I am a student of biology at the University of Münster and me as well as four other students got the great possibility to go as exchange students to India as part of an external spe-cialisation module. The cooperation is between Prof. Moerschbacher (Department of Plant Biology and Biotech-nology) and Prof. Appa Rao Prodile of the University of Hy-derabad (India). This exchange was totally amazing, not only for the chance to get to see how research can be done in other countries but also to get to see another culture and another mentality. While in Germany everything is totally planned and fixed in advance, indians have this great metal-ity of improvising and be frank with everybody. I think I speak for all the German exchange students by saying that it was one of the most amazing and impressing things that we have done in our lifetime! I would advise each and everyone of you, if you ever get this chance, just take it!”
It was already at an early stage of my bachelor programme, when I decided to spend my abroad. Two main reasons reinforced my decision: Firstly, I’ve always had the desire to see and explore as much as possible in the world and secondly, the positive effect an exchange semester has for my future career. After having a look at the list of ERASMUS partnerships of the Faculty of Biology, I quickly decided on Stockholm since they are offering a wide range of biological courses taught in English and also because Sweden is one of my favourite countries. With hindsight, I can say that this ex-change was a great experience and I would strongly advise everyone to take advantage of the ERASMUS offer! Besides a few problems with finding accommodation, my stay in Sweden was easy to plan. Both the Faculty of Biology in Münster as well as the Department of Biology Education (BIG) at the Stockholm University provide support with all kinds of prob-lems before and during the exchange. In Stockholm, I was able to acquire several positive experienc-es about the Swedish culture as well as the country itself. Although it was quite difficult to get in touch with Swedish students at the beginning, joining sport teams and other events helped me to come into contact with Swedes. Moreover, not only I got the chance to experience the Swedish way of living, I also made some really good friends from all over the world. In this way, I learned a lot about different cultures and garnered several ideas about which countries I may going to visit in the future. Living and studying in Sweden was an amazing experience and I would definitely do it again!
Chrysi studied biology at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece. She gained additional research experience in Warwick University, UK, through an Erasmus research project with Dr Ntoukakis and as research assistant in Dr Gifford’s lab, but also in Munster University, Germany, through a summer school in Prof. Hippler’s lab. She is currently pursuing a PhD in plant – microbe interactions at the University of Warwick, with Dr Patrick Schäfer.
Why did you decide to pursue a PhD in the UK?
On 2014, I was lucky to be chosen for a 6-month Erasmus research project in the UK. It was my first choice because of the language and the high quality of research. After this experience I knew I wanted to continue as a researcher in the UK because of the level of research, facilities and opportunities that are available there. Also, the fact that it is such a multicultural country makes the life here more interesting!
Your life must be very different to the ones of most of your old friends. Do you ever feel like having to sacrifice your private life for your scientific career?
I think now is the time to build my life and focus on my career so I don’t see it as a sacrifice. But in any case, if you organise your work well, there is always time for private life. I still have friends (!) and a lot of hobbies, so I don’t feel overwhelmed by my work. Even better I feel so fulfilled working on what I love that it has a positive impact in my personal life.
What have been the best and worst moments in your scientific education and career so far?
Science is full of disappointments. I have been rejected a few times and quite often I felt I am not good enough for this field, that I am not smart or competitive enough. But my tenacity and my curiosity led me to search in different directions, and try to see what opportunities were available. This brought me to UK for my Erasmus project. And there is when the best moments started coming. There is no better feeling than creating your own things in the lab. From growing small plants to creating mutants. The Erasmus project, and the research assistant position following that, gave me the chance to learn and do things on my own and I felt more than appreciated for my work. During this period I realised how important is to be social in science and make connections among scientists. By meeting the right people, I learned about new opportunities which eventually brought me to another valuable scientific and personal experience in Germany, and to the PhD in the UK. Being in science you will always face failure and disappointment but also exciting moments – the thing is how you handle and evaluate them.
