#91 Francesca Cappellini story

Welcome to this new episode where Dr. Francesca Capellini shares her experience about her career path as a scientist. Dr. Francesca Cappellini did a PhD on biology and holded a post-doc position on nonoparticle toxicity at the IMM Institute Kaolinska at the IMM department at Karolinska. She is currently working as a researcher for the non-profit organization Fondazione Umberto Veronesi, she is also a scientist writer and a science communicator.

In this episode, she talks about the common mistakes done while applying for a job or position as well as how she prevailed over those. Would you like to know how she overcame her circumstances? Listen to this episode.

If you also have a story to be told or if you know someone, please don´t hesitate to contact us. Enjoy listening!

#089: Svante Hedstrom Story

In this episode, Dr. Svante Hedstrom will tell us about his story and about his transition from academia to industry. He will also share with us some reflections on his journey and how important it is sometimes to leave our comfort zone. After his PhD, Svante followed the path of “least resistance”, which was postdoc-ing. With time he realized that it was not the best path for him and thus decided to leave academia. He is currently working as a chemistry specialist at a private company in Sweden. He will also tell us about how it is to work outside academia.

The conclusion is: don’t stay in academia just because you’re used to it, just because it’s in your comfort zone, that you’re familiar to the environment“.

Dr. Svante Hedstrom

To know more about Svante’s story, please listen to this episode. If you also have a story to be told or if you know someone, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

Enjoy Listening!

Transcript

Hello and welcome to PhD Career Stories, the podcast about career paths inside and outside academia. My name is Rui Cruz and I’m very happy to introduce Svante Hedstrom to you. Svante works as a chemistry specialist at a private company in Sweden and in today’s podcast, he will tell us the story of his transition from academia to industry. Svante will also share with us some reflections on his journey and how important it is sometimes to leave our comfort zone. We hope that his story will be inspiring to you and that you enjoy this episode of PhD Career Stories.

Hello!! My name is Svante and I was asked to contribute to PhD Career Stories by Paulius, friend of mine and former coworker and he’s one of the people behind PhD Career Stories. I was thinking that I would talk to you a little bit about my story as a researcher, PhD student and then Postdoc and I’m gonna start by going through my experiences chronologically and then I’m gonna delve into a few aspects a bit deeper than I thought were less important and that I now consider important about my career as a researcher in academia.

Right so, I’m from Sweden, northern Sweden, small small place in the middle of nowhere and then I moved to Stockholm, the capital of Sweden to study. I  studied chemistry there for five years getting what is equivalent to a bachelor and a master within the same program. And it turned out that I really liked the more theoretical subjects. I was never much of a person who liked labs. Most of my classmates thought that labs were the most interesting thing but that never really clicked with me. I liked theory, calculating… I loved computers, to use computer software already at an early stage… a bit of computer nerd private too. 

So that meant that when it came to choosing a master’s project, by the end of my studies, it turned out to be much more interesting to go into a research group at the university doing theoretical chemistry than to go into a company or so which most of my classmates did, at least very many of them. So it was a good…the reason I chose this master’s thesis project was mainly because the professor of that group had been a good teacher in two courses and one of them was right before choosing master’s thesis projects. So it was a very very simple choice for me to just talk to this professor, ask if there was a place in his, in his lab to do a master’s project, if he had any projects lying around… and he did it.. even announced that this could be a possibility during this course. So essentially I followed the path of least resistance when it comes to master’s thesis project and this will turn out to be quite important because if I hadn’t chosen this master’s thesis project I would probably never have gone into academia. Generally for me when I was young and partly also now, I tended not to think through my steps too thoroughly but rather go where in the direction my nose points as you say in Swedish… that I essentially just go with the flow, see what turns out…yeah, take the path of least resistance.  As I become older, become a little bit more…a little bit better at visualizing where I want to go in life, what I want to do, who I want to be, although not so much but but at least more than before. So master’s thesis project in a research group at the same university where I did my studies, and the group happened to be a theoretical computational chemistry group, so working with computers, computer software, simulations to answer questions in chemistry. Specifically, my project was about solar energy, there is a particular kind of solar cell that it’s not like the normal silicon solar cells that most people are familiar with, but based on a different technology. This is was at the time a quite new and upcoming technology, now it’s obsolete…But anyway at that time there was a lot of research efforts going into this. So for me, interested in sustainable development, sustainable society, sustainable energy production as a part of that, this became a..an ideal thesis work I think, master’s thesis work. 

So half a year passed, master’s thesis project in Sweden is supposed to take half a year and I wasn’t quite finished but I was finishing up, after some initial setbacks, I had to change the angle of my project a little bit..yeah, not really that interesting but but what is more interesting is that as I was finishing up, I wanted to leave Sweden. So I thought now I’ve been studying all through primary school up to secondary school and then high school and then university with no interruption… just continuous studying and so as I was finishing my master’s thesis and and also my master’s degree then…and I thought: well it’s time to take a little break, see something else, do something else and I I’ve always loved traveling and luckily I had some money saved up and so I decided to go out into the World, to travel a bit. Where to go? well I had previously done an exchange year as an exchange student one year in Spain.uhm, it didn’t tempt me so much. I wasn’t in contact very much with those people but my best friend since youth lived in New Zealand at the time as an exchange student. So perfect! So I decided that even before my master’s thesis project was probably finished I went to New Zealand to spend some time with my friend. 

