, so I told McGill that I was canceling my acceptance [since] you can only defer for a year. You can't defer for multiple years, so I decided not to go to McGill and to look at universities closer to home, universities in South Africa, as well as the University of Botswana. [I] took another year off and during this year I switched from swimming to ballet. I went back to teach at my old ballet school, which was really lovely. This was also to children, but a slightly older age group, 5 to 17 I'd say, but again, I was so fascinated by the way in which children were learning, how they got so engaged in the work. I was very fascinated with the child mind during that time.
During that time, along with the work that I'd been doing with a therapist to help with my anxiety, I became interested in psychology, particularly with a focus on child and adolescent psychology. I think I'd kind of figured out, 'Okay, that's what I'm gonna study,' but unfortunately, I didn't get into any of the universities that I'd applied to in South Africa or Botswana. At this point, I was freaking out, not sure what exactly I was gonna do. I still wanted to go to university, but wasn't sure exactly where, but my mom sat me down and said, 'Look, I think this is the universe just trying to communicate to you that Canada is where you're supposed to go. You're meant to be in Montréal. You're meant to be at McGill.' Of course, I was terrified, but <chuckle> decided to go ahead and reapply to McGill, and I got in, thankfully. Still very nervous to go! I didn't pack my suitcase until the day before <chuckle>, just hoping that maybe if I prolong packing that I'll push the date that I need to leave just by a little bit!
Then, I moved to Montréal and I started an undergrad in psychology. While doing psychology, I really enjoyed it, but I think I was missing a little bit of the hard sciences, so I'd gotten a research position during undergrad in a psychology lab, looking at working memory in rats, which was an interesting experience. I didn't think that I would like research as much as I actually did because growing up, I didn't like chemistry labs, even though I enjoyed the theoretical knowledge behind it. But yeah, enjoyed the research. I ended up switching over to another lab, which is the current lab that I'm in, which is more involved with childhood adversity and how that can affect the brain, so it felt more in line with what I wanted to be doing or where my interests were, and I think that really got me excited in neuroscience, science, and research. So yeah, that's my story!
AB: Before we talk a little bit more about the work that you're doing now and the research that you're partaking in, I wanted to circle back to something that you said towards the beginning of your story, in that when you first moved to California, there was quite a bit of a culture shock. I'm wondering what the overt differences were that you were seeing, like, 'Wow, this is really different from Gaborone! Oh my gosh!' What were those differences?
RM: While I was in California, I stayed with four different families, four different host families—'cause [Menlo's] not a boarding school—so I was really immersed in the family life aspect, I guess you could say. The way that children interact with their parents was a big difference for me, you know, just the conversations that were had at the dinner table, the way some of the children would speak back to their parents!
AB: <laugh> Yeah!
RM: Things like that. Back home or growing up, we didn't really sit at the table very often to eat, whereas with the families that I was living with that was what was done, every meal for dinner...
I'm trying to think of what else was especially different... I... Oh! This was the first time that I was in a place where I was in the racial minority. Botswana is predominantly Black and that was a little different, so I'd go into a store and not see hair products that cater to my hair. I just felt very different all the time. And [Menlo] is also a very wealthy area, so a lot of the families are very well off, have huge properties, some have horses in their backyards, and it was the first time I'd ever really been around that kind of money. That was a shock. All the girls would wear Lululemon pants, so I was like, 'Should I be getting Lululemon pants?' <Laugh> 'Is that how I should fit in?' And I think it was at a time where, you know, I'm trying to settle into my identity and trying to fit in at the same time, but feeling so destabilized 'cause it's a completely new culture. It was a very difficult year, but a good year.
AB: I imagine that played into how you felt about the possibility of going to university so far away when the McGill opportunity was not only there at the very beginning, after you finished high school, but also again when you were planning to go to Canada after things didn't really work out when you were back home in Botswana.
RM: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.
AB: How did you navigate those feelings of anxiety and trepidation when you did feel a little out of place when you were away from home for the first time?
