The dancing queen of biotechnology
March 7, 2023

The dancing queen of biotechnology

Natalia Kalka is a young and promising biotechnology student from Novovorontsovka (Kherson region), Ukraine. She got an opportunity to participate in a double diploma programme and to study environmental biotechnology and medical biology at the same time. Besides, Nataliia is fond of dancing, literature, and good coffee – she even plans to study how caffeine influences human health! So let’s uncover all the secrets of our biotechnology dancing queen.

Natalia’s ‘STEM Story’ is one of a series of interviews with promising female professionals in science and technology, who want to share their experiences and motivate young girls to choose a STEM career. 

  1. Could you please tell us more about your major – what do you study? What is the biggest success that you have achieved so far?

My speciality is biotechnologies and bioengineering. I study at NUBiP and at the same time under the programme for double diplomas in the Pomorsky Academy (in the city of Slupsk in Poland). I can joke that biotechnology is a kind of three-in-one: a mix of biology, chemistry, and engineering sciences. Currently, biotechnology has many different branches: food, industrial, and medical. I think that those who find it difficult to choose something for themselves after the 11th grade will like this “fruit cocktail”. For me, the greatest achievement is that I can study at two universities at the same time and still not give up my hobbies of dance and literature.

But studying at two universities is a challenge. If someone asks me for advice on this, to be honest, it’s hard for me to answer, because it is very specific. First of all, you need to learn to plan your time very accurately and avoid bouts of procrastination. This only comes with experience. Secondly, there are different requirements and work formats. In my case also different specialities (in Poland – “Medical Biology”). In Poland, we had a lot of activities in nature, in Kyiv, the emphasis was on work in the laboratory.

But the double degree programme is worth all the effort, because, in addition to the European-style diploma, you get more experience and more subjects. Earlier, I was more interested in agricultural biotechnology, but after studying in Poland, I fell in love with medical topics. Also, there are new people from different countries – other cultures, and religions. Yes, some cannot withstand the load, but if you can, you are a winner

Perhaps I am not one of those people who can boast of great achievements, but I believe that with every laboratory work, I am coming closer to my goal. It’s a very trite thing, but in one of the biochemistry classes, we analysed our urine. We may have been sceptical at first, but we were all very excited after the laboratory session. It’s an excellent experience when you have the opportunity to “explore yourself”.

  1. How and when did you become interested in a STEM career? Why did you eventually choose to study mathematics?

I always liked biology. Literally from the second lesson in the sixth class (the year when I started studying biology), I realised that this was for me. I would like to say a special big thank you to my biology teacher because he supported my interest in this science. One particularly vivid memory was the school Olympics, “What? Where? When?” As a gambling person, any competition is a challenge for me. It was such a fascinating experience and I am still incredibly impressed by the passion and enthusiasm with which my teacher conducted all the events.

My free time was filled with studying biology: when I stood in the post office queue, I would work out new terms for myself. I might start reading a school paragraph about mushrooms and finish reading an article about keratin. I wanted to know more and more. It happened that I woke up because I had forgotten some term and I urgently needed to google it because I couldn’t fall asleep. It often happened that the question arose in my head: “Is it possible to want to sleep after coffee?” And the research began.

So, the basic idea of what I wanted to achieve in my future was clear. First, I seriously thought about medicine, but after my grandfather had a stroke, I realised that it was not for me.

So I started thinking about other specialties related to biology. Here, the advantage of biotechnology was that there were many interesting videos on YouTube. The idea of genetic changes amazed me. Like, you can do this with a pink pegasus, too? I’m joking, of course, but it seemed to me then that if it was possible to cure diseases at the level of genes, then the world would become better.

For me, the idea of discovery and research became more important. So I chose biotechnologies and bioengineering as a method of methodical search. I hesitated for a long time between plant and medical biotechnology. Nevertheless I have always been very attached to my home – the Kherson oblast (first of all, it is an agricultural area). That is why my choice fell on biotechnologies of plants (I dreamed of making the best watermelon in the world), but during my studies I understood that I was closer to the topic of medicine, and therefore my master’s is connected with this.

  1. Have you ever experienced gender inequality or gender-based stereotypes during your studies?

I was lucky to avoid this. Only once at an ecology competition, one lady from the jury noted that my short skirt and high heels suggest that my work is not done properly, and that I am trying to distract attention from this with my appearance. If leather clothes, red lipstick, and high heels are my casual style, what is the problem?

What was my reaction? Smile. If a person lives within the framework of his stereotypes, then words cannot help them. We must act. Therefore, girls, go to science, write articles, participate in contests, and apply for study abroad. Even the smallest steps (school Olympics, for example) make a difference.

  1. Why is promoting STEM disciplines, particularly among girls, an important priority for the EU and Ukraine?

I don’t think anyone can deny that STEM is promising. So isn’t it the most rational thing to involve everyone in solving the tasks of this science, who is passionate about it and has a knack for it?

How much has humanity achieved with the help of biotechnology (new varieties, insulin, and other inventions)? In the past, significant developments in biotechnology came after the Second World War, so biotechnologists will not play the last role in the reconstruction of our state.

Let us remember how many medicines were invented in that period. The most banal is penicillin.

Now, in my opinion, scientists will face challenges of colossal significance. We need new varieties of plants (given that the fields in the southern regions are so destroyed now, this is one of the possible ways out of this situation), medical engineers must take care of the development of new prostheses, the issue of new energy resources is important, etc.

Therefore, in my opinion, it is a prime time for STEM specialities not only in Ukraine but also throughout the world.

  1. Are there any female scientists who inspire you? Why are they so special?

I love Jennifer Anne Doudna. Her book The Code Breaker is my bedside read, and here it is not so much a question of knowledge or interesting information, but motivation and a model for a career path.

Jennifer Doudna is an American biochemist who has pioneered CRISPR gene editing and has made other foundational contributions to biochemistry and genetics. Doudna was one of the first women to share a Nobel in the sciences.

Why this particular book? I wouldn’t like to describe the scientific nuances, because for me it is first of all about the idea. The idea is to be a scientist who grows with you from the first biology textbook to work in the laboratory. It inspires me. In 20-30 years, I would like to have such an experience, about which I could write a book.

I also really like Hedy Lamarr, who was an inventor and an actress – a combination of beauty, femininity, and intelligence.

Hedy is exactly the kind of person we can thank for wifi. She was the first beauty of Hollywood, which may have prevented her from gaining widespread recognition as a scientist (at that time, gender inequality was much more pronounced), but now it is simply a sin to forget about such an outstanding figure in various fields.

Among Ukrainian scientists, I would like to mention Daria Ozerna, who did a lot to popularise science. I think even people who are very far from biology will be interested in getting to know her articles, where she debunks myths about nutrition.

  1. What advice would you give to girls who are only considering entering STEM disciplines?

I think I can confidently name two pieces of advice

1. Don’t be afraid to try. You definitely won’t waste your time because STEM is a field where there are many extraordinary people (they are kind of like Cyrus Smith from Jules Verne’s novel) with a wide range of interests. And in my opinion, a big part of success is your ability to communicate and have acquaintances everywhere.

2. Take online courses, search for videos on YouTube, read scientific popular literature – do everything to better understand your future speciality.

My favourite – Industrial Biotechnology  and Bioinformatics: Introduction and Methods. These courses are awesome: short, exciting, and make the main idea of the topic clear. For example, a course on industrial biotechnology helped me better understand the subject at university. Therefore, if you are interested in hearing about how enzymes can be used with commercial benefits, join the course!

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