I thought: well… it would be good to have some kind of job, I could work maybe in a bar but since I had already tried my fortune in an academic research group I sent a few emails to professors in the Chemistry department in the city in New Zealand where I was going and asked if there could be a possibility for me to work as a research assistant, for a few weeks, months, unclear…for a short time, to be decided.  And I was very lucky… one professor must have been, I guess interested in in my previous research because he was working on similar things with these types of solar cells that I had previously been working with… So he said that, yeah there should be a possibility for me to work as a research assistant for a few weeks, at least. 

So great! I was very very lucky I would have gone there anyway but now it makes even more sense. I could pay for at least the plane tickets there and back to Sweden with the money I would be earning, I could live cheaply, initially at my best friend’s couch and then I could live in student housing which I probably shouldn’t have been entitled to because I wasn’t student .. I was employed by the university but somehow they were generous and I could stay at the student housing… I of course spent all my time with the exchange students living essentially what felt as an exchange student life with the difference that I had a small salary. And I liked I liked it there. In the two months that I was working I didn’t get any proper research done. I barely got set up and got started on the project. I mean, I was a very very young in academia at the time, and two months is way too little for someone who’s not even started a PhD yet, to get any results of note. During this time I was also course considering what to do next and I had already an idea that I might do a PhD after. 

So in my group in Sweden where I did my master’s thesis work, of course there were PhD students in that group and they seemed to like it. And they seemed nice and I liked the environment… I mean, I still like their academic environment a lot… so it just felt like the path of least resistance to do PhD. So I applied for a few PhD positions in Sweden and a couple of them before I was finished with my master’s thesis work and I didn’t get them. I I had one interview. It went reasonably well but in the end they decided to go with other candidates but I wasn’t discouraged… so so I applied again when a new position came up came up in Sweden during the time I was in New Zealand, in a completely different city of Sweden but it was the perfect topic…it was again related to these kind of solar cells that I have been working with…so probably I was the ideal candidate for the position and very soon after I applied, the professor contacted me and and wanted to arrange an interview. So I thought, well my time in New Zealand might be cut a little short but this is a great opportunity I thought, to keep on doing the research related to what I had been doing. so and it’s again, was definitely the path of least resistance otherwise I would have had to figure out how to get a job in industry or or elsewhere in the public sector and I had no idea about that, I didn’t know who I would even ask… so academia I knew a little bit, was comfortable in with and familiar with so is there very easy to accept this position as a PhD student in the city of Lund, in southern Sweden, so completely different end of Sweden. 

So I started my PhD, it went quite well… so I met a lot of interesting friends, co-workers, other PhD students, postdocs in Lund… and I really liked the environment in academia. Research was okay, I didn’t apply myself very much in the beginning and my adviser was not pushing a lot, so I had a very easy life the first couple of years. In the, after two, almost three years, then I started realizing that, well I went to graduate, I want to have a nice PhD thesis, I started to pick up the pace. And just for my own sake, I was maybe perhaps a little tired of taking it easy… I mean I had my first article after two years, which is little on the late side perhaps but but after that it’s kind of got rolling in and then in the end I had a nice PhD thesis. But as my PhD was drawing to a close I still hadn’t given it a proper thought what I really wanted. It was essentially the same situation as before I started my PhD. That is, I didn’t know how would even go about getting a job outside academia, and I knew academia now so well that it was much easier to contemplate where to do a postdoc then how to get out of academia. And it went reasonably well during my PhD thesis, I think was quite nice so so I realized it wouldn’t be difficult to find a postdoc position. 

Postdocs are popular, right? They do good research, they get the papers out, they don’t have to teach, they don’t have to take courses, so understandably professors are very keen to take on a postdoc that has shown some productivity. And indeed, for me, it was quite easy to find a postdoc: I got two yesses from professors that I had been emailing, I essentially just made a list of prospective professors that I thought did interesting things fairly related to what I did, and I, I simply mailed them and said: this is me (very short email) and then I also attached a longer motivational letter, a cover letter and and my CV and said would there be a chance, can/is there something we can discuss, do you have funding, I can also apply for funding…you know, probably standard stuff. And and I got two tentative yesses, I decided in the end to go to.. (actually I got three, I think positive replies) and I decided to go to the U. S., it’s a great country for research and this was a good university too, I reasonably well known professor in the field, everything felt right. The only thing that wasn’t great was the fact that my girlfriend was still in Sweden, was still studying but we decided eventually, that she would come with me. And in order for that to happen we got married so that she could get a visa to the US, otherwise that can be a bit tricky so consider that anyone who wants to do postdoc in the U. S. if you want to take your partner, you better be married or it’s going to be very difficult to get a visa, otherwise your partner will have to get her own visa. 

