Posted on September 28 2016
This week's Wednesday Woman is PHD researcher in Space Physiology and advocate for women in STEM the awesome Julia Attias.
Bardega: Can you tell us a bit about your background and what you were like growing up? What did you want to be when you grew up?
Julia Attias: I grew up on a tennis court. My mum was a tennis coach and I had my first racket with a spray-painted red “J” on it at the age of 4. It was embedded in me from a very young age that humans were built to move around! So naturally by the time I started school I was a very outgoing and competitive character. I would always talk a lot (and get told off for it!) but they mistook the chatter for what was really constant curiosity! I always loved music and being in plays at primary school, which I guess came from my dad, who at the time was a musician (a drummer).
When I joined high school, I started to get an interest in PE and triple science (Chemistry, Biology and Physics). I joined Pineapple Performing Arts School in Covent Garden as a teen where I was taught street dance, singing and acting and during these early teen years I grew up wanting to be in front of the camera, as a TV presenter! I continued with both competitive tennis and performing arts until I was 16, at which point I relaxed on both and decided to focus on exams.Bardega: What first sparked your passion for science and how did you make that dream a reality?
Attias: I think it stems back to my early years. When I used to run around the tennis court, I used to wonder why my heart would beat so fast when I hit the ball around. That led me to want to understand how our body worked, though admittedly I didn’t really delve too much into that until PE started to involve theory as opposed to just practical classes. I soon realised that science was a field of study that would pose never ending questions that would always require answers. Once I was aware enough to realise that I possessed personality traits such as incessant curiosity, immense ambition and always wanting to be challenged, I realised it would be the perfect fit.
I decided to undertake a sport science degree to further my knowledge of how the body worked, and particularly loved learning about how the body functions in extreme environments. When I saw that there was such a thing as an MSc in Space Physiology and Health, I jumped at the chance in 2011-2012. During this time I started researching with the SkinSuit – a garment designed to protect astronauts’ bodies whilst in space. I then quickly realised how much I enjoyed doing research because it was the method by which to find out information that doesn’t currently exist. After my MSc, I realised I wanted a profession in space physiology/research.
Bardega:You are currently working on a Skinsuit - can you tell us more about that and why is it so important
Attias: When astronauts go into space, their bodies incur many undesirable changes, due to the absence of gravity that we are continuously faced with here on Earth. The SkinSuit was designed by engineers at MIT in an attempt to recreate a partial gravity-load in order to help protect the health of astronauts when they go in to space.
The Skinsuit may maintain the integrity of many physiological systems and processes, but was not something that was researched prior to 2012, when my colleagues and I started an understanding of this. My background in exercise physiology coupled with newly acquired space physiology knowledge equipped me as an ideal candidate to investigate how the loading provided by the SkinSuit interacts with human movement and exercise, with emphasis on any changes it may incur to our energy expenditure or muscle activity.
I started this research during my MSc and was then fortunate enough to obtain a scholarship to pursue my PhD, which I am over half way through. The SkinSuit has been integrated into International Space Station missions in 2015, and will be flown again in November.
We hope not only for the SkinSuit to become a more permanent countermeasure for astronauts, but also to find applicability of its use for certain terrestrial populations’ i.e. bed-rested individuals due to the similarities in physiological deconditioning experienced by them.
Bardega: How have you found working in what is perceived to be a male dominated industry and how can we encourage more girls to pursue a career in STEM?
Attias: As a female scientist, one of the hardest things to do is to look around a conference room and see how few women there are compared to men with most things “science” and try not letting it get to you. I know I deserve to be where I am today, and that the work that I do is credible, though sometimes it’s hard to keep the “my male equivalent would do it better” demons out of my head! Demons aside, I am very fortunate to be working for an institution that encourages gender equality and opportunities for both male and females. By the same token that I get disheartened by all the men in the room, I also feel great pride that I am one of the few females, because it means that the mould is being broken, and that I am one of the frontrunners.
WISEGlamSci I do my utmost to inspire females to pursue a career in STEM. I write blogs for (Women In Science and Engineering), (A charity aimed at breaking down perceived stereotypes and barriers to STEM) and the Physiological Society. I also go into schools and talk to students about what I do and how I got in to it. We need to break down these longstanding stereotypes of science not only being a male-dominated industry, but the way female scientists should look and sound. I am part of a TV series for the discovery channel (to be aired in soon) that is all about ordinary people doing novel science, in an attempt to do exactly that; I hope it will help. I believe that the more female scientists that do these kinds of outreach activity, the quicker these stigmas can be broken down. I also think we are hugely shaped by or teachers; if students are lucky enough to have ones that understand the barriers they may face and can teach them to be resilient at an early age, I think that can go a long way.
Bardega: What/Who inspires you and why?
Attias: My mum inspires me. She has had an extremely difficult life and lost the majority of her blood related family at a young age, yet still achieved everything she wanted to do. She pursued her career, and gave everything to her family whilst keeping mentally and physically sound, yet at many different stages could have gone “off the rails” as I describe it. She is the strongest minded and most determined person that I know. If she can do all of that without the constant support, attention and encouragement she gives me, I have no excuses! Similarly, I am also inspired by anyone who comes up against the odds to achieve their goals and ambitions.
Attias: Study any of the STEM subjects at school; even if you don’t know exactly what kind of science you want to work in when you are older, it doesn’t matter because there is always overlap as long as you have one of the staple subjects.
Be curious. Don’t settle for knowing “that” something happens; want to know “why” it happens. This curiosity will inadvertently cause you to be inquisitive, creative and determined.
Don’t let the word “can’t” live in your vocabulary and don’t take no for an answer if your gut tells you otherwise. I believe we can do anything we set our minds to, if we want it badly enough.
Find something you feel passionate about – this will fill you with the motivation you need to work hard, be determined, and succeed.