"The most valuable lesson I learned throughout my graduate student journey was the significance of time management. I realized that it's crucial not to let failure deter you, but instead, use it as motivation to improve. Embracing failures as opportunities to learn, grow, and excel became pivotal."

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Simona Mastroianni

January 04, 2024

Chemistry master's student in the Faculty of Science

Tell us a little about yourself, including what inspires you to learn and continue in your chosen field

My name is Simona Mastroianni, and I come from a small town in Northern British Columbia called Prince George. Growing up, I was heavily involved in competitive sports, but after facing several injuries that led me to step away during my Grade 12 year, I felt somewhat lost. Encouraged/forced by my parents to attend university, I enrolled in general sciences without a clear goal. Now, five years later, I find myself in my first year as a Master's student in the Chemistry department at Simon Fraser University (SFU), specializing in the development of radiopharmaceuticals for cancer treatment, where my project involves the synthesis of chelators for lead-203/212 based radiopharmaceuticals.

Prior to my masters, I completed a co-op and honours Chemistry degree at UBC Okanagan. I explored various research areas in my first four academic years, eventually landing in cancer research. My undergraduate research primarily in analytical chemistry and microbiology involved studying the development of sustainable cosmetic ingredients. UBCO’s smaller campus size allowed me to get tones of hands-on exposure as a young chemist, opportunities I might have not had at a larger university. After finishing two co-op terms and my thesis at UBCO, I found myself drawn to research but not as passionate as my peers about the field I was in. This led me to applying for a co-op at the Canadian Particle Accelerator in Vancouver (TRIUMF) where I explored cancer research.An experience that sparked a deep passion, thanks to my inspiring mentors and the impactful work being done in the field.

As a master’s student now primarily focused on synthesis, I recall a crucial for-shadowing event from my undergrad: my second-year organic chemistry class, where I realized my love for chemistry, finding myself doing retrosynthesis’s on a daily basis for pure fun. Even though my path to becoming an organic chemist wasn’t straightforward, I place high value on my diverse research background which helps me approach my work in an interdisciplinary fashion. Motivated by my relatives battling cancer and inspired by my mentors, I'm driven to pursue research in this area. I am so happy to say I now get to do synthesis in my Master’s and implement the principles I learned as a curious second year, an aspect of organic chemistry that has always intrigued me for its language-like nature, driven by curiosity and passion. These experiences solidified my determination to become a scientist and maybe one day become a professor.

Why did you choose to come to SFU?

I chose to come to SFU primarily to join the Ramogida Group. I was inspired by the accomplishments of Dr. Ramogida and the impactful work conducted by the lab group. The groups research and innovative projects being undertaken align with the area of research I pursued and enjoyed in my co-op term at TRIUMF. I was inspired by the group's commitment to advancing this field, and I am eager to contribute my skills and knowledge to the significant work being done here at SFU.

How would you describe your research or your program to a family member?

As the first person in our family to go to university and pursue a career in science, explaining what I do can sometimes be a bit tricky. Many people might think I'm studying to become a nurse, dentist, or doctor because the idea of becoming a scientist in Prince George, British Columbia, where I am from isn't commonly understood or talked about.

When I started university, I didn't even know that being a scientist was a potential career path. But throughout my life, I've always been known for asking lots of questions and being incredibly curious in school. It finally clicked for me that there's a whole career out there for people who are curious, and it's called science.

My focus now is on asking important questions that can help us solve big problems. Specifically, I'm diving into the world of cancer research. In simple terms, my work involves creating special compounds that form the basis of medicines used to treat cancer. I'm aiming to make these medicines in a way that causes fewer side effects compared to the treatments commonly used today. Essentially, I'm trying to find better and more effective ways to help people fighting cancer while making their treatment experience less difficult.

What three (3) keywords would you use to describe your research?

Cancer, Nuclear, Interdisciplinary

How have your courses, RA-ships, TA-ships, or non-academic school experiences contributed to your academic and/or professional development?