Right so, I landed my first postdoc, no sweat, actually quite easy. Went to the U.S. of course this was…had its challenges both practically, I mean packing everything, moving to a different continent…I had lived abroad before but U.S. is a bit special with with a visa requirements they are not… it’s not as easy to to live there as for example Spain that I lived in there before, or New Zealand which was also very easy to get a working holiday visa. So in the U.S. I, you know, had my head down, did a lot of research, worked long days, I knew I had to be there for a limited time because my wife could only be there with me for one year because she could only take one year off her studies, and then she would have to go back to Sweden. So I kept my head on and and worked worked worked a lot. I mean I was averaging nine, ten hours a day, yeah maybe fifty hours a week at least initially, and it went fairly well… I mean I I was productive and so on, but by now I should have really started to contemplate is this really what I want to do but I didn’t really think it through so much…I mean since it went well objectively speaking, I published my papers, and I was fairly well liked by the professor and the collaborators and…you know it was…yeah… I was I was fitting in, then it gave me no real immediate reason to question my choices: should I be here?, is this what I want to do?

So then after one year in the U.S., my wife went back to Sweden and then I kept working hard but I started to look for…I realized I I started I had to start look for the next step! And this is when I started to contemplate to also apply for jobs outside academia. I was still focused on academia, my thinking was that I at least need to give it a proper shot, at least need to try to get an independent researcher positions, assistant professorship or or similar. So I applied mostly for such positions, I also was starting to contemplate a second postdoc, I was applying yeah… assistant professorships pretty much all over the all over the world, well the west let’s say; North America and and mostly Europe. I sort of wanted to go back to Europe especially since that’s where my wife was. And I was looking for positions…didn’t have a lot of luck, had no luck to be honest in terms of independent researcher positions. I was still a young researcher, I’d only done one postdoc…at this time.. by by this time it was one one year of postdocing, so I was very young so I realized this is probably too soon for me, to come in question for more senior researcher positions but I kept applying, figured it’s good practice…I interacted a lot with the other postdocs in the group and in adjacent groups so we had this job application grouping where we would meet once every two weeks or so, to practice our CV writing, our cover letter writing, our, what do we call it, research proposals so when you apply to become an independent research of course you have to show a proposal, what is it that you want to study, want to research if you get the position, these are very important and we gave it a lot of time and effort and that was I think very useful. 

When I started looking for senior positions, the first applications were very bad I I didn’t really know what was expected…but with practice and with the help of fellow postdocs who were also looking for jobs, got lot better. The time went by I didn’t find anything as a senior researcher and I hadn’t quite started to look for a lot of jobs outside academia maybe one or two which were particularly ones where I would do research similar to what I was doing in academia but in a private company. 

When one and a half year of my first postdoc in the U. S. had passed I applied to a couple of second postdoc position in Sweden…I wanted to go back to Sweden, back to my wife, especially back to Europe in general but Sweden was was a good place, I was missing it a little bit. And I found a great second postdoc and I accepted it. It was in Stockholm, a city that I lived in, and studied in before, so I knew the city, my wife was just about to finish her studies in a different city so it looked, it looked nice…we could both move to Stockholm, move in together after almost one year of living apart, living in different continents…that’s a challenge in itself but not something that I will discuss so much here, I think. So second postdoc in Stockholm, city I lived in before, the capital of my home country and it went quite okay. The interview was very nice, the professor, after almost a whole day of interviewing and presenting myself and my previous research, the interview finished with the professor inviting me and PhD students and postdocs in his group out to dinner. So it was on him but he wasn’t there so gave us a chance to chat about the professor. I thought I was a very nice gesture so I was very optimistic and thought it would seem…seem very nice during the interview and that’s why I accepted it. And…and this started…and the research again went quite…well, I mean, I would say probably better than average but not exceptionally well. 

