U of T Mississauga’s Sasha Weiditch is ready to swap her signature pink lab coat for a graduation gown. Graduating with a PhD in biochemistry is just the latest step on a journey that has taken her from the lab to a soapbox in Toronto’s Dundas Square and a TED Talk stage.
Weiditch is the fourth person in her family to graduate from U of T—her two sisters and mother are all alumnae—however she’s the first in the family to focus on science. Weiditch began her education at UTM as an undergraduate student in the BSc program. It was during her third year of undergraduate studies that she applied to work on an undergraduate thesis project with Associate Professor Voula Kanelis of the Department of Chemical & Physical Sciences.
“As I grew as a student here at UTM, it helped to define what type of science I was interested in and what I wanted to do,” says Weiditch. “I got to work with a supervisor and have the experience of what it was like to work in a graduate-style lab, what it would be like to be a researcher and whether I would enjoy this full-time. Learning about proteins and biochemistry and all the amazing things they could do in different organisms facilitated my interest for the project.”
Weiditch’s experience encouraged her to continue her studies in the Kanelis Lab as a graduate student, using nuclear magnetic resonance and other high-tech tools to study bacteriophages (viruses that infect and kill bacteria]) and antibiotic resistance. “The bacteriophage has the potential to kill bacteria that might be resistant to antibiotics, but it’s also used in the food industry to regulate bacterial populations in the production of milk and cheese,” she says. “Our lab was a protein factory—we took it straight from the molecular biology side to protein purification. I got training in biochemistry and in molecular biology, as well.”
While Weiditch was energized by her lab work, she was also developing an aptitude for science communication, working as a teaching assistant and volunteering with Let’s Talk Science and a mentorship program for high school girls in Peel Region. At the same time, she was building a social media presence that focused on women working in science, technology, math and engineering fields. As @SciGirlSash on Instagram, Weiditch launched #PhDnomenalFemale, an interview series featuring women talking about their experiences studying and working in science. “I wanted to share science and showcase the women in science that I knew, which didn’t equate to what I had seen portrayed in popular culture,” she says.
Weiditch also delivered a TEDxUofT talk on how social media made her a better scientist, and found herself describing her research to passers by in Toronto’s Dundas Square for the first-ever Soapbox Science event in Canada. “Science isn’t meant to be kept on a notebook on the lab shelf,” she says. “It’s meant to be shared. As scientists, we have a duty to share what we’re learning to everyone, not just an academic audience.”
Weiditch credits her close family and her thesis supervisor, Professor Voula Kanelis for supporting her along the way. “Dr. Kanelis is the reason I wanted to pursue graduate school—she was a woman in science, and that resonated with me,” she says. “I wanted to learn more about the way she spoke about science, and be in that type of environment.”
Over her time at UTM, Weiditch travelled to Barcelona, Paris, Dublin and Colorado to present her research. In the next few months, she hopes to add more pins to her travel map and foster more science and research connections. “Science offers the chance to innovate, create, discover,” she says. “Science opens a world of possibility.”