Little did curious-yet-indecisive high schooler Sara Hegazi, know, that only a few years later, she would find herself looking for answers to some of the most important biological questions of our time. Now a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate and recipient of the Elizabeth Ann Wintercorbyn Award by the Department of Cell and Systems Biology, Hegazi talked to The Medium about life, research, and the balance between the two.
“I actually did my undergrad here at UTM. I was in the biology specialist program and I also had a chemistry minor,” said Hegazi. “And the reason I pursued biology and my interest in it really stems from high school, where I mainly did science courses such as physics, chemistry, and biology and after high school, I had the choice of going either into biology or into the chemical and physical sciences.” Contemplating on her choices, Hegazi chose to seek advice from her family. “And they gave me two pieces of advice. One, do something you are good at, and second, do something that you actually enjoy,” Hegazi recalled, “And that for me was biology right away.”
Enjoying biology more than the other sciences, Hegazi continued to explore this interest as an undergraduate student. “Then in my fourth year I had the chance of doing a 4th year thesis project in Dr. Westwood’s lab here at UTM. That is when I really became interested in cell and molecular biology research,” Sarah recalls. Hegazi described her experience through the fourth year project to be “stimulating,” as she “found that learning about different genes are involved and are important for the functioning of a cell—and there are a lot of those, I realized that although we do know plenty about the roles of these genes, there is plenty more to be discovered.” The Ph.D. candidate also credits the cycle of discovery and questioning to be “one of the most rewarding things about doing biological research in the cell and molecular sciences.”
Once Hegazi’s thesis course was complete, she says, “I had to make the choice if whether I wanted to stop there or continue with a professional program or a graduate program and I still found myself to be more curious about how our body functions. I really wanted to learn about how our behavior and our physiology is influenced by the outside world.”
The biology researcher was interested in investigating questions such as, “How the sun for example effects sleep cycles, how it affects my physiology, my body temperature, the release of hormones etc., and that is when I decided I wanted to go into research. I knew it was going to be something in cell and molecular biology.”
After some independent online research on which body processes are influenced by the external environment, Hegazi realized “one of the main ones is actually the biological clock, circadian rhythms, a system that is conserved across organisms.”
Hegazi explained how most organisms have a system that regulates their sleep wake cycles, similar to ourselves along with other physiological and behavioral processes as well. “So, then I stumbled upon work done by professor Joel Levine and professor Mary Cheng and I asked if I can do a graduate degree with them and they happily said yes—[happily] for me.”
Hegazi, who began her master’s degree in 2014 worked on a collaborative project, “where we were looking at the function of a single gene that is conserved between mice, which is a mammalian model, and drosophila melanogaster, which is a fly model, where the mechanisms of regulation are very similar to those in mice and even humans.” Upon being introduced to the project, Hegazi said she was interested because she “would study this one gene that might actually have very similar functions in two different model organisms.”
She continued, “I did that for a year and a half. And now at this point I had to decide if I want to end with a master’s or if I wanted to continue with a Ph.D. I really enjoyed my project and it was very interesting to me, and I wanted to know and find out more so then I transferred to a Ph.D.” Hegazi, who is now in her fourth year of Ph.D. studies, references other research on biological clocks and rhythms and mentions the 2017 Nobel Prize in physiology and medicine, that was awarded to scientists Michael W. Young, Michael Rosbash, Jeffrey C. Hall, for their discoveries of molecular mechanisms controlling the circadian rhythm. The UTM alumna added, “So I think there is really a lot to be learnt and discovered in that field, because we don’t know much about how [the circadian clock] functions. We know that it’s really important for our health and well-being.” Hegazi also explained how the World Health Organization has classified shift work as a probable carcinogen, “Shift work is known to get your circadian clock out of whack, so again, it’s really important for a bunch of physiological and behavioral processes.”
Speaking to her experience as a graduate student, Hegazi said, “Research can be difficult, but it can be really rewarding. And for us, we do experiments every single day. Some of them work and some of them don’t work, and some of them can take a very long time until they end up working and so if you don’t have the persistence to continue troubleshooting things to get them to work and answer basic science questions, you can easily give up.”
Hegazi mentioned, however, that “once you have that one experiment working or that one result, it’s extremely rewarding. For me, when I get an experiment to work, it’s like an achievement for that one week, or that month, so in that sense it’s really rewarding.” She added, “I wouldn’t quit something because of the difficulty associated with achieving it. And when you like what you’re doing, and you’re working really hard to progress in that field, if you love what you do, the rewards can outweigh the struggle.” She emphasized that although work can be exhausting, “You don’t feel it when you achieve what you’re working towards. If I get something to work, I’m happier that I got it to work rather than thinking about the time spent doing it.”
When asked about how she maintains a research-life balance being a full time Ph.D. student, Hegazi, while admitting to spending most of her time in the lab, said during breaks, “I try my best to make some family time and I try to spend time as much as possible with my family and friends.” She added how she also tries to make time for physical activity, “I try as much as I can to go to the gym, although it doesn’t happen very often. But I do that with some amazing friends who push me to go to the gym.”
The researcher who is also a trainee representative for the Canadian Society of Chronobiology a student representative, said she “also helps organize conferences on a bi-yearly basis, and that involves inviting speakers” and other activities. Hegazi relates information from the society’s board of directors to other training members.
Hegazi also suggested that, “If someone wants to pursue work in basic science research, and they are passionate about it, then I don’t see why anything should stop them. But before you do, I would recommend getting some sort of first-hand experience in how research in science is done.”
For undergraduates who may currently be deciding if they would like to pursue research, Hegazi said, “Get a position in a lab you are interested in, work there for a summer or for a full year on a research project, and see if you actually like the work. Do you find yourself interested in what you’re doing, or is it just a mundane thing where you are eagerly waiting for the day to end? If that’s not the case, then I would encourage you to go for it.”