Inspiration and Role Models

  • DOI: 10.1002/chemv.202100067
  • Author: Vera KoesterORCID iD, Isabel Abánades LázaroORCID iD
  • Published Date: 07 September 2021
  • Copyright: Wiley-VCH GmbH
thumbnail image: Inspiration and Role Models

Dr. Isabel Abánades Lázaro of the Institute of Molecular Science (ICMol) of the University of Valencia, Spain, has been selected by the Lindau Nobel Meeting evaluation committee to participate in the 70th anniversary of this event. At this meeting, which is held annually at the end of every June, Nobel laureates and selected young scientists from more than 100 countries are brought together in an informal and open environment where they can exchange knowledge and ideas and share their enthusiasm for science. The theme of the meetings alternates between physiology and medicine, physics, chemistry and interdisciplinarianism. This year, the interdisciplinary meeting took place online.

Dr. Isabel Abánades Lázaro and Dr. Vera Koester of ChemistryViews met before and after the meeting to talk about Lindau and the hopes, hurdles, and inspirations of young scientists.

 

 

What does it mean to you to be invited to the Lindau Nobel Laureate meeting?

Well, I feel really overwhelmed. I will get the opportunity to speak with the most brilliant minds of all times and listen to their experiences, which will be very inspiring.

 

 

To attend the meeting as a young scientist, you have to go through a selection process. What did the process look like?

It was a two-part application process. First, I had to apply to be selected by, in my case, the European Commission. For that I had to apply with a CV, a letter of what it means to me to be at the Nobel Laureate meeting, and some recommendation letters. After being selected by the European Commission, in a second step, the Lindau Committee had to select you as well. For that, you had to write a different letter about what it means to you to attend, present a recommendation letter, and fill out an online CV form.

 

 

So quite a long process.

Yeah, a little bit. And I was actually taking part in a synchrotron visit at that moment, so I was doing the 24-hour experiments and then trying to find time for it. So it was a bit overwhelming, but, yeah, I was very happy that I got selected. Also, because in the second part of the application, the one for the Lindau Committee, everything had to be done online, but you did not get an e-mail that everything was all right. So I started thinking that I hadn't been selected. You know, impostor syndrome. I was pretty much convinced that I did something wrong with the application and I wasn't going to be selected either because of a technical issue or because of not being important enough to be at the meeting.

 

 

But then everything worked out. Congratulations for having been selected.

Thank you very much.

 

 

Can you say a bit about your research? You just said you had a synchrotron measuring time parallel to your application process.

During my Ph.D., I worked on metal–organic frameworks (MOFs) for drug delivery. Since then, I have dealt with a similar type of MOF, but it is now about defect engineering and studying the synthetic conditions that affect these materials and control the type of defects. With synchrotron radiation, you can measure the kind of defects you have created, whether they are correlated, whether they have an order within the material, the concentration of the defects, and how they are distributed.

 

 

What do you enjoy most about your work?

Data analysis and interpretation because I feel that research somehow is like assembling a puzzle. So, you have to put all these many pieces in exactly the right place to see the whole picture. That is something I really like about data interpretation, because you have to figure out many different things, sometimes at the same time, and you have to put them all in the right order to actually figure out what is going on in the material, how these defects are incorporated, or, depending on what synthetic conditions you change, how you can make a different type of defect or different type of material.

 

 

Are there people who have especially inspired you in your work?

I think a very good mentor or role model is very important and has a very strong influence. Throughout my career, different people have influenced me, from teachers in high school to my supervisors or colleagues. They have influenced me in many different ways, including personal ways, because you want to have mentors who are not just good scientists but good people. For me, mentors are people who also care about others and how others are feeling.

In that sense my Ph.D. supervisor influenced me a lot because he was a very nice person who cared a lot about us and our wellbeing. I am going to be joining a different group in October and this person, Guillermo, influenced me a great deal because he believed in me as a scientist and as a person.

In a more personal sense, my family has influenced me a lot. Both my parents come from families of very limited resources, so they did not get, for example, the chance to go to university. None of my grandparents had pretty much any education after they were about ten, some of them even younger. That influenced me because I feel very privileged by comparison. I had pretty much all the opportunities I wanted, so to speak, and I acknowledge that. I am also very conscious that there are a lot of people who do not get the same opportunities that I had. That inspired me both in life and in research to try hard and also to help others because I am aware that I kind of had it easy.

 

 

Is that why you go to schools and explain chemistry there?

Mainly to help to increase the presence of female role models in science. I think when I was in school, I did not meet—or they did not tell us about—any female scientists beyond Marie Curie. I think there is something lacking, or at least there was something very lacking for me. Sometimes, not feeling represented makes one feeling like they do not belong. So I try to fill this gap with my contribution and go to high schools and show the students that there are female chemists, that we are normal people, that you do not need to be the most brilliant person in the world to do research, and so on.

