Before we get into the episode, we are very pleased to announce that Monday Science has been ranked 13th for Top UK Science Podcasts by Feedspot! We would like to say a big thank you to all of our listeners, as well as the Monday Science Team, past and present.
This episode is the first of a two-part series where Dr Bahijja talks with Dr Theodora Stewart about her impressive career as a scientist, a musician, and more recently as the Lead Scientist and Manager of the London Metallomics Facility (LMF). The LMF is based at King’s College London, focused on developing correlative bioimaging workflows to understand the role of metals in biology.
Science or music…or both?
Dr Stewart composes her own music, performs at open mic nights and even has her own fan base, alongside her scientific career. She emphasises the importance of dissolving the distinction between “work life” and “personal life” and being able to appreciate oneself as a whole holistic person. After struggling to decide whether to pursue science or music, she ended up doing both, and the combination has very much enhanced her life, being the source of much happiness and fulfilment.
“A beautiful synergistic interaction – one inspires the other”– Dr Stewart on art and science
How Dr Stewart entered the world of chemistry
Dr Stewart was born in the US near Boston and went to Wellesley College, one of the few remaining all-women colleges in the US. She actually went to university with the expectation of pursuing a major in Music or History, but after taking a human anatomy course, she realised how much she liked science. Throughout the summer, Dr Stewart conducted research in neuroscience, and then biochemistry, before realising what she was really passionate about was the chemistry aspect, and so after a big turn, she ended up coming out of university with a major in Analytical Chemistry.
As well as with pure analytical chemistry, Dr Stewart found that she had a passion for the applications of chemistry. She highlights how she has always loved nature and is especially skilled at identifying interconnections between different things, and after putting these together, she developed a special interest in using analytical chemistry in environmental science.
Dr Stewart’s metallomics journey
During her third year at university, Dr Stewart wanted to experience something new – different to the US where she’d grown up. She went abroad to pursue a research opportunity over summer at a freshwater research institute in Switzerland, where she looked into bioremediation approaches to clean contaminated water of toxic metals. After handing in her final thesis, she went back to Switzerland again and ended up applying for a Masters in Biogeochemistry and Pollutant Dynamics at ETH Zürich, while pursuing research at the same lab. She also did her PhD at ETH and stayed one-year postdoc in the lab.
Throughout this time, Dr Stewart’s work always revolved around the role of metals in biology, initially concerning the toxicity of metals such as Lead. However, through studying the effects of lead on biofilms during her PhD, she recognised the importance of the interactions between different metals. By observing how Lead interacted with important essential metals such as Copper, Iron, and Zinc within the body, she developed an interest in the interface between essential and non-essential metals.
After receiving a Swiss Postdoc Mobility Grant, Dr Stewart came to King’s College London (KCL) to work in the Department of Nutrition, looking at the interactions between essential and non-essential metals. She came into contact with a Professor of Metallomics who received a Wellcome Trust Grant, along with others at Imperial College London, to create a London Metallomics Facility. She was invited to apply for the positions of Lead Scientist and Manager, and although she wasn’t keen on staying in London, she couldn’t turn such a uniquely suited opportunity down.
The importance of interdisciplinarity
“New connections and integrations across a wide range of fields” – Dr Stewart on what science needs to develop
Dr Stewart highlights how there are many specialists within science who are very knowledgeable within specific fields, however, she notes that many struggle to see connections between different subject areas. Being able to have the flexibility and think laterally during her education set a powerful foundation for the way in which she sees and interacts with science. She explains that it is difficult to find suitable people for the LMF as so few have had the experience in bridging different disciplines together – something that is required when working in metallomics.
What actually is metallomics?
“Understanding metal chemistry dynamics in biological processes within the context of a complete whole functioning system” – Dr Stewart
Dr Stewart draws parallels between metallomics and other fields, such as genomics, emphasising how they are linked through their holistic systems approach. Her work mainly revolves around developing cutting-edge analytical tools that can underpin a wide range of questions within metallomics.
Metals are highly important within the body – for example, there is a Cobalt at the centre of Vitamin B12, and Zinc is involved in almost every process and function such as in storing insulin. Dysregulation of essential metals can lead to disease, so it is important to study their function at a mechanistic level – a whole range of new therapies and diagnostic tools could arise out of developments in metallomics.
When considering grant writing, Dr Stewart highlights the importance of how the topic is conveyed – often the most significant drawback. It needs to be expressed in a way that is accessible, yet intelligently articulated, with a focus on why you genuinely believe it’s important.
“Why am I doing what I’m doing?” – Dr Stewart
Dr Stewart spent much time writing and rewriting sentences and tweaking things until she could accurately and effectively articulate what metallomics means and why it’s important. She emphasises the value of giving yourself time to think about why you really care about your topic and relating the context of your research to a larger vision, without focusing too much on the lack of money.
Find out more:
The function and sources of essential metals - https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/precious-metals-and-other-important-minerals-for-health