Throughout my university journey, I've embraced diverse roles that have significantly shaped my academic and professional growth. As mentioned previously, I fell in love with organic chemistry as a second year student, where my professor was so enthusiastic about teaching chemistry it inspired me to start teaching myself. I discovered my passion for tutoring when I was hired in my second year of university to be the supplemental leading instructor for first-year calculus. This lead to me taking on subsequent roles as a teaching assistant, tutorial leader, and supplemental instructor across six undergraduate courses in chemistry and mathematics. My discovered passion for teaching lead me to establishing my own tutoring company, specializing in second-year organic chemistry. Through this endeavour, I've had the privilege of guiding over 50 students individually, all of whom have achieved notable success. Though I have to emphasize the fact that teaching holds a special place in my heart. It's not a profession but a genuine passion. This lead me to start a TikTok channel that now has a dedicated following of 25 thousand regular viewers. Additionally, I curate and offer online worksheets on my website learnwithsimona.com that I started as a second year teaching assistant for my students to comprehend organic chemistry, aiming to make this subject more engaging and accessible. My website since then has experienced exponential growth and now has users from all across the globe. Reflecting on my non-academic experiences over the past five years, I aim to inspire others to join me on this educational journey. I am passionately committed to applying my expertise and unwavering love for teaching to help individuals achieve their academic aspirations. These experiences have not only impacted the person I am today but have also helped me identify my passions and solidify the path I wish to pursue.

Have you been the recipient of any major or donor-funded awards? If so, please tell us which ones and a little about how the awards have impacted your studies and/or research

Yes, I was honored to receive the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellowship Programme (MSCFP), which supports the inclusion of women in the nuclear field. Named after the famous physicist Marie Skłodowska-Curie, this award will fund/sponsor my Master's program in nuclear-related studies and once completed come with an offered internship opportunity facilitated by the IAEA. This prestigious award significantly impacted my academic pursuits by not only providing financial support but also offering networking opportunities in the field, where I will go to Austria in March funded by the IAEA for a conference. It has been instrumental in enhancing my understanding and practical knowledge, enabling me to contribute more effectively to my studies and research in the nuclear field. I was honored to receive the Canada Graduate Scholarship — Master's program (CGSM). This award significantly supports my research pursuits by providing financial assistance through a stipend, enabling me to focus more extensively on my research endeavors. In addition to these awards I was also funded by internal donors, and SFU awards which I greatly appreciate and am very thankful for.

What have been the most valuable lessons you've learned along your graduate student journey (or in becoming a graduate student)?

The most valuable lesson I learned throughout my graduate student journey was the significance of time management. I realized that it's crucial not to let failure deter you, but instead, use it as motivation to improve. Embracing failures as opportunities to learn, grow, and excel became pivotal. Additionally, I discovered the importance of establishing a daily routine and prioritizing personal time amidst our hectic schedules.

How do you approach networking and building connections in and outside of your academic community?

To maintain connections within and outside my academic circle, I adopt an approach where I maintain authenticity and curiosity. I also network via social media, one of my passions. I recommend participating in collaborative projects, attending seminars, taking the time to talk peers and professors, and most importantly put yourself out there, you never know the opportunities that can come your way when you search for them. Communication is key, and it is important to be open minded and learn from others, instead of believing you have all the information already. I believe in building relationships founded on mutual respect and shared interests. Whenever I speak to someone I try to be approachable, attentive, and willing to offer support whenever possible. I believe that being authentic to my true self in and outside of work not only enriches my academic journey but also opens doors to collaborative opportunities and personal growth.

What are some tips for balancing your academic and personal life?

Nobody is perfect, and this is an area I'm continuously learning to manage. The most valuable advice I'd offer is to go easy on yourself, concentrate on showing up daily, and acknowledge your achievements, regardless of how minor they may seem. Additionally, I strongly suggest dedicating time to maintaining connections outside of work or studies. During my undergrad, I regret not investing more time in maintaining those relationships. While achieving success is commendable, the best times are when you have a friend to share those moments of celebration with.

If you could dedicate your research to anyone (past, present and/or future), who would that be and why?

I would dedicate my research to my younger self – the indecisive, anxious student, who teachers found too talkative, inquisitive, and unable to stay still. My academic achievements are a tribute to that young version of myself and to any other youth who feels out of place or doubts their potential. I aim to support young students, particularly those, like me, struggling with ADHD and any other disorders that leave students singled out for their out of place behaviour. I want them to realize that despite what others may say about the feasibility of their goals, the most important belief comes from within themselves. You can achieve whatever you set your mind to; self-belief is key.


Contact Simona:sam71@sfu.ca