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International Women’s Day Q&A Spotlight on Zeinab Hosseini-Doust

Zeinab Hosseini-Doust, Assistant Professor, Department of Chemical Engineering at McMaster, is one of IIDR’s newest members. Zeinab joined the IIDR team six months ago and is beginning to make great strides with her research on bacteriophage-based therapeutics, such as phage-based biosensors, which could one day be used as an antibiotic alternative.

In her International Women’s Day Q&A spotlight Zeinab talks more about her fascinating research; the importance of educating girls and boys about STEM stereotypes; and her advice to aspiring female scientists to move forward and believe in your abilities if you feel like giving up.

What does your research focus on?

My research focuses mainly on bacteriophage biotechnology. Bacteriophages (or phages) are viruses that infect bacteria and the most abundant biological entities on earth.

Bacteriophages have a curious history, rich with politics, personal feuds, and conflicts. They were co-discovered in 1915 by Fredrick Twort and Felix d’Herelle; this was before the discovery of penicillin. Felix d’Herelle (a French Canadian, working at the Pasteur Institute at the time) used bacteriophages to treat infectious disease around the world for almost 25 years, before bacteriophages where completely overshadowed by antibiotics in the West. However, antibiotics developed in the West were not easily accessible to patients behind the Iron Curtain. Therefore, phage therapy continued to be practiced in the former Soviet Union.

Bacteriophages are currently used to treat infectious diseases in Russia, Poland, and Georgia. In fact, the Eliava Institute in Tbilisi, Georgia, has been the global center of phage expertise for over 80 years.

I focus on three main applications of bacteriophage biotechnology, namely phage-based therapeutics, phage-based biosensors and diagnostics, and functional biohybrid materials and devices for biomedical engineering.

What are the real world applications of your research?

Concerns about drug-resistant pathogenic bacteria have rekindled the interest in bacteriophages to treat and control bacterial infections. As bacteria’s natural predators, bacteriophages offer a critical advantage over antibiotics, namely that they can be highly specific, targeting only their host bacteria. This means that phage therapeutics can be designed to destroy only the infectious agent(s) with less disruption of the rich microbial communities that occupy our body (i.e., our microbiota). Antibiotics are notorious for the long-term damage they can cause to our microbiota because they blindly wipeout the beneficial bacteria along with the infection.

This specific targeting of host bacteria is also the perfect characteristic for designing various biosensors and diagnostic tools for detection of bacterial contaminants in health care settings, in food and food processing plants, in drinking water, or other environmental samples of interest.

The applications of phage are not limited to their natural ability to recognize, bind, and/or destruct bacteria. Using genetic engineering, we can expand the biorecognition ability of phage beyond bacterial targets. Bacteriophages can be designed with customized biorecognition that can recognize non-bacterial organic (e.g., cancer cells, disease biomarkers) and inorganic (e.g., heavy metals) targets. This presents phage as a powerful tool for scientists and engineers for developing novel functional materials and devices with multiple biorecognition ability.

What is the most rewarding part about being an IIDR member?

I find that there are many exciting opportunities for collaboration with researchers with different backgrounds. The intellectual stimulation of sharing ideas, learning from others and problem-solving as part of a team is extremely rewarding. I particularly enjoyed learning about everyone’s research during the IIDR Trainee Day.

What is your proudest accomplishment at the IIDR?

I have been a member for just six months so think my proudest achievement is yet to come. I was very happy to be able to start collaborations immediately after joining IIDR and to receive support for an exciting new project on designing phage-based therapeutics for drug resistant Pseudomonas infections with Dr. Lori Burrows.

What is your advice for aspiring female scientists?

Do not doubt yourself!

Careers in science and engineering are extremely satisfying and rewarding. You do intellectually challenging work and have the chance to make a difference. Of course, the path is a difficult one and there are no shortcuts. There will be times that you think you cannot go on, but know that this happens to everyone and you are not alone. Anyone who has worked in a research lab is familiar with this feeling. I had a very tough time for the first three years during my PhD because nothing was working. It is important believe in your abilities and move forward. Value yourself and your ideas and if you are passionate about what you do, never give up.

Finally, learn how to code. This is a skill that is valuable irrespective of your field of study. Besides, every area of science has a computational branch and combining your technical background with coding skills can open up a lot of new opportunities.

Why should women and girls have an interest in science and/or pursue a career in science? Why is it important to encourage women and girls?

Why not? A career in science is very rewarding. You spend your days discovering the unknown; it doesn’t get cooler than that!

Careers in STEM (sciences, technology, engineering, and math) are both highly rewarding and very challenging. We need to attract the best and brightest minds into these fields and we cannot limit ourselves to only half of the population. To push the boundaries of science and technology we need scientists and engineers with different mind-sets, capabilities, and imaginations.

Why is female mentorship important?

Having successful female role models is critical for attracting and retaining women in STEM careers. These jobs are still very much male-dominated and it is common to find yourself as the only woman in the room in meetings. A female mentor can be an important confidence builder. More importantly, having strong female mentors and role models can help in sustaining a woman’s ambitions. This is important because a number of studies suggest an early drop in aspirations to be one of the main reasons for high attrition rates for women in STEM.

Personally, I have benefited tremendously from having strong female role models and mentors in my life. My mother is a very successful professor in Sciences and she was one of the main reasons I chose an academic career. My PhD advisor, Prof. Nathalie Tufenkji, was also a great mentor and role model for me. They thought me that it is okay to be ambitious and to aim high.

Can you tell us a personal story about a female student you mentored? 

I have been fortunate to work with many talented female and male students before coming to McMaster. I am still in touch with a number of them. I take a personal interest in the careers of all my students and provided mentorship and support even after leaving school and through the job-hunting process. I was also briefly involved in a YWCA program aimed at mentoring immigrant women in sciences who were trying to find their foothold in a new society. Even though it was brief, I found that work very rewarding.

More than half of my group at Mac is comprised of female students, which was not deliberate, but nevertheless makes me proud. I am privileged to work with gifted and driven female and male students who help me grow as a mentee, advisor, and teacher.

The theme for International Women’s Day is “Be Bold for Change” which encourages women to declare what bold action they will take to specifically help drive gender parity. What do you currently do, or what will you do to “Be Bold for Change” in 2017?

The cause very near and dear to my heart is educating both girls and boys about stereotypes. The reason why we do not have a good representation of women in STEM careers is very complex, but no one can doubt the role of gender stereotypes.

Being put into a pre-shaped mould before you are old enough to recognize your talent and your passion is stifling. Our girls should not have to fight with societal norms to fulfill their potential, nor should they have to be brave to voice their opinion. It is the society that enforces these roles on them. We can help fix this by educating the next generation.

I also believe that having more women in higher management roles can certainly make a difference in decreasing the bias in the workplace towards women. It can also help younger female employees gain the courage and drive to follow their career aspirations.

I also plan to get more involved in the societies that focus on women in STEM. On March 10th and 11th, I participated in a panel discussion where female academics in science, engineering or technology shared their experience with the Mac community. This discussion was part of the CREST (Current Research in Engineering, Science, & Technology) conference at McMaster, hosted by the student-run WISE (Women in Science and Engineering) initiative.

Look out for more Q&A spotlights on women at the IIDR throughout March and learn about their fascinating research, achievements, advice for women in science and what they’re doing to #BeBoldForChange in 2017.