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Humans of INKspire

Beth Culp | PhD Student

For those who are not familiar with you, what is your story?

I did my undergrad in Biology at McMaster and I’m now a PhD student at McMaster studying Biochemistry. At the very beginning of my undergrad when I first became interested in research, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to work in a lab at University of Waterloo, which was my first exposure to doing wet lab research. I loved the exploratory, exciting, curiosity-driven aspects of my experience, and it’s when I first probably realized that I could do research as a career. I had opportunities throughout undergrad to continue working labs, and when it came time to apply for grad school, I ended up applying and taking a position at McMaster. The research I do now is on antibiotics— the antibiotic resistance problem is a growing challenge in the world and we need new antibiotics and new strategies to be able to fight drug-resistant infections. The research that we do here is aimed at trying to find new antibiotics by searching traditional sources in new, modern ways. Most antibiotics are actually produced by bacteria that you could find in soil in your backyard: a family of soil bacteria called actinomycetes. These bacteria are prolific producers of antibiotics and have been the source of most of the clinical uses of antibiotics. However, it’s getting harder and harder to find useful compounds, so my research is tackling some of these problems and coming up with creative ways to find new antibiotics from actinomycetes.

What are some of the biggest things you’ve taken away from your journey?

I think one thing that I’ve noticed in some of my successes and failures so far is that life often has a way of working itself out if you work hard enough and make the most of the opportunities that you’re given. This has come up a couple of times in my journey, like choosing an undergrad program for example. There was one program I really wanted and I actually didn’t get into it. So that’s how I ended up in the biology program at McMaster. Once I saw what a good fit biology was for me, I started to think that it might have been a blessing not to be accepted by the other program! The same sort of thing happened in grad school, and even working on projects throughout my PhD. Sometimes projects that you spend months or years pursuing don’t go anywhere, and knowing when to give up on something you’ve invested so much in is probably one of the hardest parts of research. This happened to me, and I ended up serendipitously switching to one that was super interesting and successful! I think the lesson I’ve taken away is that you can’t always predict what’s going to happen, but you have to have some faith that it’ll be okay. If nothing else, it’s comforting to think like this when things are going wrong!

Beth Culp | PhD Student

Hiking in New Mexico, taking some pre-conference vacation.

Is there one thing that you would like to improve about yourself or in the world around you?

I think one thing that a lot of people struggle with, myself included, is work-life balance. My personality is definitely all-or-nothing, so I find it difficult to give less than 100% on something. It means that I end up working a lot, which is great because it leads to success in your work, but it’s not something I want to do for the rest of my life. I feel like at some point, I need to make a conscientious choice to step back: even though I could be working right now, on the evenings and the weekends, I don’t have to and I don’t need to feel guilty about that. I think North American culture in general can be tough that way. It sort of feels like you’re always in competition. But there are places in the world where they’ve figured this out a bit better than us, and so I feel like if we could all take the step towards that, we could all be a little bit happier.

What advice would you give to youth who have not yet found their passion?

I would say keep exploring. I think you just have to try everything until you find that thing that you love. And I don’t mean try it for five minutes: doing something new is hard and you probably won’t be good at it to start. Being bad at something isn’t fun, so realize that with some hard work you’ll get better. Then ask yourself if this thing is worth putting in the hard work for. I feel like I was lucky to have experiences early in undergrad that helped me realize my passion, and it helps me get through those tough parts of science when I’m failing and want to give up. That’s why I think it’s so important to be passionate about your work. You’re going to spend so much time in your life doing it, and if you’re passionate about it, you’re going to be better at it and you’re going to enjoy it more.

Beth Culp | PhD Student

Classic Canadian pose, checking out the sunset over Lake Ontario.

Have you ever had to deal with any misrepresentation or oversimplifying of work in the past and how have you dealt with that?

I’ve had a little bit of experience with science communication with the general public that reminds me of this question. A few months ago, one of my articles was published in a big journal and some news outlets picked it up so I had some contact with reporters and journalists. They were trying to understand the research and put it in layman’s terms that non-experts or non-scientists could understand. Through that process, I realized how challenging it is to do this! Luckily, they all checked with me and sent me drafts of what they were planning on writing so I could make sure that it was correct and didn’t have to deal with any errors. But as scientists, we often get caught up in the details of our own research, and it was hard to not feel like I was leaving out nuance of the research that was really important to me, but might not be to the overall message. But of course, communicating your research so that non-scientists can understand the findings as well as relevance is so important, not only because it’s often tax-payers that fund the research, but also to educate about modern science and the scientific process. I think this is especially relevant in the era of COVID, when there’s been so much miscommunication or misinterpretation of new findings. We’re all living at the forefront of cutting edge science that hasn’t yet converged onto a single true answer; we’re all getting information from everywhere, and scientists are still trying to figure things out. So in that way, understanding the scientific process is even more important: you need to have lots of errors and you need to have reproducibility before you can converge on that one true answer. And once you have that answer, you need to trust and use it to make educated decisions.

How do you stay resilient in these uncertain times, and how are you adapting to this new norm?

Well first off, I would say that some days are better than others! But especially on those tough days, I try to remind myself of how lucky I am in so many ways. My friends and my family are all still healthy, I still have a job and my income hasn’t been affected. There are so many people who are really hurting, and we need to be grateful for what we have. Also, I try to focus on the silver linings because there have been some funny, happy changes to come out of all of this. You’re like, “wow, this has completely changed my life and I would’ve never found this other thing if COVID hadn’t happened”. I’ve been forced to wake up super early because we have this shift system in the lab and I work mornings. So I started getting up at 5 a.m. and I’m like, “wow, I can be super productive in the morning. Maybe this is something I can continue after”. Or making a bigger effort to stay in touch with friends on Zoom. Or with some of my hobbies, trying to explore them in new ways. I play the trumpet in a band and obviously our band rehearsals have been cancelled, but I’ve been keeping it up with some friends over Zoom and taking the opportunity to learn some repertoire that I wouldn’t otherwise be able to or I wouldn’t normally have time to learn.

Beth Culp | PhD Student

Hiking in Alaska’s Denali National Park.

Do you have any idea or direction that you would like to go after your PhD?

That’s a very loaded question that I’m trying to decide on right now. But yes, I’m looking to do a postdoc. The purpose of a postdoc is to get more training and more experience so that you can eventually either become a professor or get a job in the industry. I’m going to stay in microbiology for sure, but the specific area is TBD for now.