How I Made It

Olivia Rissland, Molecular Biologist

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Olivia Rissland posing in a black shirt

Olivia Rissland; Toronto; @beascientist

Let’s say we’ve just met at a cocktail party. How would you describe, in a nutshell, what you do?

I do research in molecular biology as a scientist at SickKids and I’m an assistant professor at the University of Toronto. In my lab, we try to understand how the information in our genome is decoded by our cells.

Where did you go to school and what did you study?

My undergraduate degree is from Brown University, where I majored in biology, mathematics, and classics (Latin). I then went to Oxford University for a PhD in molecular biology.

What was your first paying gig out of school? (In your field, or not.)

My first real job was working at the Gap in the summer after high school. My parents traveled for most of that summer, and so, with the exception of seeing them a couple times a month, I was on my own, like a proper adult. I remember throwing myself into the job and being so proud of using my own money to buy groceries. I’m happy to say that, unlike my early-2000s outfits, clothes-folding skills never go out of style!

What was your BIG break? How did you land it?

When I was a senior at Brown, I was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship. At so many points during the application process, I was utterly convinced that there was no way that I would make it to the next round, and so it was a complete shock when my name was announced. I took several life lessons from the process: If you don’t apply, you can’t win; being lucky helps; and, always follow your passions.

Describe the moment in which you first realized, I think this is actually going to work out?

In my first summer in graduate school, I had come up with a slightly crazy experiment to dissect my favorite protein. I got the first result late one Friday afternoon, and I was tapping my foot impatiently as the machine piped out one row at a time, slower than an inkjet printer moving at quarter-speed. When I saw the result, it was like someone had thrown ice water over me. It was not at all what I had expected, and everything had to be re-evaluated: I had discovered something completely new. It was amazing to feel that I knew something that no one else had ever known. I have made more discoveries since then, but this moment was the first time that I really thought, I can do this. I can be a scientist.

What would you say has been your biggest failure or shortcoming, career-wise, to date?

The nature of being scientist is often having grants or papers rejected—for instance, I just had a grant rejected today!—and so I’m constantly facing obstacles and failures.

How did you bounce back?

I still find rejection really hard to deal with, even though I know, intellectually, that it’s part of the job. I think one of the main strategies I use now is to give myself one day to be as upset as I want. Then, the next day, I start making a plan of attack about how to move forward. Once I have a plan in place, I find it a lot easier to remind myself that I’m not defined by this (or any!) rejection and that I’m just at the beginning of a long scientific career.

Name one piece of career advice you always give.

“Be honest with yourself.”

What’s the worst career advice you’ve ever gotten?

I’ve actually gotten very little bad career advice. That being said, I never follow advice, however good it may be, that requires me not to be true to myself. This is especially true when it comes to recommendations to be silent about issues like sexism and racism. At the end of the day, I want to be able to say that I left the world a better place than I found it. Compared with so many people, I am in a very privileged position, and it’s important to speak up for people who don’t have a voice and to show the next generation that, irrespective of where they came from or what they look like, they have a place in science.

Did you deal with barriers in your field because you are a woman? If so, what were they?

Science is a lot better for women than it was when my mom was applying for faculty jobs, but I still face sexism on a weekly, if not daily, basis. Like too many other women, I run up against men who interrupt me or don’t take me seriously because I am a young female. I don’t have any solutions, but I take a lot of inspiration from impressive women, like Sally Q. Yates or Nobel Laureate Carol Greider, who proceed, seemingly unfazed, by any or all obstacles in their way.

Are you making a fair income for your work? Why or why not? Do you have a side hustle for extra cash? If so, what is it

Now that I’m an assistant professor, I make a fair income for my work. When I was in graduate school, money was much tighter: in addition to eating a lot of canned food, I gave tutorials on the side and, very occasionally, would get a little extra money by being a subject in psychology experiments!

Of course, I know that many female professors make less than their male counterparts, and that gender discrepancies can make themselves apparent in other ways. However, so far, I have been very fortunate that SickKids is committed to equality. Being able to trust your institution on issues like this makes all the difference.

What’s the worst stereotype you’ve heard about millennials at work?

I often hear other professors say that millennials are self-absorbed, but I see very little evidence of this. The overwhelming number of millennials I know are generous, thoughtful and committed to making a difference.

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