#075: Fabian Taube Story


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Fabian Taube studied Environmental and Health Protection, Chemistry and Education during his Bachelor and Master study at the Umeå University in Sweden.

In 2003 he received a PhD in Inorganic Chemistry. After that, he continued experimenting with different subjects and had two postdocs – one at the Department of Chemistry, Environmental and Biogeochemistry and another at the Department of Teacher Education in Mathematics, Technology and Natural Sciences.

He also worked as an occupational hygienist at Sahlgrenska University Hospital and from 2012 he is employed as a specialist in preventive medicine at the Swedish Armed Forces Centre for Defense Medicine (SWE CDM). 

At the same time, the struggle for research results and money made me to a person I did not actually wanted to be; one that is a bit too ambitious and narrow-minded. Today I realize just how much negative impact such a person can have on colleagues and on team building.

Dr. Fabian Taube, Specialist in Preventive Medicine, Swedish Armed Forces Centre for Defense Medicine

Intro:
Hi and welcome to Phd Career Stories, the podcast in which PhD:s tell their stories, inspiring you to take the next step towards your dream job. My name is Karin Martinsson and I would like to introduce you to this episode’s guest Fabian Taube, who works as a specialist in preventive medicine at the Swedish Armed Forces Center for Defence Medicine. He will tell you all about his journey from being a student in the late nineteen-eighties, and until today. Enjoy!

Hello, my name is Fabian Taube and I live with my wife and three children in Gothenburg. I have a PhD in inorganic chemistry from Umeå University. And today I’m working at the Swedish Armed Forces Center for Defence Medicine as a specialist in preventive medicine. This position is truly not what I had in mind, back in 2002 when defending my thesis, and it’s quite far fetched from inorganic chemistry. So in this pod I would like to share the history of my professional life, before and after my Phd.

I began my studies in Umeå back in 1989 at the Environmental and Health Protection Programme. At that time I had no thoughts of becoming a researcher. Rather my interest was in actively saving the polluted environment. To get a closer insight in the daily life of an environmental and health protection officer, the programme included a four-month practice and I also worked in a small office in southern Sweden during the summer vacations. I found the practical work quite interesting. It could be water sampling at beaches one day and the next day inspection in a restaurant or in a factory. However, a slowly growing interest in actual mechanisms behind environmental problems got me interested in chemistry. So after I graduated in 1992 I began studying the chemistry program in Umeå.

During my studies I realized that I was not a typical technical or analytical chemist with a great interest in developing new methods and instruments for chemical analysis. Instead I was more of a philosophical person, that strive to know why things in nature are as they are; of course with focus on environmental problems. So after the basic chemistry courses I took a course in inorganic chemistry with focus on reactions and equilibria in water solutions. That course made me understand how complex such a simple molecule as water really is, and how much calculations it requires to sort out equilibrium reactions in water systems. When the calculations became too difficult I was thinking that maybe the only solution to pollution is dilution, however despite the struggling my master project came to be about equilibrium of chromium species and water solutions. At the end of the master project I talked to the professor about the possibility to do a PhD project. He then told me about an industry project using catalysts instead of chlorine as bleaching agent for paper pulp. Researchers in the pulp industry had tried to use Muller bait ions combined with peroxide due to the high bleaching effect in laboratory tests. However, in reality the researchers had one problem: the chemicals were accumulating in the pulp and that resulted in problems downside of the process. Could we solve the problem, he asked.

I thought this project was interesting so I started my PhD in 1986. The PhD studies taught me that setbacks is a part of research, and sometimes a part of prosperity. Endless hours in the lab and behind the computer was complemented with practical tests at the power plant outside Umeå. I also came to collaborate with researchers at the Royal Technical high school in Stockholm. At the end, however, we did not solve the problem with build up of catalysts in the process. But I did learn very much of equilibrium chemistry and pulp leaching chemistry. I also learned the importance of making contact and collaborate with researchers that have a different scientific background than myself. I defended my thesis in December 2002, just before Christmas, with an opponent from New Zealand, who was just fantastic. A few months earlier, one of the professors at the department told me about a postdoc project at a university in California. The supervisor there had been collaborating with the chemistry department at the Umeå university several times before. My wife and I discussed the opportunity and we finally concluded that it would be difficult to move abroad for two years with one three-year-old and one newborn child. I therefore thanked no to the opportunity.

