By Khola Abid
Gender bias has been affecting women's scientific and academic contributions for decades; however, today’s scenario is different as many organizations are working to empower the women in STEM, like, Association for Women in Science and Scientista. These types of associations are helping incredible female scientists shift the paradigm and increase visibility and awareness of their groundbreaking work.
I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Raysa Khan, who shared thoughtful insights about how she navigates the academic world. Graduating top of her class in Pharmaceutical and Medicinal Chemistry from Nottingham Trent University, Raysa joined the Spencer Lab for her PhD. She received the PhD presentation first prize at the Sussex Annual Research Colloquium in 2017. Combining scientific curiosity with dedication and hard work, Raysa is pursuing this work with the hope of making an impact in cancer research.
“I believe with full certainty that when our present becomes human history for tomorrow’s world, we will have a lot more of the likes of Rosalind Franklin & Marie Curie of our time.” - Dr. Raysa Khan
How did you realize that medicinal chemistry was your passion and what encouraged you to pursue a career in pharmaceutical sciences?
I decided to pursue chemistry after high school, where I had a great teacher who taught us chemistry is nothing but solving problems by asking the right questions. And the good thing is, the question does not have to be always right. It’s a process of trial and error where perseverance and dedication often pay off. I chose medicinal chemistry because I have always wanted to make an impact and help others. I also chose my current research project which, if successful, will help treat up to 100,000 cancer patients each year.
Can you tell us more about your research?
Currently, we are trying to develop new drugs that will re-stabilise the ‘tumour suppressor’ p53, known as the guardian of the genome. P53 is a protein that plays key roles in preventing cancer formation. In most human cancers, p53 becomes inactive. One of the causes for its inactivation is a particular mutation, where an amino acid tyrosine is changed to one called cysteine. This creates a hole in the protein which causes it to be less stable and break down easily. We are working towards making molecules that will fit in the gap of the faulty protein, rescue it from breaking down and reactivate its tumour suppressing functions.
Our work is a bit like designing a missing bit in a puzzle – as a chemist I synthesise molecules that will fit in the ‘gap’ of the faulty protein and restore its functions. Although currently, we have taken very specific and defined targets, ultimately, our research could lay the groundwork for the promising development of brand-new drugs capable of targeting a wide range of cancers.
Why are we still relying on drugs for cancer treatment? Why don’t we use genome editing tools to get a permanent cure?
Firstly, treating cancer is really complicated and it needs to be targeted from several different angles. I’m not an expert in genome editing tools, however, as I understand technologies such as CRISPR are still at an experimental stage and come with their own limitations. Even though CRISPR is being used in single-gene disorders such as cystic fibrosis, hemophilia, and others, its usage for treatment of various types of cancer still has a long way to go. Science is all about finding the best solution at any given point. Hopefully, in the near future, we will discover new technologies that will satisfy both the ethical conundrum on human genome editing and the test of effectiveness. But, as of today, drug discovery still has a lot to offer as it relates to cancer treatment.
In your experience, how difficult is it for a woman to produce groundbreaking work in science?
I have been lucky to work in an intellectually stimulating workplace that gives an amazing platform for producing groundbreaking work regardless of gender and race. However, I know that the situation is not the same everywhere in the world. I believe that things are changing for the better and we women can bring the biggest change by believing in ourselves and our capabilities.
Why are we still unable to get women like Rosalind Franklin or Marie Curie who changed the course of history in their eras?
I feel it’s unfair to say that we are unable to get women who are going to be changing the course of human history “in our era.” Think of the tenacity, dedication and determination of the teen climate activist, the amazing Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old Swedish girl who is inspiring millions every day to care about the very existence of our planet. There are many incredible female scientists who have been and are still doing amazing work in all fields of science. To name a few: Jennifer Doudna helped to develop CRISPR, which is often counted as one of the most significant discoveries in the history of biology; or Sara Seager, who has discovered 715 planets and made exceptional contribution in the understanding of space; or the young engineer Tiera Guinn Fletcher, who works for Boeing to build Space Launch System for NASA to send people to Mars. You may have heard of Katie Bouman, the 29-year-old computer scientist whose algorithm recently created the first-ever image of a black hole and opened up new possibilities in the very understanding of the cosmos. I believe a fair approach would be to recognize the incredible work done by these amazing women all over the world and I, therefore, would fully disagree with any assertion that we are unable to get women like Rosalind or Marie Curie. Rather I would say because of the great work and inspirations of the likes of these STEM pioneers, we have come a long way to where exceptionally powerful women are changing the face of who gets to do STEM work.
According to you, what are those attributes that make a person a good academic and an excellent researcher?
I believe dedication, perseverance and teamwork are some of the important attributes to become a good researcher and academic. In research, things don’t always work out as one plans and one needs to be patient and keep on trying, because all the hard work is totally worth it to get the result at the end! Arguably there is a positive correlation of success with dedication and perseverance. Additionally, a lot of the work, especially in science, is collaborative and often are multidisciplinary. Therefore, in order for the work to reach its full potential and have true impact, there is no alternative to having an effective team dynamic.
What were the problems and challenges you faced during your career path - both as an undergraduate and then as a post-graduate scientist?
I haven’t faced any particular challenges during my studies and career as a researcher so far. I believe to some extent our biggest challenge comes from the lack of confidence in ourselves. I have always thought that the fundamental lack of belief in ourselves and in our self-worth is what tampers our ability and holds us back. Therefore, it is extremely important as young girls to grow up with inspiring female role models and to be encouraged to believe that we can achieve any dreams that we have.
Do you think there are more opportunities for women in science today than there were in the past?
There are a lot of opportunities out there to thrive in a scientific career. Although we still have a long way to go in terms of gender equality and diversity, I am grateful that slowly but surely things are changing. For instance, my current workplace, Sussex School of Life Sciences holds an Athena SWAN Silver Award; Athena SWAN charter encourages and recognizes gender equality, representation and progression. There are other such programs that encourage and enable an organization to improve its commitment to advance women's careers in STEM.
Every great person and a scientist wants to leave an impact. How does this desire keep them motivated and persistent enough over the course of their endeavours?
I would tread carefully with the assertion that “every” great person and scientist wants to leave an impact. How about some who simply do it for fun and as it happens impact is the by-product of their fun. Albert Einstein famously said, “Creativity is intelligence having fun!" So, I guess what keeps the great people motivated is the joy of doing the things they like to do.
What would you recommend to a person who really wants to pursue a career in medicinal chemistry?
Medicinal chemistry is fun; it’s more like solving puzzles or making Legos, you get to make new and cool things that have true and real impact!
Well, without medicinal chemistry, life as we know it would be impossible. It provides an arsenal of drugs at the disposal of the doctors to cure diseases. Medicinal chemistry involves a process of trial and error combined with reasoned analysis and technical knowledge. Therefore, a great degree of perseverance, dedication and hard work is essential in pursuing a career in medicinal chemistry. Before committing to a career in medicinal chemistry, it is beneficial to get as much lab experience as possible and to be involved in smaller projects.
What I learned from speaking with Dr. Raysa Khan is that the first and foremost key to commendable success is to believe in your abilities. Women who fulfilled their dreams were symbolic of self-confidence; they believed in the potency of their hard work. As Gertrude Elion, an American biochemist and pharmacologist who shared the 1988 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine once said:
“Don’t be afraid of hard work. Nothing worthwhile comes easily… In my days I was told, women didn’t go into chemistry. I saw no reason why we couldn’t.”
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