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From the Lab Bench to the U.N.

CREDIT: Hidde de Vries

There I was, in the last year of my Ph.D., attending my first international conference in Glasgow, Scotland. I had flown there all the way from Australia bearing in mind the advice of my thesis committee: "Make sure you secure a few postdoc positions at the conference, you are already late."

The trip to Glasgow turned out to be quite productive, with several important scientists showing interest in my poster and some of them inviting me to come to their laboratories for a job interview. But, to my own surprise, upon returning I did not follow up with any of my leads. I felt that I wasn’t ready to move forward in an academic career—at least not yet.

I wanted to use my scientific knowledge for the common good, in ways that I could measure, in the real world.

—Marga Gual Soler

Eight months later, in February 2013—just a few weeks before I submitted my dissertation—I found myself flying in the opposite direction. I was swapping my laboratory bench for a cubicle on the 25th floor of the Secretariat Building of the United Nations Headquarters in New York City. I had been selected for a 6-month U.N. internship to work on science, technology, and innovation for sustainable development and the Millennium Development Goals.

This was a big surprise to many of my friends and colleagues. What could a Ph.D. thesis in molecular and cell biology possibly have to do with the United Nations? What made my C.V. stand out among the hundreds of other applicants who also wished to work on science policy and international issues? The answer, I believe, is simple: It was all the things I did during my Ph.D. work that were not a formal part of my Ph.D. training.

From a small Spanish island to Australia

I grew up in the small Mediterranean island of Mallorca. I think I became a scientist because by the age of 12 I had read all the children’s books of the library. When I told the librarian that I wanted something new to read, she pointed at the science shelves.

I spent my following summers reading about astronomy, botany, and zoology, and ended up studying biology at the University of Barcelona in Spain, with a summer research stint at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte in northeast Brazil. Then, during my master's degree, back in Barcelona, I did a 6-month laboratory exchange with La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia.

I completely fell in love with the Australian biomedical research system and its world-class facilities, high-impact research output, and strong government support. So I decided to stay for my Ph.D. and work in the lab of Jennifer Stow at the Institute for Molecular Bioscience of The University of Queensland in Brisbane, investigating the intracellular trafficking of Rab proteins in epithelial morphogenesis and cancer.

During my Ph.D., I had many of the usual work experiences: extensive time in the lab, several teaching assistantships, and a 6-month research stint overseas. But I felt more drawn to the experiences that were not part of a typical Ph.D., and I squeezed as many as I could into my spare time.

In my first year, I became a member of the students and early-career researchers’ committees of my institute, organizing conferences, workshops, retreats, barbeques, and end-of-year balls. I joined the university's scuba diving club, earning four certifications (including as a coral reef surveyor) and logging more than a hundred dives. It was a way to escape the lab on weekends when the stress of the Ph.D. became too much. 

But, by far, the most enjoyable role I held during my time as a Ph.D. student was as a science ambassador for my institute. In this role, I received some training in science communication and then communicated science to the public. With my supervisor’s blessing, during my 2nd year I began showing my experiments to primary and high school students and letting them play with the microscopes in my lab. We offered tours of the building and were invited to networking events at the Queensland Parliament to explain our research to policymakers.

Maria Gual Soler

Maria Gual Soler

CREDIT: Maria Gual Soler

A virtual detour by the Brazilian Amazon

While I enjoyed research, my ambitions for a research career were shrinking. I was a regular reader of science career blogs, and most of them showcased a pessimistic outlook for academic careers. I realized that I needed to do something unusual in order to stand out from the crowd.

One day, shortly after I passed my 3rd-year Ph.D. review, I stumbled upon an article from the nonprofit organization Science House Foundation documenting an expedition by a team of scientists and anthropologists to the Brazilian Amazon, where they delivered microscopes to an indigenous tribe to help them explore their environment and monitor the impact of climate change. I was gripped by the idea of introducing kids to the wonders of science in places where the most basic opportunities were so limited. I wanted to use my scientific knowledge for the common good, in ways that I could measure, in the real world.

In August 2012, I volunteered with the Science House Foundation as a global community coordinator for their science education projects, remotely managing a worldwide network of children and teachers, providing technical mentoring on microscopy experiments, and facilitating discussions about their discoveries, in English and Spanish. Through this experience, I recognized that science can be a catalyst for literacy and critical thinking, and that it can drive cross-cultural collaboration and mutual understanding among nations.

From Australia to New York

Soon after, I came across the United Nations Headquarters Internship Programme and saw it as a perfect opportunity to deepen my exploration of science diplomacy. I got a call less than 24 hours after I sent in my application.

In February, I joined the NGO Branch of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs for a 6-month internship exploring how science, technology, and innovation can drive sustainable development. Over the last 6 months I have done policy research, designed outreach campaigns, written a policy paper, and coordinated the organization of conferences and expert forums, in New York and Geneva, Switzerland. I gained first-hand experience with science diplomacy during a visit to CERN, the European particle physics laboratory near Geneva, broadcast live via Twitter, where I witnessed how science collaborations among nations can address common problems and build constructive international partnerships.

It has been fascinating to discover how science can benefit society at multiple levels: by informing the sustainable development agenda, improving access to education and healthcare, and fostering technological cooperation among countries. I also came to realize that very few people know that access to scientific advancement and its benefits is recognized as a universal human right. Working on the dissemination of science for global societal change is to me as meaningful as a scientific endeavor can get—even if it doesn't involve working in an academic laboratory.

My fellowship is coming to an end, and my Ph.D. thesis is under examination. I am not sure what the future holds, but one thing is certain: I have found my niche, in science policy and international development. I didn’t know this avenue existed when I started my Ph.D., but I feel my Ph.D.—and especially all the peripheral activities I engaged in—equipped me extremely well for it.

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