Interview with Alanna Higgins - MSCA Fellow


Alanna K. Higgins is an MSc graduate from Newcastle University, earning an ESRC accredited research training degree in Food and Rural Development Research. Her master's dissertation focused on the discourse of the food sovereignty movements in the US and UK. She is originally from the US, obtaining her B.S. in Environmental Policies, Institutions and Behavior from Rutgers University, focusing on social and economic aspects of health and disease; environmental communication; and roles of industry and governmental and nongovernmental organizations in environmental affairs.

Alanna's work on the Horizon 2020 funded SUSPLACE project looked at the intersection of the social economy and food initiatives as a starting point for examining alternative economies and spatial practices of food systems.


Could you tell a bit about your experience as a female scientist within your research field?

So far I’ve been lucky that I haven’t had many issues outside of the normal struggles surrounding funding and project approvals. However, I have had a prolonged encounter with a senior academic which was very frustrating in terms of being undervalued and put down. Unfortunately it seems to be an issue still prevalent in academia but I think that the upcoming classes of young researchers are well aware and looking to make positive changes in this.


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

My Masters program director sent me the call for applications and thought it would be a good opportunity for me, and after reading about the project I thought I would apply. Working within MSCA has helped me to gain an even better understanding of what it’s like to work on large-scale international projects, and how to juggle things like administration, information dissemination, and the research itself.

  • It’s also taught me that no matter what is happening I should have confidence and believe in myself. I think it’s easy for young researchers to doubt themselves even with or without ideal working situations and we need to remember that we were chosen for a reason.

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

Honestly the biggest challenge was just applying! I had thought ‘oh wow Marie Curie…. what are the chances’ which is a detrimental way to think. I remember being a bit stern with myself and saying that not even trying to apply was the bigger loss than if I didn’t get it.


Do you think it is important for researchers to have a mentor? Why/Why not?

I think it is extremely important for researchers to have a mentor. Mentors can help when you’re stuck with a problem, aren’t sure where to go, or even just need a confidence boost. I’ve been privy to situations where people did not have good mentors and it’s really frustrating to not have any of that support. I have been lucky that during my Bachelors and Masters programs I had fantastic mentors – people who still check in with me to this day and who I can go to for advice on all sorts of matters. Having that type of professional and personal support has been paramount for my career and personal development.


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

Well, my introduction to higher education and research was in the UK, where I did my masters after which I went back to the US to part-time lecture. I haven’t been as involved in the research environment in North America as I have in Europe so it would be hard for me to delineate any differences outside of some cultural ones.

I do however think that many students and researchers in the US may not be aware of the opportunities in Europe. I think EURAXESS North America could be an excellent facilitator of intellectual exchange between Europe and North America through promoting things like the Marie Curie Actions.


What would you tell someone who is hesitant to apply? Would be great if you can direct a specific message to female scientists.

My advice to anyone who is hesitant to apply (to any sort of opportunity) is a phrase I learned during my Masters at Newcastle University… “shy bairns get nowt!” It means that the answer will always be no if you don’t put yourself out there, so even if you don’t think you’ll be chosen you should apply.

  • I think that young researchers – especially female researchers – think they have to fulfill every single ‘box’ listed on a call for applications. We need to remember that a lot of the time it’s about our potential and what other transferrable skills we could bring to the job and the team. If you want the job and think you’d be a good fit you should apply – and even if you don’t get the position, I’ve always found the application/interview process a good exercise in learning.

Finally, what’s next for you?

I will be pursuing my PhD in the United States – I’m not sure where yet as I’m still considering several offers but I’m very excited for this next step in my career!