27/03/2020

Meet Luz Maria Mejia Ramirez, Colombian MSCA researcher in Switzerland


Profile:

  • Name: Luz Maria Mejia Ramirez
  • Country of origin: Colombia (registered at MSCA as Spanish)
  • Host country and institution in Europe: Switzerland, ETH Zurich
  • Acronym (title) of MSCA project: EPISODE
  • Field of research: Climate geology (Earth Sciences)

Interview:

Could you tell us a bit about your experience within your research field?

I am originally a marine biologist, a degree I got in Colombia. I completed my Master in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation in Spain, where I first met paleoceanography as a science. I was interested in being involved in research about climate change, and started my career in what I call the “biological face of geochemistry of marine micro and nannofossils”. It has been a hard path to follow, as in the beginning my knowledge about geology was very limited. But my biological background gave me the ability of thinking about biological strategies that these organisms may have had in the past to adapt to changing climates. A mindset that is not very common amongst geologists that are more used to see fossils as rocks and not as organisms. The interdisciplinary formation I have had has led me through very interesting studies and expanded vastly the applications of biology and geology to climate sciences.

Why did you decide to apply to MSCA? How would you say the experience contributed to your personal and professional growth?

I decided to apply to MSCA because of several reasons. One of them is profiting from my dedication and my ability to withstand failures to develop new proxies and methods. The application of a protocol or a proxy that has been widely used is an “easy” approach in science. However, especially in climate reconstruction, most of the available indicators of past climates have big uncertainties. Being aware of this, and having had a formation in which parameters can be measured more directly, as it is done in biology and ecology, the large uncertainty typical of geochemical indicators of past climates drive me crazy. We need to be sure how climate was reacting to greenhouse gases in the past, to be able to understand how it may react in the future. Therefore, I decided to use my stubbornness, dedication and withstand to failure, to start a new path in developing a new temperature proxy, using the same nannofossils I had worked with during my PhD, in the best place in the world to conduct clumped isotope analyses: ETH Zurich. I was already at ETH doing a short postdoc during which I was mostly finishing the papers from my PhD studies, and therefore, there was a further reason to try to stay in this University, the best in Earth Sciences worldwide.

This experience has contributed a lot to my professional growth. In Spain, where I did my PhD, most of the people were working with what I call “real geology”. The only one looking at biological aspects of fossils was me, and therefore there was not many people to learn from. On the other hand, ETH has a lot of people involved in similar research and therefore there are a lot of possibilities of exchanging ideas, collaborations, methods and knowledge. I am also convinced that my participation in the group has brought geologists in the group to think from a more biological and ecological point of view. This has happened at such a degree, that our group is starting a marine algae culture lab, and considering involving molecular methods to investigate algae adaptations that could have been active or have evolved in the past.

From the personal point of view, being able to work in ETH has also been very positive. In Spain, I was the only student coming from abroad and therefore I was always the outsider. ETH Zurich is so international, that most of us are equally outsiders, which makes it very easy to develop a healthy work-life balance.

What would you say the biggest challenge in the application process was? How did you overcome it?

Preparing a MSCA is a hard and long process. A whole two-year project should be explained in only a few pages. It should be concise, innovative (which was not a problem for me, because I am not a fan of applying already invented stuff), and very carefully written. I would say a lot of time is required to prepare a good application. And this is not only valid for the research project itself, but is also valid for the description of the researcher, the host university and the supervisor. I would advise to very carefully follow the suggestions to write the MSCA which are available online, and never leave the writing to the last minute. Completing quickly an application for MSCA from recycled projects will probably not be a successful strategy, as a large part of the application is not directly related to the project. So, my advice is to dedicate enough time for writing the proposal.

From your experience, how does the research environment in Europe differ from that in Latin America, if at all? And, how do you think EURAXESS LAC can further promote research collaborations between Europe and Latin America & the Caribbean?

In my experience, there are already huge differences in the research environment within countries in Europe, and so imagine how big they can be compared to Latin America? I was doing research in Spain for some years. The research environment there is not very friendly. Very often money is scarce, and when it is not, bureaucracy is a big enemy. I was working in an ERC project, and even with the big amount of money we had available, the bureaucracy of the university made it very hard to achieve results. PhD students are often working without salary, or scholarships are very low paid. Most students cannot end their PhD within the period of their scholarship.

Compared to Spain, the research environment in Switzerland (at least in ETH) is amazing. It is a much richer country with more money available for research, but it is also a system in which great research is prioritized above bureaucracy. Less time needs to be spent in useless paperwork. The internationality and interdisciplinarity of research in ETH may be one of the highest in the world.

