Beakers, fumes, reactions, experiments--I always dreamed I'd be a scientist so I could create something useful to the world. The grim settings of some labs and the long hours at the bench did not scare me at all--nor are they the reason I am no longer at the bench. I have remained in science, though, as a science officer for the European Science Foundation (ESF).
I embarked on a career in chemistry with passion and dedication. While working on my Laurea degree in chemistry in Italy, I won an Erasmus fellowship and went to the United Kingdom for a wonderful 6-month research experience working in the old labs (at that time there were still wooden benches) of University College London. I did some teaching after completing my degree, but it didn't satisfy me because I wanted to do research. I looked for a studentship (a scholarship that requires participation in a research program) to fund a Ph.D., and once again I ended up in another country: I took a 3-year fellowship at Trinity College, Dublin.
Three years passed as I worked at the bench, doing reactions, repeating measurements. There were many ups and downs, but mostly the words of others buzzed in my head: "Did you do that experiment yet?" "This cannot be the right result!" "Do it again." "Can you give me a few slides for my presentation?" So, when it came time to ask, "What do I do next?" I knew I did not want to stay in academia. I did not like teaching and I did not like the dearth of money if you weren't in the "right" group. There were few good mentors, and Ph.D. students' research, I found, was treated as a way for supervisors to publish and go to conferences around the world. I also found that there was no teamwork and a lot of secrecy about the work everybody was doing, not the knowledge sharing and learning from others that I expected to find in research.
As a result, I started applying for postdocs in industry. I thought I had all the qualities industry looks for: I'm well-motivated, ready to learn new skills, and a good team player. I was selected for two Marie Curie Industry-Host Fellowships, which meant I had to change countries again. I packed all my belongings (again) and moved to the United Kingdom (again) to do research for 2 years at the Johnson Matthey Technology Centre in Reading. I had access to the best facilities and was surrounded by people with the best expertise. I had long- and short-term projects with clearly defined deadlines. I was paid better than I would have been had I stayed in academia. I was exposed to the business side of the company, and I had a permanent contract at the end of the 2-year fellowship. I had no regrets about leaving academia.
I worked as a research scientist, but I was learning new skills and was given new responsibilities. I started managing the center's European Commission and U.K. Department of Trade and Industry projects. Because of my previous experiences as a Marie Curie Fellow in the Marie Curie Fellows Association, I was asked to serve as Johnson Matthey's Marie Curie Early Stage Training Fellowships coordinator. I soon realized that I liked project management; the international, multidisciplinary environment; science-policy work; event organization; travel; networking; learning new languages; and dealing with people of different cultures.
In short, I liked everything about my job--except doing science. I did not like working at the bench, which is how I still spent most of my days, so I started planning for another career change that would allow me to still breathe science without actually breathing chemical fumes. Research management was at the top of my list because it meant I could still work with scientists and stay up-to-date with research and scientific findings but without working directly in the lab. Moreover, I liked the idea of fostering new collaborations and the exchange of knowledge among scientists in an international setting.
Once I decided to step into the world of science policy and management, I sent out hundreds of curricula vitae. A career change, I found, is not easy, and it took quite a while to land a new position.
Thanks to the skills I gained through my previous careers--and a bit of luck--I took a post at ESF, based in Strasbourg, France, where I have been working for 2 years as a science officer for the EUROCORES Program. EUROCORES are collaborative research programs that enable researchers from different countries to work and collaborate on joint projects while being funded by their own national agencies. I manage EUROCORES programs in chemistry, physics, materials, engineering, and nanoscience.
At ESF, my daily routine is quite varied. It includes organizing peer reviews and review panels, chairing scientific and management committees, giving presentations at conferences, overseeing reporting and making sure deadlines are respected, writing press releases and brochures, interviewing scientists, maintaining a Web page, and liaising with different national agencies and European organizations.
I like dealing with scientists on a daily basis in a multidisciplinary and multicultural environment. Working for an international organization has given me more visibility and more opportunities for networking. I also improved my French and learned l’art de vivre!
Of course there are downsides. It is not a classic nine-to-five job. Multitasking and frequent travel around Europe can be stressful and difficult to manage. At the moment, I do not have the right work-life balance. Moreover, it is a temporary position: All ESF scientific personnel have a maximum contract of 5 years. But I consider this an opportunity to grow further. I enjoy what I am doing, the work is challenging and stimulating, and I am always learning new things.
Changing countries and careers seems like a constant in my life; I do not know where I will go or what I will do next. But I do know that it is important to be open-minded, to not be afraid to move to a new country and learn a new language, to look for new challenges that use your skills, and to grab opportunities when they come. Doing these things has given my career a boost and will, I trust, continue to do so in the future.
Read more about working as a program officer:
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Photos. Top: Hidde de Vries. Middle: courtesy, Antonella Di Trapani
Antonella Di Trapani is a science officer with the European Science Foundation.