RM: I started seeing the school counselor. This was the first time that I actually reached out to someone for my mental health, and I think that was very helpful for me. I tried to surround myself with friends who made me feel welcome. So, what I noticed when I was there was that the first few weeks I was like the shiny new toy, like, 'Oh, we've got this person from Botswana. Let's hear about lions and leopards and all of these things. Let's ask her all the questions.' But after those first few weeks, I guess I was no longer the shiny new toy and everyone was kind of like, 'Okay, whatever. She's here. No big deal.' That was an adjustment, trying to find people who, I don't know, didn't view me as a shiny new toy, but rather, someone who they wanted to interact with and get to know.
RM: You spoke about how the anxieties that I had while in California fed into my decision to study abroad. So, the month before my graduation, a very good friend of mine's mother passed.
AB: Oh, I’m sorry.
RM: Thank you. I was unable to go to the funeral because it was a month before I was flying back. My parents were covering my flights and the plan already was for my mother and sister to come for my graduation, so we just couldn't afford for me to go home, come back, and then fly back home again a month later. So that was... That was very hard and it kind of made me feel like, 'Okay, what would happen if this was my parents and I wasn't able to go home?' I think that's where a lot of the anxiety came from. Like, 'I don't wanna be that far away anymore. I wanna be able to just get home as soon as possible if anything happens.' So yeah, I think that really contributed to my anxiety and I really wanted to be closer to my family, which is why I decided to look at schools in South Africa and schools in Botswana.
AB: Mm-Hmm <affirmative>. I don't wanna talk too much about myself, but I... There were a few things that you said that mirrored a lot of my own personal experience. I did my last year of high school in Canada, after doing two years in the Middle East—where my parents were living—and after I finished Grade 12, I had a very similar feeling of, 'I don't really know if I wanna go to university right away. I've been so far away from home. If something were to happen...' At that point, my parents weren't too, too old, but it was still something that kind of crossed my mind as a possibility—something going wrong. There's, I don't know, a car accident God forbid, or they just fall ill. And [I'd be] so far away, because I was planning to go to undergrad in the United States. I actually did end up taking off some time as well, so I'm glad that you're talking about this experience because as much as people think of the traditional track as the only way—you finish high school, three months later, you're in university, after you finish university, you have your plan for what to do next—I think creating breathing space is such an important thing for young people to hear about as an option, especially if you have some bandwidth to do that, if your parents are able to house you for a period of time before you jump into the next big thing in your life, I think that's a really viable option for people to keep in mind every once in a while.
RM: Mm-Hmm <affirmative>, 100%. And at the time that I was considering gap years, the students at Menlo were looking at backpacking in the Himalayas, or going to the Amazon, or doing all these really cool things, and I wanted to do that, but of course we couldn't afford for me to do that, so I felt like going home was in a way a failure of mine.
AB: <Sad> Oh, wow.
RM: Or a failure of, you know, just not being able to do that or not doing the cool gap year thing. But in retrospect, I think it was a wonderful year. I think it helped cement what I want to go into or the direction that I want to go into for my career.
AB: Mm-Hmm <affirmative> and I love how beautifully everything ties together, from your dance work and the swimming work that you were doing with these very young, I imagine very adorable little human beings, to working in a space that's very centered on childhood mental health and mental illness. Let's hear a little bit more about that! Can you talk a little bit more about your research?
RM: Mm-Hmm <affirmative>, for sure! I look at the neuroanatomical manifestations of child abuse and depression in the brain. I look specifically at structures known as perineuronal nets, and they are shown to restrict plasticity. They kind of regulate the ways in which neurons—brain cells—can communicate with each other. These structures seem to be significantly increased in people with a history of child abuse who suffered depression, so I'm trying to look at that more in a different brain region: I'm interested in the cerebellum, which is a brain region that, classically, is believed to be involved only in posture, movement, balance, gait, those kinds of things. We're realizing that it's also implicated in emotion, regulation, and higher cognitive capacities, so it's an interesting region to look into for depression and early life adversity. When I found this lab, I thought it was a great fit for me because it does look at early life experiences and how these could predispose you to various psychiatric disorders. I've always been really interested in anxiety and depression, so it felt like a good fit. I'm happy that this is the direction that I fell into.