And yeah I of course then from the very first moment, I started applying for jobs…and that’s what you want to you do when you are a postdoc…You’re a postdoc only until you can find a better or or just the next job. And by this time I had started to applying more and more outside academia. I had more more doubts… let’s say it became more and more clear that in order to get these senior researcher positions, you really have to be not just good, not even just great, but quite extraordinary. Very few of those who want to and apply for these kind of positions can get them. The demand is just higher than the supply, simple math. And this had become more and more clear to me, so I branched out more and applied to more jobs outside academia. And I think during my first year of my second postdoc in Stockholm, I applied to some five or maybe, ten assistant professorships and at least ten jobs outside academia, both in the public sector, different departments in Sweden, but mostly of course, industry, private companies…but nothing, nothing came back positive. And privately, at home I had become really at home in Stockholm, I really enjoyed living there, so I started to realize that it’s more important for me to stay in Stockholm, to stay in the apartment where me and my wife lived, then to stay in academia. This this took some time to realize but eventually it became clear that a third postdoc, moving again, moving somewhere else, keep working as a postdoc with low pay, low job security, hard very hard work expected, quite long days (not that the professors in Sweden really force you to work longer than forty hours a week but it’s on yourself). I’m sure a lot of you can can relate that as a postdoc, and also as a PhD student, you want to… you want to make it, and you want to do well because you want to bolster your own CV,  you want to get your publications and do the outreach, do extracurricular activities because you’re responsible for your own projects and your, and your CV has to be super strong if you want to make it in academia. So that’s how I acted as a postdoc…I worked very hard. In the beginning of my PhD I hadn’t realized this, but during my postdocs, I definitely did and I worked very hard as a result. And thus the prospect of a third postdoc became less and less appealing. So there was one company which responded positively to my my application to to a job ad, it was just on the Swedish authorities, what do you call it, job market place, where a lot of jobs in Sweden are announced, run by the Swedish authorities. And so I applied there and they actually gave me an interview and even a second interview but then at the last moment, they went with someone else. Of course I was disappointed because this was the only place where I had gotten any kind of positive feedback, and I was, you know, I was a bit disillusioned I thought I had a quite strong CV, I mean, I thought I had that was very qualified and good candidate for a lot of the jobs that I had applied for, especially outside academia the ones for senior researcher positions, I knew that I was still academically young but, but the companies where I had applied…I thought, I thought I was a good candidate for the ones that I applied and still nothing from most of them. Eventually after again almost, almost one and a half year of my second postdoc, the same company that I had applied for before, announced a new job which was similar to the previous one and I applied again and this time I wrote explicitly in the cover letter that now I’m really sure that I’m ready to leave academia. Because I hadn’t been sure previously and I think that’s why I didn’t get the first job that I applied for there… because I was still sort of trying, hoping, plan A was still to become an independent researcher. So by the second time I made it clear that I’m ready to leave academia, I would love to work here and if I get the job I would for sure accept… and I think that did the trick, because this, for the second time with this company they were very quite quick to to give me an interview and to offer me the job. 

And I’ve now worked at that company for almost exactly one year…so one year ago I left academia after two postdocs, one PhD and one short period as a research assistant and one master’s thesis project in four different places I have… four different labs I have done academic research. So a big decision to leave academia of course, after such a long time and knowing nothing about the private sector but it felt I don’t know if it felt right but it felt like it was it was the right time to sort of give up my academic dreams if you will. But it didn’t really feel like giving up because I was a little tired of it I was tired of living as a postdoc with no job security… And I knew that even if I get an assistant professorship I would have to keep applying for money, always be on the lookout for new funding opportunities and never just be content and and rest so to say, just focus on the research you know and always look out for the next thing, always look out for the next student, next postdoc, next collaboration, the next funding opportunity…I was… I was a little tired of it…and after changing… changing fields, going into the private sector, this was a load off my shoulders to not have to think about this. I can do my eight-to-five, my eight hours a day, and then I can go home and not have to think about work. I don’t have to put in a lot of hours, I don’t have to be so I don’t have to work so much to bolster my CV. I can just focus on doing my work, doing my part just a small part of a much bigger company, get my pay check (which is, by the way, much bigger of course then then as a postdoc), and then focus on stuff I want to do on my free time in my free time, instead of being worried about research. Of course I didn’t know that this would be the case before I left…I had…I had an idea I had a feeling that it could be the case but then I experienced it first-hand once I left. And so knowing what I know, in hindsight, academia is probably not for me…I did okay and I performed well and you know, one thing led to another, one paper led to the next, one collaboration led to the next, one position led to the next…so it was easy to stay. It was the easy choice, I didn’t have to do any soul searching I didn’t have to make any real efforts, I didn’t have to ask myself or visualize my future…those things were too hard, I didn’t have the energy or the will to do those at the time so I just stayed because it was the path of least resistance. 

So do I regret not leaving earlier? I mean having a PhD is a really nice thing… I’m very proud of, you know, being a doctor…It’s…I’ve learned, of course a lot… and a lot of people at my current workplace do have a PhD… I’m still a researcher, still working in a research division of a company so I don’t regret doing a PhD…and I think doing a PhD anyone who don’t really dislike doing a PhD could do it and could benefit from it, and maybe should do it at least if it works out, and if they find one, if they find a group where they like it, doing a PhD is rarely a bad idea. But the problem is staying after…so I did, not one but two postdocs when I probably knowing what I know now, should have done zero postdocs, should have left after my PhD. But it felt a little wrong because I did well and my PhD advisor thought I did so well, he really encouraged me to keep researching, to find a good postdoc advisor…And of course my PhD advisor just wanted what’s best for me, he thought that I was interested because I kind of expressed interest and I, you know, I came to work and did my research, and was interested in the research so I guess he just assumed that this was the right path for me and that made me assume it too. 

