What makes a biophysicist? | Interview with Dr. Nancy Forde

We met with Dr. Nancy Forde to discuss college choice, the finer points of choosing a major, and diversity in coursework. Enjoy!

What makes a biophysicist? | Interview with Dr. Nancy Forde

Simon Fraser Physics Professor, Dr. Nancy Forde talks with student Karina Macosko about the advantages and disadvantages of staying close to home for college as well as the benefits of traveling abroad for school. Dr. Forde also shares why she switched from her original interest in history to a major in chemical physics. Despite avoiding biology courses during school, an in-depth seminar series that she attended while working on her PhD inspired Dr. Forde to become a biophysicist, where she is currently studying molecular motors and collagen. Dr. Nancy Forde offers advice to students who are unsure about their future major. She emphasizes the importance of keeping an open mind and taking diverse courses.

Often people going into college are like, "Oh, I've gotta make this decision that's gonna be the rest of my life," and it's not.” – Dr. Nancy Forde

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Karina’s Interview with Physicist, Dr. Nancy Forde

Interview Transcript

(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)

0:00:12.7College years

Karina Macosko: Hi, my name is Karina Macosko from Academic Influence, and I’m here with the professor Forde who is a professor of physics, and I am really excited for this interview because we have a lot of students who come to this website. And you grew up and went to school in Canada, but then you went to grad school in the United States. So I think you will have some really great advice for students who are not only going to college, but if they’re going international for college, or if they’re staying at home, but travelling a little bit. So just starting off, I wanna hear how that experience was for you, and how you decided to go to school where you went.

Nancy Forde: Yeah. So I guess coming out of high school, first of all, I looked at a number of different schools, and in the end, I felt like staying at the university closest to home, which was the University of Toronto, had the best options for courses for me. So I was interested in sciences, but also in history and languages. And it seemed like I could do both. So I lived in residents even though I could have stayed at home because I really wanted that experience of being at college and meeting new people.

So I ended up in chemical physics there. And when I was finishing up, I thought I wanna go to grad school somewhere. Looked at programmes, and talked to my professor who was my research supervisor, and he said, "You should go... Consider going to the states." All the really good programmes in this area in Canada are very close to here, and it’s good to broaden your horizons and do different things... Grow your network. And so I ended up applying to a number of American schools, and choosing the University of Chicago for grad school.

Karina: Well, that is so fantastic. And I love the fact that you stayed really close to home for college and then went far away for grad school, because I think a lot of... Well, at least for me... A lot of the schools that near me I’ve kind of overlooked until I’ve started looking at colleges and I find out that they are actually fantastic programmes... And college is one of those experiences where I feel like people really want to spread your wings, but how did you find... Did you find it difficult to go to school so close to you, or did you feel like you could really grow and spread your wings?

Nancy: Yeah, I really treated it as if I were far away. So I didn’t go home most weekends... I did occasionally see my parents and so on, but it was a real advantage. I thought, to just... Having that away-from home experience living in residence, it was as if I were elsewhere, exploring the city. So with different friends and with a different perspective. So it worked out really, really well. It was a great school. I made some amazing friends and learned a lot too.

0:03:03.9Choosing Physics

Karina: Well, that’s fantastic. And I also wanted to hear, how did you decide to go into physics?

Nancy: So I always really liked physics and math and chemistry... Particularly math, I think I particularly liked, but I just couldn’t see myself being a mathematician. So I just took the sciences. I did not like biology at all in school and steered away from it, and so it’s kind of ironic that now my area of research is biophysics research. But yeah, I just... I enjoyed it. And so when I was choosing my major after my first year, I thought, "Well, I really like my chemistry courses, and I really like my physics courses and my math courses." And so chemical physics seemed to be a good choice.

I stayed in that general area in grad school for my PhD, and then got into biophysics as a postdoc. And so I’ve always been at the sort of the interface of Physics and other fields. So I think I really like those connections between different fields of science.

Karina: Well, that’s fantastic. And what kind of made you change your mind on biology?

Nancy: So I guess I was proudly ignorant for a while and then realised that I should not be proud nor ignorant. It was during my PhD, towards the end of it, we had a really amazing seminar series one year where all of the seminars that were normally in Physics and physical chemistry were devoted to Biophysics.

The faculty decided they wanted to learn more about biophysics. It seemed like an exciting area. They wanted to hire in that area, but they didn’t know much themselves. And so every week they got in a world leader in a different area of biophysics to give a seminar. And I was just fascinated. I thought this was so cool. And biology was not just observation, but there were knobs you could turn and test hypotheses and so on. And so from that I was like, "Okay, I need to learn more about this." And switched directions for my postdoc then.

0:05:11.2Focusing on now

Karina: Oh, that is so interesting.

And could you just give us a brief rundown of what you’ve been studying lately.

Nancy: Yeah. So I guess I studied two kind of related things. I like to look at the molecular scale, which is the smallest possible scale for biology. So one set of projects deals with molecular motors which are made out of proteins and transport things within ourselves. And so trying to understand how they work, and we’ve also been sort of trying to build them a new by taking proteins and re-purposing them into making new motors.

The other part of my research deals with another protein that’s called collagen. And collagen is the building block for all of our tissues in our bodies. And we’re trying to understand what it is that gives it its remarkable properties and how it balances sort of stability and structural support.

0:06:07.6Some advice

Karina: Well, that is so interesting. And I’m sure that you’ll get into more of the scientifics of your work in the next interview. So kind of switching gears a little bit, like I said, a lot of the people who come to this website are young people who are trying to figure out what they wanna do, and so do you have any advice to people who are maybe thinking about going into physics or maybe were like you and didn’t like Biology, but... Do you have any advice for them going forward?

Know that you're not sort of pigeon-holing yourself into something with that very first decision.” – Dr. Nancy Forde

Nancy: Yeah, I would say find what interests you and study more about it. It’s always a good suggestion. And keep your options as open as you can. Know that you’re not sort of pigeon-holing yourself into something with that very first decision. I think often people going into college are like, "Oh, I’ve gotta make this decision that’s gonna be the rest of my life," and it’s not. Like when I applied to university, actually... Or college, I applied to study History and Political Science, and then I got accepted for that, but decided I’d go to the more science roots that I’d always also found interesting.

So you just don’t know. And look at me in biology. And so I think learning things that interest you, not being afraid to learn new things. Take courses that are interesting. Like college is the time to do that. Like explore different areas, just because.

0:07:32.2Sign off

Karina: Well that is some fantastic advice and I loved to hear that you completely switched what you thought you were gonna do going into college. Because we have talked to a lot of people on here and, yeah very few of them knew what they were doing going into college or even coming out of college. So... Well thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me. It was really such a pleasure getting to talk with you. So thank you so much.

Nancy: Yeah, thank you.