Senior Scientist & Science Communicator

    Alena Pribyl

    Alena Pribyl
    Image provided: Microba, Alena Pribyl

    Microbiology scientist turned science communicator at Microba, Dr Alena Pribyl shares with us her journey and career tips.

    When it comes to careers, millennials go through a number of job changes as they transition from more traditionally viable occupations to discovering their field of choice.

    Alena experienced something similar, she found it challenging pursuing a masters degree in a field she wasn’t interested in. Her decision was based on a view of being practical about her career choice. Today, she has taken up her dream role working in a team that is uncovering the mysteries behind the gut microbiome specifically, its link with our health.

    While she is ecstatic to be working in a revolutionary field to improve human health, she learned that without passion for her research topic, it would be difficult to enjoy her career. 

    With a goal of educating the masses on exciting research in this space, Alena oversees a research and development team that creates interesting content about the gut microbiome.

    Her work is quite diverse ranging from creative content, presentations to grant applications, educational courses and so on. Alena also delivers content such as podcasts, interviews and workshops targeting specific audiences.

    I am part of an amazing team at biotech company Microba where our goal is to improve our understanding of how the gut microbiome impacts human health and to use our findings to develop microbiome-based diagnostics and therapeutics to improve healthcare,” says Alena. 

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    Alena’s journey  

    Alena was always interested in how the natural world worked, and throughout school enjoyed STEM classes such as biology and maths. 

    Interestingly, a presentation by a leading female marine biologist at Alena’s high school in the US was life-changing. It convinced her to undertake a college degree in Biology.

    In her PhD, Alena investigated the ability of a group of marine fish to recover from a condition called barotrauma. Barotrauma occurs in deepwater fish species that contain a swim bladder. When they are captured and brought to the surface by fishermen, the gas in their swim bladder expands and pushes around their internal organs, resulting in their oesophagus being pushed out of their mouth and their eyes bulging from their head.

    BlownCanary_Barotrauma image
    Image credits: Stockton marine biology blog, an example of a fish with barotrauma

    They look like cartoon characters on the surface and most people would think they could never recover from the injuries. Her research showcased that when these fish are assisted in descending back to their original depth with weights, they can recover physically and physiologically.

    At Microba, Alena gets to help translate the latest scientific research about the gut microbiome. She is able to answer questions such as how the substances produced by our gut bacteria interact with our immune, metabolic and nervous systems. This work can help people understand how important our gut microbiome is to our health and the need to eat a healthy diet to make sure it is functioning at its best.

    Her advice to young people

    Alena believes that skills and knowledge you gain in any STEM degree (e.g. research skills, critical thinking, ability to critically assess data, attention to detail, perseverance, etc) are widely applicable to other areas.

    Alena learnt science communication which is a great skill to combat ‘fake news’.

    “It is easier than you may think to switch to other fields. Additionally, the skills you gain provide you with an excellent foundation for assessing the validity of dubious claims that are becoming more frequent in our daily lives,” says Alena. 

    Top tips by Alena

    1. Get a strong foundation in the core subjects of your field of interest such as maths, biology, chemistry, physics and so on. 
    2. Seek out opportunities to get hands-on experience to see what it is like to work in your area of interest. (e.g. research experiences for undergraduates, volunteering, interning or part-time work)
    3. Find a mentor in your field of interest who you can learn from.

    RELATED: Meet a Bioinformatician

    Future of genomics

    Alena thinks the area of genomics is one of the most exciting career opportunities currently emerging.

    “Technological advancements now allow us to sequence DNA faster and at a lower cost than even just a decade ago. DNA sequencing is accessible to most researchers now and they can use it to study their organism(s) of interest in more detail than previously possible,” she says. 

    Studying genomics develops some specific skills and opens up the possibility of working in multi-disciplinary fields of the future. 

    Alena Pribyl qualifications and Career path 

    • Hon B. Sc. in Biology, 1999: Oregon State University 
    • M.A. in Biology (Limnology), 2002: University of Colorado
    • PhD in Fisheries Science, 2010: Oregon State University 
    • Postdoctoral Fellow, 2010: National Research Council
    • Science Policy Fellow, 2012: California Council on Science and Technology 
    • Lab manager, 2012: Australian Centre for Ecogenomics, University of Queensland
    • Senior Scientist, 2018: Microba
    Astha Singh

    Author: Dr Astha Singh

    Astha is the Managing Editor at Refraction Media. She is a STEM Marketer and holds a Honors, Masters & PhD degree in Science. She has been producing STEM marketing content for over 10 years and is an avid advocate of Diversity in the STEM industry.

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