AB: And in terms of techniques, how are you assessing these [nets] and how are you looking at the cerebellum? Is it largely through clinical imaging techniques like MRI, PET, or CT, or is it other methods of investigation?
RM: We're using postmortem human tissue, so I'm doing experiments known as immunofluorescence. This is where I label various proteins that I'm interested in with fluorescent tags, so that I can look at them at a fluorescent microscope. I'm looking at the differences in how these structures... well, the differences in density of these structures across groups, as well as their morphology, their structure—how they look. I'm fortunate that my lab is affiliated with a brain bank, so we have access to this tissue [from] people who've donated their brains to science.
It's a mix of neurological and psychiatric controls—people who didn't have psychiatric or neurological disorders—as well as people who died from various psychiatric disorders and neurological disorders, either by suicide or as a result of their illness. We work with the Quebec Coroner's Office and we get psychological autopsies, which are interviews with the next of kin to understand this person's history, so if we say that they had a history of child abuse, what does that look like if they had depression or if they had anxiety or any other disorders?
AB: The topics that you dive into with respect to your PhD work are quite heavy.
RM: Mm-Hmm <affirmative>.
AB: Is there a sense of heaviness when you're doing that work, or is there a way that you kind of, you know, switch off some aspects of your brain to not think about what this person might have gone through in their lifetime, especially when you do have the files that describe some of their early life experiences? You don't have to answer that question if you don't want to... It's something that I just thought about. When you have human tissue, there's a personhood attached to it. Maybe not in the moment, but you have aspects of their life story that you have access to.
RM: Mm-hmm <affirmative>, it definitely is heavy. We're not involved in any of the autopsies or the interviews or anything like that, so there is a bit of distance that at least I feel, so when I get my tissue, I get it in a bag as, like, # 1, 2, 3, 4, so it does feel really removed until I start to analyze the data, which is when I see, 'Okay, so this person was 48. They died by suicide. They were on these medications,' and all of that. I think that's when it starts to hit home a little more. I do come across some younger subjects who died by suicide and that's when it's particularly... It affects me a lot more that somebody so young could, you know, be suffering so much that they feel like they should take their own life. I know there's a sample [from a two year old] that we have for control purposes, which also is like, 'This is weird. This is uncomfortable.' It's hard to think about it like that. But I think... I do think that this work is important, and I think that helps me feel better while going through all of this.
AB: Yeah, I was hoping you would say something like that, because that was going to be my response. Do focus on the greater good; there is such beautiful work that's being done in the space of childhood experiences with respect to mental health. Yeah, it is heavy, but it's supposed to be. If you don't have that human response, then maybe you've almost detached too much, so the fact that you have that is a really, really good thing. Hold onto that as much as you can.
I'm wondering if you could speak to the perception of mental health and mental illness on the continent, in Sub-Saharan Africa, and particularly in Botswana, because I would imagine you have the most experience in honing into your own community. Has it started to evolve as time has gone on, the same way it's evolving here in the West?
RM: Mm-Hmm <affirmative>. I do think that it is evolving. It is changing, but in Botswana particularly, there's one hospital that's purely for psychiatric purposes, which I think adds to the stigma a little bit, because, you know, everybody kind of gets sent there.
RM: It's kind of looked at as this... I don't know how to say this, but like 'mad house,' quote, unquote. I don't like that, but that's what I think is the idea around it, you know? It seems like when people talk about it, it's like, 'Oh, yeah. That's where all the crazy people go,' which... I don't like that kind of language. I don't like that kind of view. I know a lot of people do shy away from addressing their mental health just because of the fears and the stigmas that are associated with this particular hospital. But I do think that with globalization, with access to the internet and all of those things, I think it has shifted, especially with my generation. People seem more willing to dive into these conversations, get involved in mental health initiatives, which is great. I do think we still have a long way to go. I think the mental health research in Botswana currently is lacking, so I'm eager to see what we can do in terms of that in Botswana. But yeah, definitely I think there's a lot more stigma in Botswana than there is here around mental health and mental illness.
