Setting Down Roots in a New Country


I finished my Ph.D. at Stirling University in Scotland at the beginning of 1999. There I studied the factors that limit the growth of plants on different acid soils, and in particular, the ways in which plants have adapted to hydrogen or aluminium toxicity. I wanted to follow up this research, to look at how silicon reduces aluminium toxicity in different maize genotypes and to study the role of compounds released by roots in mechanisms of metal tolerance. During my Ph.D. studies I had been in contact with Professor Barceló of the Plant Physiology Laboratory at the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB) in Spain and I was very keen to collaborate with the prestigious UAB research group.

I came to Spain at the end of 1999 with a short-term grant to study abroad from the European Science Foundation's Plant Adaptation Programme. I only had 9 months at UAB but my work proved very fruitful and it was here that I became interested in a new line of research: plant-based technologies (or phytotechnologies) for the remediation of heavy metal-contaminated soils.

I was offered the possibility of initiating and developing this field in the department of soil science and chemical agronomy at the University of Santiago de Compostela (USC) in Galicia, the northwest part of Spain. This department has a long history of research and projects in soil geochemistry and soil remediation of contaminated lands but had not as yet considered the use of phytotechnologies. A colleague of mine had friends working in this department and organised a meeting for me with Dr. Carmela Monterroso, one of the department's lecturers. Dr. Monterroso was newly appointed and was keen to set up her own research group and start new research lines within the department. I was therefore lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.

Opportunity to start a new line of research

This, then, was an exciting new challenge for me, an opportunity to start up a new line of research using metal-tolerant or accumulating plants as a means of soil cleanup. It also meant that I could continue my studies in plant-soil interrelationships and investigate the fascinating zone of the root-soil interface, known as the rhizosphere. It was also an opportunity to combine different scientific disciplines, such as plant physiology, soil science, ecology, and geobotany. An interdisciplinary outlook is vital in the development of phytotechnology strategies.

I decided to apply for a Marie Curie Individual Fellowship, which would enable me to move to Santiago de Compostela and begin this research. Although I had been in Spain for almost a year I was still within the time limit of how long you can be in the country where you wish to carry out your fellowship and still be eligible to apply (at that time, as I recall, it was 24 months, although I believe that it is now 12 months). I did not really expect to be given the fellowship and certainly did not expect to hear a result for quite some time. I used the time to finish off some articles from my thesis and from my work at UAB. I was very pleasantly surprised when, after only a few months, my future supervisor Dr. Monterroso phoned to tell me that I was going to become a Marie Curie Fellow, although I do think it strange that the host institution should have been told before the applicant.

So I went from the Catalans to the Gallegos and quickly learned that my geography was lacking and that Spain has a small "Scottish" corner where it rains! Luckily these dreary months are made up for by its many wonders: its wild Atlantic coast, the best of food (all kinds of fish and shellfish), inland oak and chestnut forests, and picturesque villages of granite houses that make you feel as though you are going back in time.

I started my fellowship in July 2001. It took very little time from being told that I had been awarded the grant to signing the contract, and luckily I had no problems with any paperwork. My fellowship was not only a great success in terms of my own scientific training, but it also allowed me to experience working in a different university system from which I was accustomed and to make new contacts with different research groups.

Equally importantly, on a personal level, it gave me the opportunity to experience a whole new culture, meet new people, and of course learn a new language. I did not speak a word of Spanish when I arrived in Spain but I enjoyed being in this kind of "survival" situation and having to learn quickly or end up ordering cured meat instead of funnels (luckily the technician decided not to go ahead with my order!). Many Galicians are wary of outsiders and have a hard outer shell, but I managed to keep chipping away and finally made many very good friends and colleagues.

I feel I was very lucky in my fellowship and given the opportunity to participate in many more scientific activities than is often the case. I had access to all the equipment that I needed to carry out my research; in fact I found that the two Spanish universities that I was acquainted with offered central facilities with a wide array of analytical equipment (although you may have to fill out a mountain of paperwork to be allowed to use it--perhaps that is why everything looks brand new).

I was able to attend and present my work at numerous conferences (about three per year), all of which were fully financed by my Marie Curie project or through university funds. I was given the opportunity to teach postgraduate courses and to supervise both B.Sc. dissertations and Ph.D. students. I played an active role in the writing and execution of numerous project proposals presented to national and regional funding bodies. These projects complemented my Marie Curie project so I was able to carry out both. I also collaborated actively with another group in the department of botany and was trained in various molecular biology tools, something that I would never have expected to be able to do.

Somewhat Jurassic administration

My main stumbling block in Spain was with the somewhat Jurassic administration when trying to have my qualifications officially recognised. I was told that I would have to validate my first degree before trying to get my Ph.D. recognised. It is now 2 years since my original application and I have to repeat first- and second-year biology degree courses for my B.Sc. to be officially recognised. The contents of the courses are very similar to what I studied in the UK, the only difference is that the course names don't coincide. If I actually pass the exams I shall have to begin the process all over again with my Ph.D.!

Two years pass very quickly and by the end of my fellowship I had many projects and experiments (some long-term) up and running. To leave USC would have meant leaving a lot of work unfinished. I was therefore faced with the problem of finding funding to stay on at USC. I could have applied for grants, such as the Marie Curie Reintegration Grants (which are now not only for returning to your home country), but this would have involved changing institutions or country. I believe mobility is an enriching experience and vital as a researcher. However, I had reached a stage where I needed to stay in the same place for a few more years. Also my husband (who came with me to Spain from Scotland) had just started a small business and was not yet able to move on.

The new EURYI Young Investigator Awards or the Spanish postdoctoral Ramon y Cajal programme could have been options, although both are very competitive. In the end I was very pleased to be granted a postdoctorate contract for 2 years from the Galician government in the Parga Pondal Isidro Programme, which is similar to the Ramon y Cajal programme but applies only to Galicia. I have just started working in the CSIC (Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas) in Santiago de Compostela in the Laboratory of Soil Microbiology.

I have met very few foreign postdocs working in Spain, whereas I know many Spanish researchers working abroad, but based on my own experience I would definitely recommend people to apply for a Marie Curie Fellowship to come to Spain. For one thing, the Spanish definitely know how to enjoy themselves!

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