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.
Sara in the lab
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.
Her journey, spanning from Spain to Germany via Denmark, encapsulates aspiration and exploration. With roots in Human Biology and a PhD in Membrane Biochemistry, Sara’s path reflects unwavering dedication. Discover how her career decisions were driven by personal passion, how her international experiences contributed to her growth, and how she transformed challenges into growth. Her advice: Break big goals into steps and don’t hesitate to network.
Can you tell us about your career journey and how you got to where you are today?
I studied Human Biology at the University Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona (Spain). During my bachelor’s, I did two internships in a laboratory at the Imperial College London (UK). Afterward, I moved to Copenhagen, where I did my master’s in Biotechnology. Then, I moved to Germany, where I stayed for my PhD and a two-year Postdoc in the field of Membrane Biochemistry at the Ruhr-University Bochum.
What initially sparked your interest in your field, and what made you move abroad?
I did not know what I wanted to study exactly until I was in my last year of high school. I remember finding Psychology, Biology, and Medicine very interesting. I thought that the way that cells communicate and the human body works was (and is) fascinating.
Fun fact: As a kid, I used to love watching a cartoon series called “Érase una vez…el cuerpo humano” or “Once upon a time…the human body,” in which processes inside the human body were explained in an easy and entertaining way. Forward to the future, I ended up studying Human Biology, and already during my bachelor’s, I had the chance to move abroad to London, where I did two laboratory stays. I enjoyed very much the experience of working in a laboratory and living abroad, so I decided to move abroad to study for a master’s in Biotechnology. This program at the University of Copenhagen offered a wide range of courses, and most important to me, many included a practical part, and the master thesis spanned almost a whole year.
What steps did you take to acquire the necessary skills and knowledge for your current role?
Some of the skills I am currently using include project management, leadership, communication and teamwork, critical thinking, and decision-making. I acquired them progressively, mainly in the following ways. First, by observing mentors and colleagues who excel at a specific skill and, in some cases, discussing with them how they manage to do x and y and if they had/have any tips for me. I usually also get inspired by scientific talks and posters on how to improve the next scientific communication event. Similarly, asking for feedback from mentors and colleagues and getting constructive criticism is a great way to keep improving. Second, “practice makes improvement,” and failure does too. I feel a big part of my learning curve comes from failure, but especially from how I reacted to it and how it challenged me to keep growing. Third, reading and communicating science is key. At least to me, keeping myself updated on the latest advances by reading, attending a talk, and exchanging scientific findings with peers has boosted many of the skills mentioned. Last, taking courses and workshops is also a great way to get condensed pills of knowledge for specific skills such as communication in science or a topic of your interest, as well as to connect with peers from other disciplines.
Did you face any significant challenges or obstacles along your career path? How did you overcome them?
Yes, I did. Dealing with frustration was one of the major obstacles that I dealt with during my career so far. I think experiencing frustration is quite an often phenomenon, and unfortunately, I do not have the ultimate answer on how to deal with it. However, when facing frustration, my strategy is based on understanding that the specific situation that I am going through might be a learning moment. Sometimes, the lesson is that there is an improvement required; sometimes, the lesson is “you need some time off to reset and come back fresh”. Other times, there is no lesson at all, and the only one is “I explored this project line, but it did not work, so let’s go for this other line.” So, it can help bring you closer to finding answers to the questions you are trying to solve.
Were there any specific individuals or experiences that influenced your career decisions or served as mentors to you?
Yes, many of my previous and current mentors, colleagues, and scientists with whom I had the pleasure to cross paths have made me a better scientist. I do not feel that they influenced so much my career decisions since I feel my decisions came from a place of feeling passionate and driven about science.
Sara at a conference
Did you pursue any specific educational or professional development opportunities to further your career?
Yes, during my bachelor I participated in the organization of a conference, attended a couple of Ph.D. defenses, visited some laboratories, and did two laboratory stays abroad. I found these experiences very helpful to gain more insights into what a career in academia could look like. During my Ph.D., I gave talks, presented posters, and attended conferences and workshops offered by the university. Currently, I am undertaking a course called “Libertad Con Ciencia” which provides tools, updates, and the support of mentors and a team to help you transition from academia to industry.
Can you share any memorable or impactful moments in your career that have shaped who you are today?
I would say moving abroad partially shaped who I am today. I moved abroad because I was excited and curious to continue my studies in a different system and environment. It also allowed me to get to know a new culture and society and to meet people from around the world and hear their stories. Despite it was wonderful, being a young adult abroad also makes you face some challenges, which ,with perspective I see as lessons learned.
How do you approach goal setting and career planning? Do you have any strategies or tips you can share?
I approach goal setting by breaking down a big goal into small, realistic goals and setting up a plan that accommodates these goals to reach the ultimate one finally. This formula allows me to see the progress along the way and to celebrate the small steps and victories! About career planning, my tip would be to know yourself and what you want in life. Recently, and thanks to the course I am taking now, I discovered the Japanese concept of “Ikigai” and how to use this to find our career purpose. Once you have this foundation, I think informing yourself is also key. So, talk to friends in the field or in similar fields, colleagues, and mentors, and expand your network. Finally, there is no wrong or right career decision, and there is no “one fits all”. Make informed and free choices, and remember that, in most cases, it is never too late to change your career path.
Have you had to make any difficult career decisions? How did you navigate through them?
So far, the most difficult career decision I made was deciding between two Ph.D. positions that were offered to me at the same time (after months of looking). It was tough because both projects were highly appealing to me; both options had pros and cons, and I could see my career further developing in both groups. I needed to sleep over it for many nights before I could make a decision. In the end, it weighed more for me that I personally knew who my supervisor and some of my team members would be, and therefore, I could predict more about how my everyday life as a Ph.D. would look like.
What do you find valuable in your work life, and what is your favorite aspect of your job?
I find many things valuable: the creative component, decision-making and being involved in teamwork. Being creative is one of my favorite aspects as well as the research-discovery-aha moments. For instance, having an idea of a new line of research within a project, investigating whether it has been done or not, sharing it with some colleagues and getting feedback, and finally either presenting this idea to the team, to a member or executing it myself.
How do you manage to disconnect from work and find a work-life balance?
I disconnect from work by doing sport (right now, it is bouldering and dancing), spending quality time with friends and family, and traveling.
If you could give advice to your younger self, what would it be?
Do not be afraid to ask more and do not be so shy to network!