Graduate Researcher: Shabnam Massah

Thinking about embarking in graduate school? SURJ is starting a new blog series that features SFU graduate students and professors. For our first entry, we’re excited to introduce Shabnam Massah who completed her PhD in the Faculty of Health Sciences.

Shabnam Massah

Name: Shabnam Massah
Faculty: Health Sciences
Post graduate education: PhD at SFU.

Q: What is the most exciting thing about being in research? What do you love about research? 
A: I get to examine, learn, ask, and test fundamental and basic concepts of life, then come up with a hypothesis for life. I can come up with a hypothesis based on preliminary observations and design experiments to test them. I also get to exercise problem solving skills everyday and that is rewarding to me. There are also opportunities to think outside the box to solve the problem. When I die, I want to make sure I at least made one  improvement in science or someone’s life.

Q: What do you dislike most about research?
A: Even though 90% of the time it doesn’t work, the 10% is like the light at the end of the tunnel. The encouragement you get from good results makes you go. You need to be determined and really enjoy it to be in research.

Q: How did you get involved in research?
A: I always knew I wanted to do research but not until after undergrad because I never had the chance to work in a research lab then. When I immigrated to Canada I looked for this opportunity. I started taking some courses at UBC and volunteering at SFU. After six months, things just clicked.

Q: What are your research interests?
A: I am interested in epigenetics. I study how chemical modifications of DNA and histone proteins can change chromatin structure and DNA accessibility, and therefore gene expression. I’m interested to see how these chemical modifications are added and recognized by certain proteins that eventually can change gene expression. Things we experience, things we eat, what we feel can all change gene expression and that is the power of epigenetics.

Q: What is a typical “day in the life” for you?
A: I have different duties. I have been an instructor, a lab instructor, TA-ships, working on my project as a PhD student. Part of teaching is meeting students, helping them out. I direct and guide undergraduate students in the lab. I read and research and write grants. I’m a mom and wife so I have a lot to do. I also instruct piano twice a week.

Q: Favourite science joke or meme from your field?
A: If you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the precipitate.

Q: If you were a scientific lab instrument, which one would you be?
A: A pipetman (automatic pipette) because it’s with you from the beginning of the experiment to the end. It’s there for you in good experiments and bad.

Q: Who is your biggest science crush?
A: Madam Curie because she devoted her whole life [to science]. She was the first female to win a nobel prize and the first person to win it twice.

Q: What is fun about the lab?
A: Our lab has an open lab structure so it is connected to three other labs. I made a lot of friends during my graduate studies and it was fun having an open concept. We could talk about research, borrow materials, and it was good to know you have someone there for you.

Q: What scares you the most in the lab or in your field?
A: When you are at the last steps of an experiment that took you three weeks to do and an instrument breaks down. It is the worst feeling in the world. Sometime the samples are really precious, takes months to collect, and when an instrument breaks at the last minute, it’s not fun.

Q: What is one piece of advice you would give to an aspiring undergraduate researcher?
A: Volunteer, do co-op. I wish I had these opportunities in my undergrad. Students here are so lucky to have the coop program and have opportunities to volunteer. But you need to take your job seriously if you’re in the lab. I have lots of students come to work just to fill out their med applications or get a reference letter. They did not survive because their mindset was wrong but those who [were genuinely interested] and determined did great. Work hard. Take advantage of your time. It’s precious.

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