In[ter]view: Kate Parham

With a keen interest in science and an undergraduate degree from UniSA, Kate is now pursuing a post-doctoral degree in Canada. She speaks to us about her journey from Adelaide to Ontario and her work as a scientist.

We’re not the most scientific people around but we’re really intrigued by what you do. Could you tell us what you are currently working on?

Currently I am based in Canada at Western University in the Kerfoot Lab researching how the immune system becomes over-active leading to autoimmune diseases. My interest is in multiple sclerosis and using cutting edge microscopy to visualise the immune system in action.

What shaped your decision in pursuing a PhD (and then the post-doctorate) ultimately becoming a scientist?

I caught the science bug in high school, studying chemistry and biology where I realised I enjoyed understanding how things work. I then went on to study Medical and Pharmaceutical Biotechnology at UniSA, though I really didn’t consider research until I was part way through my undergrad when I began taking summer placements in a lab at the Centre for Cancer Biology here in Adelaide. I guess this is where I caught the research bug, and I went on to do an honours year which heightened my interest in vascular biology and drove me to pursue my PhD in this area. During my PhD I always had the desire to spend some time overseas experiencing a different research environment and gaining new skills, while seeing the world. I would like to thank A/Prof Claudine Bonder for introducing me to the world of medical research and providing an environment in which I have been able to acquire the skills I have needed to get where I am today.

What is a day in your life usually like?

With this type of work, no two days are the same, so I might speak about what I do over a week instead. I go to seminars by invited speakers where I hear about other research that is occurring locally and around the world. These are always great because I learn about new approaches and techniques that I can apply to my research. Other days I’m in the lab, where depending on the experiment, I might be working long into the evening on the microscope to get exciting images and movies of the immune system in action. The laboratory is a close-knit team so we are always helping each other out and having discussions about new ideas and potential experiments. Throughout my week, I also make sure to catch up on current literature relevant to my research. Reading is critical to keep up to date with new findings and see where my research fits within the greater multiple sclerosis research field.

What expectations did you have before moving to Canada to pursue your post-doctorate and how do you feel now knowing what you know?

I moved to Canada to work hard and further my career so I did expect to spend a lot of time in the lab, but I would be lying if I didn’t say I also saw it as an opportunity to travel around North America. I was very fortunate that my PhD enabled me to travel to a conference in Boston plus a few days in New York, during which I fell in love with the history, art, architecture and general atmosphere of the cities. A few years later I moved to London, Ontario (which conveniently is extremely close to Boston and New York) at the end of winter and was greeted with snow and minus temperatures, that’s when it really hit me that I was a world away from the Australian summer. Working in a lab you gain instant friends, as you’re surrounded by like-minded people, and that spills over to your social life as well. It’s funny, but some of my closest friends in Canada are expats as well.

2016 was a big adjustment for me, starting work in a new research field, so I expect this year things will be a bit more settled in the lab. Travel wise, dream destinations for this year include getting down to Boston and New York for a few weekends and travelling to Denver for a conference.

Is it different from living in Adelaide? How do you feel?

Yes! Leaving my family and friends was a big deal for me, so it’s been great to be back here for a month to catch up with everyone again and try out some of the new Adelaide bars and restaurants. Another thing I’ve missed is the footy. Before I left I would go to every Port home game, but these days I watch the replay or if I’m keen, I stay up late to watch it live.

As for London, it seems to be a university town where there is a massive influx of about 30,000 students at the start of the academic year. The students usually head home for summer and the city becomes noticeably quieter, especially after dark. Like Adelaide the summer is peppered with festivals including an International Food Festival, Sunfest (which is like WOMAD) and Rib fest, so my weekends are spent in the city park with friends.

London is also a much smaller city and I have managed to live without a car. Doing so, I have found myself immersed in different seasons and accompanying animals (beware, the skunk!), just by walking everywhere; and for anyone keen to travel, that is probably the best advice I can give – just get amongst it.

Do you feel that the number of women in STEM is growing? Are there any hurdles, specifically for women, to progress in STEM?

I’m pleased to say that throughout my studies and working life, there seems to have been a proportionate number of women pursuing and excelling in STEM careers. One of the major hurdles women face, not just in science, is the decision to start a family and how that will impact the progression of their career. Within science, measures have been taken to improve this, but more can be done.

What’s your message for aspiring scientists?

Love what you do, work hard and take every opportunity to learn more and challenge yourself.

Future plans? Thoughts on returning to Adelaide any time soon?

For the next few years I will be making the most of my time in Canada after which I am unsure of my next step, however I would like to bring the skills I have learnt back to Australia.

Words by Rubina Chitraker.

Images by Kate Parham.

Architecture of a mouse lymph node in an immune response.

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