Nafisa Jadavji, Assistant Professor

Nafisa Jadavji completed her PhD in 2012 from the Department of Human Genetics in the Faculty of Medicine. She is currently an Assistant Professor at Midwestern University (US) and an Adjunct Research Professor at Carleton University (Canada).

Q: What made you interested in doing a PhD in human genetics?

So prior to starting at McGill University, I was doing my undergraduate at the University of Lethbridge and was on the medical school path. But when I finished my undergrad, I wasn’t super keen on doing another four years of undergrad. So I took a break and did research because I had done research throughout my whole undergrad and I really liked it. I did a research-based Master’s for two years and I really enjoyed it, so I decided on the research route instead of medical school or clinical work.

I was looking for opportunities to do a PhD and I came across Rima Rozen, who is at the Department of Human Genetics at McGill University. My background in research was in behavioral neuroscience, so I had a lot of understanding of the brain and functioning and how to look at that. My weakness was that I didn’t really have a great understanding of molecular and biochemistry techniques. But Rima Rozen’s lab has a large focus on all of those components. She was interested in pursuing some neuroscience work looking at behavior. So it was really great merging of her expertise and my expertise, and a fruitful endeavor. I was there for about four years and I learned so much

Q: Did your supervisor play a huge role during your PhD?

Rima played a huge role in my growth as a scientist. She was very supportive and she saw the bigger picture in the lab. That was great because as a graduate student, you see the day-to-day and you kind of forget the big picture and your bigger goal. She had a lot of support in her lab for students to succeed and to do well. We had weekly lab meetings and sometimes I would just be like “Ah! Weekly lab meetings!” but it was great because we would discuss data, experiments, or what went right or wrong that week. It really helped me practice how to talk about my data, how to put together the data, how to explain it, and how to go about answering the questions. It was a really rigorous environment, but it helped me a lot in my postdoc and subsequently now in my faculty position. I look back at my time during my PhD and I think about how great it was because there was such a collaborative environment in the lab.

Q: What kind of support did you get from your community?

I think my support system that I built during my PhD was people in the lab that I could consult about troubleshooting. And then I developed friendships within the lab space that we were in with other researchers. Through lunches and other social activities, I became friends with some people. And it was really great to have that support of other scientists because a lot of people that are not in academia or academic scientific research don’t understand the struggles. It can be really hard to have empathy, you know, when we’re complaining about experiments not working or manuscripts.

Nafisa describes her support system during her PhD.

Our lab was at the Children’s Hospital Research Institute, and it had a whole floor of labs and all these different researchers that collaborated. We had lunch together and we cried about experiments not working, and talked about how our supervisors were being too demanding or not giving feedback on manuscripts, or whatever. It was such a great environment in the sense that you had a support system and a social outlet. I’ve been to Germany, and I came back to Canada in Ottawa and did another postdoc there, and I haven’t seen an environment like this in any labs I’ve been in. McGill is a unique place—it has pros and cons like anywhere—but I think the environments that I experienced doing my PhD played a huge role in my future success as a scientist and gave me tools to be successful.

Q: Are there any experiences you had in your graduate studies that were particularly valuable to you?

The PhD is a good time to explore what you really like and what you want to do in your future. McGill has a lot of resources to do that. I was a TA in biology, so I got some teaching experience. There were also teaching centres at McGill that had a one day teaching workshop for graduate students, which helped me a lot with developing my teaching statement as a postdoc and when I applied for instructor positions. McGill is really great in that you can come out from your PhD with teaching experience and service experience. I was on a PGSS committee called CGSS, the Council for Graduate Student Support, which was really great.

Montreal is close to other hubs of science like Boston and New York, so there’s a lot of opportunity for collaborations. Going into your PhD, be open and flexible to trying different things and figuring out what you like. Now, with the pandemic and economic losses, the faculty job market is going to be very hard in the next few years, so it’s important to take advantage of all the resources at McGill to enhance your education.

Q: What was your path like after your PhD?

I thought about what I wanted to do. Did I want to do a postdoc or did I want to go into industry? I decided I’d give the postdoc thing a try. I always wanted to live in Europe, so I picked a couple of research areas and then set up a bunch of interviews with potential labs that did interesting research. There was a group of researchers in Germany that had published a paper in an area of research that I had done during my PhD. I met with them and they basically said to me that if I can fund my salary, I can work in their lab and do these experiments. So then I came back to Canada and I wrote a bunch of grant applications and got an FRSQ, but I had to delay it because unfortunately I got kind of sick. At the end of my graduate school, I was diagnosed with a chronic disease, so I had to delay it by four or five months. I don’t know if I’m super stubborn, but a lot of people told me not to go internationally with being sick but I managed it in Germany well.

Q: How did you find your first faculty position?

It was a long process. It took me about six years of postdoc work to land a faculty position. I have a personal website from my lab and I wrote a blog post about my journey through the academic job market.

Q: Were there any particular challenges in the faculty job search?

I tried not to believe that female academics or female scientists have a harder time. I went through my undergrad, graduate school, and postdoc not thinking it was an issue. Then when I went onto the job market, it was slammed in my face time and time again that women in science are the minority. For universities that I didn’t get a job offer, I went back and I asked what my weakness was in my application. I was told I didn’t act like a P.I., I didn’t smile enough, or. you know, all of these different things. It was just ridiculous. If you look at the data, women make up such a huge proportion of undergraduates and graduate students. Then there are fewer women when you look at assistant professors, associate professors, and full professors. My experiences and the data out there show that women in science are not treated equally compared to someone else that doesn’t have my physical characteristics. You don’t need certain physical characteristics to do good science. I try not to think about it because it just angers me. But what I try to do is channel that energy into supporting people in my lab and creating an environment that promotes success regardless of your physical characteristics. I believe that you can achieve anything if you work hard and you do a good job and you do good science. What matters is the science, not who you are, what your name is, what you look like—that’s all arbitrary.

Q: Is there anything that you wished you knew before you started your PhD?

One of the things that I wish I knew before I started my PhD is to have a bit more patience and really think and reflect on the data. It’s okay to not go so fast. You can slow down and think about things. Take time away from school or from the lab for yourself. Develop some hobbies or activities that you like to do outside of work so that you can take a break, come back, and be refreshed at your work. If you work seven days a week, you won’t be effective by day six. You need time to rejuvenate. I think it’s really important to have some balance. I tell my students to take some time off during the summers to get away, go home.

Many thanks to Nafisa for sharing her PhD narrative! You can find her at her lab website:

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