This week on #MeetAScientist, get to know Dr. Ruth Schmidt, a microbial ecologist, postdoctoral fellow at Université du Québec, and member of the 500 Women Scientists Leadership Board. She chats about her experiences working in Egypt during Arab Spring, communicating science through art, and working on 500WS's partnership efforts. For more from her, follow Ruth on Twitter @RuthLSchmidt!
When did you first identify as a scientist?
The first time I felt like a scientist was during my Master thesis. I got involved in an exchange program that allowed me to spend a few months in Egypt where I was teamed up with an exchange partner, who in return spent the same time at my home university in Austria. We were planning a field experiment on a farm close to Cairo that was part of an ecosystem restoration project to create agricultural land out of the desert. It was quite a turbulent start into the scientific field, being thrown into the political unrest of the Arab Spring and experiencing people’s struggles made it impossible to separate science from politics and so while sampling soil and working in the lab, we discussed about people’s fight for freedom and democracy. It was during this time when I met many inspiring people, who made me see the (scientific) world though different eyes and I’m incredibly thankful for their support and strength, including my two supervisors who were my female role models and encouraged me to continue my path in science.
What is the most interesting thing you've been able to study and what does your research center on today?
The most exciting part of my study was to study how microbes can hold conversations via smells. I was always intrigued by communication, whether human or any other form. And after hearing a talk of Bonnie Bassler at a conference, who discovered quorum sensing — the most well-known way of bacteria to communicate, I convinced my supervisor to change my project to studying microbial communication instead of competition. In retrospect, it was the best decision I took that helped me overcome my initial struggles and gave me motivation to study a topic that I could identify with. Since then, I study the fascinating world of smells, which is literally all around us and drives so many things, from partner choice to possibly making crops more resilient to climate change, which I study at the moment as a postdoc.
You work a lot on the intersection of art and science. Can you tell us about your 50% Human project? How can more scientists get comfortable with and promote art?
Fifty Percent Human is an artscience project that was initiated by Sonja Bäumel, a bioartist based in Amsterdam. The project challenges the concept of the Human Microbiome based on the realization that the human body is made of at least 50% microbes and thus represents an ecosystem with complex societies of microbes. The artist aimed to approach the question by identifying microbes living on the human skin and their smells to create awareness about what kind of microbes live on our bodies, how they smell and look like – with the help of scientists. We also set up some culturing experiments to explore how microbes move and what happens when they meet organisms that are not like them. The scientific answers were then transformed into an in-between space in a former greenhouse in which people could literally meet their microbes. This project is an example of how arts can create a tangible display of an imaginary (microbial) world to break down hierarchies and create a sense of empathy.
Art is a way to interpret scientific matters and to reach out to the public. What I’ve learned from collaborations like this one, is that working with people between multidisciplary fields allows to merge visions and create different perspectives to our own that are too often biased by our educational background. It is truly inspiring to feel one’s mind expanding when discussing science with people from different disciplines and seeing unique projects emerge. I hope that projects like this will inspire more scientists to explore creative ways to communicate their science to the broader audience.
What has been the best part of getting involved on the 500 Women Scientists leadership?
During my time in the Netherlands, I was active in the queer feminist scene and fought against discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation or ethnicity. This was my life outside of academia, and I somehow felt like living a double life. When I joined 500 Women Scientists, I felt for the first time that there was a group of like-minded people in academia and it gave me the strength to feel more comfortable with my identity and the power to speak up against discrimination issues also in science. I’m involved in the partnership team to establish partnerships with other organizations that promote women and other marginalized groups in academia. Apart from working with amazing people, I see this as a great opportunity to improve my networking skills and to learn about cool projects and initiatives out there. I’m also involved in starting up a local pod in Montréal that aims to establish a bilingual network between all universities and organize workshops and outreach programs with underrepresented communities.
Perhaps the most important question we ask of all, when you're not science-ing, doing outreach, or teaching, what do you do to unwind?
Since I’m fairly new to Canada, I’m still exploring the hidden spots of Montréal and the beautiful nature around it, either by bike, hiking or kayaking. There are really so many outdoor activities one can do to relax one’s mind. One of my favorite spots is the cute café at the corner of my street, where there is the live music the whole day, and after that go to the oldest graphic novel book store in town to browse through their newest collection. The book I’m currently reading is a graphic novel from Julie Maroh called Body Music that explores the various types of identities and relationships taking place in Montréal. Apart from that, I’m learning French to hopefully also speak soon to the francophone community in the city.
Dr. Ruth Lydia Schmidt earned her PhD in October of 2017 from the University of Wageningen, The Netherlands. She moved to Montréal in the beginning of 2018 to continue doing science as a Postdoc. She engages in science communication by collaborating with artists on artscience projects and is a member of the biohacker lab bricobio, where she to teaches biology to everyone with and interest in science. She is also currently busy establishing the 500 women scientists pod in Montréal, and to create a platform for artsists and scientists to team up.