Welcome to “DANWISE Role Model 2023” an inspiring and enlightening series of interviews that highlights the exceptional achievements and contributions of women in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics, and Medicine (STEMM). In this captivating series, we aim to bring you closer to the extraordinary journeys of these remarkable women who have defied societal norms, shattered glass ceilings and pushed the boundaries of knowledge and innovation.
Through these interviews, we will explore the personal stories, motivations, and challenges faced by these trailblazing women in their pursuit of excellence. We will uncover the diverse perspectives and experiences that have shaped their careers.
By sharing their inspiring stories, these women hope to empower and inspire future generations of women to fearlessly follow their passions and carve their own paths in STEMM. We invite you to join us as we celebrate the achievements of these remarkable women, challenge stereotypes, and foster a more inclusive and diverse future in the world of STEMM. Together, let’s explore the limitless potential and incredible contributions of women in STEMM.
Repeating failed experiment (Oxford, 2018)
Embark on Marcela Mendoza Suarez’s extraordinary career journey, transitioning from engineering to biofertilisers for legume crops. Discover her transformative path from Tecnológico de Monterrey to Oxford and Aarhus Universities. Experience her boundless interdisciplinary collaborations, mentorship influence, personal triumphs, entrepreneurial pursuits, and unwavering commitment to teamwork and work-life balance. Brace yourself for a captivating expedition through Marcela’s remarkable career story.
First international conference (Budapest, 2016)
Can you tell us about your career journey and how you got to where you are today?
Certainly, I did not have a straightforward pathway. I completed a BSc degree in Engineering in biotechnology and bioprocess, where most of the courses focused on pharmaceutical processes. However, I was more interested in working on sustainable projects that benefit the environmental, social, and economic aspects rather than just one area.
As a result, I decided to pursue an MSc degree in Environmental Systems. Growing up in the Chihuahuan Desert in the north of Mexico, I focused my research on using biopolymers to conserve water and reduce the use of chemical fertilisers in desert farming activities. During my MSc, I got interested in using biofertilisers, which are microorganisms that provide essential nutrients to plants, as an alternative product to chemical fertilisers. However, there was a lack of research on biofertilisers at my university then.
With the assistance of my supervisor at the time, Professor Roberto Parra at Tecnológico de Monterrey, we reached out to different research groups around the world that were working with these types of bacteria for use as biofertilisers. We received positive responses, including one from Professor Phil Poole at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, UK. His group’s focus on rhizobia, nitrogen-fixing bacteria, which has a symbiotic relationship with legumes, was a perfect match for my interests. Since beans are a significant crop in Mexico. I decided to go to Norwich, a city I had never heard of before, and learn about Rhizobia.
Although my expertise was more focused on industrial processes rather than biology, my different background allowed me to approach the research from a unique perspective; while I couldn’t make modifications to the basic biology of the research, I optimised data collection methods and simplified certain protocol steps.
After returning to Mexico to complete my master’s degree, Professor Poole offered me a position in his group (Poole’s group relocated to Oxford University at that moment) to pursue a Ph.D. As a non-EU citizen, it was challenging for me to secure a standard scholarship, but a combination of a Mexican government scholarship and an Oxford University scholarship allowed me to join the Ph.D. programme.
My Ph.D. project focused on developing a molecular tool for rapid identification of rhizobia in soil. High-throughput experiments played a crucial role in the success of the project, where again, my engineering skills were valuable.
Following my time at Oxford, I moved to Aarhus University as a postdoctoral researcher with Professor Stig Andersen. This move was ideal as it allowed me to continue developing and scaling up my research on rhizobia-legume interactions. Andersen’s group focused on faba bean, a different legume plant, and his group had extensive knowledge of plant genetics, as well as excellent resources for bioinformatics and big data analysis. My expertise in microbiology and the skills in my new group made for a perfect combination, helping the translation of laboratory research into potential applications, such as the development of the next generation of biofertilisers for legume crops.
It worked, now time to harvesting nodules! (Oxford, 2018)
What initially sparked your interest in your field?
I think it was mostly my desire to act and make a difference. I’ve always found it difficult to simply identify problems without actively seeking solutions. I’m the kind of person who wants to roll up their sleeves and do something about it, even if the solution isn’t perfect. Ever since I was young, whenever something wasn’t working or if I felt it could be improved, I would dive into learning more about the topic and try to fix it. Whether it was fiddling with my mum’s toaster or take apart my brother’s skateboard (of course, he hated me for that), I’ve always had this innate curiosity to understand how things work. In the lab, when I face experiments that took too long or seemed inefficient, I found myself forced to explore ways to make them more efficient. I would explore high-throughput methods or start brainstorming conversations with colleagues to find ways how to do more with fewer resources.
