ESR2 - Marina Avena Maia

From coffee to tea drinking: my PhD journey from…

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t the beginning of 2019, I was close to obtain my Master’s Degree in Brazil in Chemical Engineering, so naturally I started to think about what I wanted to do next career wise. In fact, conducting research day to day was something that was very exciting for me: I used to spend my entire days at the lab doing experiments and the time just flew by, it just felt right. Also, having the autonomy to develop my own research interests was something that kept me motivated while I was developing my Master’s studies. By that moment, I knew I wanted to keep working as a researcher, and pursuing a PhD position felt like the right direction.

To give some context on why I decided to change coffee beans for tea bags, I should mention that I had studied previously in Scotland for 1 year during university, as I was awarded an international exchange scholarship. I had an amazing experience at the University of Strathclyde (I do not miss the windy weather though!), in which I felt I grew as much personally as I did professionally. This background gave me the confidence to start searching for PhD positions abroad. It did feel a bit overwhelming going after a PhD in Europe, as it would be 3 years living almost 10.000 Km away from home, but I was not ready to give it up without even trying. Regarding my research interests, I have always been interested in processes and development of materials that could minimize environmental hazards to increase sustainability, so when I came across the early-stage researcher position in the REWATERGY Marie Curie European Industrial Doctorate, I knew it was the perfect match: the project focused on the enhancement of  energy and nutrient recovery from wastewater streams inspired by the circular economy concept. Besides, the PhD position was at the prestigious University of Cambridge, with an additional inter-sectoral experience at Delft IMP, a Company located in the Netherlands. Needless to say that it felt like the perfect opportunity to gain experience in both academia and private R&D sectors.

Luckily, all the recruitment was being done online, so I could participate smoothly, as at the moment I had just got recruited for an Engineer position at a Brazilian company. I applied for the PhD position and a while later I got an email saying that my CV matched the position, and I got invited to do a round of interviews in order to be evaluated. The first one was with the entire consortium, there were around 15 people in the Skype call. I remember I was a little bit tense, since it is always a bit nerve wrecking trying to show your personality in a different language than your mother tongue, but I had confidence in myself and it went really well. They mainly asked questions about my background, and I was happy to be able to come across as my true self. After that, I was soon invited to do a second interview with  my future two advisors, Laura and David. The final interview lasted approximately 1 hour and it was focused on science related questions. This last interview was very formal and serious, and it was very hard for me to read the room. I knew I had prepared myself and that I was on my top game, but I could not anticipate the outcome, and I must admit it was a bit nerve wrecking. A few days later I received an e-mail where I was offered the PhD position, and I’ve never felt so happy! Coming from a small city in Brazil and heading to a PhD abroad always felt more like a dream than a reality.

After that, I started with all the bureaucratic formalities that involves moving to a different country. My visa processing was quite long and took more time than expected, but even so, Laura, as my academic advisor, was very understanding and helpful. I was able to delay the start of my PhD contract until I got everything in place. Arriving at Cambridge mid-October, was a big life change to be honest. I left Brazil in the spring, with lovely sunny and warm days, suddenly to arrive in the English fall with temperatures around 10 °C! I know that for most people living in Europe it is not even that cold, but I was freezing from day one. Later, I got to finally meet Laura in person and I have to say that I am very happy to have a woman as one of my advisors. In Brazil, having women in leadership positions is still scarce (especially in science), so it is definitely a motivation and an inspiration to have Laura’s guidance and mentorship along my career path. 

Now, fast forward to the end of 2020, I am happily surprised on how much my life has changed so far. Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted everybody’s life in so many different ways, but still I believe I have grown so much during this period. I have been through my 3-month evaluation and 1st year viva, in which I was successfully approved in both of them. Additionally, I have been privileged to work at an international and collaborative environment with a powerful and stimulating female guidance. I even had the courage to cycle during the fall and winter seasons: I still freeze, but at least now I can cope! Most importantly, I feel that I have matured scientifically, and that becoming an independent researcher is indeed my cup of tea.

Sunset in Cambridge, Uk.