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Interview with Dr. Deborah Sloboda



📷 Brighter World, McMaster


Journalist: Omer Choudhry

Omer Choudhry

Welcome back to the show. Today we are joined by Dr. Deborah Sloboda, who is a professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Biomedical Sciences at McMaster University. She is also the head of a research group “Sloboda lab”, which studies early life origins of health and disease. It's a pleasure to have you on the show. Would you mind telling us a little bit about yourself?

Dr. Deborah Sloboda

Sure, thanks for inviting me, it's a pleasure to be here. So I'm Deborah Sloboda, I am a professor at McMaster University. I'm also a Canada Research Chair in perinatal programming, and I'm a fetal physiologist which is basically a reproductive biologist. That is where my training is but principally in in fetal physiology and what happens in the course of development impact on later life disease risk.

Omer Choudhry

Would you mind explaining the focus of your research to our audience, with a brief overview of what you study and what you're interested in?

Dr. Deborah Sloboda

Sure, So we are interested in understanding how the early life environment impacts on how we develop diseases later in life. And we have a principal interest in understanding those diseases that most of us thought were solely lifestyle associated diseases. So things like obesity, diabetes, hypertension, so high blood pressure, most people will associate those diseases with their own ability to choose or not choose what to eat, how much activity etc, etc. Of course, accounting for any kind of genetic susceptibility, but what most people don't understand is that the environment within which you develop in, so even as a germ cell as an egg and a sperm, as an embryo and as a fetus also impacts on how and when and what type of potential health or disease risk you might have later in life. And so really, it's, it's the interaction between your developmental life and your postnatal life, that impacts on yourself as a healthy human being.

Omer Choudhry

I think that's great, because a lot of people tend to look at just the one side of things that you mentioned, of how they impact themselves once they have been born. But it's important to study before the influences from ever since they were small, and all of that, and how that really triggers certain things. It's not always just what you're eating, it could be something deeper. My next question is that a lot of people have been wondering, whether they're students, or professors in any field, how has COVID-19 affected the way you and your research lab work in the past year? And what would you say were some struggles that you may have come across?

Dr. Deborah Sloboda

Sure, so you know, COVID has impacted all of us in a number of different ways. I'm privileged enough to have a career and a job that enables me to work through this. So I just want to say that I'm completely delighted to be able to continue the work that I've been doing, because there's so many millions of people that have been out of work. So that's actually a huge plus. Having said that, it's been a struggle as it is with everyone. A lot of what we do, about two thirds to three quarters of the lab is geared on Biological Sciences. So we actually perform experiments in the laboratory at the bench, understanding molecular biology. And in doing so we use animal models. So it's been really tricky to try and maintain the level of work and productivity that we've had previously. We've been really conscious of the fact that, a lot of my students live out of town, they have varying degrees of comfort, about what they want to do and what they don't want to do. We also have to be conscious of the fact that, you can only have so many people in the lab at the same time, you can only do so much animal work at the same time. And we've also been really really proactive in terms of keeping our one team, we've divided it into two teams just in case somebody gets sick so that not everyone goes down. But I have to say the team has been incredible. I have an incredible set of students and postdoctoral fellows that have been unbelievably supportive of each other, it's been amazing. If one person needs help, they all put their hand up. And really that's been the success of our lab is that everyone's willing to pitch in for anyone to do anything whenever they need it. So that's been great, but also a struggle. And then the other 25% of what we do is community based research, which has been virtually impossible. In the past we have studied, something called the mother's to baby study. So we did a pregnancy study where we were trying to understand what the barriers and enablers are to healthy eating, maintaining health and services, and what kind of services they use in Hamilton. So that's been hard. We have a study right now that is fully funded, to look at how we use art to translate what we do in the lab, into art. And as a method of translation to the public. We haven't even started that study, because it's impossible to do that, because we can't get to the art gallery, and we can't get to artists, and we can't bring pregnant people and artists together, we can't do that. So that's been a struggle. But I will tell you about a huge success that we've had, we launched a study called the Canadian teenagers and COVID-19 study in August. And which is not on my website, which I probably should put there now. It's a study to understand the impact of COVID-19 and all the social isolation on teams in Hamilton, on their mental health or well being and what they're eating, and physical activity. And that's been a great success. So we have an amazing team of undergraduate students that have been working with our core team. And we've been talking to teams in focus groups, we've been talking to teens that go to high school and are talking to first year second year McMaster students about how hard it's been. We want to know what they are doing to try and cope with COVID-19? How are they feeling? What are some of the barriers that they've managed to overcome? And they've been really great in sharing their perspective and how they think, you know, the messaging has done them right or done them wrong. And, and that's been a huge plus I have to say, and the study is ongoing. So you know, every few days, we have a new person, kind of a participant put up their hand and say, I want to tell you about what I'm feeling. So that's been a plus.

