In this episode, Marisa Pereira, a biotech project manager who also owns a unique company, shares the highs and lows of her career path.
Am I fit for a PhD? My experiments are going nowhere. Will I see the end of this PhD? I only have academic experience, how will I find a job in the industry?
Have you ever been in these situations? Our guest Marisa Pereira had asked herself these same questions, but today Marisa has successfully completed her PhD and transitioned to the biotech industry as a Project Manager. She also is the co-founder and owner of pic.cell, a unique company that designs textiles inspired by microscopic images.
In today’s episode, Marisa shares with us the highs and lows of her career path. She addresses how she overcame the snags during her PhD, how she started her brand pic.cell, and how - after 2 years of Postdoc experience - she landed in the biotech industry. Throughout the episode, Marisa shares many tips not just to survive but also to thrive while doing a PhD.
Last but not least, Marisa shares a vital piece of advice “....enjoy the journey. PhD is only a part of your life. In the end, what is interesting, is the knowledge that you [gained] as a professional but even most important as a person.
If you want to learn more about Marisa’s story, listen to this episode now.
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My name is Marisa Pereira, I am 38 years old and I am from a small city from the North of Portugal, named Barcelos. I have a PhD in Biomedical Sciences, and I am going to tell you a little of my career path. Being a scientist was not a life dream for me, it was something that starts growing while I was studying. I was always very curious about everything that surrounds me, especially things related with biology and human health. During my studies I also realized that I really like the laboratory work where we can explore things and make the invisible visible. So, when I applied to the faculty, I chose a degree related with biology, human health and laboratory work and I graduated in Laboratorial Biomedical Sciences.
I really liked all that I have learned but I was not convinced about the professional perspectives. I was not prepared to do only routine laboratory work, I felt that I still had so many questions and things to learn… So I decided to look for professional alternatives that could fit with my background and that’s when academic research appears in my life. I applied for many different fellowships from different areas related with biology and after 3 months I got a call for an interview. And even better, the interview would be for a group located in Porto, that is the city where I would love to live. It sounds perfect. I went to the interview, it went well, they liked me, I liked them, but unfortunately a girl with a PhD got the position. I was very disappointed, but that’s life and I had to move on. But suddenly, two weeks later I got a new call from the group asking me if I was still available because they would like me to start working with them. And so I started my research life at the Fish Immunology and Vaccinology Group (FIV). They were mainly focused in the immunology of saltwater fish and also in the study of a bacterial toxin named AIP56, that is the main virulent factor, so far identified, of Photobacterium Damselae subsp piscicida that is responsible for high economical losses in aquaculture, especially in seabass aquaculture. The aim of the project that I was integrated, was to characterize the toxin and to develop a vaccine against it. I really liked the project and the people in the lab and I was quite happy with my job. But after 9 months the fellowship was about to finish and the group didn’t have funds to pay me. So they asked me if I would like to do a PhD with them. I must be honest, by the moment I got scared because I have thought about doing a Master but a PhD?! I don't know if I'm prepared to do a PhD!? I spoke with my colleagues and my supervisor about my fears and they convinced me to go ahead, that it would be the same that I was doing so far, and in the end I will have a story and a thesis to defend. And they will be there for me. And I thought, well, I liked the project, the people in the lab, and had a good supervisor, so why not, let’s do it! I applied for a FCT fellowship, the main governmental foundation for research in Portugal, and I got a PhD fellowship to study the intracellular trafficking of the toxin AIP56. I think my first advice to someone that is planning to do a PhD is that you should make your homework about the group you would like to work with. Having a good environment is halfway to success. Don’t forget that you are going to spend many hours with these people.
During my first year it was like a honeymoon, I was learning so many different things, I met such interesting people, I was having interesting scientific discussions and the work was going as expected, so life was good. But in the second year the problems start to appear. I was working with ex-vivo cells from sea bass to do my experiments because the main target of the toxin were the macrophages and neutrophils cells from sea bass and there were no available cell lines for that. We had our own animal facility and we were responsible to take care of our animals. In the second year, they got sick without apparent reason and they started dying. During one year I had no healthy animals to do my experiments, so I lost one year of my PhD trying to have healthy animals, to be able to complete my experiments. At the end of that year, I was desperate, frustrated, disappointed and thinking “How am I going to finish my PhD if I don’t have animals? How can I do it?”. I asked my supervisor for a meeting to discuss the problem and we decided to look for external help. We decided to have a meeting with different groups, put the problem on the table and look together for a solution. The first option was to try macrophages and neutrophils from other saltwater fish to see if the phenotype is the same so we can use them as alternative model. But we have already done that, and we couldn’t find any with the same phenotype. The second option was to try different cell lines that we tried but without success. And last we tried primary cell cultures that are similar to the model we were using with sea bass. Since at the institute, there were a lot of people with expertise in Bone Marrow Derived Macrophages (BMDM) from mice, we started from testing those cells. And finally, we got a phenotype similar to what we observe in sea bass. That was a really happy day! Finally, some hope. But to use that animal model, I had to repeat all the experiments that I have done with AIP56 in the sea bass cells to prove that the phenotype was the same and that I could use BMDM as a model to study the intracellular trafficking of AIP56. I spent my third year doing that, repeating the experiments and proving that indeed the phenotype was the same, and so I used the BMDM from mice to complete my studies. Which was good, because it is a much easier model and in contrast to fish, there are a lot of optimized tools.
And this takes me to my second piece of advice. If during your PhD or even your personal life, something doesn’t go as you planned, don’t panic and don’t give up, take the chance to learn something because most of the time is in the middle of the chaos or the negative situations that the most surprising things can happen. In my case I implemented a new animal model in the lab, with much more available tools to work that helped us to progress faster. And that was only possible because I had a problem with my animals otherwise I would never looked for a different model.