Where would you like to see yourself in 10 years?
In research! This is the only thing I can tell with certainty. I am not sure at which level, which field or which country – I try to keep an open mind to any option and opportunity I can have – but I know that I don’t want to stop doing science. I think it is something that keeps my mind active and my soul excited. For me science is a constant mystery full of problems that I have to find ways to solve them but also an endless source of knowledge; I will always find exciting facts about biology.
Do you have any role models or mentors who inspired you to peruse a career in science?
Of course I admire major scientists of my field and having such successes will always be a target for my career. But what inspires me the most is talking with people that I randomly meet and learning about their stories in science, how they make it up till that point and the way they see science. This shows me that the opportunities and the choices life gives are unlimited. So if you find them and use them correctly you can do whatever you have in mind!
What do you think is the most common problem scientists are facing in their careers today?
The handling of disappointment and failure. It is very easy to fail in science in a lot of ways. I think you have to be realistic about it, you have to know when to stop, when to take a step back, when to change your whole view of your work, when to ask for help. Denying to accept failure can lead to a vicious circle in your professional and personal life.
What advice would you give to someone who is considering a career in science?
Explore the opportunities you have and don’t be afraid to try different things. Any experience, negative or positive, will help you discover and improve yourself, but will also lead you to the right path for your career. And if something excites you, you know that you are doing the right thing, no matter what people say.
Jacqueline studied biology at the University of Toronto and obtained a PhD from the University of British Columbia in 2010. She then moved with her husband to England to start a postdoc at The Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich, before becoming an Assistant Professor in the Biology Department at Queen’s University in January 2016.
What do you find most enjoyable about being a group leader?
Although I’ve only been a group leader for just over a month, I find leading a small team exciting and rewarding. I like interacting with younger scientists and working together towards a common goal.
Did you ever consider pursuing an alternative career?
Yes. Young scientists face a variety of challenges in the workforce and should make themselves aware of other rewarding career opportunities outside of academia. However, becoming a group leader was always my ultimate goal and I feel so fortunate to be able to pursue this dream.
What was the biggest challenge you had to face during your career?
Although I benefitted from (and enjoyed!) moving between cities during my career, I sometimes found it a challenge to be far from home.
Did you ever feel like having to sacrifice your private life for your scientific career?
I find my work rewarding which tends to translate into long hours. Despite this, I feel quite fulfilled in my private life. In fact, I would say that my scientific career has offered me more opportunities than sacrifices. I was able to live in some wonderful places and make life-long friends – Toronto is a vibrant city, Vancouver is absolutely breath-taking, Norwich is a charming medieval city, and I’m excited to explore Kingston further.
Do you have any advice on how to maintain a healthy work-life balance?
Maintaining this balance is very important and looks different for everyone. My best advice would be to reflect on and truly understand what makes you happy, and respect this in your working life.
What do you think is the most common problem scientists are facing in their careers today?
Not diversifying enough. I think a broad and diverse skillset is key – a lot of junior scientists focus on lab work, which is of course extremely important. But, it’s equally important not to neglect cultivating other skills that are critical for their careers: networking, communication, management, writing, funding, team-work. Go to meetings, attend leadership workshops, get involved in student or postdoc committees, write as many grant applications as possible, peer-review papers with your supervisor, don’t shy away from giving seminars, and supervise students. The skills gained from these activities are transferable to a wide-range of careers outside of academia as well.
Do you have any role models or mentors who inspired you during your career?
Every one of my supervisors, from undergraduate projects through to my postdoctoral work, inspired me to pursue a career in molecular plant biology research. I also consider friends and family as role models and mentors – it’s good to surround yourself with people who inspire you!
What advice would you give a young woman who is considering a career in science?
I never considered my gender as a reason not to pursue a career in science. That said, women face unique challenges in academia and it’s important to be aware of these challenges and to demand change where necessary.