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To Halifax and Back, by Dr Joanne Simmons-Boyce

To Halifax and Back, by Dr Joanne Simmons-Boyce

By Dr Joanne Simmons-Boyce

"Wait! You went Halifax an' come back?" This question would typically be posed by a Barbadian grandparent/parent to a child who lingered whilst running an errand. But how many Bajan girls dream of visiting Halifax? I most certainly did not!

My journey to Halifax commenced in 2004, when armed with a doctorate in Chemistry, I started searching for a postdoctoral position. Almost one year and hundreds of application letters later, a position finally opened up in the lab of Dr. Shawna Mackinnon. She was looking for someone with a background in Natural Products Chemistry to investigate the potential health benefits of plants and seaweed (macroalgae) that were abundant in Atlantic Canada, using a 1H-NMR-based (proton NMR) metabolomics approach. The one catch: I needed to apply for a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) Visiting Fellowship. This would allow me to legally work in a Canadian government laboratory. Notably, of all the NSERC fellowships awarded annually, two-thirds go to Canadians. Furthermore, an applicant needs to gain two out of two positive, independent reviews. It was in September 2005, that Shawna notified me of my success. 

So, what did moving to Halifax mean for me? It meant gaining hands-on experience on state-of-the-art analytical equipment such as the nuclear magnetic resonan ce spectrometer (NMR)  and high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) systems. It meant interacting with renowned scientists; experts in their fields. But, in addition to being a scientist, I'm also a wife, mother, child, sister and friend. So, it also meant integrating into a new country and culture; juggling a mainly long-distance relationship with my husband; balancing partial single-parenthood and moving thousands of miles away from my parents, siblings, relatives and friends. My loved ones would miss me and I them, but I knew that they were with me in spirit for every step of this adventure.

Having travelled with me to make sure that I was all settled in my new home, my husband  returned to Barbados and I was all alone in Halifax for the first eight months of my three-year stint. I occupied my time with familiarising myself with my surroundings at the National Research Council of Canada - Institute for Marine Biosciences (NRC-IMB). The building was filled with scientists, of varying nationalities, conducting research in numerous areas: zebrafish, shellfish toxins, macroalgae, marine and plant-derived natural products. Additionally, it was located on the Dalhousie campus and I was able to access services at their NMR facility as well. The learning curve was steep in these early months. What exactly was metabolomics? How would I run my samples? I had never even used a NMR  spectrometer before! I needed to come up with a plan, fast. I decided that since I would be analysing urine samples, the best way to perfect my technique was to run my own urine. I immediately commenced sample collection and processing. Following NMR training and a short course on multivariate data analysis, I was ready and raring to go when the first samples from our seaweed feeding study arrived. However, I quickly found out that this journey was a marathon rather than a sprint, and I needed to pace myself. I could not process and run NMR experiments on 20 samples a day. So, I carefully took my time and completed the data acquisition and processing of over 200 samples. 

As the proverb goes, 'all work and no play will make Jill a dull girl'. Life is about balance.  I got involved in the Staff Association at NRC-IMB and this allowed me to interact with my colleagues in a social setting. The association organised fund-raising summer barbecues, the annual picnic to Oakfield Park, a pumpkin carving competition at Halloween, a Christmas Party and an International Buffet, which celebrated the diversity at the institute. This buffet was a feast to the eyes and taste-buds, as individuals brought traditional dishes from their homelands and created a culinary display that was shared by all. I treated them to some delicious Bajan fishcakes.  

Once my son joined me, my life changed dramatically. My friendship group expanded from the institute, to the daycare, and beyond. There were trips to the kids shows at the Halifax Library on Saturday mornings, play dates at parks and a never-ending string of birthday parties. They ensured that we were never bored or lonely. Friends graciously invited us over to enjoy Sunday, Easter and Thanksgiving lunches and dinners. We started having potlucks or 'cook-ins'; this is how I learned to make samosas. They took us to Canada Day celebrations, amusement parks, multicultural festivals and apple picking. One Easter weekend, we even went away on a short trip to a maple syrup farm. We saw how maple syrup is tapped and concentrated and enjoyed the delightful maple candies when warm syrup was poured onto the fresh snow. 

So, how was I able to fulfil my dream of pursuing a postdoctoral experience outside of Barbados? I was fortunate to have a strong support system; a loving family and reliable  friends. My husband travelled several times a year and we connected via video-call each day. My son physically kept my company and kept me busy. My parents, siblings and other relatives touched base several times weekly and in summer 2007, my mom and aunt came to visit. My friend, Joy, also secured a NSERC fellowship the year after me and came to join me in the lab; another Bajan in Halifax! Yay! My lab family took me under their wings like a hen would do her new chicks. They welcomed me even before I arrived, helped me with apartment hunting, with settling in and finding my way around. They pitched in to babysit so I could attend scientific conferences in Nova Scotia, PEI and the USA. My daycare friends ensured that weekends were filled with fun activities. And finally, my faith, determination, a steely resolve and a warm winter jacket, kept me going!          

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