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Julia Attias: I always want to achieve what seems to be the unachievable.

Julia Attias - PhD researcher – Space Physiology

A day in the life of a PhD Researcher in Space Physiology

13 January 2016

Julia Attias

What do you enjoy most about your work?

I enjoy being immensely challenged by trying to find answers to scientific questions that don’t currently exist – that’s what makes me want to get up and go into work every day!

What project(s) are you working on at the moment?

I am working on a Skinsuit that attempts to replicate a gravitational pull through the body, much like that we experience on Earth when standing. The theory is that those who are in an environment that lacks a gravity-stimulus (such as astronauts) will not undergo as much physiological de-conditioning as they would normally, being in that environment. I have just finished a study looking to see if wearing this skinsuit during exercises changes the activation patterns of our muscles compared to when wearing normal gym clothes during exercise. I am interested in the applicability to astronauts and rehabilitation populations, depending on the findings.

What does a typical day at work involve?

A day in the life of me changes every day! It’s one of the things I like; every day is relatively unpredictable, though has its stable duties. I check emails continuously throughout the day as I work with international collaborators and we are all on different clocks. Alongside that I will be working on whatever study I currently have running. So it may entail writing the ethics application, planning the study, testing subjects in the lab, analysing the data, or writing the results up and drawing some conclusions based on reading literature. Often I will create an abstract or presentation for a scientific conference. I have regular meetings with my supervisors/colleagues and peers and I also help to teach undergraduate physiology laboratory practicals, so based on the time of the year that could take up a chunk of my day too.

What do you see as the biggest challenges in your job?

I think one of the main ones is intrinsic, and in the form of self-belief. As a female scientist, one of the hardest things to do is see how few women there are compared to men with most things “science” and trying not letting it get to me. 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! But then again this is all due to stereotypes that need to be broken down, and is exactly why I am a member of WISE, and exactly why I want to do my utmost to inspire females to pursue a career in science, so that hopefully one day those thoughts are eradicated from our minds. I feel very fortunate to be working for an institution that strongly encourages the female presence in Science.

What made you choose this career path?

I have chosen research because I am motivated by finding out information that doesn’t currently exist. I also don’t like doing anything that is easy. I have always been motivated by doing things that both myself and others thought wasn’t possible; I always want to achieve what seems to be the unachievable. As a youngster, I think there were certain figures in my life that didn’t take me too seriously, and perhaps I grew up wanting to prove a point. I have never followed; I’ve always wanted to step away from conforming to “norms”. I wanted to do something that not many other people do, so that I could set myself aside from the generic population and stand out.

What are the benefits?

I feel hugely proud of being a female working in this field. 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. Being a scientist is hugely beneficial to us all, as most of the breakthroughs we find whether it’s about space, cancer, nutrition, exercise, plant biology, etc, are found primarily through scientists working to tackle the world’s problems, and it feels great to be a part of that.

What are your future plans?

I think the exciting thing about the realm of space physiology is that it is rapidly evolving. There may be opportunities when I finish my PhD in a couple of years that may not even exist yet, so I am keeping an open mind. Having said that, I want to continue being a scientist, ideally within a space medicine field.

What do you enjoy doing outside work?

I’m also a qualified personal trainer/exercise instructor and exercise is hugely important to me so I train regularly; I teach spinning weekly too. I also try to take part in a fair amount of outreach – just like this – to try to encourage others to pursue a career in science. I also enjoy most conventional activities like going to the cinema, going out for dinner and socialising with friends and family. I also enjoy reading autobiographies, particularly those that have an inspiring story to tell.

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