I think I’ve said what I wanted to say so the conclusion is…don’t stay in academia just because you’re used to it, just because it’s in your comfort zone, that you’re familiar to the environment, and that it’s a very nice environment…I really like the academic environment, I would, in a way, love to go back to that because you have a lot of smart people around you, interested people, nerds, you know, people like me…but but in the end, the stress and the competition mean that only those who are really quite sure that this is what they prefer to do and those that actually have a real shot at getting an assistant professorship so they can start their independent career, only those people I would recommend to stay in academia. And they are quite a few…they are much fewer than all the people who are doing PhDs and postdocs. So with that, I want to thank you for listening and, and thanks to Paulius, who asked me to do this. It’s…it was kind of fun to share my stories. Great! So from Stockholm, Sweden over and out. Thank you. 

And that is it for another episode of PhD Career stories. As always, we would love to hear from you. You can contact us by commenting on our blog, Facebook, LinkdIn or Twitter. If you like what we do, please subscribe to our show on iTunes or Spotify. So that’s goodbye for now, but we will be back with a new story for you in two weeks’ time.

086: Kate Evans Story

Dr Kate Evans, Founder and Director of charity called Elephants for Africa, shares her story and tell us how her passion and interests in elephants shaped her career. Kate is an award winning behavioural ecologist and conservation biologist who conducted her PhD ‘The behavioural ecology and movements of adolescent male African elephant in the Okavango Delta, Botswana’ through the University of Bristol.

With over 20 years of experience as a field biologist throughout Southern Africa on a variety of species, she has a solid understanding of the challenges of large mammal conservation, the complexities of conflict and the importance of stakeholder relationships. 

Kate is an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Exeter and a member of the IUCN African Elephant Specialist Group, Elephant Specialist Advisory Group and the Gothenburg Global Biodiversity Centre.

My PhD taught me many things and amongst those was how my work could potentially influence policy. The politics of working in different environment: academia and the challenges of working with difficult characters. So diplomacy certainly helped me through my PhD and since in a conservation is not just about biology, it’s not just about elephant. It is about working with stakeholders from the ground up and from the top down, to instill policy preferably, long term policy. 

“Dr Kate Evans”

If you are curios how Kates interest shaped her career, please listen to this episode. If you also have a story to be told or if you know someone, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

Enjoy Listening!


Transcript

Hello, I am Kate Evans, and I am gonna apologize in advance for any background noise you may hear as I’m recording this from my tent at The Elephants for Africa research camp which is on the Boteti River in the Central District of Botswana. So whilst it’s quiet, it’s night time at the moment and we are by river and there are hippos that can make some noise. So I apologize in advance if they interrupt but otherwise it should be fairly quiet but we’ll see.

So, I am here to talk about my PhD, well my PhD led me here. I am talking to you from a tent in the middle of Botswana. So I did not set out to do a PhD, in fact far from it. Post degree that was it for me really and I’d struggled academically in school but I knew I wanted to be a field biologist, more importantly I knew I wanted to be an elephant conservationist. So I figured in spite of no valid career advice, I worked up myself that a zoology degree was the right degree for me.

And at that time in the U. K. you applied and then you also had interviews and I fell for Swansea University, which is in Wales. And I think they let me in because I didn’t get my grades at A level, they let me in on clearing, I think because I had a good interview and I think the professor saw my passion and my possibility. And for that I’m extremely grateful because as soon as I started my zoology degree I had found my path. I was really interested in it, I was passionate about it and that of course made learning a whole lot easier.

So I got my degree and did quite well really and that was it. I was off to save the world and off to save the elephants in particular. But I had some doubts about me. As I was very outdoor kid, I was quite able, I believe in camping and orienteering and all those kind of things. I didn’t know whether I could be a field biologist, you know, you have this romantic view of what a field biologist was but I was very aware that it’s going to be hard work. You’re living in remote locations a lot of time and it’s more than just the theory of being a biologist, it is learning to survive and more can be quite challenging environments.  

And so after having worked in a factory for six months, I had enough money to travel the world, except I didn’t get very far. I ended up in Africa and I pretty much stayed there. I first volunteered in Namibia and then throughout the southern African region and ending up in Botswana in 1997, gosh! That’s long time ago and fell in love with the place really.

I had lived in South Africa as a child and what I found in Botswana was, apart from a fresh air, that I didn’t feel that I was categorized as white European. I felt very welcome and they have a lot of wildlife and are very pro-conservation, so I felt that I could contribute. They also happen to be home to the largest remaining elephant population and so I felt like found my home and it was here that I wanted to do work. So I set about finding a project. And in the meantime I ended up having an opportunity to do my masters on lion parasitology. Lion parasitology, again being a field biologist, lions, everyone thinks, oh that’s great, but in reality you are collecting lion poop for a year and which is less great but very interesting. It’s amazing what you can find from poop.So I was self-funded at again Swansea university and I had the opportunity to expand that into a PhD, but again that wasn’t my passion. I didn’t set out to further my academic career through ticking boxes, what was my passion was elephants. In fact I did my masters because I realized quite early on that having an honors degree wasn’t going to be enough to get me where I wanted to be and also to earn the respect of people within wildlife departments, policy makers, etc. I 

realized that further education would better train me to be an elephant biologist and elephant conservation, but also to play amongst the stakeholders, I guess. 

