Scientist Talks: Rachelle Balez

Scientist Talks: Rachelle Balez
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2 years ago

Scientist Talks: Rachelle Balez

Next in our Scientist Talks video series, we speak to Rachelle Balez, a PhD student at the Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute at the University of Wollongong in Australia.

Rachelle chatted to our Co-Founder and Marketing Director Sam Roome about her current research, as well as her experience of peer-reviewing scientific papers – including overcoming imposter syndrome and her advice for scientists who want to get started in peer-reviewing.


Hi Rachelle! Firstly, could you tell us a bit about your background, where you’re based now and what you’re working on currently?

I'm Rachelle Balez and I am currently a PhD student at the Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute, based at the University of Wollongong. Wollongong is about an hour south of Sydney and it's a beautiful coastal city. We can actually see the ocean from some of our research labs so it's a really great place to work!

For my PhD, I focus on Alzheimer's disease, which of course is a neurodegenerative disease that tends to affect people in the later years of their life. One of the big challenges for people who have Alzheimer's disease is that they slowly lose their ability to remember, which then progresses into thinking and significant cognitive decline until eventually they pass away. My oma (grandmother) passed away three years ago from this disease, so I'm really motivated to understand what's happening on a molecular level within the brain.

One of the big challenges with Alzheimer's research is, being a disease of the brain, you can't easily access human brain tissue, especially living human brain tissue to understand what's happening during the disease's progression. So I’m using induced pluripotent stem cells. Most people are familiar with the term 'stem cells’, which are those incredible cells that in the embryo can grow into any cell type in the body. But there are a lot of ethical challenges surrounding the use of embryonic stem cells, so induced pluripotent stem cells is a novel technique which allows us to change an easily accessible cell, like someone's skin cell, into a stem cell. Once we have a stem cell we can grow it into any cell type we like. So I take skin cells from people who have Alzheimer's disease and change them into stem cells, and then grow them into brain cells which gives me living human brain cells in a dish to study, which allows me to understand the disease mechanisms and progression in a living human system.


You recently wrote a guide to peer-reviewing papers for the Hello Bio blog. What was the first paper you peer-reviewed and how did the opportunity come about?

First of all I’d like to thank Dr. Rebecca San Gil at the University of Queensland. We co-wrote the piece together and it was a really great experience. My first peer review opportunity came from a colleague, Dr. Martin Engel, a postdoctoral researcher who was based at our lab. He was reviewing for a journal who sent through a manuscript that he recognised was aligned quite nicely with my PhD field, looking not only at Alzheimer's disease but a particular receptor that I was also interested in. So rather than taking the review for himself, he sent me an email with the abstract and asked if I’d be interested in reviewing it. After considering what sort of a time commitment it would require on my behalf, I agreed to it, and he sent an email to the editor and then I was contacted by the journal. This was a really great way to start peer-reviewing because I already had a mentor to help me through that process. Martin had agreed to support me during the process and check my work to make sure that I wasn't making any errors or serious oversights.


So how did you feel about peer-reviewing your first paper? Did you have any imposter syndrome issues? Was there any part of the process that you were particularly nervous about?

I had huge imposter syndrome and I still do! It's toned down a little now because I can choose which papers or manuscripts I want to review and make sure that they align with my field of expertise or fall within a knowledge bank that I can understand and work with. But that doesn't stop me from having anxiety about missing a major flaw in the paper, or being too nit-picky, which is a common tendency for younger reviewers who are trying to prove themselves. But to counteract that, I try to remember that I’m never going to know everything, and that's why they have multiple reviewers from a diverse section of people on a peer review process because by combining different fields of knowledge and expertise, you create a cohesive whole that can successfully review and critique the paper.

What would be your number one tip for someone who wants to get started in peer-reviewing manuscripts, but isn't sure how to find opportunities?

When I began my own journey, I didn't know how to get started peer-reviewing. I was very keen and willing but I didn't know who to approach. If it wasn't for Martin approaching me and recommending me for peer-reviewing, I don't think I'd be involved in it now. My main suggestion would be to let people know that you want to peer review. Let your colleagues know, your supervisor, your peers, you never know who is also reviewing and what opportunities could come from that. It might take some time for the right journal, article or manuscript to present itself, and that’s important because you want to make sure it's within your area of expertise. You’ll want to be confident that you're doing justice to the science and the work that the authors have done. There are also a lot of great websites out there that help to train peer reviewers. They take you through a course, after which you can then start approaching some of the lower tier journals to start your journey.


Finally, what would be the top piece of advice you'd give to someone who's new to peer-reviewing, and is feeling nervous or apprehensive about getting it right?

My number one piece of advice would be to give yourself time to read the paper and manuscripts several times. For me, when I approach peer-reviewing, I will give the paper a quick read through and just jot down my initial thoughts, and then after a day or two I'll sit down with a big block of time and I'll go through it more thoroughly. That's where I'll usually pick up more questions and might need to consult some literature to fill in the gaps in my knowledge to be certain nothing is missing. Then after that ‘deep dive’ into the paper I'll leave it for a few more days before coming back to it again with fresh eyes. You never know what you miss during those first couple of reads. I think it's important also to read the comments of the other reviewers that have looked at the same manuscript. I always find it fascinating to see what I've missed, what others have picked up on, and it gives you a gauge of how you're progressing, and if you're maybe including too much information in your review, or not enough.


How can people contact you or connect with you online if they'd like to?

You can follow me on Twitter at @chellebalez, and I also have an Instagram account at @chelleabell. They're the main ways to contact me.

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