Sterols and scuba diving: meet Isabelle Capell-Hattam

Isabelle Capell-Hattam is an accomplished PhD candidate in UNSW School of Biotechnology and Biomolecular Sciences (UNSW BABS) and a Woman in Maths and Science Champion. In her research, she is interested in understanding the molecular mechanisms regulating cholesterol production in the human body.

Originally from Coffs Harbour on the north coast of New South Wales, Isabelle moved to Sydney to pursue an undergraduate science degree at UNSW. She became interested in human biochemistry during lectures from her current PhD supervisor Prof. Andrew Brown (UNSW BABS). She approached Prof. Brown to find out more about his research and decided to undertake several internships in his lab. She remained in the lab for her Honours year, where she was awarded the 2016 University Medal in Molecular and Cell Biology for her work. 

Isabelle worked as a research assistant before commencing her PhD in 2018 under Prof. Brown, receiving a competitive UNSW Scientia PhD Scholarship to undertake her research into the regulation of cholesterol production. Isabelle explains that the pathway for cholesterol production in the human body requires multiple enzymes, and she is interested in understanding how these enzymes are controlled. Isabelle is particularly interested in understanding the molecular mechanisms governing destruction of the enzymes, and the implications this has for cholesterol production.  

Isabelle’s research sounds complex and fascinating. She is one of the busiest PhD students I have ever met – and I’m not just referring to her lab work. Isabelle has been an avid scuba diver for over a decade. She has been involved with the university diving club during her time at UNSW, and in 2020 she became president of the UNSW Underwater Club. She enjoys exploring the coast, discovering the underwater ecosystem and meeting new people. Isabelle works at a Tenpin Bowling Alley where she manages competitions, partakes in a fortnightly sea shanty club with her friends and plays social netball. In her free time she enjoys being outdoors, going for coastal walks and reading books. Isabelle recently participated in a charity event called the Shitbox Rally to raise money for the Cancer Council. For this event, she drove a car worth less than $1000 from Alice Springs to the Gold Coast via the Gulf of Carpentaria. Her and her dad’s team raised over $10,000.

I asked Isabelle if she had any words of advice for young women who may be interested in pursuing a career in science. She recommends choosing a field you’re passionate about and not rushing into any major career decisions. 

To find out more about Isabelle’s research, follow her on Twitter and read her research articles.

A chemist with a passion for scicomm: Meet Sam

By Charuni Pathmeswaran

Sam is a chemist with a special interest in drug development. She is also a teaching fellow in chemistry with a passion for science communication. When not doing her PhD, Sam enjoys learning about behavioural science of animals, which helps her understand her puppy better ?

Can you briefly explain your current research?

I look at peptides, which are strings of amino acids. They are good drug candidates as they occur naturally, and they’re simpler forms of proteins which are a key to a lot of interactions that cause diseases. My unique application is to see how we can manipulate certain drug-like peptides by using fluorine, to see if we can make them into new drugs.

A day in the life of Sam

What drew you to this field?

In high school, my favourite subjects were maths and sciences. When I started my undergrad, I wanted to do more chemistry and physics. I was so intrigued to learn the fundamental mechanics that go on with atoms. Once you see how science works and how it’s underpinning so much in your world, it’s hard to stop seeing it that way. I’ve always wanted to make an impact. That’s how the medicine side came into the picture for me.

What excites you most about your work? 

I like furthering the science of my little project. I also like challenging myself with new skills. My honours research was on pharmacology which is much more cell-based and drug testing based. My PhD is in chemistry which is more on synthesis. Building new skills helps me change the way I view things.

What do you find most challenging about the work you do and how do you tackle it? 

Research, in general, can be monotonous at times. I try to slot in a few energizing tasks between the repetitive tasks, and I find this to be quite helpful.

What does a typical day look like for you? 

I work in a synthetic lab. There’s a fume cupboard in which we leave all the hazardous chemicals. You have a bench where you have your lab book. I try to do one experiment a day. I come in the morning and purify the compound and then set up my experiment in the afternoon.

What are your interests outside of science?

I spend most of my free time walking or playing with my puppy. I also like training her. I’ve been listening to podcasts that discuss the behavioral science of animals and I find it so interesting. I also enjoy going on bush walks and cooking.

Sam cuddling her Labrador puppy Cleo <3

Words of advice for young women interested in pursuing a career in STEM? 

Don’t be narrow-minded in how science is going to work for you. You don’t have to end up working in a lab to be defined as a woman in STEM. You can work for a science-based company. Or even for a non-science-based company and apply the rational thinking that scientists do. Try and find someone whom you can aspire to be like. Use them to prove to yourself that you can be a woman in STEM. If your interest doesn’t match up perfectly with an existing job position, it could be the perfect opportunity to fill that niche!

What are you most proud of in your career so far? 

I really like that during my undergrad and even in my PhD, I have had the opportunity to engage in other things such as teaching or professional development programmes. I’m proud that despite being a student for a long time, I’m also gaining different skills which will make me more employable.

What would you like to see change in the future for women in STEM? 

Women still aren’t given the opportunity to equally prioritize family and career. It’s still viewed as a dichotomy where you must pick either one or the other and if you try to do both, you are judged for it. That has to change. I would also like to see more women in higher-up positions.

Post-PhD plans?

Very flexible at the moment. I’m preparing my portfolio and developing a diverse set of skills from my PhD. At least for a while, I would like a break from my research. And luckily chemistry can be a practical skill. My options and interests include working in quality assurance, or in drug therapy. I would also love to be a science communicator.

WFH tips?

I’m still working on my WFH productivity. I struggle with distractions when I’m at home. I’m overzealous about recording what I do. It helps me take stock of whether I was productive on a given day. I start the day with a to-do list, consisting of tasks of different priorities. I also find it useful to break up big tasks into smaller, manageable tasks.

A glimpse from one of Sam’s lockdown walks in Central Coast (Shelley Beach)

Follow Sam on Twitter