So I found the place in to do my…So I came up with a project in elephant ecology up in the very north of Botswana. And off I went back to the U. K. to find a supervisor which I managed to secure at Bristol university so I had my place. And then another opportunity came along through a corporate sponsor to fund my PhD, if a component of that would be rewilding capture raised individuals. So I jumped at that chance and these were all young males and started my journey on elephant ecology and more specifically on bull elephant ecology. So I guess, moving back to the PhD, I could go on about elephants all the time but that’s not why you are listening.

For the PhD, it really was part of my journey and it gave me a platform for long term elephant monitoring, which was my focus. It’s really, I believe important when you are studying such charismatic and long lived okay selected species such as elephant. They have long term data. It is only through the long term data that you can really understand the behavioral needs met behavior ecology, which is what I am. It also gave me a platform to post PhD to set up a charity and now NGO. So charity in Wales, England and NGO in Botswana.

So my PhD taught me many things and amongst those was how my work could potentially influence policy. The politics of working in different environment: academia and the challenges of working with difficult characters. So diplomacy certainly helped me through my PhD and since in a conservation is not just about biology, it’s not just about elephant or wildlife numbers or biodiversity or ecosystems. It is about working with stakeholders from the ground up and from the top down, to instill policy preferably, long term policy so we are not just dealing for the next five or ten years but we’re looking beyond that to the next hundred, two hundred, three hundred years.

In retrospect I wish I’d appreciated the importance of relationships and networking more during my PhD. I was very closed off from spending three years in the bush in a very remote camp. It was about eight hours drive from mount. And my supervisor did come out to see me but ultimately was on my own to collect the data, to make sure I had enough data. In fact I had way too much for my PhD. Thankfully I had the right data and was able to finish it off. 

I was very closed off, three years in the bush and the culture shock was really when I came back to university. That was really challenging and no one really prepared me for that and it’s obviously very different being very independent in the bush coming that to an academic lifestyle in a busy city but I managed to cope with it. But it only took me about six months to get back into the flow of things and then it was really just heads down and getting on with it.

I had a great group to work with, lots of great postdocs and other PhDs that really added to my PhD. They really helped me get it through and make it a much better thesis. But I still wish I’d asked more questions and not just within my department but had networked outside my department. As conservation needs such a multidisciplinary approach and obviously if you are in an academic environment, there is always amazing people doing amazing stuff. So I’d really encourage people to look outside their department and look at how potentially cooperating and partnering with other universities but also other departments within the university to really strengthen the work that you’re doing. I think that would apply to most things.

I have been told many times I am a bad scientist as I didn’t think of the questions. I already had my study species and then came up with the questions. But having said that I’m not sure I could have done my PhD without my blind passion for my study species. It really is what got me through some challenging times. But the most challenging time was not getting stuck in the middle of nowhere by myself with no radio reception. We definitely didn’t have any phone reception. It wasn’t finding funding to complete my studies. It wasn’t clashing with my supervisors or fighting bushfires to save the camp where I was staying and the other tourist camp nearby. It was actually during my PhD right up, when I was back in Bristol, working hard and communicating became difficult and difficult with my supervisor.  

There was a great welfare group and there was a great welfare department within the university. And I did an online tests and tick a lot of boxes and then went to see the welfare offices and it was only then I was diagnosed with dyslexia. So it was quite a shock and within my final year of writing my PhD to then deal with being told I have a reading age of twelve-year-old and I had a huge crash of confidence and I guess in retrospect it was an imposter syndrome. I didn’t think I belong there, how was I doing a PhD, it was ridiculous (that’s the hippo). This is, I shouldn’t be doing a PhD basically…I thought I just let them say, I can’t really compete with hippos.

Amongst all the statistics in writing up and analysis, yeah, I had this massive crash of confidence and it did it was a big journey back for me to convince myself that I did deserve to be there, that I have every right to be there and I could get my PhD and that I did. 

My supervisor asked me who I wanted to be as my examiners, my internal and external examiners at the end of this long journey. I thought, well you know what, you gotta shoot for the moon and you’ll land among the stars. So I asked for Iain Douglas Hamilton, who is very famous and a real hero of mine, to put it no other way really, he’s campaigned for elephant conservation for so many years. He has an amazing research studies all over Africa and conservation work. And I asked if we could get him as my external examiner and amazingly he said yes. 

So the day of my viva came on and not only was I dealing with the nerves of defending my thesis but I was also dealing with the nerves of meeting a great man who I admire hugely. So that was a bit scary and I chose to walk into university, I thought that would calm my nerves on the big day. And it was on that journey that I was passed by a funeral entourage and that’s actually just what I needed because I realized that this was a big day for me but the world isn’t gonna stop spinning. It really didn’t matter. There were people out there who were saying goodbye to a loved one and it was just a real reality check and perspective. You know PhD is a big thing, but there’s always something more challenging that someone else is going through.