I did not realize it then, but that decision came to be the end of my career as a researcher in equilibrium chemistry. However, in January my former master project supervisor mentioned a proposal from a startup company. The company wanted to test whether or not elemental mercury could be restored from polluted soil in a simple and cheap way, by using a big mobile ovum, one that normally are being used to process asphalt. By setting up lab scale tests, we should elucidate if the remediation could be successful. This was a real environmental challenge, I thought, one that really could make a difference. But there was limited amounts of time and money to spend. So from January to June 2003 I worked as a research assistant and project leader. To be able to study the chemical effects of elemental mercury upon heating, I first needed equipment that could heat soil and at the same time collect and quantify evaporated mercury in a safe way. I contacted a researcher at the department on analytical chemistry and he showed me how to run the equipment they had at the department. We also wanted to study specific forms of mercury left in the soil of the thermal treatments, and to model a high temperature equilibrium under these circumstances. Through a collaboration with the Department of Energy Technology and thermal process chemistry, I encountered scanning electron microscope for the first time. A new world opened up for me. In some of the solar samples we could see droplets of elemental mercury that looked just like frozen planets.

In fact very similar to the latest pictures of Pluto. Once again making contact and collaborate with other researchers was very fortunate. Not that the company was interested in planetary formations in the soil, but we could tell them that based on the formation of Aureus mercury species, it would require much heat to clean this oil from elemental mercury. And the company finally concluded that it would not be cost effective to do so. In the beginning of 2000 many students needed to upgrade the chemistry knowledge from high school in order to apply to university programs. As the mercury project ended, I got the opportunity to teach elementary chemistry at the university. During this teaching episode I began to recall the things I liked from teaching during my PhD student days. But back then I had quite much teaching and at the same time I had my focus on research which altogether was tiring from time to time. But now I realized the positive feelings that came from actually helping a student in really understanding a problem he or she had been struggling with.

In January 2004 I started my six month parental leave with our second child. My wife had been on parental leave and now she went back to continue her research. During the parental leave I applied for some jobs and I attended some interviews, but opportunities around Umeå you were limited, I thought. I then realized that there was a lack of high school teachers in Sweden and that a person with a master degree in natural science could apply for one year didactic training at the university in order to become a high school teacher. So in August 2004 I jumped into this one year program. A part of the program included 17 weeks of practical teaching at high schools around Umeå. During that time, I became very impressed by some of the high school teachers that were working as mentors for teachers students like myself, and at the same time taught high school students in chemistry and environmental science. They worked hard and devoted, not for their own future, they worked for the students future. And it was not a 9-to-5 kind of job. After taking all the courses in the program, except for the project work, I once again got the opportunity to participate in a research project. So instead of trying to get a teaching job, I became a guest researcher at the university. The project was a didactic one, with a purpose to assess the quality of discussions in student groups that communicated chemistry tasks either by email or by face to face.

The project ended in December 2005 and resulted in a manuscript that is still unpublished. However, that manuscript came to be quite important to me later on, since it actually became the project work needed to finish the high school teacher program. One should never underestimate the power of an unpublished manuscript. After the didactic project I had doubts I have to continue my professional life. Today I realize that I simply wasn’t self-confident enough at that time to establish myself as a researcher. At the same time I compared every job opportunity outside the academy with the academy. My identity was still based on being a researcher, and to apply for positions that were not in my specific scientific area felt as a waste of skills. At that time I did not realize that the big advantage with my PhD was not my skills in chemistry, but my skills in being able to take on any kind of problems with the critical and analytical view. Anyhow I started to search for teaching opportunities at high schools, but in and around Umeå it was difficult to find any jobs. Most likely because of the fact that the high school teacher program was up and running at the university. In January 2006 I found a temporary job as an analytical chemist at Apoteket AB in Umeå. But during that time my wife and I concluded we had to move to South Sweden in order to get better job opportunities, especially for me.

In June 2006 my wife got a research position at the University of Gothenburg and a couple of months later I got an employment at Occupational and Environmental Medicine at Sahlgrenska. Here I worked part time in clinic, discussing and assessing work related exposures. I came to realize that the clinic work, especially helping patients, reminded me of the positive feelings that came from helping a student in understanding a chemistry problem. Only now I met persons who wanted to understand the reason for their own illness. Quite often the reason turned out to be a chemistry problem as well. My employment also included part time research, which involved many hours of applying for funds and participating in research group meetings. Some of the research ideas actually came from the clinical work. One such research idea came up after seeing a patient who had lost most of his teeth from spraying alkaline greases on cars. Normally, tooth decay might arise from acidic exposure such as overconsumption of Coca Cola or juices, and not so much from alkaline exposures. I therefore contacted a professor at the Department of Odontology at the university. We exposed teeth from cows with the same degrees as at the patient was exposed to, and analyzed the exposed surfaces with scanning electron microscopy and infrared spectroscopy. We then found a new mechanism, very different in chemistry from that of acidic tooth decay.

