Episode 8: Science Policy with Vanessa Sung

In our eighth episode we talk science, politics, policy, and LEGO? Listen in as we discuss how we believe science is political, and highlight the wonderful Dr. Sarah Myhre. Learn about Dr. Rita Levi-Montalcini, a neuroscientist, nobel prize winner, and Italian senator who was discriminated against throughout her career. Then, we interview Vanessa Sung, the co-president at Science and Policy Exchange at McGill University and she tells us all about her journey through science and into science policy. Finally, we highlight Evidence for Democracy, the new LEGO women of NASA set, and announce the launch of our Kickstarter, which goes live on Friday, November 17! Be sure to follow us on social media to hear about it when it happens! Thanks for listening 🙂  

Click the play button below to hear the episode, or download it from SoundCloud or iTunes to listen on the go! Enjoy!



Vanessa Sung

vanessa cropped


Transcript Below:

-Ukulele Intro-


Cordon & Nicole: This is Superwomen in Science!

C: I’m Cordon and I’m a music therapist.

N: And I’m Nicole, I’m a neuroscientist.

C: We will be discussing the past, present, and future of women in science.

N: Highlighting a variety of scientific endeavours as well as issues facing women in science.

C: Today we’re talking about science policy.

Today Nicole and I wanted to have a discussion about something we’ve talked a lot about in the past, and something that we believe in a lot, and that is how science is political.

N: Yeah and I think that it’s worth having this discussion, especially because not everyone in science shares this point of view, you know? A lot of people actually think that science is apolitical, science is objective and it’s just facts. So yeah, I think that it’s worth us discussing, especially on this podcast, why we feel this way. Kind of ironically, also that idea that science is apolitical was actually echoed in the organization of the big March for Science that happened last spring on Earth Day.

C: So the March for Science was an international protest that was designed to support scientists and support science policy, and it gave an opportunity for scientists to show that they are not okay with the muzzling of science and the anti-fact and anti-science rhetoric in the United States and the world.

N: Yeah. That’s a wonderful thing! Right?

C: Mhm.

N: We definitely believe in all of that. But what happened was that the march organizers had huge problems just in the organization of the march in how they treated diversity and subjects like that. So they outright said that the event wasn’t political and that it was just strictly about the science, not about the scientist and not about any kind of political problems that people were voicing and voicing concerns with. So that was ridiculous.

C: Yeah. And to say that science is not political to begin with, not even mentioning the fact that you’re planning this protest and then saying it’s not political…

N: The irony!

C: So ridiculous. But just to say that science itself is not political is just a huge insult and a huge erasure of the history of all of these marginalized groups of people who are working in science, and how hard they have to fight to be there everyday, and how hard they have to work. So really, being a female scientist, a muslim scientist, a scientist from a country that doesn’t speak English, it’s a huge political statement to being with.

N: Mhm. Yeah, and you have to be aware of how an individual’s experience in science is shaped by their race, gender, class, and so on. And particularly this has a huge play in how people progress in their career in science. In science, an opportunity begets more opportunities, which grows your CV, and that’s how you get a grant, and that’s how you get positions, you know? It’s all just this big snowball effect of privilege and circumstance, for a lot of it. This whole notion of hard work and intelligence will let you succeed in science, that rhetoric is so damaging and also just comes from this privileged view that really discounts the experience of marginalized groups and people facing barriers to succeed in science.

C: Also, in the time that we live in right now, being a scientist means that you have to be political. Even being a scientist means that you have to advocate for science. Not just climate change, but science education, access to science for marginalized groups of people, and advocating for your research and your voice as a scientist to be to be heard because of all of the anti-fact and anti-science rhetoric going on in the world today.

N: That makes me think of, I wanted to highlight a specific woman science advocate who I’ve been following her path online for a while now. Dr. Sarah Myhre is this wonderful voice for science, for women in science, and she’s written a bunch of articles that are all really great. One was entitled “Women, Scientist, Advocate: Female Researchers Take Charge.” It was an op-ed just talking about why we’re seeing a rise of women science advocates in this current climate in the Trump  administration.