What steps did you take to acquire the necessary skills and knowledge for your current role?
When I didn’t know how to solve a problem, I tried to learn more. After completing my bachelor’s degree, I realised that I still had much to learn, particularly in terms of the environmental aspect of my field. So, I made the decision to pursue a master’s degree to learn about environmental systems and their complexities. When I tried to find the way of how to use fewer chemical fertilisers in agriculture during my master’s, I learned about rhizobia and the challenges associated with identifying bacteria in soil. Currently, whenever I encounter topics or concepts that aren’t adequately explained in scientific papers, I reach out to experts in the field. This could involve contacting companies to gain insights into industrial processes or enrolling in courses and workshops to lay a solid foundation of understanding. I firmly believe that maintaining a spirit of continuous learning and promoting one’s curiosity is crucial for gaining the necessary skills and knowledge.
However, along this journey, I have also come to appreciate the power of collaboration. Recognising that it is impossible to be an expert in every area, I actively seek out interdisciplinary collaborations. By working with people who bring different expertise to the table, we can connect the best skills and knowledge, then collectively tackle complex problems more effectively. Collaboration has played an instrumental role in my personal and professional growth, allowing me to see the same problem from different perspectives.
Did you face any significant challenges or obstacles along your career path? How did you overcome them?
Absolutely, I encountered various challenges, both personally and professionally. On a personal level, one of the toughest hurdles was leaving my family and my home country. When I first moved away from Mexico, I constantly felt regret for missing out on important moments with my nieces, nephews, and family members. It was difficult not being there to witness their growth, spend time with my mum and brother, or be physically present during the final years of my grandmother’s life. To be honest, even now, I still fear that I might regret my decision to leave Mexico in the future. Although I still miss my family every day, I have started to see the rewards of the choices I made. In terms of my professional journey, one of the most significant challenges was learning English at a later stage in life. English was not part of my school curriculum when I was a child, and I didn’t prioritise learning it since I had no plans of leaving Mexico back then. As I approached the end of my bachelor’s degree, I realised that I needed a good level of English to graduate (which I ignored as a requirement when I started my bachelor’s), so I had to delay my graduation for six months until I met the minimum language requirements.
When it came to securing my place at Oxford University, the English language requirements were even higher. To secure my place, I wrote to the graduate school, and I committed to taking additional English courses on top of my regular Ph.D. coursework, and fortunately, they accepted my agreement. However, the challenge extended beyond simply earning a good grade in my English class. To realise at that moment that my entire professional and personal life would now be in English made me feel insecure and even ashamed of my language skills. Thankfully, a supportive senior researcher named Dr. Alison East came to my help. She boosted my confidence and reminded me that English was my second language, while those who only spoke English, like her, should be the ones feeling a sense of shame. Her nice and encouraging words helped me confront my new reality with a more positive mindset.
Although I faced significant personal challenges related to leaving my family and country and overcoming the language barrier was a major obstacle in my professional journey. However, with time, perseverance, and the support of individuals like Dr. Alison East, I managed to navigate these challenges and continue moving forward in my career.
Were there any specific individuals or experiences that influenced your career decisions or served as mentors to you?
I don’t mean to sound cheesy, but my biggest mentor has been my mum. She taught me the belief that my work and dedication would speak for me and serve as the best recommendation letter for my career. While good grades were important, she highlighted the value of hard work and responsibility.
In terms of my scientific journey, I had the privilege of working under the guidance of Dr. Carmen Sánchez, my postdoctoral supervisor during my Ph.D. She taught me the importance of designing experiments meticulously and including proper controls. Carmen showed me that when you have well-designed experiments and reliable controls, you can always be confident in your results. Her advice resonated with me deeply: “No one, not even you, will doubt your results when you run your controls.”
PhD submission (Oxford, 2018)
Did you pursue any specific educational or professional development opportunities to further your career?
During my Ph.D., when I had a strong hunch that our research was heading in the right direction toward developing commercial biofertilisers, I proactively checked for additional courses. Despite these courses not being directly related to my curriculum, I took extra classes in innovation and entrepreneurship offered by the business school. I believed that expanding my knowledge in these areas would be invaluable in translating our research into real-world applications. When I joined Aarhus University and started working on my project, I realised that in order to bridge the gap between scientific research and commercialisation, I needed to dig into the territory of entrepreneurship. To gain a deeper understanding of this area, I became a member of The Kitchen start-up hub. This allowed me to access valuable resources, knowledge, and support for creating a commercial application based on our research. This step was particularly significant as it not only helped me further develop the scientific aspects of my project but also allowed me to navigate the Danish entrepreneurial ecosystem, which differed from the ones I had previously experienced in the UK and in Mexico.