AB: Perhaps things will continue to change as we have these kinds of conversations, as people continue to talk about not only their personal experiences, but about things that they've seen in relation to other people, much like they do on your podcast, Journey Abroad!
RM: Yes. Ooh, nice segue.
AB: Thank you, thank you! I'd love to hear more about the podcast. Journey Abroad is a spotlight on people from the continent of Africa living in the diaspora and the wonderful experiences—and sometimes not so wonderful experiences—that we all may have, but I'd like to hear about the podcast in your own words. Tell us about Journey Abroad.
RM: Yes, as you said, it's a podcast that aims to highlight the stories of Africans living and studying abroad. The target audience is really Africans who are still on the continent and who are thinking of moving abroad, or who don't even know that this is a possibility, just to show them that people who look like them, who have similar backgrounds as them, can do this, just adding to the representation, you know? Seeing people like you going and doing the things that you want to be doing—I think that's really important. When I moved to California, I think part of what made the adjustment so difficult is that I didn't really know what to expect, so I think I'm hoping that in having these conversations, then people can get a better sense of what it's like to move abroad. When I'd look on Instagram and see other people who've moved abroad, they're living their best lives—or what looks like their best lives—but we don't really show the struggles behind it.
When I had a hard time adjusting to life in California, I thought that that was because I might be weak or, you know, something reflecting me rather than, 'This is just a really hard change. It's a really big adjustment.' So, I think I wanna have more conversations like that. I wanna normalize the fact that, 'Yeah, we're gonna be homesick. We're gonna have a hard time adjusting, you know? We're gonna have a hard time finding our community, our people.' That's the other thing: I wanted to create community through this podcast among Africans in the diaspora, just a space where we can celebrate each other, hear each other's stories, uplift each other—just creating another community. I think living abroad can be very isolating, especially during the pandemic, which is when I started this. A lot of my friends who are locals to Montréal, they'd go home, see their family during the pandemic, whereas I couldn't do that, and I'm sure a lot of other people couldn't do that. Just to help with that isolation, to create a community and help uplift each other, inspire each other, support each other, that was the aim for Journey Abroad.
AB: I think you've been quite successful at it so far! You've been able to feature a number of guests by this point. You're a couple of years in, and I think the stories that you've been able to highlight are exactly what a lot of people across the world [need]. I don't even wanna specify that it's only the African continent in terms of listeners, but like you said, people who are already abroad can know that they're not alone. That is such a big part, I think, especially over the pandemic that was spotlit. People were alone a lot of the time, in their own little spaces, partially because of lockdown and things like that but a lot of people were just physically far away from home. I'm hoping that you have plans to see your family sometime pretty soon.
RM: Yes! It's been too, too long, but hoping for, if not the end of this year, early next year. I'm still trying to sort out visa stuff, which is a fun time! <Laugh>
AB: Right! Okay, so let's talk a little bit about your experiences as an international student, navigating that whole world. I don't know this too, too well, but in terms of tuition and fees, that might be a little bit higher, so you're dinged on that front, and then you have to deal with paperwork and visas and all that. Educate me; let me know what that your experience has been. I know you can't speak for everybody who's an international student, but what has been your experience as an international student?
RM: Mm-Hmm <affirmative>, so I'm very fortunate to be sponsored by the government of Botswana. They've funded me right from the beginning of my undergrad and they will continue to fund me to the end of my doctorate, which is amazing. I'm so happy about that.
RM: So, financially, I'm not so stressed, but yes, the tuition is significantly higher for international students. That's actually one of the reasons why I picked Canada as a location. When I was applying to universities, I was looking at the US as well as Canada, and tuition is so much more expensive in the US. That was a big pull on why I chose Canada.
In terms of visas and stuff, I need to reapply for a visa at every new degree, so this is now the third time that I'm applying for a study permit. Because I'm in Quebec, there is an extra little step before that, it's called a CAQ, it's a Certificate of Acceptance of Quebec, and you need that in order to apply for the federal study permit, so right now I'm trying to navigate that, and each of these have their own costs too, which is a lot.
