Amira Aker

I am a 3rd year PhD student in Environmental Health

Tell us about yourself

I grew up in the Middle East, but now live in Toronto, Ontario. I've always loved science and used to beg my dad to build me my own lab when I was a kid. I still love exploring the world, and spend a lot of time discovering new cities, new cultures- and especially new food.

What is your research about?

Have you ever noticed that BPA-free stamp on your water bottle? Or maybe a paraben-free sticker on your shampoo? BPA, parabens and others like them are chemicals we add to some of our products to make them work better or last longer. But some of them can also look like our hormones and act like them in our bodies when they go through our skin. I study how these chemicals can affect our hormones, and what kind of diseases they could lead to.

What have you enjoyed the most about your research?

I love how broad it is. It's so much fun bridging all kinds of sciences together. To be able to conduct this kind of research, you need human biology to understand how hormones work, some chemistry to understand how the chemicals look and act, a sprinkle of math to bring it all together, and finally, some social sciences to make a difference in the community based on your results.

What have you found most challenging about your research?

Research requires a lot of attention to detail, which personally isn't my strong suit. I love to think big and come up with new ideas, so making sure all the details are in place has always been a challenge for me. I'm training myself to keep better track of my work, which is tedious, but forces me to pay attention!

How has your research experience influenced your career path?

I'm really enjoying my research projects, but I'd like to get more involved with turning research into action. I'll likely end up in a career that allows me to do the research I love, and put my activist hat on for science advocacy and policy change.

How has your research impacted the world?

You know those BPA-free and paraben-free stickers I mentioned earlier? Those stickers are on there because scientists in my field have found that having these chemicals in our products may not be so great in the long run. My research helps drive our understanding of why some health conditions are on the rise (like autism, obesity and cancer), and what we can do to stop it.

What do you predict will be the next big breakthrough in your field of research?

We are exposed to so much chemicals every second of every day. We’ve gotten pretty good at telling you how bad air pollution is, or how much of a chemical from your toothpaste got into your blood, but we're still figuring out how combinations of all these chemicals affect our bodies in the long-run. Understanding how a mixture of all these chemicals impact us is a fast-growing area of research.

What motivates you to do research?

I've always been curious about why and how things work. The human body, in particular, fascinates me because of how clueless we are to the inner workings of our bodies. Think of everything that is happening right now for you to be able to read these words- all those tiny molecules running around to make your brain process squiggles, keep your heart beating, lungs breathing...and we're completely oblivious to it. Understanding how our bodies maintain themselves, and what has to happen for them to get sick may one day help us understand how to switch things on and off at will.

Tell us about your 'Eureka' moment

During my Masters, we were learning several sciences that looked at the same question from different perspectives, but I realized we were never combining those sciences together. One of those sciences was pretty good at helping us understand “if” a chemical led to disease, and the other science was good at answering “how” that chemical leads to disease. I decided to pursue my PhD and focus my research on combining the two sciences and come up with a new way to solve these complex problems.

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