C: She also wrote this other article about her identity as a science advocate. This is one quote from that: “What does it even mean, to advocate? Both a noun and a verb, it is both an act and an identity. It seems banal-simply the public support of a cause. However, it is hugely problematic in my circles, where the rubber of science hits the road of the real world, of lives and dollar bills and power. Did you know it’s seen as compromising for a scientist to be an advocate? That’s right, public dispassion is required for this club, unless, of course, you are willing to risk the derision of your peers. Indeed, the term “advocate scientist” is used as an insult.”

N: That’s so beautifully written and just hits the nail on the head. It’s crazy to me that people within our field don’t believe that scientists should be advocates and should speak up. And it shouldn’t be damaging to your career, it shouldn’t be damaging to your professional development because this is helping public and the society. Evidence based policy change.

C: So if you are a scientist or even just someone who loves science, we really encourage you to advocate for what you love and what you do. Support your peers, support other people in your lab, support their voices, and also allow your voice to be heard.

-musical interlude-

N: Today we’re reading about Rita Levi-Montalcini, a neurologist and Italian senator.

Rita Levi-Montalcini never let her circumstance keep her from science. She was born in 1909 in Italy to a well-to-do Jewish family. Her father expected her to become a proper lady and marry well, but she hated finishing school and was determined to become a doctor.

Though Rita graduated summa cum laude from medical school in 1936, she had no real job prospects. Italy was one of the Axis powers in World War II, and in 1938, anti-Semitic laws forbade Jewish people to practice medicine. But nothing could keep Rita from pursuing her dreams.

She created a makeshift laboratory in her bedroom and started her research. She borrowed eggs from farmers and used sewing needles to dissect the nervous systems of embryonic chicks. She wanted to know why and how nerve cells developed. By severing the limbs of the chick embryo, she accurately documented how the motor neurons began to grow and then die. The work laid the foundation for her entire career.

When the war ended, Rita reentered the formal scientific world, already well into her research. She was asked to come to Washington University in Saint Louis, Missouri, for one semester, which turned into 30 years of teaching and research.

While learning how to grow tissues in a glass dish, Rita observed that a tumor sample was affecting embryonic cells in the same dish. The nerves started to grow very quickly – but why? By experimenting with snake venom, tumors, and finally mouse saliva, she discovered nerve growth factor (NGF), a protein that regulates nerve growth and keeps our neurons healthy. This was a very important finding for understanding and fighting diseases.

Rita received the 1986 Nobel prize in physiology or medicine. When asked if she was bitter about how the Italian government treated her during the war, she said “If I had not been discriminated against or had not suffered persecution, I would never have received the Nobel prize.” She went on to become a senator-for-life in the Italian government, where she fought for civic equality and promoted the sciences.

-musical interlude-

C: So today we have a super great interview for you with Vanessa Sung! Vanessa is a PhD student at McGill who is also the co-president of Science and Policy Exchange! We have wanted Vanessa to join us on the podcast for a while so we’re super excited for this interview and hope you enjoy learning about science policy!

So Vanessa, thank you so much for coming on our podcast! To start today we want to ask you the most important question: do you wear a lab coat?

V: So I do wear a lab coat everyday, the typical scientist that you would imagine. I work on the bench, I do wet lab experiments, so yes, for safety reasons we do always have to wear a lab coat. Although sometimes we get a little lazy.

N: Nice! So what is your current research then? What are you doing while wearing your lab coat?

V: So I’m in the department of biochemistry and my work focuses on breast cancer. So I work on a particularly aggressive form of breast cancer called triple negative breast cancers. So actually, breast cancers are not just one disease, it’s actually a combination of fairly different diseases with different prognoses and different treatment options. The form that I work on, triple negative breast cancer currently has no effective targeted therapies. So yeah, that’s what my work focuses on.

