Leigh Spencer Noakes, Post-Doctoral Fellow

Leigh Spencer Noakes, Post-Doctoral Fellow

Leigh is a post-doctoral fellow at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto.

What is your morning routine?

I like to exercise, so I try to fit that in before work. I wake up quite early, head to the gym, have a big breakfast, get ready, and I’m off. Some people scramble through the morning, but I like to take it slow – admittedly, sometimes too slow. I really enjoy reading the news and drinking coffee with breakfast.

Tell us about your career path.

I always loved science and wanted to be a scientist for as long as I can remember. I chose the academic route with the goal of becoming a faculty member at a university or research hospital. I came to Canada from Barbados to do my undergraduate degree in chemistry and physics at the University of Toronto. After that, I completed my Ph.D. in chemistry at McMaster University.

During my graduate studies, I used nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy to study ion dynamics for materials used in lithium ion batteries. The underlying methodology in NMR is very similar to that in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). For my post-doctoral work, I wanted to learn more about imaging so I joined an MRI lab at SickKids and have been here for just over three years. I’m currently applying for faculty positions, and I hope to find a position where I can explore more of my own research ideas.

What challenges do you or women face in your industry?

An academic career in science is challenging for anyone. I think one of the most difficult challenges for women is the lack of female representation in leading roles. At the post-doctoral level there is a decent ratio of women to men (although this varies with each field), but at the professor level the number of women drops significantly. That being said, I have had several very inspirational female role models in my career, including my Ph.D. supervisor.

What advice would you give to young girls who want to be the NEXT you?

Much of my motivation comes from curiosity. If you’re really interested in something, it’s much easier to go the extra mile to accomplish your goal. Choose an area of research you’re curious about, something that really excites you. It may not be the first thing you come across, so find opportunities to explore different areas while you have the chance. You can find a summer job in a research lab or enrol in a post-secondary co-operative program.

Also, I find students with some teaching experience tend to do well in their own school work, and are therefore more likely to get hired for short-term research positions. Try to look for teaching assistant opportunities in labs or tutorials. These give you the opportunity to meet professors and graduate students and learn about their research, hopefully leading to good reference letters for job applications.

How do you separate work life from your personal life?

It can be quite difficult at times, especially because I really enjoy my research and think about it often. I try not to work at home. Sometimes I’ll stay late at the lab to work on something, but I don’t bring it home with me. I also try to have an active personal life by doing things outside of work, whether they’re hobbies or social events.

What inspires you?

I love nature. I get excited thinking about how the natural world works, whether it’s the way a mouse’s heart beats or how spins align in a magnetic field. My colleagues also inspire me. I’m fortunate to be surrounded by people who are very good at what they do and all have slightly different areas of expertise. It’s an excellent environment for brainstorming and problem solving.

When you’re off the clock, what are your indulgences?

My husband and I like to spend a lot of time outside in the summer. We go camping with friends and walking in the woods as much as we can. Winter is a bit more difficult. I have an indoor garden that I care for. I also really enjoy cooking and trying new recipes.

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