Alina Pushkarev: Leading Women in Marine Science

Alina graduated in Biomedical Sciences BSc and MSc from the Hebrew University with a distinction. She wrote her masters thesis on the subject of gene regulation in Salmonella typhimurium, in prof. Shoshy Altuvias’ lab.

Currently a PhD candidate at the Israeli Institute of Technology, in prof. Oded Bejas’ lab. Her research focuses on the search for new ways to harvest light using functional metagenomics.

During her PhD she had two children, and was able to publish three first name papers, including a recent paper in Nature magazine. (https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-018-0225-9)


Alina Pushkarev 2Briefly describe your current work and your research.

I am currently at the end of my PhD at Oded Bejas lab of marine microbiology. My research aims to be “hypothesis free”, meaning we are trying to uncover new proteins and processes, as opposed to asking specific questions and answering them. My project specifically, is trying to discover new light reactive proteins, such as rhodopsins, in the marine and freshwater environments. We had an amazing breakthrough this year, when we discovered a whole new rhodopsin family and were able to publish our finding in Nature. We named the new rhodopsin family- Heliorhodopsins.


What do you love the most about your job?

I love the freedom of thought and action that is available at our lab. There is truly a sense of individual responsibility over the success and failure of the project. I choose which part to work on each day, and which question interests me this specific week.


How difficult was it to get where you are today?

When research is that interesting, it is hard for me to call it “difficult”, although it objectively is. To be honest, as often happens in science, chance had a lot to do with it. My BSc and MSc were in Bio-Medical sciences, in the field of pathogenic microbiology. I happened to stumble upon an interesting course in marine microbiology, which was completely non-related to my field of study, and I immediately was fascinated with ecology and the unculturable microbial diversity. The head of this course was Oded Beja, who became my PhD PI.


What was the biggest obstacle in your way before your career reached where it is today? How did you overcome it?

The biggest obstacle to me, was stepping out of the comfort zone- away from clear biological questions and specific hypothesis. My mind kept throwing me back to “safety” of hypothesis based science. It’s scary to look for something that might not exist, but the reward of actually finding something new and unforeseen is beyond any expectation. To overcome this I drew inspiration from the enthusiasm of my PI, who kept reminding me how incredible marine microbiology is.

My current biggest obstacle is deciding what to do next- do I “pack” my husband and two kids and to go to a post doctorate abroad? Or do I stay and find a job, hopefully related to my field of study? Honestly, I don’t have the answer yet, but perhaps doing the thing that scares me more, is the answer.


What are you looking forward to the most in the future of marine science?

I wish that more researchers would understand that marine science is not just a field, but an incredible tool and source for useful compounds, enzymes and organisms. Marine science is huge diversity of microorganisms, the result of billions of years of evolution, in the water everywhere, capable of probably anything.


How do you think we can get more women involved within marine science?

Honestly, at the PhD level, in my institution, most are women. The problem begins when there is a need to go do a post-doc abroad. Long scientific cruises are also more challenging to mothers, but the challenge is mostly in our heads. For example, I had an opportunity to be TA at a marine microbiology course for 10 straight days, right after maternity leave with my second child (who wasn’t weaned). Initially I almost declined, but then I discovered that the institution provides me with a private room, so I will be able to bring the child with me, and have an accompanying person watch over her while I work. This is an example of how it is possible to have a career in marine science, without giving up on important family issues.


Alina Pushkarev 3What one piece of advice would you give to aspiring female marine scientists?

Norms are meant to be broken if they are in your way- just find how it can be done without personal sacrifice. Many PIs share this vision, you just need to find one.


In one sentence, why do you think a career within marine science is a great career option?

Marine science is incredibly interesting, and somewhat understudied- leaving a lot more to be discovered for future scientists.


Social Media Links

Twitter: @AlinaPushkarev
Lab: http://beja.net.technion.ac.il


I would like to give a massive thank you to Alina Pushkarev for participating in this interview. I cannot wait to share more of your stories and I hope that you find inspiration in learning of other journeys within marine science.


Are you a woman working within marine science? Would you like to share your story and inspire the next generation? Please get in contact with me at hannahsrudd@outlook.com if you would like to be involved with the Leading Women in Marine Science Interview Series.


Disclaimer: All responses to the interview questions and the biography belong to Alina Pushkarev. All photographs have been used with the permission of Alina Pushkarev.

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