This project came to involve researchers from different departments at Gothenburg University, but also researchers from Chalmers Technical University and Umeå university. Once again, collaborating with other researchers and building a multidisciplinary team turned out to be very successful. I also came into contact with a research group within the unit of occupational environmental medicine. This group worked intensively with developing a new method of collecting small particles from exhaled breath. I was interested in investigate whether metals in exhaled air could be collected by this method, and thereby used as markers of exposure. The group leader thought this was a good idea, and so we started to apply for funding. We got the money but not the results we wanted. Being a member of that team, I realized how hard it is to develop a complete new method of application within life science. It is so much more than just laboratory work and data analysis. You have to go for broke and you don’t know if it will work. To conclude, this was science in a nutshell. In the spring of 2011 I was called by a person who used to work at a unit of Occupational Environmental Medicine. He was now at the Swedish Armed Forces Centre for Defence Medicine in Gothenburg, and he was about to recruit a new competence. He needed someone who could work with, and mediate between, several different professions. This position was an expert in preventive medicine.

As you can imagine I immediately came to think about contraceptives. He quickly explained that in the military arena, environmental and health protection officers, physicians, veterinarians, nurses and environmental engineers work together in order to prevent soldiers from getting sick from many kind of diseases, such as from malaria, heat stroke and yellow fever. It turned out that the Swedish Armed Forces had several hundreds of soldiers in international missions worldwide, such as in Afghanistan, Somalia, Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo. I was not an expert in preventive medicine or in tropical medicine but I was told that there were plenty of other environmental health risks in the military environment, both in Sweden and abroad. The employment also meant a much higher salary than my present. Together with seven weeks of vacation each year and the possibility to exercise three hours per week during working hours; that sounded almost too good to be true, I thought. I did apply and a couple of weeks later I was called to an interview. During that interview, it became apparent to me that the job description was not clear cut and instructor realized in the way I was used to. This was a small warning bell, but on the other hand it could mean a great deal of freedom. Since I had research fundings at Sahlgrenska, we agreed upon that I could continue my research there for half a day each week.

We also agreed on that I could start working in January 2012 at earliest, since I first planned to take parental leave with our third child. After the interview, I still had doubts. Not only to what might come, but also to what I might leave. The job situation I had at the unit of Occupational and Environmental Medicine felt safer, more predictable and better organized. At the same time, the struggle for research results and money made me to a person I did not actually wanted to be; one that is a bit too ambitious and narrow minded. Today I realize just how much negative impact such a person can have on colleagues and on team building. Anyway, I finally decided to accept the job position, if I was up for it. A few weeks later I got the offer and I took the job. When I started working for the Swedish Armed Forces in 2012, the long process to resurrect the national military forces had begun. However the Swedish Armed Forces still had the old international obligations, like in Afghanistan, and there was more to come. In April 2013 the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2100 which established the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali, that is called Minusma. Since then, approximately 310 persons from Sweden are participating over time. most are located at Camp Nobel outside of Timbuktu, and at the Minusma headquarters in Bamako.

Two times a year, there is a rotation of staff so that each year more than 600 Swedish persons participate in the missions. The task for Swedish Armed Forces Center for Defence medicine is to educate these persons in defence medicine, but occasionally also to send medical and health officers to Mali. At the same time, all new recruits were also to be educated in basic defence medicine. The centre had also obligations in higher education of specialist officers and medical officers. In addition, the centre should coordinate most of the medical activity during national exercises. So, altogether I realized that this organization was complex and understaffed. As a colleague of mine said: “I can see a big potential here, but I cannot see any horizon”. Anyhow, the position I have today includes a great deal of freedom and many interesting national and international contacts. The area of defense medicine has long been non prioritized, but it is now on its way up. Being a part of an organization that should create a new national civil and military healthcare system in Sweden is very exciting, although it is a very long run to do. One of the missions along the run, is to interact with the academy in order to cooperate within focus areas. Along with a project of organizing a new national civil and military healthcare system, there is of course also ongoing operative tasks. Some of them include supporting the military health service with occupational exposure assessments, and reviews on specific diseases or symptoms. The various environments in which Swedish soldiers and officers work is very different from most other occupations, and the many medical threats to be handled demand a great deal of knowledge in preventive, occupational and environmental medicine. In my daily working life I therefore I also have to rely on my colleagues and the competence they possess. That is one of the reasons why this will be so exciting; to interact with colleagues with completely different professions from your own, looking at the same problem from a complete different view. Such kind of interactions create a different kind of group dynamic than I was used to from the academy, for good and for bad. As a leader or a member of a team in any organization, I think you should strive to focus on the fundamental factors that make the colleagues satisfied with who they are, and how they are being treated, and what they accomplish as a team. Those fundamental factors go beyond the factors that sometimes seemingly are necessary for success, such as power, competition and ambition. In the next podcast I will give some tips based on my own experiences on how to survive being an academic outside the academy. So till next time, live well, and with the humbleness to the knowledge that no one is the same as anyone else. Bye for now!

Outro:
You have just listened to an episode of PhD Career Stories, the podcast in which PhD:s tell their stories, inspiring you to take the next step towards your dream job. Subscribe to our show on iTunes, or on any other podcasting app. You can also find us online at phdcareerstories.com and on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Linkedin.

 

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