N: Okay! That’s really cool, I actually didn’t know that there were different kinds, I think I just always thought of it as one disease.

V: Yeah, that’s a fairly common misconception. Actually there are broadly three types, two that we can treat fairly effectively now, and the third type, like I said, itself is a very mixed bag of diseases as well. So this group of patients, some of them will respond well to chemotherapy and others don’t, and we don’t really understand why. My work really is looking at ways to try and identify ways to target these cancer cells in order to treat these patients.

C: Wow, that’s super applicable and super important work. We know that you are also involved in science policy, so we were hoping that you could explain that for us.

V: Science policy is a broad term that encompasses many different things and it can involve science, the use of science for policy making, so evidence informed policy making. It can also be policies for science, so policies that regulate funding agencies and how these funds are distributed and the structuring of these funding agencies and things like that.

N: Mhm. So what has your experience been in science policy so far?

V: My experience is really just starting. I’ve really only just begun my journey into science policy. So it started a couple of years ago when I came to the very hard realization that an academic career may not be in my future. I was keeping an open mind but I kind of wanted to explore other options.

So I started volunteering for things and kind of putting feelers out in different types of science adjacent activities. One group that I started volunteering with is the group called Science and Policy Exchange, which I’m still currently a part of and I am now co-president of. Essentially what we do at Science and Policy Exchange is try to bring the student voice and the student perspective into important science policy discussions.

So this has included a wide range of things. For example a couple of years ago we organized a working group that consisted of mostly graduate students, but together with experts from different fields like academia, policy, and business, and we got everybody together to talk about what is needed to improve STEM education in Canada. Out of that came a white paper that we were able to then take to Ottawa and take to the Canadian Science Policy conference and present it to people who can actually take those recommendations from the white paper and put them into policy. So we’ve done that, we also run public forums that engage the public in important topics such as antibiotic resistance. Last year we did one of gene sequencing and gene editing and what that means for the average consumer and the average patient.

Now we are getting to science advocacy where we are running a campaign that is trying to mobilize students to support the Fundamental Science Review which was released back in April which really kind of surveys the landscape of federal funding for fundamental research in Canada, and has found that there is a huge lack of funding and there is a real need to reinvest in investigator driven basic research. So yeah, we really do a wide range of things, and all of these things fall under the umbrella term of science policy.

C: That’s so great! Even though it’s just the beginning of your journey you’ve already done so much, I’m just interested in where you hope to go.

V: Ooh, that’s a good question. Well, I certainly do hope to go into science policy as a career. In Canada, at least, there are a few ways to do this. There are non-profits like Evidence for Democracy, they do a lot of science advocacy work outside of the government. Mitacs has a science policy fellowship for Canadian PhD holders actually, that places you within a provincial or federal government agency and really lets you have hand-on experience working within the government.

C: Wow!

V: There are a few other things. I think that the Government of Canada actually directly recruits, they call it the recruitment of policy leaders, so they come to universities and recruit students right out of university. Yeah, so there are a handful of opportunities in Canada that I am currently exploring.

C: Awesome.

N: That’s awesome! So what originally got you interested in science, I guess specifically your current field that you’re working in as well as science policy?

V: So I’ll address the science bit first. Actually, it’s interesting because I’ve always been interested in science in general. My dad was a chemistry prof actually, so science has always been a big part of my life. In high school I knew that I wanted to go into science, but actually biology was the last discipline on my list. I had no interest in biology, I thought it was gross, especially when we had to dissect things, I hated the sight of blood and all this stuff. So I was like, no, biology is the last thing I want to study. But once I got into University I realized that there’s just so much to know. How the body works, how we’re all walking around mostly healthy and all of our bodily functions are running, a lot of this stuff is still a black box and we’re really just walking miracles. The idea that I could do work to figure out how all of this stuff works is just, it was just fascinating. So I kind of got drawn into it once I got into university.

