New blogger Ana Amaral: An academic saga in 3 chapters

Can you imagine a lab where you feel part of a great team, where your PI makes you feel valued and, at the same time, motivates you and inspires you? Are you lucky enough to share your days with colleagues who are friendly, excited about their work and always happy to discuss or help? Do you work in a lab where people love to work together and also to socialize together? Maybe some of you can only imagine it but I am lucky enough to be part of one at KI – the Katajisto lab, at the Department of Biosciences and Nutrition. At KI, I took a second post-doc position studying how cellular metabolism influences the fate of adult stem cells. After several years full of excitement, challenges and doubts, experiences in different countries, I resiliently remained in academia until I found the best lab ever. Here is a summary of my academic journey so far.

Chapter 1 – A PhD by the sea

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Torre beach, Oeiras, Portugal

Being a true Portuguese who loves the sun, the sea, my family, and our very own tasty food, I did all my studies in Portugal, except for some short research periods abroad in France and Norway (where my fascination for the Scandinavian lifestyle began). After a BSc degree in Biochemistry (Lisbon), my PhD years were spent in the lovely town of Oeiras (just west of Lisbon), facing the sea. My lab was truly interdisciplinary: a good mix of biochemists, biologists and engineers, among whom I investigated how brain cells respond metabolically to pathological episodes, for example, a stroke, using mini-bioreactors and metabolic models. My lab at ITQB NOVA institute was really a great place to do research: fantastic colleagues, good funding and facilities, lunches at the balcony almost the whole year, never-ending sunshine and that constant sea breeze! I learned a lot from the great multidisciplinary environment and wide research focus of my group, although, on the other hand, I frequently felt I lacked more insightful discussions on my project from someone who really knew about brain metabolism. Overall, at the end of my PhD, I felt extremely valued and respected, being one of the most experienced lab members. After 7 years in the same lab, the need for higher challenges spoke stronger when the time for the “what to do next?” decision arrived.

Chapter 2: Post-doc in Cambridge

My goals were clear: I still loved research so I wanted to test myself in a competitive academic environment and I wanted to have a full life experience in a foreign country, and to do good science in a group where I could learn more about neurobiology. After some search and several applications, I decided to move to Cambridge, UK, to study how oligodendrocyte precursor cells differentiate, a crucial step for myelin repair in the brain. My goal, once more, was to work on something I really enjoyed and then I would figure out what to do next.

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Pedestrians and cyclists in King’s Parade, Cambridge, UK

I immersed myself in the multicultural scientific bubble of Cambridge, full of the brightest talents cycling around those charming streets on their way to the lab, college dinners, seminars, pubs, concerts, or a social event with international friends. By living the “Cambridge life” I grew as a scientist and as a person. Being part of this prestigious university with so much to explore and learn, I decided to take the best advantage possible of my time there. After a difficult start, I was able to push my own project forward and get my PI excited about it. I expanded my research horizons through my own research and other collaborative projects. I developed transferable skills through courses and by taking part in different associations. I improved my ability to meeting and engaging with other people. Being alone in a new place, with new friends, also brought me a new desire to trying new things, exploring old dreams like singing in a choir, and meeting new cultures. Without a doubt, this step I took to develop my career had, simultaneously, a tremendous effect in my personal development due to all the experiences and, above all, the great people I met.

Chapter 2.1 – The reflections start…

Naturally, as part of the post-doc life, I faced some difficult challenges that made me question my motivations for the future (sounds familiar?), especially when you realise that the lab where you work is not the dream lab to be and neither does the country where you live feel like home. These and other factors led to some frustration and disappointment that clashed with the idea I have of how exciting it is to do research for the passion we have for it.

In my case, it was not only those experiments that failed and all the hours in the lab that go to the drain, the fellowships we applied for and didn’t get or the papers that got rejected. I felt frustrated with cases of deep demotivation in my colleagues and lack of stimulating scientific discussions in the group. I felt frustrated with examples of bad leadership and mentorship around me, who certainly influence several talented young scientists to quit science. I was also a bit disappointed to see that, despite my hard work, my project needed more and more to achieve that high impact paper and I just wanted to move on to something new. I was disappointed to see how much the scientists of today, due to the increasing competition, have to rely more and more on impact factors to secure their next position or grant. I wonder how much this hinders scientific creativity and the freedom to develop the projects we would really like to do.

Luckily, along the way, I also met people who were passionate about science, who believed that a good work-life balance was essential, who motivated me to pursue my projects and not giving up. To take a break from the stress of the lab, I took part in communication courses and volunteered in public engagement events. I felt so energised and rewarded when explaining basic biology concepts to 5-year olds or when talking about my research to lay audiences. These activities gave me extra motivation to go back to the lab and continue doing all those exciting things people enjoyed hearing from me. But, at the same time, the feeling of fun and reward made think of whether I should consider an alternative career outside the lab, exploring all those transferable skills I had developed.

Chapter 2.2 – Do I really want an alternative career?

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

And the moment came again – I reflected and reflected. I attended courses on alternative careers for post-docs, I networked with scientists working in industry to try to understand how their work was, I discussed with friends in similar situations. I tried to identify what I liked and didn’t like in my work and what I enjoyed doing and I arrived to the conclusion that there were more positive than negative aspects. The main negative ones were definitely the instability, scarcity of funding and pressure for publishing high-impact. On the other hand there were just so many more positive ones: the strong intellectual component, the constant problem solving situations we face, the opportunity and freedom to study something we are passionate about, the variety of tasks and events that characterise our (sometimes unpredictable) days, the flexibility of schedules, the constant learning, the opportunity to teach and mentor students and pass on our experience and knowledge, the amazing people we meet at the lab, at the institute, at conferences. I felt a knot in my stomach every time I tried to imagine myself in another kind of job, perhaps because of the unknown, perhaps because of being afraid to fail or of really not knowing what would be the right decision.

Chapter 3: Follow your gut feeling and move to Stockholm!

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View of central Stockholm from Ivar Los Park, Södermalm

I decided to apply for research jobs in industry and academia until I found the advert to my current position at KI, looking for someone with experience in cellular metabolism to study cell fate decision mechanisms in adult stem cells. I had been offered a job in a biotech company but it didn’t feel challenging enough and this one sounded so cool, I thought! In my interview, I had the chance of meeting the whole lab, presenting my work, and discussing individual projects with the different lab members. The warmth and feeling of happiness and excitement of everyone in the lab, in addition to the quality of the research being done, made me feel like that was the place to be. Plus, it was in one of my favourite cities in the world, with high life-quality, full of water and green areas (but let’s try to forget about the cold and dark winters). Easy decision! And, here I am, two years passed, at KI, now at the colourful Neo building, in the Flemingsberg campus.

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KI – Neo Building, Flemingsberg

After all the natural challenges related to adapting to a new city and workplace, I am very happy and do not regret at all to remain in academia. I am now lucky to be part of my lab as a senior post-doctoral researcher and, without a doubt, all those transferable skills I acquired help me to be a better scientist and lab member everyday.

In conclusion, for all of you out there who are frustrated with your PhD or post-doc experiences, my first advice is: do not let one bad experience determine your future. Step back, get to know yourself and your strengths, explore possibilities, challenge yourself, follow your passion, and you will eventually find the right place for you. On that day, everything will become easier and more fulfilling, no matter how hard the work might be. Good luck!

Stay tuned for my upcoming posts at the KI Careers Blog where I want to share my constant reflections and experiences related to work in academia. And do comment below so we can generate some discussion! Thanks for reading!

 

 

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