In retrospect, Spanish Ph.D. student Carmen Vázquez-Calvo finds it hard to believe that she managed to give her first oral presentation for her Ph.D. in a foreign country and to researchers outside her field.

Using the Marie Curie Early-Stage Training Grant scheme, geologist Vázquez-Calvo got the opportunity to spend 4 months of her doctoral training on the Greek island of Crete. Vázquez-Calvo says that her relatively short trip abroad gave her a chance to learn a technique she needed to use for her doctoral project. Along the way, she got a glimpse of scientific life in a foreign laboratory and some exposure to scientists from a range of disciplines.

Discovering Geology

According to Vázquez Calvo, her interest in geology goes back to childhood days spent collecting rocks. But her first insight into geological research came during her undergraduate years when, while pursuing her degree in geology, she met her future Ph.D. supervisor, Rafael Fort González; who studies stone conservation in the context of architectural heritage. Vázquez Calvo was inspired. In January 2004, Vázquez Calvo started her Ph.D. with Rafael Fort González and Mónica Álvarez de Buergo (co-supervisor) at the Instituto de Geología Económica in Madrid, a research institute funded jointly by the Spanish Council for Scientific Research and the Complutense University of Madrid. The aim of Vázquez Calvo’s doctoral research is to determine the origin and characteristics of the outer thin layer--the “patina”--of certain historic stone monuments with a view to developing conservation strategies.

Vázquez-Calvo first became interested in studying in Crete when she attended the Annual National Meeting on Cultural Heritage in Madrid along with Álvarez de Buergo. There, they heard a talk by Demetrios Anglos of the Institute of Electronic Structure and Laser (IESL) in Heraklion, Crete; Anglos's work, they realised, had great potential for the work Vázquez-Calvo was doing. "Literally 1 minute after his talk, we approached him about the possibility of me doing an internship and if I could get a Marie Curie grant in his research centre," she says.

Vázquez-Calvo had heard about Marie Curie Early-Stage Training (EST) fellowships from a colleague in Madrid. These fellowships offer Ph.D. researchers the opportunity to pursue specialised training for a period of 3 months to 3 years as part of their doctoral training. IESL had already secured EST funding from the European Commission. So Vázquez Calvo applied directly to IESL, the host institution. Both applications succeeded, and in October 2004, she moved to the IESL in Heraklion, Crete. Vázquez-Calvo's living costs and travel expenses are covered by the fellowship.

The main goal of Vázquez-Calvo's stint in Anglos's lab was to use a technique called laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy to analyse her stone monument samples. The technique is powerful and causes minimal damage to the samples compared to more conventional techniques, a big advantage for conservation work. The technology was not available in Madrid, and even if it was, says Vázquez-Calvo, she wouldn't have had funding in Spain to work with this technique for the period of time she required.

Her analysis was successful; Vázquez-Calvo gained a new technical skill, and her short visit to Crete taught her new approaches to her work. Vázquez-Calvo was the only geologist working in the group at IESL. "All of the people I worked with were physicists and chemists. It was a big change for me to work with them," she admits. Vázquez-Calvo says she learned a lot about experimental approaches to science by working with physicists and chemists. Prior to that, her work had been mainly descriptive, and thus an experimental approach challenged her. "With descriptive research, you are used to getting results faster because usually you use very established techniques; it is lower technical risk."

Working in such an interdisciplinary environment was beneficial in developing communication skills, too. The challenge of giving a presentation to an audience comprised of various disciplines paid off, says Vázquez-Calvo. "Working with people of other research areas opens your mind to new concepts and new points of view and also develops your capacity for communication," she notes.

Sense of Community

Outside of work, her time in Heraklion went smoothly.Vázquez-Calvo stayed in a block of apartments where most residents are visiting academics working at the institute or related organisations. The sense of community in this residence helped her settle in: "I recommend living in such accommodations to gain social contact because these people will understand how you feel during the first days of your stay there."

The town of Heraklion has a community feeling too, says Vázquez-Calvo. "One of the first things that surprises you when you are in Heraklion is that [it] is a city where people's lifestyle is like in a village, without the stress of big cities. [What] I enjoyed the most about living in Crete was the possibility of meeting with friends in just 5 minutes." This, combined with Greek hospitality, meant that Vázquez-Calvo had an instant social life from her residence and the lab. "It is normal to go out nearly every night around 10 o'clock to have dinner. It is seen as the proper time to have a relaxing conversation with friends."

When it comes to advising other early-career researchers thinking of venturing to another country, Vázquez-Calvo says her most pressing message is to relax. "The biggest problem that I had was that I was too anxious, as I didn't know what people would expect from me, but it was fine." Now back in Madrid since February, Vázquez-Calvo says she feels homesick for Crete and friends in Heraklion.

Her contacts with Anglos's lab remain strong. "I'm still collaborating with the institute, finishing some aspects of the research, and maybe in the future we can collaborate on a different project." But right now Vázquez-Calvo is concentrating on finishing her Ph.D. And then? Who knows? "Maybe I will go abroad to do a postdoctoral fellowship. It is good training and also a fantastic experience in your life, so I encourage other researchers to do so too."

Readers interested in Marie Curie Early-Stage Training position vacancies should look at the Cordis Web site .