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Diving into Science and Sports: Laura Muñoz Baena, Ph.D. ’23

Diving into Science and Sports: Laura Muñoz Baena, Ph.D. ’23

Laura Muñoz Baena wasn’t a strong swimmer when she discovered the world of underwater hockey, but she was fascinated by the unique sport.

To play underwater hockey, which involves maneuvering a weighted puck along the bottom of a pool, she had to learn how to swim with flippers, use snorkels, and hold her breath for long periods of time — all at depths of six to 13 feet. water.

She was determined to work toward this ambitious goal—a trait that has served her well as an athlete and doctoral candidate in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at the Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry.

Nine years after he was first introduced to underwater hockey, Muñoz Baena now plays for Canada’s national team, and recently represented his country at the World Championships in Australia.

While earning her doctorate this week, Muñoz Baena discussed what motivates and motivates her.

What initially sparked your interest in bioinformatics and virus evolution?

My interest arose while studying biological engineering at Columbia. I worked in a laboratory that required highly organised, systematic and precise handling of biological samples. When programming was introduced into the business, even though it was a learning curve, I felt more confident. I wouldn’t lose expensive reagents or unique RNA samples if my experiments failed, so I decided I wanted to use bioinformatics to facilitate my exploration of the ever-changing natural world.

When I decided that this was the field I wanted to pursue, I found my current supervisor, Art Boone, whose research laboratory aligned with my interests in bioinformatics and virus evolution.

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Can you share a memorable moment from your journey at Western that had an impact on your perspective or career goals?

To me, science represents humanity’s greatest collaborative effort. As a result, the thing I enjoy most is sharing and communicating my work.

A large part of my experience as a graduate student was working as a teaching assistant for my supervisor. It was scary at first, but as the students started to understand the complex topics I was explaining, it was incredibly rewarding.

I also noticed improvement when I expressed my interest in students and began sharing my interest in class topics with them. Ultimately, I felt that my knowledge benefited from the progress the students made.

Now that you have completed your PhD, are there specific roles or projects that you are excited to pursue in your career?

I will say that finishing a PhD is a bit scary. After five years of focusing on my research – it feels like my whole world, so when it comes to an end, it’s nerve-wracking. Although working in academia is difficult, I want to continue conducting scientific research wherever it takes me.

You participate in underwater hockey at the national level. What is the story behind how you learned about and followed this unique sport?

I started playing underwater hockey in Colombia in 2014 when a friend introduced me to the sport, but first I had to get a lot better at swimming. Once I heard the sound, it was very interesting. I started to get better and wanted to play more and more.

It was tough when I came to Canada and couldn’t play for two years because of the pandemic and the long distances. Eventually, I found a club in Hamilton – a friendly, close-knit group of underwater hockey players who let me join. I’ve been playing ever since.

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How did you manage to balance school and sports successfully? Is there any advice for people trying to pursue their passion outside of academia?

Routine is also essential. It gets easier as you get used to it, and your body remembers what to do and when to do it. During my doctoral studies, I made a conscious effort to prioritize non-academic activities that also interested me. For example, I know that I start to feel down and less focused if I don’t make time to exercise with my friends, so I incorporated underwater hockey as part of my routine.

However, at the end of the programme, balancing studies with other aspects of life can become very complicated. Since you probably won’t be able to do everything, it’s essential to choose what you value most. Fortunately for me, I have amazing friends and family who keep me accountable and remind me to take one day at a time to enjoy the process.

How has mentorship played a role in your experience as a doctoral candidate?

I was lucky enough to find a supervisor that I clicked with, as the relationship should be based on trust, honesty and transparency. In art, I was lucky to find a wonderful mentor, who was very practical and provided any necessary feedback and support. This support has had a very positive impact on my experience and research.

As a recent PhD graduate, what advice do you have for aspiring students interested in pursuing a similar path in microbiology and immunology?

I recommend choosing a topic that interests you and that you can do for a long period of time.

“Choosing a PhD is a long-term commitment, so it becomes easier and more enjoyable if you really care about your research.”

Remind yourself that it’s important to stay connected to others. Never let your research isolate you. You are not alone, and you grow when you share your experience. Although school may seem like your whole life, it is just a part of it, and you must continue to live your life outside of school in order to stay healthy and happy.

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