Science Professional Profile: Ruby Sullan

Dr. Ruby Sullan is an Assistant Professor of Chemistry at the University of Toronto

What is your profession?

I am an Assistant Professor in Chemistry. This means doing research with graduate students, postdocs, colleagues for the most part and the opportunity to teach Chemistry to undergraduates.

Which field of science do you use in your work?

In a broader sense, Chemistry. But as it is rare to see pure disciplines these days, our group actually does interdisciplinary research. We combine different fields—Chemistry, Biology, Physics, and Microbiology—to understand why bacteria stick to surfaces and why nasty things can happen when they (i.e., bacteria) organize into elaborate structures called biofilms.

We use a microscope that is very sensitive to “really small forces”—in the range of piconewtons (trillionths of a newton) to nanonewtons; one newton is roughly the weight of a small apple. The ability of this microscope to also visualize structures at this level gets you up-close and personal with bacteria, and measure its interaction with the surface (could be medical implants or host cells) at the single-molecule and single-cell level. Once we know how this works at the nanoscale level, then we know how to interact with it. The insights gainedfrom this approach can provide design principles for ‘anti-fouling’ coatings that could be used for medical implants, as well as in industry, dentistry or elsewhere.

Getting up close and personal with bacteria: PhD student Alexa Zayadi and Postdoc Christian Kreis hard at work in our new Atomic Force Microscopy Lab, eager to find out what dictates bacteria’s choice to stick to surfaces.

What is exciting about your work? What is your greatest achievement so far?

The variety. Not each day is the same. Let me rephrase the greatest achievement question to “the most rewarding part of the job”. To me, it’s the opportunity to mentor PhD students and postdocs. Itis fulfilling to take part intheir career trajectory. I am still a newbie in the mentoring arena and still learning the ropes. Another rewarding part of the job is being able to provide research opportunities to undergraduate students. I want undergrads to experience early on the rigor and discipline that comes with scientific research. This is invaluable, regardless of which path they will eventually choose.

What's been the most challenging aspect of your career so far?

It’s the same as the most rewarding part: mentoring students. Each of us ticks differently and the same can be said of the people I supervise in the group. Each person has a different mixof character, level of maturity, and personality. I have to deal with each member differently, making sure that theyremain engaged intheir research and that theyget challenged just enough to bring out their creativity. This is not easy to do if you’re not used to it, I am learning as I go.

Friday afternoons: (top) The group during a competitive yet friendly bowling competition at The Ballroom and (bottom) cooling off at the rink in Toronto Harbourfront.

What inspires you?

When ideas come to fruition and get to the level that it positively impacts the society at large. This could be new cures, new tools for research, better understanding of things. It is inspiring as most of these scientific breakthroughs did not happen overnight but were actually a product of years and years of careful study by who knows how many hardworking and thorough researchers.

Tell us about your career path. What made you pursue this career?

I first studied Chemistry in the tropics (Philippines). I then braved the Canadian winter when I went to the Chemistry department of the University of Toronto to study how barnacles (yes, those marine creatures) can heavily foul a ship. These barnacles secrete a very sticky adhesive or cement, which allows them to stick to surfaces even under water. As a PhD student, I wanted to find out how the barnacle glue responds to force, both in bulk and also at the level of a single molecule. This is where my career on biofouling and nanomechanical properties of biofoulers first started to take shape. Wanting to spend more time understanding single molecules using “force”, I joined a single-molecule biophysics group in Boulder, Colorado. It was here in Boulder, where mountains are literally your neighbor, when I was compelled to look more closely at how bacteria stick to surfaces. This brought me to a lab in Belgium, where I then started to actually measure the interaction of bacterial pathogens with surfaces, at the single-molecule and single-cell levels.

After I satisfied my cravings for Belgian waffles and chocolates, I then moved to neighbouring Germany, to learn some more tools crucial to understanding bacterial adhesion. From Germany, I circled back to Toronto, where my research group now endeavours to dissect the forces that keep bacterial biofilms intact and stable. Along with our mechanistic efforts, we are also developing alternatives to current antibiotic-based therapies.

Do you have any tips/advice for aspiring scientists/engineers?

Don’t be afraid to venture beyond your comfort zone. Don’t fail to show up even when you don’t feel like it, showing up is already half of the equation. Life is short, enjoy a bubble tea but bring your non-disposable cup! 🙂

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