The life of a PhD candidate: an interview with Romina Filippelli

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By Amanda Scanga, Science in Society co-editor

Taking on a PhD requires hard work and sacrifice that can be overwhelming at times. Romina Filippelli, a first-generation PhD student at McGill University, is doing her best to enjoy the journey towards her doctoral goal.

Romina was recently granted the Vanier scholarship: one of the most prestigious scholarships in Canada, administered by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. This scholarship is awarded to doctoral students who demonstrate exemplary leadership skills and a high standard of scholarly achievement in graduate school.

As a student in Dr. Natasha Chang’s lab, Romina works on Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD), a lethal and degenerative neuromuscular disease caused by a genetic mutation. DMD is the most common muscular dystrophy in Canada and primarily affects young boys. “The goal of my project,” explains Romina, “is to study, specifically, the muscle stem cells in DMD because the current DMD therapeutics cannot cure the disease but rather improve quality of life by targeting the skeletal muscle tissue and not the muscle stem cells themselves. So, the goal of my thesis is to essentially provide a proof-of-concept that we should be developing therapeutics that go hand-in-hand with the whole-muscle treatment of DMD – which will likely be gene editing therapy, since this is an X-linked recessive [genetic] disorder.”

Getting involved in research

Romina completed her undergraduate degree in biochemistry at McGill as well, during which she built a robust repertoire of research skills. She got involved in research very early during her undergraduate studies and quickly came to admire it. “I was lucky that I got matched with a mentor, through a Student Research Initiative Program, who taught me how to take on a project, how to do experiments, how to present in a lab meeting, and things like this.” Initially, Romina got involved in research because she wanted to apply to medical school. However, this changed as time went on. “When I compared my experiences volunteering and interacting with patients to researching, I much preferred research and that was where my passion really was: more upstream of the patients. So, all that together confirmed that graduate school was the natural next step.” From then on, Romina spent the next two years trying out different departments and different areas of research. In the final year of her undergraduate degree, she took some courses where she learned about stem cell biology and was immediately fascinated by it. That was when she knew she wanted to work in stem cell research, so she emailed all the stem cell researchers in the department of biochemistry, ultimately leading to her supervisor, Natasha, making her the first graduate student in the Chang lab.

Dr. Natasha Chang (farthest left) and the members of The Chang Lab, including Romina (front row, third from the right) in the biochemistry department at McGill University. Photo from the Chang Lab webpage, with permission to use.

Daily life as a PhD student

The day-to-day of a PhD student is busy, to say the least. “So usually, the way that my lab works is that our schedules are pretty flexible. It’s not like we need to clock in at a certain time and clock out. So, my day-to-day varies a lot based on what is needing to be processed or analyzed in a given week. I usually like to get [to the lab] anywhere between 9 AM and 10:30 AM and I’ll begin by checking my cells that are growing in the incubator, thinking about what I need to do with them.” Romina is often working directly with muscle fibres and muscle tissue or processing and analyzing data. Apart from lab experiments, Romina spends a lot of time in meetings. In her lab, each student has weekly one-on-one meetings with their supervisor and biweekly team meetings where they all discuss their work, allowing them to foster a robust culture of collaboration. “It’s a lot of meetings, but in a good way, because they keep you accountable,” which Romina explains is important to maintain organization and employ proper time management. Romina is also the head teaching assistant for a biochemistry lab course where she manages a group of eight other teaching assistants. She is involved in redesigning the course curriculum and developing resources for the students. However, the majority of her time is spent on her research.

Challenges of a PhD

Maintaining work-life balance as a PhD student can be challenging due to the demanding nature and the constant deadlines. “For me, the work-life balance during my PhD is really about ebbs and flows.” Romina explains that she often goes through what she calls “push” periods where she works until late in the evenings for days – even weeks – to complete all her tasks ahead of a deadline, or to ensure that she has enough data for grant applications or upcoming presentations. “Then I have periods where I get to reward myself back the time, let’s say where I can take it slower. It’s never taking it easy. But there are just periods where there are less things going on all at the same time.” During these slower periods, Romina prioritizes spending quality time with her friends and family and keeping her evenings free, only completing simple tasks, if any, so she can be refreshed for the next day.

While Romina continues to excel in her academic career, she has had difficulty dealing with perfectionism. “The most challenging aspect is not working. It’s really hard for me to tell myself that I should slow down.” She explains that, while academia rewards you for pristine quality research and generating a plethora of results, the work required to produce these can be mentally taxing.

As a queer woman in science, Romina feels that the lack of representation in the field can be challenging. While she has seen an increase in the number of women in her field, she admits, “It’s hard to look up at who’s in these positions of power and not see yourself.” Romina emphasizes the importance of community – having a group of people that you can confide in and go to when you need help. For her, this community includes other women – both more senior and in her peer group – who continually support her. “[Having a community] really is the gift that keeps on giving, and while other people do that for me, I will do that for other people.”

Despite these challenges, Romina’s experience as a PhD student has been rewarding in terms of her personal growth and, consequently, her growth as a researcher. As someone who values intellectual stimulation, Romina thrives in her environment and is grateful to learn and develop new skills every day. As the recipient of multiple scholarships throughout her academic career, it is evident that she is reaping the much-deserved benefits of her dedication to her research. Only halfway through her PhD, Romina has created a stellar reputation for herself and is a prime example that hard work can, indeed, pay off.

Feature image: Romina spends much of her time at the microscope! Photo: Romina Filippelli.

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