Omer Choudhry

Yeah, that sounds great! And then it definitely seems like there's a strong team dynamic that's been fostered within your research group, which, which is great to hear. It does help reduce the stress in these tough times where there's so much uncertainty. And that leads me into my next question, I know you also not only lead your leisure research group, but you're also a professor. And so in that sense, aside from, strong mentality, what advice would you give to students to increase their productivity or even yourself ways that you found within the pandemic, that productivity can be increased in an online setting?

Dr. Deborah Sloboda

Yeah. So, Omer, I'm gonna challenge you on the word “productivity”. I think that we need to think about what we're calling productivity. Now, we need to not worry so much about output, as we do about quality as well. I think that being online has its advantages. And being online has its disadvantages, and I don't think I have to go through all of them. Everybody knows what the advantages are. You don't have to drive for an hour, you know, but quite frankly, the disadvantage is that I'm not walking across campus. I'm not running into some of my students in the middle of campus and having a chat and then carrying on. I'm not actually moving my legs to get to the other side of campus. So, it's been a catch 22. I think that, given the fact that everybody is sitting at their computer, meetings that used to take half an hour with half an hour in between meetings are no longer happening. So now you have meetings that start and end back to back right? Because you're not going anywhere, because your commute is just a button click away. I think that significantly reduced productivity, I think people are spending more time meeting and chatting. And spending less time doing maybe some of the other things that they'd rather be doing. But having said that, you're meeting and chatting online, which is really important. And to me, you know, doing this kind of chat with you right now online is really important. Because we aren't connecting on campus, we aren't seeing people on campus. And sometimes just seeing a group of people is enough. I don't have to approach that group of 20 people and have a chat, sometimes just seeing them is enough. And we're missing that. So I've basically just tried to do what I can in the period of a day, you know, we have great data, I love looking at the data. I love writing up the data, but I'm not gonna chastise myself for you know, “oh, you should have got that paper out yesterday”, instead of today. We're all just managing. So I think the word productivity, I kind of hate it.

Omer Choudhry

Yeah. I think that's a great point, that you mentioned because of how it's important to look at the other side of the spectrum, when you think of that word “productivity” in general, looking at the fact that there are those advantages and disadvantages. But like you said, we aren't able to connect on campus, even though we both are having a chat. So that in itself, having those breaks overall helps better mental health throughout this time. The fact that even seeing a group, without even approaching them, it gives you that sense of interaction in a way that we're lacking right now. So stuff like this definitely helps. As you mentioned earlier, and you have had a great career within your field. And so I wanted to touch upon some things that I found out about you that I think are really interesting. I think that people would want to know about how your experiences were traveling. And so, in 2001, you received a fellowship from the Women's and Infants Research Foundation in Western Australia, where you went and spent five years completing your postdoctoral fellowship. You then also spent time in New Zealand, where you were appointed Deputy Director of the National Research Center for Growth and Development at the University of Auckland, where you also achieved the Early Research Career Award. Obviously, in the current year that we're living in, it's not possible to travel as easily as it was. But some undergraduate students do have questions about what it's like to travel? And how what steps did you take that pushed you towards exploring options outside of Canada? So my question for you is, what was this experience like for you, having completed your BSc at University of Guelph small town at the time? And what pushed you to explore other options which led to great success?