In terms of cancer specifically, well I decided that I wanted to go into cancer research because my dad was diagnosed with brain cancer, and a few years after his diagnosis he passed away from it. So I really felt the need to do work in a field that can kind of contribute to the body of knowledge that would ease the suffering from these diseases. So that’s science.

Science policy appeals to me because once I had kind of accepted that I might be interested in things outside of academic research I was really looking for things that would still keep me close to science. Science policy just happened to be the thing that I was most interested in doing, but also I feel that it is an impactful way to still be a part of the scientific community and to do work that will really benefit the scientific community and enable scientists to have their voices heard and to be more able to conduct the research that they want to do and that ten years down the road might be very very relevant for technologies and medicine, and all sorts of applications. So yeah, that’s what I find most appealing about science policy.

C: Great!

N: I think it’s really great to talk about science policy and these careers that are outside of academia. Because, like you said, the academic end-game of working as principal investigator and running a lab really isn’t the reality for a lot of PhD students. Also, that these other options like industry and outside of running your own lab, they’re not second rate. These are really cool areas to be uniquely tied to science. So I think science policy is necessary for dissemination to the public, and it’s really great. So it’s really cool that’s what you’re into.

V: You make a really great point, and I want to pick up on what you said about these quote unquote alternative careers. I think we need to get away from looking at non-academic careers as alternative careers because the truth is only a minority of PhD graduates will end up with their own lab and as principal investigators. So actually the majority of PhD graduates are non-academic careers. So it’s really a real challenge for PhD students these days. Because of the way that most academic curricula are set up, we’re really doing research to be trained to be academic researchers. So that’s really the path that we’re supposed to be prepared for through our graduate degrees, but like we’ve just discussed, that’s not the reality. So there really needs to be some more development of curricula of perhaps co-curricular courses or activities that can either expose you to other career options or prepare you for other career options.

Actually, the skills that we develop throughout our PhDs, they’re very transferable to non-academic careers. We become critical thinkers, we know how to do research, for the most part a lot of us have to work in teams and collaborations, and we have to learn how to communicate with each other professionally. So most of these skills we can take really anywhere, to any career outside of academia. So I think we really have to start looking at the PhD program more holistically and not just as the funnel for the academia career path.

N: Mhm, yeah absolutely!

C: Mhm.

N: And I can’t even say the number of workshops I’ve gone to that are like, okay we’re going to talk about academia or industry. It’s just lumped in. Okay, anything that’s not being a professor is just the title industry. That’s kind of crazy.

Have you been able to take additional courses, or what have you done to branch outside of this funnel tenure track future? Science communication courses or anything like that?

V: So I have not personally taken any courses outside of the mainstream curriculum. Mostly that’s because I realized quite late in the game that I maybe didn’t have an academic career in my future, or that I wanted something different.

The way that I’m kind of equipping myself with skills that I can take outside of academia is really primarily through my involvement with Science and Policy Exchange. So I’ve already mentioned the different projects that we’ve taken on, but beyond that, doing work with Science and Policy Exchange has really opened a lot of doors for me. I’ve been able to make connections with a lot of key people in the field of science policy that I would never have been able to unless I got involved in this work. So I would say my advice, my unsolicited advice I guess, would be to, as early as possible, think about whether you want to have an academic career, and if you’re interested in anything else besides academia, be proactive about getting involved. You never really know what opportunities might come up. With Science and Policy Exchange, I’ve been able to write pre-budget submissions to the government, I’ve written a white paper with the team, as I’ve mentioned, and we’ve written an open letter to the Prime Minister. So these are all things that I never thought that I would have the opportunity to do a few years ago, so it’s really given me a whole different dimension to PhD training that I didn’t have before.

N: Mhm.

C: That’s great! So on your journey into science policy, did you have an influential person or mentor that really helped get you where you are today?

