What happens when you cross a kick-boxing foodie with a passion for scientific discovery? You get Science.Sam.
Sam Yammine, aka Science Sam, is a PHD Candidate in the Department of Molecular Genetics at the University of Toronto studying how stem cells build and maintain the brain. She has a passion for science and telling stories.
If science had a Nike commercial, there is no doubt that Science.Sam would be its star.
When she’s not making discoveries in the lab, Science.Sam is sharing her passion for science, profiling fellow scientists, and inspiring other science Nerds through a series of weekly stories tagged #ScienceSunday, #ScienceSays, and #FeatureFriday posts on Instagram (@science.sam).
We caught up with this amazing and extremely busy Nerd to learn more about what drives her and how others can learn from her passion for living life without pause or fear.
Raising Nerd (RN): Okay, the Science Sam name speaks for itself (great branding!), but tell us a little bit about how you became Science Sam.
Science.Sam: I wanted to share my love of science with the world and was looking for a way to do it right away, then my friend pointed to the phone in my hand and said, “So, just do it!” And I did. Now, eight months later, I still am and I don’t see myself stopping anytime soon.
RN: What caught our eye at RN was your love for connecting with other science Nerds – in particular, #FeatureFriday. What inspired you to start telling stories of other science Nerds on Instagram and what do you hope to accomplish through this medium?
Sam: Well, I guess I’ve always been a Nerd myself, in the sense that I loved reading and doing little experiments at home (I once left an egg outside in a dish in the sun for 3 days to “see what would happen”). But I never liked being shoved into the [stereotypical] category of “Nerd” just because I did well in school. I see myself as more than that. I’m also a person who loves food, art, music, sports, food… 🙂 So many scientists are multi-dimensional human beings. I wanted to show those other dimensions to everyone, because I think it’s also important to make scientists seem more relatable and accessible so people will trust the science we do a bit more.
I also think the popular media portrays a very uniform stereotype of a scientist and I wanted to give some new role models for younger people who are interested in STEM careers but don’t have any visible mentors with whom they can relate. For example, a lot of younger women who like makeup and fashion like I do are often assumed to be less ambitious and intellectual, and eventually they’ll start to believe it if we don’t do something about it. So I like to show them and anyone else feeling underrepresented that there IS space for them in science if they are willing to claim it.
RN: You’re working on your PhD, but you seem to have a real knack for storytelling. Do you think there’s a future for you there as well?
SAM: Science really is about telling stories. Behind every discovery is a tale of passion, curiosity, and persistence that is both inspiring and important. I’d love to be a professional science storyteller because there are so many stories worth sharing that go untold.
RN: Out of all of the disciplines you could have picked within science, you chose stem cells as your concentration. What drew you to this field and what do you hope to discover?
SAM: I just realized that stem cells can, by definition, make anything and that just fascinated me. They can help us better understand how organisms develop. And it is fundamental to understand how things are generated before we can ever dream of regenerating them. I just want to understand how I am able to be writing this and you able to read this all thanks to a mushy thing in our heads called a brain, and understanding how that brain is created is key to that.
RN: Have you ever felt frustrated in your research? What is the hardest thing about being a scientist?
SAM: All the time. The science gods love to test our patience every day and only give out good data after lots of grueling long days and infinite face palms. But that’s also what makes discoveries so beautiful. We are conquering unknown territory, and it would be ludicrous to think that would be easy terrain!
The hardest thing about doing research is the overwhelming amount of unknowns that exist. You don’t know if you’re doing things right, if your experiments will work, if you will be able to understand anything from the data you collect, what your next career move will be… and the rampant amount of imposter syndrome and insecurity that we all feel doesn’t help us cope with any of that.
But then you keep going for a few years and finally you get used to it and find your two feet and things get a lot better. I’ve realized that whether or not I stay in research my whole life, I am so eternally grateful for the experience to be creative and “take chances, make mistakes, and get messy” in the lab every day. It’s a rare gift to be able to ask questions all day and find your own answers. To me, that is worth every late night, every bit of sweat, and every stress line. The mental strength I’ve found is my greatest personal discovery to date.
RN: What advice do you have for the future science Nerd out there that dreams of pursuing a career similar to yours? What activities or experiences should they consider?
- Do it.
- For every person who says you can’t, try harder.
(cheesy but I’m serious)
Figure out why you want to do research. What’s your motive? What do you want out of it? Make sure you have a reason and/or passion that you can use to keep focused on your goal when times get tough. When people lose focus, I think it’s because they lose sight of their motive (there’s some science to that, perhaps I’ll discuss one day in #ScienceSunday).
Good grades matter but they aren’t everything. They just make things easier. Ask a lot of questions, try to answer them yourself, then find other people to ask when you can’t find the answers. Reach out to mentors and say what you want to achieve, out-loud, as many times as it takes for you to believe that it’s going to happen.
RN: At Raising Nerd, we believe that failure is just an important part of the learning process. Tell us about a time where you had such a learning moment? How did you use that event as a reminder for future success.
SAM: The only times I believe I fail is when I don’t try something again. I have a few experiments that haven’t worked the first time that I never re-attempted, but it’s my goal to get back to them by the summer. I don’t have a particular moment to recall but I think it’s true we should reframe how we view failure.
RN: What hobbies outside of science do you have? Was there ever another career outside of science you might have had in mind?
SAM: I love training in Muay Thai kickboxing, and I do that about eight hours a week. I also really love to experiment in the kitchen and cook new things, and am lucky that Toronto is such a great city for food. I am always inspired with new things to try.
RN: What hands-on learning resources (website, app, books, institutions/museums, etc) would you recommend for parents looking to inspire and challenge their preschool, elementary, middle, and high school kids? How about for parents of not-quite-there-yet Nerds?
SAM: I loved The Magic School Bus and Bill Nye as a kid, but I’m not sure what the equivalents are these days. I think one of the important things to remember is that science isn’t just about learning facts from a show or book… it’s more about being struck by curiosity so strongly that you need to find the answer. With that in mind, my philosophy really is that we just need to expose people to the cool stuff in this world and let them form their own questions organically. Once they do, then we can take them for hands-on experiences at the local science center and elsewhere so they can learn scientific means of addressing those questions. But to me, the spark is more important than the declarative knowledge.
RN: Given the choice, which would you choose to be: a professional soccer player, a celebrity chef, or a scientist?
SAM: This question perfectly encapsulates my past, present, and future. I grew up playing soccer, I am currently a scientist, and I’ve always dreamed of being a chef. I think my answer given a choice would be to be a molecular gastronomer or someone who brings science & food together in a legitimate way. I need to catch my cooking skills up to my science knowledge, though!
RN: If you had the chance to have dinner with two people, past or present, who would they be and why? What would be the topic of conversation?
SAM: This is always a tough question… I think I’d choose the Italian Nobel laureate honored for her study of nerve growth factor, Rita Levi-Montalcini, and famed, world-traveling chef, Anthony Bourdain. They’d both have such interesting perspectives on the world, and Bourdain would probably pick an awesome restaurant.