Embracing the international aspects of a life scientific

Maria picture514b32cfda338.jpgDr. Maria Ocampo-Hafalla’s scientific career has been devoted to studying the two major types of genetic changes that are observed in tumors. During her MSc and PhD in New York, she studied single base-pair mutations. She went on to study chromosomal instability as the topic of her USA National Science Foundation Research Fellowship and Marie Curie Fellowship, held at Cancer Research UK’s London Research Institute. She is now a Principal Scientific Officer in the Chromosome Segregation Lab, where she is investigating the mechanisms that regulate chromosomal stability, with the aim of providing crucial insights into the processes that impact healthy cellular growth and proliferation. Maria tells Seirian Sumner, Soapbox Science co-founder and co-organiser,  how she juggles a vibrant work and family life, without the support network of a family near by. Her story tells us how a bit of courage, persistence and passion for science helps overcome the challenges facing mums in science.


SS: Hi Maria, science is an international business these days. Translocating around the world appears to be a crucial boost for securing a permanent position in science these days. You’ve moved around a lot during your career, and you now live far from your family. How has this international life helped get you to where you are now?

MOH: I was born in the Philippines, but raised in California. I received my PhD in New York, before moving to London for my first postdoc. Education opened doors for me, and in many ways, I’ve benefited from scientific mobility. Even as an undergraduate student, I held research internships at other universities during the summer breaks. There were the pre- and post-doctoral fellowships that funded my early research, the opportunities to live in amazing cities and the chance to train and work in world-class institutes. I’m grateful for so much.

Two years ago, I accepted a position as a scientific officer at Cancer Research UK. It was a permanent, full-time position that offered me flexibility and the chance to continue with an independent research project, while developing management skills. It’s a juggling act still, and sometimes I doubt myself, my decision. After all, I’ve been working in a research lab and dreaming of becoming a lab head since I was a teenager. My undergraduate degree was from a women’s college in an NIH-funded training program and lab. I had good mentors, good role models, a funding history, and decent publications. But this role as a scientific officer is my way of staying in science with my particular circumstances now. I’m trying not to disappear.

There have been many sacrifices and challenges. At the start of my postdoc, I was one of NatureJobs’ Postdoc Journal Keepers, and for one year, I wrote a monthly article about my experiences, ranging from moving to another country to do my postdoc (http://www.nature.com/naturejobs/science/articles/10.1038/nj7127-564c), to coping with challenges I faced in the lab. I was quite candid, and always approached my misadventures with a dose of good humour. Now, some years later, I find that the stakes are higher, and the consequences more sobering. Looking back to when I was a student or a postdoc imagining my future, I’m not sure I have what I wanted then. But, perhaps the biggest difference is, I want what I have now.


SS: You are a great role model: we’d like to see more amazing women like you, not ‘disappear’ from science. You now have a fabulous position at a world-class science institution. Do you still find challenges in balancing work and family life?

MOH: We chose to wait five years to start a family, partly because we were in a dual-science career home and because we were so far from most of our family and friends. Then my husband’s international collaborations required more of his time, ironically just after our child was born. At times it’s hard for me to be the one left behind with our child, but it’s also hard for him to be the one to go away. We do our best to hang on, together, apart. But science also offers flexibility and promotes creativity, and although our hours can be unconventional, we can both be there for milestones, like our daughter’s first day of school, first school play and first ballet recital.


SS: Raising a family is a challenge for anyone, working or not working! But you have a demanding job, and no family support nearby. How have you managed this?

MOH: Yes, it has been tough. One of the lowest points for me was sitting in a hospital room in urine-soaked trousers in the middle of the night with my feverish toddler, who had just been admitted to hospital. There was a mishap when collecting her urine sample, and I didn’t have a spare set of clothes. We have no family in London, and my husband, also a scientist, was out of the country, working with his collaborators. On another occasion, when she was only one-and-a-half, our daughter was rushed to hospital by ambulance from her nursery. She was having difficulty breathing; she was turning blue; the paramedics didn’t want to wait for us; we would have to meet her in the hospital. Fortunately my husband had been in the country, and we both headed to the hospital from our respective labs, one by taxi, another by tube. Moments like that stay with you. Two days later, I presented an institute-wide seminar, and my husband submitted a grant application. Sometimes, just taking care of your everyday responsibilities – be it for yourself, your partner, your family or your work – is in itself a heroic act.

Our little girl will turn four this summer, and she is thriving. As for myself, I’m enjoying my outreach activities, including teaching about DNA at my daughter’s school. I’m presenting a talk at a conference next month and preparing a manuscript for submission. I’ve just been promoted, and I’ve just celebrated my 10th wedding anniversary with the boy I fell in love with at graduate school. This job has allowed me to support him too, and scientific mobility is a topic we’re discussing again. There’s a lot to be grateful for, and we count our blessings.


SS: If there was one thing you could change about the scientific culture, what would it be?

MOH: I would make science outreach a mandatory component of grant applications. For example, for every year that a scientist received funding, s/he would have to contribute to or carry out one science education activity. (We already place importance on proven track records for high-impact publications and funding.) In this way, we would emphasize the inherent value of teaching, mentoring, and communicating, and we would reward those skills. At the same time, the local communities, e.g. schools, would benefit from the infusion of scientific expertise.


SS: We are really excited to have you as one of our Speakers at Soapbox Science 2013. Can you tell us what attracted you to apply to be a Soapbox Scientist?

MOH: I was interested in the opportunity to engage with the public in an unconventional way. I’m used to delivering science education/outreach programmes in classrooms or labs, but to try to grab the attention of people who perhaps weren’t expecting to be thinking about science seemed like a good challenge. I believe that for science to be understood and valued, then we as scientists must be fluent in discussing our work with the general public. I thought it would be a good learning experience for me, but also an opportunity to reach out to the local community.


SS: Cancer will affect the lives of almost everyone, directly or indirectly. It therefore is no surprise that your science attracts a lot of public attention, and that you have invested considerable effort in sharing your research with the public. How does Soapbox Science differ from what you have done before?

MOH: Aside from conducting world-class research, Cancer Research UK is committed to reliably informing and actively engaging with the public. I chose to work here for very personal as well as professional reasons. At the LRI, I’ve had various opportunities to communicate our work, ranging from international conferences with other scientists, to in-class sessions with students, to lab tours and hands-on experience stations for our supporters. However, standing on a soapbox, talking to all sorts of passers by is certainly outside my comfort zone! I know it’ll be a challenge for me, but I also hope to use my time on the soapbox to challenge the audience’s views about science and scientists. I’ll have to be brave. That soapbox is just a few centimeters off the ground, but that’s a long way for the painfully shy child that I once was. I’ve been fortunate to have mentors, such as Ms. Lynne Hasz, Sr./Dr. Annette Bower, and Dr. Joel Oppenheim, who encouraged me to pursue science as my vocation. Without their example and their encouragement, I wouldn’t be here today. It’s one of the reasons I will stand up there. I’ll share my story, which is also theirs, and hope that it resonates with someone in the audience. I hope they won’t hear the nervousness, but rather the determination, the curiosity, the enthusiasm, the sense of wonder, the hope, and the joy. Once, I thought a PhD wasn’t for someone like me. I hope that by seeing me up there, someone else will see that science is for everyone.



Join Dr. Maria Ocampo-Hafalla on 5th July 2013, Gabriel’s Wharf SouthBank, London, where she will be talking about: “Lord of the cohesin rings: protecting the blueprint for life” Maria’s participation in Soapbox Science is made possible thanks to sponsorship from Francis Crick Institute, L’Oreal For Women in Science and the Zoological Society of London.

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