Another thing is that you should keep doing the things you like outside your work, don’t live for your PhD, because if something goes wrong you are going to feel lost. My second year was especially hard and keeping my social life was one of the things that helped me to keep my mental health. Also, speak with other PhD students, share your frustrations and your thoughts, you will find that many of them are struggling with similar things and that most of the things that you feel are normal and part of the journey. Keep a good social network outside and inside your work, this will help you in the present and perhaps in the future. You can learn a lot from other people and make yourself known. Basically, enjoy the PhD journey and take the chance to learn as much as possible from different areas, from different people, because that will be the best thing you will get from your PhD.
Going back to my PhD story, I managed to defend my PhD and by the moment it was one of the happiest days of my life. The feeling of “it was hard but I made it”, was really good. I was tired, but happy. And when I was about to finish my PhD, I started thinking about giving up science, because at the time, I was so tired and disappointed, at least with academic science, that I didn't know if I wanted to keep doing that. But at the same time, I like science and I would like to know if the feeling of being a postdoc is the same as being a PhD in terms of pressure and stress, or if as a postdoc you can live science in a more relaxed, interesting way. And I decided to do a postdoc, but in a different lab to learn different things and grow scientifically. So one week after finishing my PhD, I started working in the Cytoskeletal Dynamics group that was focused on cytokinesis using C. Elegans as a model. During my postdoc I did a lot of fluorescence microscopy because we filmed C. Elegans during division to study cytokinesis. I spent lots of hours analyzing microscopy images. And by the time I met a girl that joined the lab at the same time as me and that was sharing the same office. We were always looking at such beautiful images, and we always said “It’s a shame we don’t do anything with these images, they are so beautiful”...”We should do something with these images”...”Maybe one day we would do something interesting with all of this”... And the resilience of the idea starts growing, and that’s when the brand pic.cell appears. So pic.cell is a brand that me and my friend Inês created. In pic.cell we create patterns based on scientific images to use them in textile printing, to create different things such as foulards, echarps, necklaces, keychains, beach bags, and many other things that you can find in our Instagram or Facebook. You just have to look for pic.cell.brand on Instagram, and you can find all the products we have, and also the link for our website, where you can learn a bit about our story. For the moment it is only our hobby, but it is nice to have something that is ours. And also, we are learning so many different things, because we didn't know anything about business, textile work, design, how to create a brand and sell things, so everything is new for us and it really is a challenge. And that's really nice, and I think this is one of the characteristics that we also got from our PhD, because resilience, self confidence and especially, we are not afraid of the problems or difficulties that can appear, because if problems come, we will have to solve them. So let's do it and see what's next. So I think that's one of the things my PhD teached me, if you believe in one idea, go for it. Don't be afraid, take the risk. And so, again, networking and friendships and interesting ideas could appear.
So I did two years of postdoc and then I decided to leave the academic research life. Because in Portugal, there is no scientific career in academia, and I was leaving from fellowship to fellowship, and I need more stability to be able to complete my personal goals. Besides that, I also want to learn different things, to stay in science but in a different perspective. I applied for different biotech companies in Portugal and after 2 months, I had no answers at all, no yes or no, nothing. I was afraid that my skills did not fit industry, or that my CV was not perfect for industry, or that I didn't know how to do a CV for industry, because I always worked in academia. But how can I get expertise in industry if I don’t have the opportunity? So that's when I decided to have a different approach. There was a company in Oporto that I was really interested in, and I decided to have a different approach and I went to LinkedIn and sent a message directly to the CEO of the company showing my interest. I got lucky, she saw my message and called me for an interview. The interview went well, and they told me that I really had the skills that fulfill the criteria to work in the company, and if I'm interested, I can stay. That's when my transition from academia to industry occurs. I got the job and I started working in a biotech company. And for those who are thinking of changing from academia to industry, I think my advice is that you shouldnt be afraid, you are prepared. You have so many skills that you developed during your PhD, that you are prepared to do such different things. The biggest difference that I felt from academia to industry was the organization. The company is super organized, we have templates, reports, timelines, timesheets, all things that we are not used to in academia. So I think the workflow in a company is quite different from academia.
But besides that, after a PhD, you are prepared to do many things. And you develop many different skills that are very useful for different jobs, like for example, common-sense and criticism, fast learning, capacity to deal and solve problems, capacity to manage a project, to manage people, to deal with frustrations. And this is really important for these kinds of jobs. And in the laboratory you are prepared to learn everything quite fast. Because in the laboratory you are prepared to learn everything quite fast, and you are prepared to do anything.
The advice that I can give to you is that, when you are applying for a certain job, try to understand what they are looking for and try to highlight skills that could fit that job, that you developed during your career and that could be fit to that job. So try to adapt your CV depending on the job you are looking for. Because you have the skills, you just need to highlight them. And if you don’t know how to do it, you can look for help, there are many companies specialized in that, and that could be a good starting point to get the job.
In summary, do your best on all small things, be kind, do some networking, try to learn as much as possible from different areas and from different people, and enjoy the journey. PhD is only a part of your life. In the end what is interesting is the knowledge that you got as a professional, but even more important as a person. I felt that I grew up as a person and especially I got more resilient and self-confident, which helped me not only as a professional, but also in my personal life.
PhD was hard but in the end the balance was positive. I made friends for life, I started my own company and I grew up not only as a professional but also as a person. I hope to have inspired you in some of the points that I discussed.
Stay safe, be happy and don't forget: enjoy the journey.