What It’s Really Like to Be a Molecular Biologist

In our 9–5 series, we ask boss babes what a day in the their work lives entails. This week, molecular biologist Olivia Rissland, who runs her own genetic research lab at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, gives us a glimpse into her daily grind

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be a molecular biologist
Rissland in her lab. (Photo credit: The Hospital for Sick Children)

Age: 33

Length of time in current gig: 12 years, at SickKids for nearly two years.

Education: Bachelor of Science in biology, mathematics and classics from Brown University, plus a Doctor of Philosophy in Molecular Biology from University of Oxford and a post-doctoral fellowship at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, MIT

What do you do? I run The Rissland Lab, a gene regulation research facility at SickKids hospital in Toronto.

Can you explain your research? Every cell in our body has DNA, and I like to think of each one as a kitchen pantry: you have all these ingredients to make all these different dishes, like lasagna or an apple pie, but it’s really important when you’re making lasagna that you don’t include apples, and when you’re making an apple pie, you don’t include tomato sauce. From DNA, different “ingredients” can be used to make a skin cell or a liver cell. In say, cancer, one of the problems is that you have too much of some ingredients or too little of others. With cells, you don’t have a cook there saying, “This needs more sugar,” or “No, too much nutmeg.” It’s all hardwired into the machinery. I try to understand how that machinery works.

How could your research help patients? It can help us understand how to better treat diseases like cancer. A lot of diseases involve misregulation—or an inappropriate balance of ingredients—so the more we know about this, the more we can help.

Typical hours: I usually get into the lab around 9 a.m. and leave by about 6:30, then I tend to do one or two more hours when I get home.

What do you do before you get to work so that you’re on the ball when you arrive? My husband and I make time every morning to have coffee. We have these 15 minutes where we talk about our day and just spend some time together. Then, by the time I get on the subway, I feel like I’m ready.

What do you wear to work? Jeans and some sort of nice-ish sweater or maybe a button-down shirt. If I’m working with a hazardous chemical then I’ll wear a lab coat, but for the most part I don’t, especially now that much more of my job involves me sitting at a computer and writing grant proposals or papers.

What’s lab life like? My team is a fun-loving group, and we care about doing science the right way—we’re not looking for the easy answers; we’re looking for the right answers.

What is a common misconception that people have about working in a lab? In movies, or shows like CSI, science happens really fast, like you can get an answer in a matter of hours, and there’s one single moment where you solve everything. Neither of these is really the case. A lot of science is working really hard and seeing slow but steady progress. These “Eureka!” moments don’t happen as often as they’re portrayed in the media.

It’s not always easy to be the boss. What do you find challenging about running a research lab? I’m a mentoring, running my own experiments, trouble-shooting other people’s experiments, talking to colleagues, sitting on committees and writing, so I find it hard to deal with all of these things that I’m really excited about doing. There aren’t quite enough hours in the day.

Which scientists do you most admire and why? My parents. My dad [Oliver Selfridge, who was known as one of the “founding fathers of artificial intelligence”] passed away, but he was a computer scientist and so is my mom [Edwina Rissland]. They’re generous with their ideas, they’re insightful, they’re looking at these larger questions, and they really care about training and creating a new generation of great scientists. Also, my mom was a professor in computer science at the University of Massachusetts, a field where there are not many women. She was such a strong female role model growing up that it never crossed my mind that I couldn’t do something because I was a woman.

What’s the best career advice you’ve ever received? The idea that you overestimate what you can do in a day, but you underestimate what you can do in a year. It’s useful to think, “What did I know a year ago versus what I know today?” Then it’s easier to see that I discovered a lot in the 12 months—I learned things that no one has known in the history of the world.

If a young woman wanted to be a research scientist, what qualities does she need? You have to really want to do it. This is not a job for people that don’t really care.

How do you unwind after a long day? I usually go for a run most days. That is a huge help in giving me some clarity on whatever is bothering me or occupying my thoughts.

More Real Women 9–5:
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What It’s Really Like to Be in the Canadian Armed Forces
What It’s Really Like to Be a Sports TV Anchor
What It’s Really Like to Be a Rocket Scientist

What It’s Really Like to Be a National Ballet Principal Dancer

More #CareerInspo:
How to Stay Career-Focused Without Burning the $@*! Out
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