The benefits and challenges of being a mother and a graduate student

Rony Thomas is a third year PhD student in the Department of Immunology at the University of Manitoba, working under the supervision of Dr. Xi Yang. Originally from Kumily, India, Thomas’ interest in the field of infection and immunity grew throughout her undergraduate education, as well as her completion of her Master of Science degree, for which, she studied bacterial pathogenesis at the Indian Institute of Science. In 2014, Thomas was granted a J.N. TATA Endowment Scholarship for the Higher Education of Indians, which allowed her to conduct research abroad at a university of her choosing.

“As the first university in western Canada, the contributions of University of Manitoba to the research field are renowned globally. Coming from the southern part of India, it was my passion to work in an institute which offers high-quality research and excellence. Particularly, with its highly eminent scientists, research facilities, and training quality, the Department of Immunology is the best choice you can make,” said Thomas.

Her thesis is entitled, “Role of Semaphorin 3E in host defence against chlamydial infection”. Her research focuses on Semaphorin 3E (Sema3E), a guidance molecule for neurons, which has emerged as an essential mediator involved in cell migration, proliferation and angiogenesis. The goal of her project is to elucidate the role of Sema3E in host defense against chlamydial lung infection in a mouse model.

So far, Thomas et al. have demonstrated that mice lacking Sema3E experience more body weight loss, bacterial burden and pathology when challenged with chlamydia compared with wild-type mice. Furthermore, spleen and lung cells isolated from Sema3E-knockout mice produced significantly lower levels of interferon-γ and interleukin-17, which are pro-inflammatory molecules that aid in recruiting immune cells to sites of infection. This demonstrates that Sema3E may be a critical mediator of host defense against chlamydial lung infection through the induction of Th1 and Th17 responses.

Thomas hopes that developing a greater understanding of protective immunity and immunopathology related to chlamydial infections will enable the development effective vaccines and immunoprophylaxis against chlamydia, an intracellular bacterial pathogen that causes various human ailments, including pneumonia, bronchitis, sinusitis, trachoma, conjunctivitis and sexually transmitted infections.

Throughout her graduate studies, Thomas has won a multitude of awards including the Research Manitoba Graduate Studentships for her PhD studies (2016), Mindel and Tom Olenick Research Award in Immunology Entrance Scholarship (2015), and the University of Manitoba International Graduate Student Scholarship (2015), among plenty of others.

On top of her success as a graduate student, Thomas became a first-time mother in January 2016, when she gave birth to her daughter, Archa Miriam Alex. Just two years into her graduate program, having her baby, who she also calls Ayutty, was a step into unfamiliar but exciting territory.

“Being a university student and mother is a totally different experience. It is challenging to be a responsible mom and a dedicated student at the same time, but it is not impossible.”

Thomas contrasted her graduate student life before and after she became a parent.

“Before becoming a mother, I had the privilege to work in the laboratory all day. Now, I find it difficult to work late at night as my little one is waiting for me. However, it helped me in a way because I learned to plan my work in advance and manage my time effectively,” said Thomas.

Thomas talked about how it truly takes a village to balance her roles a graduate student and a new mother.

“I also have the strong support of my supervisor, my husband, our family, and friends,” said Thomas, “My supervisor supported me and provided me with appropriate advice and guidance.”

“My husband stood by me during my ups and downs and was always there for me. When my baby was born, my friends helped me take care of her when I needed some rest and they even cooked food for us. Then my mother came from India to help me with the baby and household work. Then when my mother went back to India, my mother-in-law came to support me.”

In addition, Thomas offered a word of advice for fellow peers who are new to parenthood or who may become a parent while pursuing their graduate degree.

“As a new mom and student, you will be always busy and find it difficult to balance both the roles. Get yourself organized by having a fixed schedule and try to stick to it. Early to bed and early to rise is the best option to carve out some extra time uninterrupted by the baby. It seems impossible to manage everything initially, but you must have self-confidence and believe that you can make it happen,” said Thomas.

Even with more responsibilities on her plate, she couldn’t imagine life any other way.

“Seeing your smiling baby is definitely stress relief when you’ve had a hard day”.

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