V: Yeah! First off, I do have to give a shout-out to my academic supervisor. Her name is Morag Park, and she is actually the director of the Goodman Cancer Centre here at McGill. She is just the most energetic woman I have ever met. The mentorship she has provided me is, I would say quite unique. She’s really brilliant but she expects you to be independent. So I really learned, throughout these years working with her, to be an independent problem solver and to be able to drive my own project. What I will also add is that actually, unlike a lot of other experiences that I’ve heard from my fellow graduate students, Morag has been quite supportive of my ventures into science policy. And I have mentioned to her that I may want to go into a career outside of academia and she has been very supportive in that as well, and has offered to help me connect with people who might be helpful to me. So I did want to bring that perspective in as well.

In terms of science policy, there hasn’t been one specific mentor that I’ve gone back to consistently, but it’s been a collection of people that I’ve met along the way. My experience in science policy has been just so positive and filled with people who just want to be helpful. At Science and Policy Exchange we have several people on our board of directors that are very connected in the science policy world and have been a constant source of advice and of information, so I’ve gone to them a lot for guidance.

This might sound weird, but I actually have found Twitter to be a constant source of support. It’s funny, I only joined twitter like, a year ago, and now I’m absolutely addicted, I can’t put my phone down. Which is not great for productivity. But I will say I’ve met so many incredible people in science policy, in science advocacy, in science communication, through twitter. There’s such a great community on Twitter that I’ve gotten advice and information from them as well, so it’s really been, like I said, a collection of helpful people along the way that have kind of shaped the experience that I’ve had.

C: That’s great!

N: I think the thing about science Twitter is very true. I think a lot of people don’t really realize how awesome Twitter is and that you can talk to a professor from another university. It’s so open and easy to communicate that it really is great.

V: Yeah absolutely! I’ve had conversations with people about science policy, but I’ve also had conversations with people about actual science, and these are people that I would have never met unless I happened to be at a conference with them or something like that. So it’s been a really amazing tool for networking and for figuring out what opportunities are out there and which people you should follow in terms of their work, in terms of their opinions, and their writing and this sort of thing.

N: What are your hopes for the future of women in your field?

V: So I’m going to talk about my hopes for the future of women in science policy, because I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this. So science policy is kind of like a big tent community, and there’s actually pretty good representation of women leaders from all different backgrounds all doing amazing work. You have women like Bonnie Schmidt, at Let’s Talk Science, who’s really at the forefront of improving and expanding science education. You have Dr. Imogen Coe, who is the Dean of Science at Ryerson who is probably the leading voice in Canada for gender equity in academic science. Then there’s Martha Crago who is the VP of research and innovation here at McGill and she was actually one of the expert panelists on the Fundamental Science Review. And then you also have women like Katie Gibbs and Kathleen Walsh at Evidence for Democracy, who work tirelessly to advocate for evidence informed policy making and for science integrity in Canada. Last but not least, and of course these are not all the women leaders, just the ones that I’m more familiar with. But now we also have Dr. Mona Nemer who is our new chief science advisor who is an outstanding scientist and now has a seat at the table with the Prime Minister! So you know it’s really exciting times, but I think that we can always do better.

Women are 50% of the population, that means that we’re 50% of the talent. My hope is is that women leaders in science policy will devote more time to mentoring the women coming up behind them, and that we can all really support each other and celebrate each other’s successes. Because every woman that “makes it” quote unquote, whatever that means in her field is another role model and another door opened for everyone else, especially the next generation of smart and ambitious women.

At this point I want to make a sneaky shout out to my little sister Molly who is a chemistry PhD student at UofT, and is actually also a huge fan of this podcast. She’s definitely part of the next generation of smart and ambitious women, and she’s done a lot of work to bring better understanding of scientific issues into actually several political campaigns, so she’s going to be a powerhouse in science policy for sure.

C: So where can people find you on social media? Obviously twitter, but anywhere else?

V: So I’m most active on Twitter, and my handle there is @sung_vanessa and I also wanted to plug the website for Science and Policy Exchange, it’s sp-exchange.ca.

