Katarzyna, UK

10 Questions with Katarzyna Tych

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Katarzyna Tych, 29, from the UK is a Postdoc at the Technical University of Munich in Germany.

She is performing research at the interface of physics and biology, specifically, she is using and developing advanced physical experimental techniques to learn new things about the functions of proteins on the single-molecule level.

Katarzyna is a participant of the 66th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting which is dedicated to the field of physics in 2016.

Enjoy the interview with Katarzyna and get inspired:

  1. What inspired you to pursue a career in physics / STEM?

It’s quite simple really, I just wanted to understand how things work.

  1. Who are your role models?

I have many! I’ve been inspired by women who worked in science, mathematics and technology at a time when it was rare and therefore very difficult for them to do so and to be taken seriously. Women such as Dorothy Hodgkin, Rosalind Franklin, Maria Sklodowska-Curie and Ada Lovelace.

More personally, I have been very fortunate to meet and work with a number of fantastic female scientists whose enthusiasm is infectious and whose energy seems boundless. My role models from my time at the University of Leeds include Prof. Arwen Pearson, Dr. Lorna Dougan and Prof. Sheena Radford. I have met with and attended talks by Dame Athene Donald and Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, both of whom are very active in encouraging women into STEM.

Not all of my role models are women, or even scientists, but these have been the most influential in shaping my career to date.

  1. How did you get to where you are in your career path?

I started off studying electronic engineering – I was one of about 5 girls in a year group of around 150, which was a character-forming experience. I enjoyed the final year research project so much that I decided to do a PhD in the same field. My PhD project involved work across a number of disciplines, from electronic engineering through physics, chemistry and molecular biology. I really enjoyed the experience of working with people from so many different fields, and being able to apply my knowledge of engineering and physics to answering questions about biological systems so it seemed natural to me to pursue a research career in biophysics. Following encouragement from one of my PhD supervisors, Prof. Arwen Pearson, I applied for a post-doctoral position at the University of Leeds jointly between the Physics department and the cross-disciplinary Astbury Centre for Structural and Molecular Biology, with Dr. Lorna Dougan and Dr. David Brockwell. The research project involved the design and construction of a single molecule force spectroscopy experimental setup for the study of proteins from extremophilic organisms. This was my introduction into the world of single molecule biophysics, and provided me with the opportunity to mentor students (which I had a lot of fun doing!), as well as letting me do some really exciting research into what makes certain bacteria and archaea able to survive in some of the most extreme environments on Earth. By then I was more and more certain that I wanted to pursue a research career in the field of biophysics, as I had developed a skill set that was quite uniquely suited to the field, and felt that I wanted to keep learning more. I also felt that this was the point in my life when I was most able to move to another country, learn a new language, and work with some of the most inspirational scientists in Europe.

KTych_conference

I traveled around, giving seminars and meeting different research groups to try and decide where I most wanted to work. I then applied for a number of post-doctoral research fellowships, received a few offers and in the end succeeded in getting a Human Frontiers Cross-Disciplinary fellowship to work with Prof. Matthias Rief at the Technical University in Munich, where I have now been based for almost a year.

  1. What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?

I think that the coolest project I have worked on is actually the one that I am working on now, particularly when I stop and think about what I am actually doing. I find it mind-blowing that I can be sitting in the lab, doing an experiment, and that the experimental traces that come up on my computer screen are showing me the nanometer-scale motions of an individual protein molecule – something so small and fragile, invisible to the human eye – and yet there it is.

  1. What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself / your work?

When I was awarded my current research fellowship, I felt a great sense of achievement – I had put so much time and energy into writing the proposal, and now it was being rewarded. My research group were really supportive and even threw a surprise party to celebrate with me.

  1. What is a “day in the life” of Katarzyna like?

I get to work usually a little after 9am, write a list of the things I need to get done that day, and then get going. Some days involve more practical work, preparing samples for experiments, or performing the experiments themselves. On other days I spend the whole time sitting at my desk, going through my data, analysing it and trying to make sense of it by reading papers.

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There will be days when there are meetings and seminars, and days when I’m supervising students or helping a colleague with troubleshooting, but generally no two days are the same (which is something I enjoy about my job) and so it’s difficult to come up with a “day in the life”. There will be busier periods when I work into the night, but normally I try to leave between 6 and 7pm, experiments permitting, so that I have time to do some sport and cook something nice before going to bed.

  1. What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?

My career goals are two-pronged. Firstly, I would like to continue using cutting-edge experimental techniques to study biological systems as there are many fascinating questions in molecular biology that remain unanswered. Secondly, I would like to build on current technology and develop the experimental techniques that make the previous aim possible. I don’t expect a single high-impact breakthrough, but I hope to contribute to our understanding of the relationships between protein structure, function and dynamics.

  1. What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?

Many things! Eating and cooking, climbing, yoga, hiking, running, meeting with friends, travelling, reading and music.

  1. What advice do you have for other women interested in physics / STEM?

Try to do something which keeps you interested and that you enjoy and don’t shy away from challenging people’s pre-conceptions about what a physicist/mathematician/engineer “should” look like. Simply by doing what you’re doing, you’ll be a role model to future generations of scientists, mathematicians and engineers, both male and female.

  1. In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in physics research?

It’s not a single breakthrough, perhaps, but I think that our understanding of non-equilibrium physical processes is likely to be deepened over the coming years, as computational power and experimental capabilities improve and enable us to bridge the gap between the microscopic and the macroscopic.


What should be done to increase the number of female profs of physics?

The answer to this question is not straightforward, and requires one to approach the problem from several different angles. 
Firstly, I think that we are currently in the position where being a female Professor in Physics is simply not seen as something very achievable or appealing, for many reasons – ranging from stereotyping and harassment, through a perception of a loss of work-life balance, to a lack of role models and support networks. In order to enable women to see that it is possible to follow this career path, there need to already be women there acting as role models and mentors. This in itself will result, gradually, in a change in workplace culture and attitudes which in turn should lead to more women seeing such a role as attractive. A change in recruitment policies and family provision in Universities would certainly go some way to addressing this – ensuring that interview panels are diverse, that flexible working hours are offered where possible, and that a good childcare provision is advertised, to give a few examples.
Secondly, there need to be good support networks of two types – an official ombudsman of some sort to enable women to make complaints about instances of discrimination or bad practices in their place of work, and more informally, opportunities for women to meet and discuss their experiences, and support and mentor each other. 
These two courses of action will hopefully, with time, lead to a change in unconscious institutional gender bias and thus eventually lead to a more well-balanced workplace, suited to both men and women.

 

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