From my short experience in Colombia, which is limited to what professors tell me, since I immediately moved to Europe after completing my bachelor, research in Colombia is very undeveloped. People are generally hired to teach, and research has usually to be conducted during the “free time” of professors, almost as if it was a “hobby”. Not only are PhD students unpaid in Colombia, but they even have to pay to do their PhD. This means a person who is willing to do a PhD in Colombia has to be economically capable of living from savings during most of his/her productive years. PhD is therefore not seen as research, but merely another step during your education. This is a very sad situation, as it has only caused great scientists to leave the country and prefer to stay outside, due to the very limited possibilities offered by Colombian universities. From colleagues I have heard multiple times, that research is much better in countries like Mexico and Chile, which, at the same time, have research conditions much worse than those of Europe.

I believe that any kind of program to link Latin American students to European programs will improve this situation. And I believe it is urgent to do so. Bringing them to make long stays in European laboratories, even providing them scholarships for full PhD programs. Establishing collaborations and programs between Colombian and European universities is also a possibility. In ETH, there is always a huge flow of Chinese people coming with Chinese scholarships. Supervisors in ETH, when they have money available, they supplement their scholarships with some money. Coming from Colombia, I am aware of the situation, but I am also aware of how resourceful Colombian people can be. If we want a good education, and if we are offered the opportunity, a relatively low income (but enough to survive) is not a problem. This is already much better than having to remain without payment in Colombia for a long period of time.

Programs of teacher exchanges could also improve research in Colombia. We are quite a large community of Latin Americans in Europe. As far as I know, no one is doing paleoclimate in Colombia, because this branch of science is simply unknown there. I am sure a lot of researchers abroad would agree to go to Colombia (or other places) to teach short courses, trainings, give public talks, and in general give to society what we have learnt outside.

I think all these strategies could improve the research environment in Colombia. Because people in Latin America should stop thinking about research as “further education”. Some people in my family still ask me when I will stop “studying”. I always answer: never! Studying IS MY JOB! It is actually a job like any other, and should be conducted under appropriate conditions like any other job.

What is life in Europe like outside the office/lab?

It is very hard to make a generalization of how life is “in Europe” outside work. I think it is very different from one country to the other. In general, and in pretty much every place you compare Latin America to, it is much safer. However, it may be hard for Latin Americans to adapt to some cultures in Europe. In general, we are more prone to share with Latin Europeans like Spanish and Italians, and it gets harder with cultures like Germany or Switzerland. However, I think when international universities are targeted, this effect becomes much smaller, as the differences in cultures between our countries in Latin America and some countries in Europe are minimized by the presence of people from different parts of the world. That means, outsiders are not outsiders anymore. As I mentioned before, even though the Swiss culture is less approachable for a Colombian like me compared to the Spanish culture, in Switzerland I have a better life outside work, because the university allows a social life in which outsiders are not outsiders.

Do you have any advice for young researchers from LAC who are considering applying for a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowship?

If you have little experience in writing papers in English, and you are used to the way we are taught to write in Spanish, you better safe at least twice of the time for writing the proposal compared to a native speaker with experience in writing papers. In Latin America we are taught that the more we write and the more complex, the better. Real science is done in a way far away from that. You need to learn how to be concise, write clear and short sentences. The proposal is not a poem, and who is going to evaluate it will not spend more time than necessary to do so. Therefore, spend enough time in preparing the proposal, so that the person who will read it will do it fast, but will never be bored. I think that’s the strategy, and to achieve that, a lot of time is needed.

Finally, what’s next for you?

This is a complicated question. I would like to stay at ETH for one or two more years. I have realized this university offers opportunities no other university will ever offer. It has been a fast learning curve and I have gotten unimaginable experience here. However, I am not sure whether this will be possible on the short term.

My ultimate goal is to become a professor in Europe, in a country where culture is more compatible to mine (as Latin American). A country like Spain or Italy would be the most appropriate, as I already manage well the languages. However, I am a fast language learner and would not discard for instance France.

Right now, I am inclined to say I would also consider to go back to Colombia and work as a professor there. I am aware of all the limitations this could entail. I am aware of the very underdeveloped research environment and it does scare me to have to accept that research will turn to be from THE BEST in the world, to a very precarious one. There is a HUGE HOWEVER though… I believe if Latin Americans who have had the luck and the discipline to make it this far are not willing to pass on that to our countries, the situation will never be improved. Therefore, this is kind of a challenge I see ahead of me and I would like very much to tackle at some point. My personal life does not currently link me to Europe, and my passion lies in helping to improve the situation of my country (and with climate change, the whole world). Therefore, I would be open, at least to try, to accept this challenge and perhaps have a way bigger impact compared to what I would ever be able to achieve in Europe, where people are born with so many advantages, that making those sacrifices is not so necessary. Having the double citizenship together with Spain gives me always the opportunity to return back to Europe, in case this challenge results too frustrating or complicated.

Therefore, I believe anything EURAXESS LAC can do to improve the research environment in Latin America will in the future call more people from abroad back to our original countries, and make this challenge more a reality than an idealism.