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Diverse Perspectives in Stem Cell Science: A Q&A with Daniel Twohig

Written by Vivien Horvath

Daniel Twohig is a postdoctoral researcher at Lund University investigating the development of cell-based therapies for stroke recovery. In this interview, Daniel shares the challenges and rewards of embracing a scientific career later in life. He also discusses how organizations can foster more inclusive science in the future and highlights the importance of inspiring a broad spectrum of young minds to pursue careers in science.

 Q: Can you tell us a bit about yourself? 

A: My background is in neuroscience and chemistry. I went back to school when I was 30 years old, so until then I also had multiple jobs and did a bunch of different things. I did my bachelors in Canada, in a dual major in chemistry and biology, but my focus was chemistry. I wanted to combine chemistry with neuroscience, but it was not possible then. So, for a Masters, since I have a European passport, it was possible to go to the Netherlands and I did a master’s program in neuroscience there. Then I started to do a PhD in the Netherlands as well, but a year into it I had to leave because of politics in the group. After that I got a PhD at Stockholm University in Sweden, doing Alzheimer's disease research. And from there I came to do a postdoc in Lund.  

It is a bit different to go back to study when you are a bit older, there is a bit of a stigma. For instance, I was 30-31 years old, and the rest of the class was 19–20-year-olds. Sometimes it makes you feel like you missed something in life. However, during the 10 years I was working, I gained a lot of life experience like interpersonal skills and how a good workplace versus a toxic workplace, and that just gives you a lot of insight into the world.  

Q: What initially sparked your interest in science? What motivated you to pursue a career in research? 

A: I have always been interested in the human brain and as a kid I wanted to be a neurosurgeon. But when I went back to school, I decided to study to be a wine maker, so that is why I did a bachelor in biochemistry. I was planning to specialize in wine making.  

However, all the science students take the same courses together for the most part and after the first year I realized I do not have to make wine, I could actually really help people with my science. I wanted to do that because I have this drive to also give back and not just take from the world. Before becoming a scientist when I had other jobs, I always asked the questions, "Why am I doing this? What is this job doing for the world?" So even though science can be a bit stressful and a bit crazy, especially right now as a postdoc, it is a bit crazy, I would not change it for the world. Also, I am especially happy that I made it because no one in my family has done anything like this before, I am the first person. Also, all my friends back home are very blue-collar people, and they are proud of me for how far I have gotten. 

Q: In a few sentences, can you describe your current research focus and the research group that you are working in now? 

A: Currently, I am a postdoc in the Neural Stem Cells Research Group led by Anna Falk. I am working on developing cell therapy for stroke, trying to make clinical grade products that are suitable enough so we can eventually put them into human beings. My project is trying a lot of different optimizations and seeing which ones the best cells are to implant and come up with a batch that will be suitable for therapy.  

Anna Falk is very big on personal development and that is something I have never experienced before at work, with any of my bosses, maybe not even in non-scientific contexts. We have personal development meetings once a month, where we discuss things such as the workplace environment and one’s individual development. We also read as a group, books about personal development, and we talk about how we could implement the things we read in the lab and in our daily life. In these developmental meetings we also talk about, for example, how to tailor our emotions and reactions so they are not toxic to other people and to ourselves.  

Q: Working in an international environment, what is your approach to understanding colleagues with diverse backgrounds?  

A: My whole thing is that I talk to everybody. I talk to all the cleaning people; I talk to all the admin people. I do not care who you are, you are a person, so I talk to you. I think that is how I deal with it, by talking to people. For me, I am coming from mixed race background, from a super multicultural city like Toronto, so I am a bit of an outlier since I am used to being around super diverse people. This way you get used to hearing different people's perspective or different accents or different ways that people express themselves.  

Q: As a scientist, have you encountered any specific challenges within academia?

A: I've been around diverse environments for so long that I don't get caught up in things like this, these kinds of things don’t really affect me. I think the only thing I've really had an issue with since I have been in science is ageism. Not here in Lund, but in general just applying for things like travel grants in other places. For example, if I want to apply for a faculty job later, my age might be an issue, because you are not considered as economically viable as a younger person. 

 Q: What are some ways you think we could be more inclusive in academia? 

A: Inclusive science is important because it has not been for years. That is exactly why it is important to have people with diverse background. As a person coming from a blue-collar background, I noticed too that a lot of my peers come from backgrounds where their parents are doctors, lawyers and so on. So, we see a lot of different types of backgrounds, and nurturing them is important. The world is diverse, and scientists are trained everywhere, not just here. Diverse work environments become more productive too because you have these different perspectives that really enriches the environment  

Also, it is important to have a top-down approach. For instance, Anna has said this a couple of times that she has had her group for more than 10 years now, and she has realized through trial and error what type of people make a good fit and that her priorities when hiring people. (I agree with them) are whether they are a nice person, and if they can work in a team. In our group everyone is oriented this way, and everyone acts that way, and has the mentality of helping each other. In our group everyone is quite open and willing to share and are not hung up on their own egos and career aspirations.   

Lastly, it is important to inspire people to study science. Science is getting less and less attractive for kids, especially physics and chemistry and so on. In these courses its often mainly male students and there are less and less students each year, in general. Unfortunately, I do not speak Swedish, but if I did, I would love to go to schools here that might not be the nicest in terms of opportunities for the kids who study there and talk to the kids about science. Those activities are important for inclusive science. 

Q: What advice would you give to aspiring scientists from underrepresented backgrounds who are interested in pursuing a career in stem cell research or academia? 

A: Do not give up. You have to go through thick and thin which is easier said than done. Do not give up, do not let anybody derail you from what you want to do. 


About Daniel Twohig

Portrait of Daniel Twohig.

Daniel Twohig is a postdoctoral researcher in the Neural Stem Cells research group led by Professor Anna Falk at the Lund University Faculty of Medicine and is affiliated with Lund Stem Cell Center. 

Professional Background: PhD from Stockholm University, Postdoc at Lund University 

Daniel Twohig’s Profile in the Research Portal