Meet the Scientist- Eirini Xemantilotou

Hi Everyone!

It is time you to meet another scientist this week I would like to introduce you to Eirini Xemantilotou who is a 3rd year PhD student at the University of St Andrews and the James Hutton Institute.

Me and Eirini both did our masters together at Bath University a few years ago, and whilst I studied molecular microbiology Eirini studied protein structure and function. She is now working in the field of structural biology and computational biology and when I have seen some of the programming and computational work she does I am in awe!

Eirini at one of the STEMM events

Thank you very much to Eirini for doing this interview with me- she is currently snowed in due to the ‘Beast of the East’, and did this whilst unable to get into labs!! So, without futher preamble lets hear some more about Eirinis’ science journey:
E: What are you currently studying?

Eirini: My PhD is split between the University of St Andrews where I do my laboratory work and an institute just outside of Dundee called the James Hutton Institute where I did all my computational work.

I am now in my 3rd year of my PhD. I spent most of my first 2 years of my PhD to identify enzymes deriving from pathogenic bacteria which show the capacity to efficiently degrade the plant cell wall. By doing so they release sugars which then we can convert into ethanol (biofuels) through the fermentation process. That was the first part of my project. I am now focussing on the structural and functional characterisation of those candidates’ enzymes I have identified. That will give us more insights on how we can engineer them in order to improve their activity and specificity to bind at the substrate and therefore enhance the biomass degradation.
E: You work in the area of Computational Biology- are there any common misconceptions about this area of science that you would like people to know about?

Eirini: A big part of my project requires computational skills. I would like to mention here that I am a pure Biochemist and when I started my PhD I had zero knowledge about computing and perhaps low interest for the field. I believe that there is a misconception regarding the scientist and their relation to technology and that includes any computing skills. We are being trained on how to perform basic operations when it comes using the computer. After having spent 2 years learning to code, I strongly believe that more awareness of what coding is and how it can help our research should be given at undergraduate programmes. Programming is amazing when you know how to use it! It can reduce the time spent in the lab, lower cost of the experiments and last but not least it sharpens your mind…We are scientists and coding is definitely not “technology”! It is all about thinking logically, organising your thoughts and try until you make it work. Those are skills we all need in science.

This is my first year back in the lab and I was truly horrified of moving back in the lab thinking that I have “lost touch”. I am now back and more competent that I have ever been before even if I have not worked in a lab for the last 2 years. Learning how to code has totally changed the way I am thinking about science, has made me more critical and more precise as in coding even a dot can make a change.

First day back in the lab after 2 years!

E: Am I right in thinking there are less women in this area of science?- If so would you like to comment on this?

Eirini: Yes, that is right. One element I did not enjoy during this learning process was that I had to prove that someone coming from a different background and who happens to also be woman will be able to code.

My computational supervisor is a male and so is the rest of the computational biologists/bioinformaticians in the institute. There is this reputation that coding is for males and that is extremely nerdy. Most people are shocked when I say I code and ask me “Oh, really? It is so weird for a woman to know how to code!”. I personally cannot see why women are not capable of learning how to code. I am a STEM member and I am part of what is called the coding club where I try to attract as many girls as possible. There are lots of STEM events trying to get more girls into science and technology and I think it’s really great. It has become a very intimidating field due to the high numbers of males in the field but that does not mean we do not have the right to get in there and prove that there is nothing special about coding that should give a head start to chromosome Y…
E: How did you get into the area of computational biology?

Eirini: Neither me or my supervisors knew that I would have to apply computational biology. We knew there will be elements of bioinformatics but nothing more than simply browsing on webpages and collecting information. However, my project took this direction and if I wanted it or not I had to learnt how to code. I have to be honest here and say that I was not extremely happy about it and maybe I would not have chosen the PhD if I knew I would have to enter this field- as all I wanted was to be a structural biologist. I am now so glad I did not know this information prior I started my PhD as I have learnt skills I would have never had the chance to learn and being a computational biologist has also helped me to become a better structural biologist as there is lots of interaction with computers when it comes solving protein structures.