AB: Are there resources at McGill to make sure that international students are supported?
RM: Mm-Hmm <affirmative>, yes. There's International Student Services, and I've leaned on them very heavily in the last few months as I navigate visa processes again, but I've found them to be very helpful. They have a buddy system, so if you want to be connected with a student, another international student who can give you the ins and outs of moving to Montréal and life in Montréal, then that's available. They've also got various workshops on how to complete immigration documents. If you wanted to stay after your studies, they can help you with the postgraduate work visa, which as an international student, you can get a three-year visa that's not tied to any particular company. But yeah, they've been very helpful.
I've also leaned on various other resources at McGill. The counseling services at McGill—I've been using them since undergrad. I haven't been using Office for Students with Disabilities, but I would 100% recommend if that's something that you think you could benefit from, just in terms of getting accommodations, whether it's being in-person, especially as we talk about going back in-person again for classes, or just extra time for exams or assignments or anything like that. Whatever you think would best help you succeed in this environment, I think, lean on as many resources as you possibly can.
AB: Yeah, thank you for saying that. I think that it's important for people to know what's available at their specific universities, so if you're not at McGill, then I encourage you listeners to check out what your university has in store for you if you might need some extra assistance, some extra support. I do want to talk about one more thing before we wrap up. I wanted to talk about how you got involved in the McGill BrainReach Program. I know you're quite passionate about teaching, given your previous experiences, but why specifically this program?
RM: Yeah, so I've only really taught, like, not in the classroom setting, so in the studio or in the swimming pool. I wanted to see what it would be like to teach in the classroom. That's something that I want to do in the future, so I just wanted to put my feelers out there.
BrainReach is an organization that's run by graduate students in the neuroscience program at McGill, so we go out and teach elementary school students and high school students. I'm more on the high school end; you can pick which one you want, but I wanted to challenge myself with an older group seeing as I've been working primarily with younger children, but I've been really enjoying it. It's a fun experience! The classes are already made up, so you don't need to worry about creating any of the content, which is nice just to get started with it, but I am interested in eventually being on the back end of it and helping create the content. I think that would be a great experience, but I've loved it so far. It's really nice to be standing in front of students and share my love for the brain and my love for neuroscience with them. I have never had a Black neuroscience teacher or a Black science teacher in my time abroad, so I wanted to also add to the representation. I'm hoping that if there's a little Black girl or just a girl of colour wanting to get into this field, that she sees me and thinks, 'Oh yes, then I can do it too!'
AB: For my final question of the day, I'm wondering if you have any advice for individuals who kind of want to partake in the trifecta like you are, in the podcasting, in the research, and also in SciComm (science communication). Do you have any words of wisdom?
RM: Mm-Hmm <affirmative>. Let your curiosity guide you. Don't be afraid to try different things. I think there's a lot of power behind trying and exploring different things. You can see what you like, what you don't like, and better get a sense of what you want to be doing. I'd also say—I'll say this with caution—don't be too afraid of doing too many things. I think that that was a bit of a confusing sentence, but what I mean by that is initially I was worried that going into SciComm or starting this podcast would take away from my research, but I don't think that it has. I think, in fact, the more that I add on my plate, the more intentional I am with my time. If I have an extra one-hour block here, I'll know, 'Okay, I've gotta reach out to guests,' or 'I've gotta prepare for this class'. I find that I am more productive with my time with more things on my plate than I would be without, so don't be afraid of trying that. You could always decide that, 'Okay, it didn't work to add two things, so I'll take them off.'
I'd also say, talk about what your hopes are, what your dreams are, what you wanna be doing, what your aspirations are, 'cause you never know when that conversation could lead to, 'Oh, I know somebody in this field; let me connect you.' Just put yourself out there and the opportunities will come your way, I think.
AB: Very, very wise words to finish off our conversation. Thank you so much, Refilwe Mpai, for joining me today, for sharing your story, for sharing your words of wisdom as well. Thank you so much!
RM: Thank you so much, Dr Bashir, for having me; it's been such a wonderful time.
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