Scientists Performing Inspiring Science
Image courtesy of Ekaterina Turlova, University of Toronto

Whether using cells as a model of disease, leveraging cells to make protein, or using cells as therapy, cell biologists inspire us. Scientists like Samantha Yammine and Caitlin Vander Weele are going beyond the bench for public outreach and using science as art.

An interview with Samantha Yammine

PhD candidate
Neuroscience and Stem Cell Biology
University of Toronto

What research do you do and do you have any challenges?

I am a PhD candidate in Dr. Derek van der Kooy’s neurobiology research lab at the University of Toronto researching stem cell hierarchies in the developing and adult mammalian brain. Our lab studies a variety of different stem and precursor cell populations, including those of the retina, corneal limbus, pancreas, and neural crest, but my thesis has revolved around a very rare population of neural stem cells. And by rare, I mean really rare—after I microdissect the thin stem cell niche surrounding the lateral ventricles in the mouse brain, my stem cells of interest comprise only 0.1% of the total cells dissected at most, and at some ages, they are only 0.01% of the population. But they are phenotypically really interesting cells—we recently published in Stem Cells that they act as a reserve pool for the more prominent neural stem cell population, so it’s been worth troubleshooting new, sensitive techniques to try to learn more about them.

Have you found a solution?

Since our cells are so rare in bulk samples, we knew we’d have to continue improving our purification methods and experiment with new assays that are sensitive enough to detect signals from single cells.  Fortunately, single-cell analyses have become more and more popular and I’ve found a lot of fantastic collaborators in Toronto to help me implement these techniques. After many workshops, literature searches, an planning meetings, we are currently having success studying embryonic precursors with several single-cell transcriptomic platforms thanks to help from technical experts from several other local labs.

What are your next steps?

I am excited to combine these new transcriptomics data with previous functional data I’ve collected on these rare neural stem cells and put forth some new additions to current neural stem and progenitor cell hierarchies. By better understanding the lineage relationships between the earliest cells of the mammalian brain, we will better appreciate how the diversity of the cells of the brain are created during development and homeostasis. Given that the brain has over 170 billion cells and that all of these cells come together to give us the ability to think and do, I find its creation to be one of the most fascinating biological concepts.

What do you want people to know about you? What motivates you to share your story?

I created the Instagram account @science.sam so that I could bring more transparency to the process ofscience research. My goal was to show that there are so many fascinating aspects of science, including the basic biology behind experiments we do in the lab every day. I share daily updates of research life and new science news through a personal lens to challenge my audience to change their perceptions of scientists and science for the better. I strive for outreach that is interesting and inclusive to everyone, so I use enough analogies and metaphors for the casual science enthusiast, but just enough details to keep fellow scientists interested, too.

A passionate advocate for equity, diversity, and inclusivity, Sam also posts inspiring interviews with people from underrepresented groups in the STEM fields to invite more people into the exciting world of science research. Thank you for inspiring us, Sam!

Instagram: science.sam
Twitter: SamanthaZY

An interview with Caitlin Vander Weele

PhD candidate, Neuroscience
Tye Lab
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

What research do you do and do you have any challenges?

What happens to all the beautiful and interesting images generated from failed science experiments? Typically nothing. Scientists use them to help generate better tools and hypotheses; however, because they will never be published, they get stored away on hard drives for no one to see. I started posting some of the pretty images I gathered from my failed experiments (I’m a PhD student studying the neural circuitry underlying motivated behaviors) on Twitter and other social media outlets. Microscopy images were some of my most viewed and shared media and it struck me how effective they were at communicating science content. I wanted to create a home for these images to be seen and appreciated. On a whim of procrastination, Interstellate was born in May 2016.

Have you found a solution?

To start, I made a Twitter account for the project (@interstellate_) and sent over 100 cold emails to neuroscience friends, colleagues, and principal investigators asking for image donations for the project. To be quite honest, I was surprised how enthusiastic and supportive the community was and within six months, I collected over 100 images from ~80 scientists in nine different countries! I tweeted images I collected and started assembling them into an 86-page full gloss magazine. Each page of the magazine features a stunning image generated by scientific research and briefly explains a neuroscience-related concept. For example, the first couple of pages explain the different types of brain cells, how neurons communicate with one another, and how we study them in the laboratory. In October 2016, the digital copy of Interstellate Volume 1 went live ( ) and with help from our generous corporate sponsors, over 1,000 copies have been printed and distributed for free! I think Interstellate provides a platform to celebrate important but often overlooked steps of research. Interstellate’s goals are science celebration and neuroscience awareness through art.

What are your next steps?

Interstellate is still a really new initiative, so it will be exciting to see what it evolves into! Right now, I’m working on a second volume (and trying to finish my PhD!), which will debut in November 2017, and expanding the social media and outreach presence (you can follow us on Tumblr and Instagram @interstellate_). The whole project is one massive collaborative effort so the future of Interstellate really depends on the network of people who support it. I would love to see Interstellate used as an outreach tool for the public and to recruit the next generation of brain explorers.

A brain explorer that collects images of pretty neurons along the way, Caitlin is showing us the beauty in science. Thank you, Caitlin!

Instagram: interstellate_
Twitter: interstellate_