Can you share any memorable or impactful moments in your career that have shaped who you are today?
It’s challenging to pinpoint specific moments throughout my career. However, I can say that those moments when I obtain new results in the lab hold a special place in my heart. Being the first person to witness a result (big or small) or successfully overcoming a persistent problem that had been delaying my progress fills me with an immense sense of accomplishment. It’s in those very moments that I find the motivation to take the next step forward. Each milestone I reached and each obstacle I overcome has contributed to my growth as a researcher and has reinforced my passion for pushing the limits of knowledge in my field.
How do you approach goal setting and career planning? Do you have any strategies or tips you can share?
Well, before my Ph.D. days, I wasn’t exactly the most organized person. I used to pride myself on multitasking without needing an agenda. But oh gosh, things have changed!!! Now, if it’s not in my calendar, it’s not happening! I needed to become an organised person, especially when I started to be responsible for other people’s time. In the past, if I messed up an experiment because I didn’t plan it properly or forgot something, I could just stay late in the lab to sort things out. But now, it’s not just my time on the line – it’s the whole team’s time. So, I’ve learned to be organised to be able to respect schedules and, therefore, their lives.
One trick I’ve picked up is taking meeting minutes and writing down action points. During meetings, it’s easy for everyone to nod and agree, but when it’s written down, it’s a clear reminder of what we committed to. That way, I can hold people accountable and make sure tasks get done. For me, it’s important to regularly review and adjust my goals to stay focused and motivated. And I’m not afraid to ask for support and feedback from colleagues – their insights are gold for my professional growth.
Soil samples (North Dakota, USA, 2022)
Have you had to make any difficult career decisions? How did you navigate through them?
Oh, absolutely! One of the most challenging career decisions I faced was after completing my Ph.D. My partner, who also works in science, and I made the bold choice to move to Aarhus, Denmark, where I had a fantastic opportunity to further advance my research. However, this meant that my partner, Leila, had to leave her permanent job in the UK behind. It was a difficult time for both of us, especially when we saw how challenging it was for Leila to find a job in her field in Denmark. Seeing her struggle while I was experiencing success in my own career made me feel a mix of emotions, including sadness and guilt.
We knew we had to have open and honest conversations during this period. We talked about our individual goals, aspirations. Fortunately, after a year of searching, Leila finally found a job. It was a relief for both of us. Going through this experience taught us the importance of patience, understanding, and being there for each other during challenging times. It wasn’t easy. Sometimes, difficult career decisions require sacrifices and open communication with our loved ones.
What do you find valuable in your work life, and what is your favorite aspect of your job?
The opportunity to collaborate with a team. I strongly believe in the power of teamwork and the strength that comes from combining diverse skills and perspectives. When each team member is given the responsibility to contribute with their expertise and their work is acknowledged and appreciated, it creates a positive and productive environment for any project.
Working in a team allows me access to new sources of knowledge. Being surrounded by individuals who have different areas of expertise is incredibly valuable. I enjoy the process of bringing together people from diverse backgrounds and disciplines, as it promotes an exchange of ideas and drives innovation.
How do you manage to disconnect from work and find a work-life balance?
One of the key things is having open and honest chats with my wife about everything going on in our lives. Staying connected with my family is also crucial. I try to call them frequently and have meaningful discussions about their lives. It helps me stay grounded and reminds me of what truly matters beyond the world of work. I firmly believe that the people who truly care about you won’t judge you based solely on your professional accomplishments. They care more about your well-being and happiness. Keeping this in mind allows me to maintain a healthy perspective and prevent work from taking over my entire existence. Exercise is also important to disconnect from work! Exercise helps me to release stress and clear my mind.
Which grants and/or awards have you received?
I have been fortunate enough to receive grants and awards that have significantly contributed to my professional growth. In the last year, I successfully secured the InnoExplorer grant from Innovationsfonden, the Spin-outs Denmark grant from VILLUM FONDEN, and the AU Launch grant from Aarhus University as the main applicant. Initially, I lacked confidence in submitting grant applications as the main applicant. However, I was fortunate to receive invaluable support and guidance from my PI, Stig Andersen. Stig told me, “If we submit applications under my name, you might get the grants in the first round, but it would not help you in the long run. If you are the main applicant, you might not be successful in the first attempts, but you will learn the process, establish your name and research within the scientific community, refine the applications with feedback, and achieve a genuine sense of satisfaction once you start receiving grants.” And that proved to be true. Despite not being successful in securing the first few grants I applied for, my persistence and dedication paid off.
If you could give advice to your younger self, what would it be?
Don’t be afraid of dreaming, and be patient. If something is worthwhile, it will be difficult to get it, but the reward of getting it will be priceless.