 

 

You have a Twitter account and post about your research there. Do you think that social media is necessary for a scientist today and possibly changes the way chemistry is communicated?

I think it is becoming more and more important. We researchers are using it as a network to reach out to other people, both scientists and non-scientists, as well as to the wider community. I think this is very important.

On the one hand, it is important to showcase our work. There are studies that show that papers published on Twitter get more citations. You reach a wider audience and in that sense the paper receives more attention.

I also think it is quite important to show all the scientific and non-scientific aspects of the life of researchers. Which is to say that it is normal to be a researcher and to have a normal life and a healthy work–life balance and so on. Again, this has to do with role models, but also with the image the general public gets of scientists.

 

 

Do you think it is changing how we as chemists see ourselves and maybe are seen by others?

Hmm. I don't know how we see ourselves but for sure I think how others see us is changing. I think this is because of social media and also with all the things that came before that, such as the fact that now science is not as elitist as it used to be in the sense that only certain people got access to universities. For example, it was not that long ago that women were not allowed to go to university. Of course, that influences the way people see us. And I think this is also changing the role models that are out there.

Social media and how people exchange their views on different topics such as mental health awareness—this is a very hot topic on Twitter, or at least the people I follow talk about it a lot—also has a strong effect. I think this is very important because it is something that we probably do not talk about or that is not that talked about, like how sometimes academia or science or the pressure you put on yourself can affect the mental health of people.

 

 

So social media is also another way of informing yourself, connecting to other people, or finding role models?

Yes, all of that, I think. I find a lot of role models on Twitter, actually. And I have also made a lot of connections there. I have some collaborators or friends that I met on Twitter and that I have never met personally, but we chat every so often about science or other things, about our lives, or how we are doing.

 

 

What do you think are the biggest challenges young scientists have to face today?

A difficult question. I think the most difficult challenge that we are facing is the system. To be fair and honest, I think the way the system works, or at least in Spain, is that there is a very intense competition for research positions and funding, and I think this drives us to have a lot of anxiety and also sometimes to be in an unhealthy work environment. It increases competition and sometimes makes it so that people do not want to share their knowledge. In the sense of: “If I help you with this issue, you are going to outperform me on this application.”

I think this is a very difficult challenge that we have to overcome somehow. And I think this is also related to the delayed job security that is there for scientists, at least in Spain. Often you do not get secure or tenured employment until your late 30s, give or take. That makes it very difficult to have like a stable life, and if you want to have a family it makes it very difficult to plan. And we also have to move a lot. Moving countries every so often makes life difficult in general.

Pretty much all of this is related to the intense competition and to the delayed job security, and this sometimes causes us to have a work–life balance that is not very good or healthy. If you are competing for funding and all your colleagues are working 12 hours and you are not, you wonder if you will succeed. I try to have a healthy work–life balance but sometimes it becomes very difficult because you see people working this huge amount of hours and then this gives you some sort of anxiety or worry that you are not going to be able to reach the same targets if you are not working that hard even though I personally think that after a certain number of hours you are not efficient anymore and that it is better to go and do activities that you enjoy outside of your job and then come back to it with a fresh mind.

Other issues that I have seen are power abuse and gender bias. If you need recommendation letters, for example, some people might abuse it in the way that if you do not reach this target or if you do not work those many hours, then they will not give you a nice recommendation letter.

But, on the other hand, I think one of our biggest strengths is that we want to change the system. I think there is an increased amount of work that young scientists, and not so young scientists alike, are doing to change these issues. They are working towards getting the government to provide more funding so that the competition is less overwhelming and they are trying to implement tools to prevent power abuse. I think this is a very big strength: We have an issue, but we want to fix it.

 

 

I also think it is great that so many young scientists are now visible and connected through networks like EYCN and IYCN or on Early Career Advisory Boards.

Yeah, I think so too. It increases the visibility of young scientists and I think it is a very important point that there are very strong communities to get support from.

 

 

What do you want to be doing ten years from now?

To be fair, I do not know. Every so often I wonder about it. I would love to have a small research group, like three or four people. I would not like to have one of these massive research groups because I would like to provide individual mentorship, to closely follow the projects and be regularly updated. But I do not want to control the group. I like to have freedom myself, so I would like to give freedom to the researchers, but I would like to follow their research properly.

But, as we mentioned about the challenges earlier, sometimes I wonder, how long can I wait to get a secure job? If this will take ten years, I do not know if I can continue changing jobs every two years and having to apply to several projects every two years, just to make sure I get one or two.