Dr. Deborah Sloboda

So I would say that most, most undergrad students think when they look at a professor and kind of look at the trajectory or the historical, journey that they've taken, they think that it's a linear process that, “Okay, I decided that I want to leave Canada so I left and then I decided I wanted to leave Australia and I left” when in fact it's not linear in any way shape or form. In very few cases has somebody said, “I want to go here then I want to go here. That's it”. For me, it was about being open to opportunity and not being afraid of taking risks. Or maybe not so much of not being afraid but just taking risks, because I was always afraid. So super clear about that. There's nothing comfortable about moving to a strange country and starting a new job. That is super uncomfortable. But knowing that it'll all work out, very likely in the end. So I just kept myself open to opportunity. And that happened every step of the way. So I finished my undergrad degree in Guelph, I might add, I started my undergrad degree in growth in arts, I was in full humanities, I was going to be a French teacher. And then just saw a few courses and thought, I'd like to do that. I like that better than teaching French. And then completed that, stuck around, got a job. went online, looked up a few people, made some phone calls, somebody said, Yes, I went to Western, I really liked it there. You know, then left Western and, and I left Western because I took a course. I talked to a prof. the prof said, we don't know the answer to your question. I was like, well, I should do the PhD. And then moved to Toronto and, then in the middle of my PhD, the experiments weren't working. So my PI sent me to Australia and said, well, the protocol is working there, you should go work it out. And I was like, Oh, no. But I went alone and didn't know anybody, lived there for six weeks, it was super uncomfortable. Every step was uncomfortable. But every step was exciting. And for me, in order to keep learning, you got to step out of your comfort zone every single time. So I just kind of followed my nose, really. And I just listened to the doors opening or watched the doors open and then chose the one that I wanted to walk through. Because opportunities are all around you. You just have to keep an eye out for them. And sometimes you think, well, this is crazy. Why am I going to do this? This seems weird. Doesn't seem logical. But sometimes you gotta take a risk, just take a risk and try it out. Nothing's forever. I mean, like I said, I could have been a French teacher, and you would not be talking to me about French right now. But I took a risk. So to me, the biggest thing is don't don't be afraid to take risks. And also don't be afraid to take a little bit longer to do what you thought you'd get done. Because I took five and a half years to do an undergrad because I transferred.



Omer Choudhry

Yeah, that really helps to hear in the sense that what you mentioned about doors opening. It's kind of I know a lot of our conversations went back to the whole COVID situation. But because it relates so well, to the fact that doors are still open despite COVID. It's part of the equal online opportunities you could fit in one place and be working in another place like me.

Dr. Deborah Sloboda

That's exactly right. So be open to things that you thought that you think, “how could that possibly work out?” Well, I don't know. Try it, it might not work out. But as long as it doesn't hurt you in any way, you know, you might lose a year of your time. But if you can afford it, like me, it's not a race to the end. It's a marathon, not a sprint.

Omer Choudhry

Yeah, and like you said, along the way, there could be bumps in the road. But you end up learning from them. The next question I had for you was what would you tell yourself during this time, but I think you've already answered that nicely with the fact that you followed your heart and your passion. Unless you want to add something to that answer?

Dr. Deborah Sloboda

Well, I think you I think you summed it up quite nicely. There are bumps along the way and to me, dealing with the bumps are important on your own, but also a support network. Surround yourself with people that will support you, no matter what. That's super helpful.

Omer Choudhry

Awesome. Yeah, for sure. That concludes the time that we have for today. But thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us. It was nice to get the chance to know more about yourself and your research group as well as hearing some advice there at the end for the people listening, thinking about ways that our listeners could either make their career advance or even if they're just scared to take risks. A perfect example of that would be given by yourself to just go for it and chase your passions. So thank you so much.

Dr. Deborah Sloboda

Yeah, thanks for asking me to do this. Good luck to everyone out there!