C: Perfect and we’ll have everything down in the shownotes!

I just wanted to say thank you so much for sharing your story with us and sharing your journey through science! We really appreciate it and we’re really happy to finally have you on the podcast!

V: Thank you so much for having me! This has been really fun and I’m going to keep tuning into your podcast to see what other superwomen in science I can find out about!

-musical interlude-

C: For today’s section highlighting an organization, we are going to talk about Evidence for democracy, which vanesse mentioned in her interview as well.

N: So Evidence for Democracy is the leading fact-driven non-partisan not for profit organization promoting the transparent use of evidence in government decision making in Canada.

C: The vision of the organization is to see strong public policies that are built on evidence, a democracy where all levels of government are transparent and the population is engaged and informed, and a national culture that values science and evidence.

N: So on their website they say that through research, education, and issue campaigns they engage and empower the science community while cultivating public and political demand for evidence based decision making. So they do this through organizing events to raise awareness and also to engage the public directly with policy makers. So the types of events they do are things like expert panels, lectures, documentary screenings, and different ways to educate Canadians on issues concerning evidence based democracy making.

C: They also do research programs that look into gaps related to policy in evidence. So they look at what works and what they can improve! They are a great organization that everyone should check out! All of their links are in the show notes!

N: And another exciting that that we wanted to talk about that’s not necessarily related to science policy but is super cool and exciting is that on November 1st LEGO released this new Lego set that features four key women in NASA history. So that’s very cool and exciting! The set includes the astronomer Nancy Grace Roman, computer scientist Margaret Hamilton, and the pioneering astronauts Sally Ride and Mae Jemison.

C: Yeah it is so cool! And a super great way for kids, and adults, to learn about the amazing women of NASA!

N: The set also involves these things that you build that are related to what the women actually worked on. So for Nancy Grace Roman you can build the Hubble Space Telescope. So she, at NASA, was the space agency’s first chief of astronomy and she had a big a big role in designing the space telescope, and she’s actually known as the “Mother of Hubble.” So that’s very cool, as you can play with these you can learn more about these women’s contributions.

C: So Margaret Hamilton led the software engineering group at MIT that wrote the software that led to landing on the moon! So you can actually build her big stack of code! I’m sure most of you have seen this famous picture, and now you can recreate it with Lego!

N: Then for Sally Ride and Mae Jemison, so they were two really important female astronauts. Sally Ride was the first american woman to fly into space, and Mae Jemison was the first black woman to fly in space. So next to them you can build this big space shuttle. So that’s super cool!

C: This is so cool! This lego set was actually the top selling toy on Amazon when it first came out! And I am for sure giving this is a Christmas present to the kids I know.

One last thing before we go… if you ever listened to this and thought, man, I’d give anything for them to have better mics then your day has come! Starting this Friday night, November 17th, we are launching a Kickstarter to support the podcast! There are so many different perks that you can choose from from thank you cards to buttons and more and all of the money will go towards making the podcast better!

We do this podcast out of love, but we would love to continue to make it better. We plan to get new and better microphones, continue to pay for our soundcloud subscription, and donate to the awesome organizations we highlight. The podcast will be live for 60 days and every little bit helps! All of our social media accounts will share the link to the Kickstarter when it goes live!

N: Thank you so much for listening to the superwomen in science podcast!

C: Just a reminder that we’re reading from Rachel Ignotofsky’s book Women in Science

N: And a big thank you to our amazing guest Vanessa Sung.

C: Make sure to follow us on Soundcloud or itunes to hear our podcast every three weeks! So search us in the podcast section, download, rate, and subscribe!

N: You can find us on Facebook at Superwomen in Science Podcast and on twitter @ Superwomensci.

C: A transcript of this episode can be found on our website superwomeninscience.wordpress.com!

N: Tweet us if you’re interested in going into or if you want us to talk about your field of science!

Thanks again everyone!

-fade out, music, bloopers –


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s