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Dry lab vs Wet lab

The truth is that the daily life of a computational biologist and a scientist who works mostly in a lab is very different. It took me a while to get used and I will not hide that I did not really enjoy it. There were days, weeks and months I was feeling depressed. Having to work by yourself, behind a screen, not knowing what you are doing, without a group is not a particularly pleasant experience. This experience though taught me that PhD is not all about generating data and being a good technician, is also about learning how to learn, experimenting with different things just so you can see what suits you best and definitely getting out of your comfort zone. This experience definitely made me stronger both in a personal and professional level.
E: You have been awarded quite a few times now for your oral presentations and posters at conferences- do you have any tips for us?

Eirini: Thanks for asking this. I have heard lots of PhD students saying this to me “ Oh, you are doing great you have got all those prizes”. That is not true at all! Communicating your science and getting the results you are after are two different things. I spent a fair amount of time learning how to code and exploring my biological data and that has kept me behind from generating the data I want. So, one very important thing to keep from here is that even if I do not have lots of data, even if I do not feel I am where I should be- I have still won oral presentations and poster sessions quite a few times. That shows us that we do not need these amazing data in order to get a prize.

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Some awards at previous conferences

We need to know why we decided to spend 3-4 years of our lives to do a PhD. If you know why, then let everyone know. Show them your enthusiasm for your research and I am sure they will be convinced that what you do will have an impact one day once you get these data you are after.

Also, one tip, I know we are excited for this new technique we are trying to make it work but that does not mean your audience is too! Forget about what makes you excited, forget of all those super complicated graphs you have generated and think of what the audience wants to listen, what’s their capacity. Do not complicate things, the majority of the audience will not follow you and will eventually switch off.

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Eirini with her poster at her latest conference!

Finally, practice, practice and practise! And I do not mean to rehearse the talk, in fact I never rehearse. What I mean is get out there and talk to non- scientists about your work or give an interview to Erica about your PhD!

Even if you are not extrovert (like me!) and talking in front of big audiences is not exactly what you dream day and night my advice is fake it till you make it!
E: You originally come from Greece- how have you found studying in England and now Scotland?

Eirini: When I first moved to England I was missing home a lot and I really wanted to go back after my Masters. Moving abroad is a challenge and if you add doing a Matser’s/PhD on the top of that can make you feel overwhelmed. I have been in the UK for 5 years now and at this stage I could not see myself going back to Greece apart from enjoying the sun for 1-2 weeks per year. The UK has given me so many opportunities that I would have never had back home. I have developed myself and there is so much potential regardless of what I will do after my PhD that there is no looking back anymore. In the end of the end it is all about seeing the positive side and in this case, Scotland might not be as warm and sunny as home is but it has given me so many opportunities that it feels more home than home.
E: When you aren’t busy in the lab, what do you enjoy doing?

Eirini: Right, this is the moment of truth… I have very limited free time and I like to get up super early just, so I feel I can do something else before my chaotic starts. I train on a daily basis at 6am. Training is for me like doing an experiment. Lots of effort, lots of failure and delayed results…That has made me more stubborn to try harder and harder and push it to the limit. Computational biology is a field full of males but so is some parts of the gym! Finding the confidence to get in male governed territories taught me how to apply that at work too. I also teach Greek on Mondays, and I as I have already said I am STEM member meaning that there is lots of volunteering going on. I have manged to travel around Scotland quite a bit since I got a car.
E: Finally- what do you love the most about what you study?

Eirini: I love the freedom research gives you. There are so many things you can explore, and you just need a little bit of imagination. You cannot know how your working day will be like and lots of people would claim is not always convenient for making plans. I find magical that you do not know if you will discover something new the next hour or so. Most of the times you will not but hope dies last.

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Most specifically about my project, I really enjoy the variety of techniques I need to apply on a daily basis and I always keep in mind that one day my research will have some impact on saving the world and that keeps me going.

Thank you so much to Eirini for a great interview! It has been great to find out what it is like in a area of science so different from my own. I am sure this is not going to be the last you hear of Eirini.

You can follow Erini on Instagram where she shares photos of her day to day life in and out of the lab!

As always please send any comments and questions If you have any specifically for Eirini about computational and structural biology I am sure she would be more than willing to answer!

If you would like to talk about your science journey please drop me a message 🙂

Read about some other amazing scientists via the links below!

Emily May Armstrong: Meet The Scientist

Jenna Loiseau: Meet the Scientist

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