Erin Tranfield

Perhaps after suffering through a PhD together we are bonded for life.
Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciência
Head of the Electron Microscopy Facility
Oyama, Canada
Oeiras, Portugal
The effects of air pollution on the ultrastructure of atherosclerotic plaques
Dr. David Walker

What are your main responsibilities or activities in your current position?

I am currently running an electron microscopy (EM) facility at the Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciência. When I arrived at the institute in 2013 there was no existing facility, so my first few years here were filled with facility building, equipment acquisition, and facility operation. I hired a very capable team, and together we have developed protocols to address ultrastructural questions in model organisms ranging from bacteria to drosophila to mice. Our facility is now doing projects for research groups all over Portugal, and we are working with many people to develop techniques and advance the use of EM in biological research here in Portugal.

How does your current work relate to your graduate degree?

During my PhD, I was trained in electron microscopy by the very talented Dr. David Walker, and I have taken those skills around the world as I moved through my post-docs and now into my current role. Furthermore, I work with many scientists on many different kinds of projects, so it is very important to understand experimental design – which was something I started to learn and apply during my thesis work.

What do you like and what do you find challenging about your current position?

I love working on so many different kinds of projects, although it is hard to know the right protocol to use for every single sample that I encounter, and I make mistakes. I really enjoy teaching and working with new users, but it is hard to keep on top of all the background tasks – like defining a pricing structure, designing the layout of the facility space, working to inspire and motivate my team – while still reading papers and keeping on top of all the different developments in this exciting field. I miss working on the microscope and seeing the samples myself; that was the fun part, and that is what got me started down this path at the beginning. Then again, it is amazing to think that we are building an advanced facility to support a broad spectrum of research in a country that really needs infrastructure of this kind.

Is your current career path as you originally intended?

I honestly just laughed at this question! 10 years ago, if someone would have accurately told me what I would do over the last 10 years, I would have thought they were delusional. My plan was to be a MD PhD and save the world, but instead I travelled the world, worked at NASA, lived in Europe, and am now setting up my own EM facility. I have many skills, but knowing what is in my future is not one of them. I have no idea what the next 10 years will hold, but I am sure it will be an adventure.

What motivated you to pursue graduate work at UBC?

Honestly? The admissions department of the medical school did not understand how marvelous I was, and they would not let me in. So I started a master's and never looked back.

What did you enjoy the most about your time as a graduate student at UBC?

I really enjoyed being mentored by Dr. Walker – he genuinely loves science. He did not do research for fame and fortune; he did it because he loved biology. He taught me an enormous amount, and his mentoring was one of the best aspect of my studies. Furthermore, the colleagues I met are still good friends today. Perhaps after suffering through a PhD together we are bonded for life.

What key things did you do, or what attitudes or approaches did you have, that contributed to your success?

Persistence and hard work got me this far. Stubbornness, too. And just when those character traits failed me, something fantastic happened in the lab, and I managed to keep going. I also discovered that wine is marvelous, and I really do think chocolate cures all life's problems. In all seriousness I have tried to be open minded, to work very hard, and to keep positive. Sometimes I fail dismally, and after wallowing in self pity for a few days (I have a self-imposed limit of two days), I try to get back on my feet. Science is not easy, and it really can take a toll on you. I also think it is important to remember that we are human. By that I mean we need friendships and family. So although it is important to work very hard, do not dare miss your Grandma's birthday for an experiment because it is family that will cheer you on when you need them most, and it is your fantastic friends who will come to your defense even if they do not understand a single word you say. Step out of the lab and look around you - it will help you see your experiments with fresh eyes when you go back.

What is your best piece of advice for current graduate students preparing for their future careers?

Oh this is not an easy question – I suppose I will be brutally honest and say that biological science is broken at the moment. There are too many post-docs, not enough positions for PIs, funding is scare, and all you are evaluated on is the number of papers you have. It is a long journey through a PhD, post-docs (yes, plural) and maybe into a PI position for a rubbish pay check at the end. So if you venture down this path you better really like it; in fact the excitement / challenge of science better be keeping you awake at night. And now that I have painted a picture of doom and gloom, let me say that the landscape is changing and there may be hope for the system. Journals are becoming more open access, grants are starting to evaluate scientists on more than the number of papers they have, and there is positive momentum in the field. If you venture down this path, then I caution you that there will be a bumpy road ahead, but I suggest you become part of the solution from the beginning of your career. I hope that by the time you get to my position the system will be much better.

Did you have any breaks in your education?

I did not have any breaks. Some could say that going to the International Space University (ISU) was not relevant to my PhD program. However, that experience opened doors at NASA, so I do not consider those few months a break – more like a sabbatical to broaden my mind and get me thinking from a new angle. The experience at ISU taught me a lot about many new fields and topics including how to function in an international, intercultural, and interdisciplinary environment. It was invaluable, and I am very appreciative that the CIHR funded me to attend the program and that my PhD supervisor supported me going.

What challenges did you face in your graduate degree, or in launching your career?

You will not like my answer but here goes – I would have made my PhD longer. I know that sounds insane, but there is a reason. You see, my entire professional success is based on how many papers I have published, but my age as a scientist began the day I defended my thesis. So if you can get a few papers published before you defend then you have a head start. It would be like learning to ride a bike before you were born – you would be the cool kid in the neighbourhood – or the funded scientist in the laboratory. So although admittedly most North American PhDs are too long, try to get as many papers published as you can before you defend. Every single paper you can get published is a check mark of success. Collaborate, think, and work with others because it will make you a better scientist, and it may also lead to more publications.

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