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Women in Science: Alyssa Henderson

Alyssa Henderson has always been more inclined towards math and science. A big part of her interest comes from having fantastic teachers that made science exciting. For example, her biology teacher in high school had her class design their own experiments, even though they were only 17 at the time. He would say, “Pick a question that you would like to answer and then go answer it.” Knowing that she could pose a question to probe things about the natural world was what first inspired Henderson to further pursue the sciences.

Originally from California, Henderson grew up in an environment where there was a large focus on the biotechnology industry. Seeing how scientists in this industry were developing new products and establishing start-ups drew her into the scientific side of these businesses.

Henderson went on to complete a Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry at Imperial College London and is now working towards her Masters Degree (and hopefully starting her PhD) in the Department of Chemistry at UBC under Dr. Katherine Ryan. The research group she is a part of studies biosynthetic enzymes that make interesting molecules, which involve identifying gene clusters (typically in soil bacteria) associated with unique molecules. They then characterise what each enzyme in the pathway does and how it does it. Henderson studies in one of the more biologically-oriented labs in the chemistry department.

Q. How did your peers (friends, family, etc.) react to you pursuing a career in science?

Henderson: I think I'm quite lucky, because in general, everyone has been supportive. No one in my family has a scientific background, but I grew up in the Bay Area and there's a big biotechnology and pharmaceutical environment there. Science is something that I think people there are aware of.

Of my friend group from high school, I think only one other has gone on to do a PhD. I have another close friend from high school who is also in graduate school, and all of our friends are pretty receptive. After high school, I completed a specialized degree in the UK, which means that most of my friends from the UK are fellow scientists and they have been a supportive community.

Q. Did a woman in a leadership or mentorship role contribute to an important part of your career path/choice? How has this influenced your research/life?

Henderson: I've been lucky in high school to have strong women scientists as mentors. My physics and chemistry teachers in high school were really fantastic women that had amazing careers. My chemistry teacher completed a Masters Degree in Chemistry before going on to work as a chemist for a chocolate company, which I always found quite cool growing up. It was inspirational to see all these women in various careers in science,  from a young age.

In my undergrad, I was supervised by a woman scientist for most of the projects I worked on. I didn't necessarily feel as though women were underrepresented in science, but you see the statistics and you know that it's true. However, when you're surrounded by inspirational women researchers it's not necessarily something that you feel affected by in your everyday life. Even now, my supervisor, Dr. Katherine Ryan, is fantastic. She's very involved with our research and is easy to communicate with regarding our projects and any needs we might have in the department.

I have had a lot of strong women mentors in my life, which is very fortunate.

Q. Have you noticed any positive improvements to these obstacles and barriers for women over the years?

Henderson: I've been pretty fortunate in that I personally haven't experienced many barriers in the graduate student community. I’ve talked to friends and a lot of people who have had pretty harsh experiences where they have felt belittled or ignored because of their gender identification. Even in high school, when we were learning about famous scientists and experiments, they were all of the male gender, more or less.

You don't get the whole picture until you actually pursue science and hear stories about what women have been dealing with. I do think in terms of numbers alone, there have been massive improvements in the amount of women faculty across sciences at different universities. We can see that women are becoming represented more often in the scientific community. Also, discussion is happening, including projects like this and other projects around UBC and other universities.
People are clearly discussing the experiences of women in science and that's a big deal. I think there has been a lot of improvement.

Q. What is your advice to aspiring young women researchers?

Henderson: One of the best things to do is listen to the people around you, especially if you're at UBC. If you're a UBC undergraduate or graduate student, there are a lot of amazing women scientists on campus. If they are giving a talk you can go to, that's great. If you have a woman lecturer that you are inspired by, go to their office hours and learn what their research is about. You can learn a lot from the resources around you and one of the best resources we have is other people who have contributed an impressive voice to science.

Q. Why do you love being a scientist? What’s the most amazing thing about being a scientist?

Henderson: The most amazing thing about being a scientist is the fact that your job is to figure things out about the world we live in, and that is very exceptional. I can't think of any other field where your job is to just learn things about the world around you.

It’s your job to find out new information and then unveil it to the world. For instance, when I work with crystallography, I'm looking at protein crystal structures to figure out what the three-dimensional structure of the proteins are, and when I see the structure of a protein, I realize I'm the only person who has ever seen this. Of course, I eventually show the rest of my group, but there's this moment where you're looking at something you’ve figured out and realize that you're one of the first people, if not the first, to actually have that information. And that's quite a special feeling.


This article is one of the many stories celebrating International Day of Women and Girls in Science, which takes place every year on February 11. Spearheaded by the United Nations, this day promotes full and equal access to participation in science, technology, and innovation for women and girls. The Faculty of Science is supporting this day by featuring ten inspiring women researchers who are making their mark at UBC and beyond.


Final Five Questions:

Who is your scientist heroine?

Henderson: Maud Menten. The reason I find her inspirational is because the Michaelis–Menten equation is something that's used frequently for enzyme kinetics. I learned about this equation in high school and talked about it a lot in my undergrad. It wasn't until two years ago that I realized Menten was a woman. It made me check my own attitudes because I had always assumed Michaelis and Menten were both men. Learning that Menten was a woman was quite a changing moment for me.

What is your favorite book?

Henderson: I really like the Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. That's probably my favorite book of all time. It's hard to choose just one book.

Where is your favorite place on campus?

Henderson: I like the Nitobe Memorial Garden, especially in the spring.

What is your idea of happiness?

Henderson: I feel like I always value contentment more. But happiness is just kind of looking around and feeling like you're using your time well, and you're surrounded by people you love. I guess that's kind of what it is for   .

Which talent would you like to have?

Henderson: I wish I could play an instrument. I played instruments when I was younger and then decided I wanted to quit because I had other things to do and now I regret it.

What is your most treasured possession?

Henderson: I have this green leather notebook that you can slip a bunch of different pages into that I've had for five years now. It has a bunch of random scribblings I've done and things.