Misia Kowanda, Simons Searchlight Outreach Manager

Misia Kowanda graduated with a PhD in Biology in 2017. Her research focused on genes specific to RNA transport and protein organization during Drosophila oogenesis (the development of egg cells in fruit flies). After her PhD, Misia completed her Master’s in Genetic Counseling at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. Today, she works as Outreach Manager for Simons Searchlight.  

Q: When did you decide to do a PhD? 

I went into research expecting not to do a PhD. I was into research in my undergrad and did an honours project that I was excited about, but I felt like I didn’t get enough research experience. I didn’t know how to understand a scientific paper and I didn’t know how to structure experiments to answer scientific questions.

So, I started a Master’s in Paul Lasko’s lab. It was a very different environment, with much more rigorous scientific training, which was great, but the Master’s project was not really getting off the ground. 

Nearing the end of my first year, Paul said I could wrap up the project and finish with a Master’s or I could transfer to a PhD. He explained why he thought I should do a PhD based on how I took on the project he had given me. He caught me in a moment where I actually felt like I was succeeding in my project, however, if he had asked during one of the times that felt lower, I might have not transferred. Already I knew enough about the lab fit to make my decision. The type of researcher Paul is worked really well for my learning style—on a personal level we jived really well, and I knew that it was a really good environment and situation, so I stayed even though it was not what I intended when I started. 

Q: How did you find your specific lab? Did you know Paul already from having worked with flies?

I was reading a bunch of fly work papers on Drosophila oogenesis and his name kept coming up. And I was like “Oh he has a job availability posting on his website” and he was looking for a postdoc for the project that he took me for, and rejected me at first. So he said no to me even applying for a Master’s position, and then I drove down to Montreal on a weekend, and broke into the Stewart Biology building—followed someone in—and slipped my handwritten reference letters under his door and he opened up the letters and then gave me an interview. I always say, don’t take no for an answer. 

He didn’t like that I had a low grade in general genetics. But I thrive in certain ways that aren’t always academically obvious. I don’t do well on multiple choice testing—I’m more of a descriptive process type of person—but in other areas like human genetics, I was getting straight A’s, so I was able to show him my strengths. 

Q: What was the career development process like for you at the end of your PhD? 

I knew I wasn’t going to be a professor. I was not successful with any fellowship applications nor was I publishing at a frequency suggesting this to be a possibility. Throughout the degree I was already thinking “what am I going to do with this?” I needed to go into something where the PhD was going to be an asset. 

Genetic counseling was something that people kept saying to me “Why don’t you consider this? You really enjoy genetics. You enjoy people.” So I volunteered for two years with a genetic counselor and a crisis call center up until the birth of my son. Then, back to volunteering because to get into genetic counseling, you have to be both volunteering at a crisis center (for counseling skills) and with a genetic counselor. It’s just hard to get in. 

The first time that I was applying, there were only 16 spots a year for genetic counseling students in Canada, with spots split between three English programs and one French program, making it really competitive. This first time I applied for genetic counseling, I did not get in. So, as I was wrapping up my PhD, I positioned myself to work in a lab at the superhospital, run by an MD who also has a genetic counseling degree. However, this new role was meant for someone with a genetic counseling degree. I was very fortunate that they hired me since I was not a French speaker and I wasn’t a genetic counselor, two qualifiers for the position. 

I later found out why I was considered for the position even though I was not the perfect fit. It was because I kept coming up with solutions and creative ideas when barriers presented themselves. Specifically, due to personnel turnover, the new lab couldn’t wait until I was done my PhD—they needed someone A.S.A.P.—so I came up with a compromise. I would work three days a week in the new lab to overlap with the person leaving, and the other days I would be in my PhD lab finishing my experiments and writing my thesis on the weekends. I was extremely happy I was able to negotiate this position because it helped me get into genetic counseling the following year. Again, never take no for an answer.

Q: If you knew you weren’t going to be a professor, why do a PhD then? 

I enjoyed the day-to-day in general. I loved the environment. I loved my fellow grad students. It was such a wonderful time “in the trenches” together. Furthermore, I really wanted to develop scientific abilities I was lacking, like reading and writing papers. It was all about the process for me, and writing truly wasn’t my strength. For my PhD qualifying exam, my committee hacked apart my proposal. They hated it and it was fairly bad. I knew where my shortcomings were, and I wanted to gain and struggle and grow. 

Q: Is there anything that you know now that you wish you knew coming into your PhD? What kind of advice would you give to somebody starting a PhD? 

For me, once I started going to my supervisor more with my experimental issues, as opposed to struggling quietly, he was able to help me troubleshoot more. 

It was only after many years that I figured out that I wasn’t asking for help. Once I figured this out, I could send him a quick email and he would email back with a suggestion in two seconds. Paul has this huge breadth of knowledge, he’s a wonderful P.I. and he keeps up to date with the literature. I started being more transparent. I would say “this isn’t really working” and he would say “try it one more time and if it still doesn’t work, move on.” Once I was able to communicate my process with my supervisor better, I was able to get more out of the mentor-mentee relationship. 

Don’t be afraid to communicate, they want you to be as successful as possible. There are ways to be more efficient and there are ways that you will get the most out of your training. Our supervisors each have particular management styles and each student needs different levels of support from their supervisor. You have to figure out what you need and what works for you, which is really tough. 

Many thanks to Misia for sharing her PhD narrative! You can find out more about her here and learn about the work being done at Simons Searchlight on their website.

This interview took place in May 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.