Chelbi Hillan

See Yourself in STEM - Chelbi Hillan

Tell us a little bit about you:

I am a fifth year Masters in Microbiology student at the University of Strathclyde. I love studying science but more importantly I enjoy applying the things I have learned to my life. My favourite thing to do is go on walks, hikes and nature spotting. Studying as a research student has sparked my inquisitive side and when I go out into nature and society, I like to reflect on things I have learned such as what types of lichen indicate pollution etc in areas. I am also an animal and plant lover, with an ever-growing indoor jungle and collection of species. I am passionate about volunteering and working with other students to ensure students get the best out of their education.

What is your area of research and what project(s) are you working on now?

In my fourth year I completed a six-week research project which formed the basis of my dissertation for my BSc Hons Immunology and Microbiology. In my project I was trying to isolate new Actinobacteria from stingless bees from Trinidad. This is a method of trying to discover novel antimicrobial compounds from our environment. Bees have naturally occurring production of antimicrobial compounds and these can be utilised and tested against common human pathogens. As I return for my masters, I will be studying another field of microbiology over a six-month research project.

When was your interest in STEM/your field first sparked and why?

My interest in STEM subjects first came from a primary school trip to a country park where a ranger took us around and explained what the types of lichen meant about the area. The ranger also showed us all the different species he could find in one pond and highlighted biodiversity to me. I was fascinated to learn about how each individual organism in that pond had a role to play and impacted the overall environment in it. I found this fascinating and a beautiful depiction of the role everyone plays in this world.

Who or what inspired you to stick with STEM when you were younger?

I stuck with STEM subjects as they had the most interest for me. I found the biology of how humans and animals bodies work to be fascinating. In my mind, when I began to learn about cells and human biology, I had vivid imaginations of the diverse community of organisms within us that work in perfect symphony to allow us to live our lives. I always had an interest in how our body responded to infections and wanted to learn more about human health when battling disease and infection. I had always wanted to become a scientist and discover something which would improve the lives of others in my community.

What challenges do you think STEM disciplines face with regards to issues of diversity and inclusion and what should a supportive, inclusive STEM community look like?

Women are in some areas of STEM underrepresented and it is therefore important to promote the inclusion of women in these subjects and actively strive to achieve balance in the gender representation of affected fields. A supportive STEM community should work to empower and equip everyone to achieve their full potential. We should also celebrate the diversity of our community and promote the work of professionals from underrepresented groups as this will encourage their participation. It is important to have positive role models to inspire a career in STEM and it is vital we have representatives of all communities so that people considering a career in STEM can see themselves as a future leader.

In your career, what are the moments that have made you proudest so far?

My proudest moment in my career so far would isolating antimicrobial compounds which were effective against human pathogens and which could potentially be used therapeutically. This is a close tie with much of the other work I have done during my studies where I have used collection of data to lobby for societal change that benefits students and the wider community. During my career I have done a lot of work with widening access groups to support their participation in studies but particularly focusing on supporting care experienced students.

Since STEM career paths are rarely easy to navigate, what challenges have you faced along the way?

Coming from a low-income background I found it hard to afford everything at university as I was living independently, and this meant that I had to work part time to support myself through my studies. As a care-experienced student I did not realise I was able to receive support until the final year of my studies. I would encourage anyone facing financially difficulty to get in touch with support services at institutions and ask what support is available to you. There are so many supportive schemes which empower traditionally marginalised communities to engage with studying and scientific research.

Where do you find support to sustain you in your current career?

I have found incredible support from student communities I interact with such as clubs and societies. I have also received incredible support from the widening access team who have even allocated me a personal mentor to ensure I feel supported in my studies. Mental health affects your ability to engage with your research and therefor I have sought support from the university counselling service in dealing with personal issues and improving my wellbeing.

What advice would you give to a young person considering a career in STEM?

If you are considering a career in STEM, then I would encourage you to reach out and have conversations with those in your area of interest. This could be teachers, older students, mentors or staff at prospective institutions. I would also encourage you to have a conversation with a career advisor so you can better understand what would be relevant study for your desired career path.

Fun question: Tell us two truths and a lie about you.

a) I was a British weightlifting champion. b) I have a garage where I keep my extra plants. c) I once left school with no intention of returning.