 

 

What do you do in your spare time?

It depends a lot on the time of the year and on the weeks even. A couple of months ago, I joined a mental health association and I accompany them on their leisure activities as a free time group leader. We do things like go to the cinema, play balls, billiards, have a coffee. This is something I am really enjoying.

Other than that, I do the typical things like spending time with my friends and family, reading —but to be honest, lately, I do not read as much as I would like because I spend a lot of time reading at work — doing sports, doing yoga, going to the beach. I am in nature a lot and like to go to the mountains to just walk around or climb. I have a small garden where I grow vegetables. It is great to watch what changes every day.

 

 

We met again after Isabel Abánades Lázaro had attended the 70th Lindau Nobel Laureate meeting.

How did you like Lindau?

I really, really enjoyed it. It was a full, long week because it started at seven in the morning and finished at a quarter to ten at night, but it was a very inspiring experience. There were panel discussions where a number of laureates and young researchers discussed a wide variety of different topics such as the pandemic, climate change, open science, as well as lectures by the Nobel laureates about their findings and their views, and open exchange sessions that I really, really loved. These sessions allowed us to join a conversation with the laureates and ask them questions and have a proper conversation about different topics. And many, many other things ... they even had workouts during the breaks.

 

 

Was it possible to connect with the other young scientists or was that difficult because the meeting was held online?

It was great. There was a tool called Wonder, which was kind of a visual space where you could see where everyone was, and when you connected with others, you formed circles of people who were actually talking to each other. You could walk on the platform to one of these circles and once you got to the circle, you joined the people who were talking. We would often meet there during breaks and sometimes even after meetings at night and continue chatting.

There was also a networking tool on the website where the meeting was held, where you could go and be randomly matched with people to exchange ideas.

At the end of the meeting, there was a very interesting panel discussion about why science should be trusted. There was a lot of talking about science communication. One of the young scientists had the initiative to start a group of young scientists that would meet every month to discuss different ways of communicating science and maybe collaborate to communicate together. When the meeting officially ended at 11 a.m. on Friday, we chatted in Wonder until the lunch break, and then started a group on LinkedIn to discuss further. So it was really nice and there were lots of opportunities to network. I think we tried to build a nice community even if we did not have the opportunity to meet in person.

 

 

Do you have something that you really liked the very best?

There were many good things, but what I personally enjoyed the most were the open exchange sessions. It was like a panel discussion of sorts, with a Nobel laureate and a moderator, and any of the young scientists could ask questions. That was possible through the chat, or you could interact directly by being admitted to the meeting with video. That was very nice and very interesting.

There were many topics discussed, even beyond science. There was a lot of advice on how to pursue a career in science or about the work–life balance and many things like that. The Nobel laureates were all very nice and very helpful and gave very inspiring advice.

 

 

Was there anything that wasn't so good?

The only thing that was negative is that a lot of things happened in parallel at the same time. So it was a little bit overwhelming in the sense that you want to attend everything and then you can't.

It is also great that in the next few years we will be able to attend the physical meeting of our field, so that will be chemistry for me. I was very interested in some of the physics and medicine talks; however, I will not be able to meet these Nobel laureates in person, but we did have a chance to meet them via the screen. Next year we can meet the chemists in person. This really inspires you to do more and to do better.

 

 

Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences.



Isabel Abánades Lázaro studied chemistry and at the University of Alcalá, Spain, and spent some time at the Research Hospital Fundacion Jimenez Diaz, Spain, and Trinity College Dublin, Ireland. She received a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Glasgow, UK, in 2018 under the supervision of Ross Forgan. Currently, she is at the Institute of Molecular Science (ICMol), University of Valencia, Spain, with a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Individual Fellowship. She has been awarded a Juan de la Cierva Incorporación Fellowship to work at ICMol for three years in the group of Guillermo Minguez Espallargas.


Her research focuses on defect chemistry as a synthetic tool for the targeted creation of defects in Ti metal–organic frameworks (MOFs). This means that she introduces functionalized molecules to the interior and surface of the MOFs. By this, properties can be introduced in a controlled manner. The goal of this defect engineering is to use these MOFs for the delivery of (cancer) drugs and applications of environmental relevance such as catalysis and gas uptake/separation.

 


Selected Awards

  • 2017 Ph.D. Award– Honour mention granted by ABTA
  • 2016 Research Mobility Grant (£3000) of the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC)
  • 2016 MOF2016 Poster Prize
  • 2013–2014 Undergraduate Award of the Spanish Ministry of Education
  •  2011 Undergraduate Award to the best student in biology of the Universidad de Alcalá de Henares, Spain

 


Selected Publications

 

 



 

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