Yeah it really calmed me down. I was able to get into my thesis and after about the first ten minutes I was a blubbing idiot. I was able to calm down and I really actually enjoyed the process of talking to two great biologists. It was a real joy to have two amazing biologists in the room analyzing my thesis. So for me I’ve gone from a pure behavioral ecologist to a conservationist after ten years in the Okavango delta. So after my PhD, I set up the charity Elephants for Africa and have taken on students and continued to focus on male elephant ecology. But after 10 years in the delta we moved and relocated down to another place which is an amazing ecosystem, very very different from the delta with interesting challenges. What was very compelling to come here was the huge male population. On the time when we came here in 2012, it was just males. We now see more females coming through, but at that time it was just males. And as a male elephant biologist it was just like wow, what’s going on here.

But it also brought us to the frontline of conservation. So when I was in the delta it really was amongst the wildlife. There wasn’t any communities living by us, so I was quite excluded from the realities of communities that were living alongside wildlife trying to grow their crops, trying to survive, trying to remain safe amongst wildlife. 

And so here in the Boteti river area is a hard border on the western boundary to community lands. And so over time we built up a good working relationship with Comarca and two other villages since where we now have launched a community coexistence project in 2015 and also an education program for the local primary schools.

So I love spending time with elephants. They are my inspiration. And but perhaps the most rewarding part of my work is when I am educating, either in schools here or at least watching all amazing communities outreach or when I give public talks in the US or Europe and indeed going to schools and in the US or Europe and talk about my work. For me it’s passing on my passion in some way and if I can inspire someone, I think I’ve done a good job. And I am happy if I inspire someone. Yeah my PhD journey was a part of the bigger picture. It always was. It was a stepping stone to get me where I am today.

#085: Ben Hartwig Story

In this podcast, Dr. Ben Hartwig shares his story and lessons he learned during his PhD. 

Ben is a German scientist, entrepreneur and actor. He studied genetics at the Max-Planck Institute in Cologne, specialised in Epigenetics and aside he toured with Germany’s biggest improv theater, Springmaus, for the past six years. He has performed, directed and created close to a thousand shows on five continents. Three years ago, he founded his own company Neuroblitz to combine science and applied improvisation in workshops, speeches and seminars.

Two hearts are beating in my chest, the first one is the heart of an actor, someone who goes on stage to tell stories, the second heart is the heart of a scientist, someone who tries to make discoveries to understand the world better and tell stories.

Dr. Ben Hartwig

If you are curios how Ben successfully combined his analytical and creative side together, please listen to this episode. If you also have a story to be told or if you know someone, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

Enjoy Listening!


Transcript

Intro:

Hello and welcome to PhD career stories, my name is Alice Corani, and in today’s podcast you will listen to Ben Hartwig, a German Scientist passionate with Science and Acting. He will explain how he successfully combined his analytical and creative side together.

Two hearts are beating in my chest, the first one is the heart of an actor, someone who goes on stage to tell stories, the second heart is the heart of a scientist, someone who tries to make discoveries to understand the world better and tell stories.

This is my story. My name is Ben Hardwick, I’m a German scientist born and raised close to Hamburg who has done his PhD at the Max Planck institute for plant breeding research in Cologne. This is also a story of those two hearts because I’m fascinated by the creative world and by the analytical world and how to combine the two.

At first glance, there’s not much that combines acting and science, not much that the two have in common. But there are a few things, as an actor you need to stay curious, as a scientist you need to do so too. And ultimately, we all want to understand ourselves and the world better, so curiosity and understanding are the glue between creativity and the analytical world to me.

Curiosity is also what got me into science. I’ve always been fascinated by it, by the world and by people. I chose plant biotechnology as my studies during the bachelor and masters. I signed up at the Leibniz university in Hannover. For part of the master’s I studied at the Purdue University in the US in West Lafayette, Indiana. During the masters I had a professor called professor Daimler, and he was the first reason why I got into my PhD. He thought it would be the next right career step for me and suggested the Max plank in Cologne, because he had gone there earlier.

I decided to follow his advice in the plight and actually found my supervisor because we had a beer together during the selection days. My supervisor during the PhD was Francisco Torque who is an expert in epigenetics. I had no idea about epigenetics when I signed up, but today I can roughly explain it as how the environment influences our genes. Epigenetics makes that influence visible, that was great. I got to study plants and I got to understand epigenetics better. I got to immerse myself into a subject for a long time and I wanted to know if I could do it, so I love the challenge of being a PhD student. But I didn’t know what I would do afterwards. So when the time to defend this thesis came, I had already booked a ticket to fly around the world and interview actors and scientists because I still had two hearts beating in my chest throughout my PhD. 

And also early I had done acting and actually learned something called improvised theater or improvisation, it’s a type of theater where you walk on stage without a script or fixed role so you walk out there every night and you don’t know what the play is going to be. Both science and acting were passions of mine and on that journey around the world I wanted to discover which way to follow, what should I do with my life.

I had learned a few things during my PhD that helped me on that journey. The first thing was organization, Francisco Torque decided that I could do an enhancer suppresses screen, well I was in-charge of thousands and thousands of plants. I had to be very organized to not lose track of all of the individual plants and their individual mutations. 

The second thing I learned was resilience, one day I came into the lab and most of my plants that I was studying had died because of a technical error in the green house. I was devastated and thought oh my god so much work and it all went down the drain because of one thing. But I had a friend in the laboratory from China and he used to say a Chinese saying which roughly translates to “When winter comes is spring faraway?”. When I heard him say that I thought of course he’s right. The plants were dead, but I still had the seeds and I still had the knowledge, so I could continue the project and I didn’t have to be that devastated about it. That was the second thing, resilience. 

The third thing I learned, that was big for me during the PhD was network. During lunch breaks and sometimes in the afternoon, I had a coffee with my friend Jared Rolands, who also did his PhD at the same time at the Max plank. We became friends and we used to go for long walks and talks science. He was in a protein lab and I was in the molecular biology lab. And sure enough during our PhD journey I sometimes needed advice about proteins and he needed advice about molecular biology. We helped each other and I believe that made our PhDs much stronger and better than they would have been.

So I was on that journey in 2012 and I had scheduled interviews with scientists and with actors to find out, what to do afterwards. The journey didn’t really give me an answer but it opened up new opportunities. So I was allowed to travel with a company, selling sequencers in Southeast Asia as well. And all that combined knowledge, let me to understand that I don’t have to choose one or the other but I could try to combine the analytics with the creativity. And after my post doc, I decided to found my own company in science communication, where I combined my knowledge from improvisational theater and from science to help creative people think in the more analytical way and analytical people to think in a more creative way. 

This work fulfils me and it really feels like the two hearts in my chest are starting to combine in a becoming one. What drives me and what has driven me is that moment of discovery, there’s always more to discover but that moment of discovery is unique, that moment of really understanding something. I love to really understand something for the first time to have that realization myself but I also love seeing it in others. Nowadays when I teach and give workshops and see that realization on a person’s face that is something unique and beautiful.

Thank you for listening and have a great day this was Ben Hardwick.

Outro:

Thank you for listening to another episode of PhD Career Stories.

If you like our podcast you can follow us on our website PhDcareerstories.com or subscribe to our page on Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram or Twitter. 

That’s it for today, thank you and see you in two weeks

#084: Sonia Jaeger Story

Sonia Jaeger is German-French psychologist, psychotherapist, and PhD.

She has been living a location independent life as a digital nomad for the past four years while working as an online therapist, providing online counselling to expats and other globally mobile clients in German, French, and English.

After finishing her PhD she decided to take a break and travel the world. However, instead of returning home afterwards she decided to start an online private counseling practice and has been traveling the world ever since.

In 2018 alone she went to (and worked from) 12 different countries, from Australia to Europe all the way to Latin America. Currently, she has not only started to mentor other psychotherapists who want to work online but also facilitates workshops that broach the issues of mental health while living globally.

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/drsoniajaeger/
Website: https://www.sonia-jaeger.com

Continue reading “#084: Sonia Jaeger Story”

#083: Matt Hotze Story

Matt Hotze graduated with a doctorate in Environmental Engineering from Duke University in 2008 and he is currently Administrative Director at Nanotechnology Enabled Water Treatment Engineering Research Center.

From his story, you will learn how almost failing the GRE exam brought him to the managing position he has now and how to apply business principles in academia and life. 

Matt also shares his experience with the dual-career challenge that many PhD couples face after their graduation and offers good advice on how to find a job and keep a relationship at the same time. 

By understanding people and how you interact with them you can improve your results, your research results.

Matt Hotze, PhD in Environmental Engineering

Continue reading “#083: Matt Hotze Story”

#082: Pearl Osirike Story

In this episode Pearl Osirike shares her story and some of the most important lessons she has learned during her PhD so far.  Pearl is a biochemist with an interest in drug discovery and infectious diseases. She holds a first-class degree and a masters degree from the University of Benin, Nigeria, where she also serves as an Assistant Lecturer. Currently, she is a second year PhD student of Molecular and Cell Biology of Infectious Diseases at the West African Centre for Cell Biology and Infectious Pathogens at the University of Ghana. 

Pearl is passionate about teaching and research and she is excited to share her story to motivate and inspire others. 

As a PhD student, the workload is vast, so I have learnt to break down enormous tasks into smaller, chewable sizes for effectiveness and to celebrate each small victory along the way. I find that each little victory gives me the strength to push on when the going gets tough.

To learn more about Pearl’s story, please listen to this episode. If you also have a story to be told or if you know someone, please don’t hesitate to contact us. Enjoy Listening!


Continue reading “#082: Pearl Osirike Story”