Science Ambassador Cecilia Fenech is a researcher specialising in pollution forensic science. Here she talks about how she chose her career, what her job is like, the cool things in her work, and her tips on work experience and what to study.
What have been the main career decision milestones in your life?
I started by choosing the three sciences: chemistry, biology and physics, when I was 13 years old, when students in Malta get to choose their subject choices. I kept within the sciences until I got to university where I did my first degree in Chemistry and Biology. I always enjoyed doing research, so I followed my degree studies with a Master’s research programme at the University of Malta, while working in the beverage manufacturing industry. This allowed me to understand better what industry and academic life have to offer. I enjoy doing both; however I wanted to further my expertise in the environmental sciences and started looking for the next challenge. Opportunities in Malta are quite limited so I decided to expand my search to other countries, and I got offered this post in Ireland on a project I am really excited about. I moved to Ireland in October 2010.
My family. They are always there to provide support wherever I may be and whatever effort it requires from them, even if they live thousands of miles away Does your job allow you to have a lifestyle you are happy with? Work expands to fill all time available. You decide your lifestyle, depending upon your time management capabilities. My current job as a PhD student and researcher allows me to merge all the things I love to do. I make time to play a team sport, go out with friends and even take regular holidays to go home. Yet you still need to work hard. It is not the first time that it is late at night or the weekend and I am in the lab. The project is like your baby: you live through it for a couple of years, yet you need to make time for yourself.
How did you go about getting your current job?
I used to look through the websites listing the PhD and research opportunities in Europe (mainly www.findaphd.com, www.euraxess.eu, www.academictransfer.com, but also others) on a regular basis to find a position of interest to me. After sending an application and a telephone interview, I was advised that I was given the position, and from there the arrangements to move country began.
Describe a typical day
There is no typical day in a researcher’s life. Some days you might be in the lab doing experiments, on another day you may be outside sampling or abroad at a conference. It is a challenging job, but very rewarding.
What are the main tasks and responsibilities?
Being a researcher, the main responsibility is to fulfill the project entrusted to you. My main responsibility is to conduct research on identifying the sources of nitrate pollution in our rivers. It is a form of pollution forensic science. Apart from the field sampling of river water and its analysis in the lab, my responsibilities also include writing scientific papers related to my project and presenting my work at conferences and meetings in Ireland and abroad.
What are the main challenges?
Dealing with disappointments such as instrumentation not working or an experiment not going as expected after spending days or weeks working on it. What’s cool? I love travelling and meeting other people. You get to go to conferences and meetings abroad or in Ireland and meet other people who love your subject as much as you do. I also love that I am my own boss (to a certain degree), though your supervisors are there for you to turn to for support.
What’s not so cool?
Dealing with things that don’t work. You are doing research into a new area, so many things work, but many things do not work. It is not a series of great discoveries, but a series of non-discoveries and hopefully one discovery over a period of years.
What particular skills do you bring to your workplace?
I always liked doing puzzles and asking why. And this is something that all scientists should have. If someone says something, I do not accept it as being necessarily true. I am always challenging people to why they think in a particular way. But the most important quality I have is that I love my project (even though sometimes it makes me want to scream when things are not going well). I am really interested in finding out the solution to the problem that has been given to me to solve.
What subjects did you take in school, and how have these influenced your career path?
I studied chemistry, biology and physics as options when I had the choice, and I think I chose well for my current career. Together with these I studied maths, English, Maltese, German, philosophy, history, geography, social studies and religion. My suggestion is to keep your options open. To choose subjects which give you as many options later on in life, rather than ones that keep you limited. If I were to make a different choice, it would be to pay more attention to chemistry.
What is your education to date?
It’s relatively straightforward: a science based secondary school subject choice, followed by a degree in chemistry and biology (four years), a Masters degree (two years on a part-time basis) and now following a PhD research programme.
What aspects of your education have proven most important for your job?
I think the extracurricular aspects of my education are among the most relevant to my course. Participation in sport and music activities, the local community, science competitions etc. As part of my job there is no one to run after you to make sure you did your “homework”, and by being involved in numerous activities (while still giving my best at school) it allows you to learn all about time management and also how to deal with different people. In particular it has taught me how to speak about my research to different people coming from different backgrounds, which is an important trait when attending conferences or meeting new people.
What have been the most rewarding events in your career so far?
I am most proud of obtaining the position on a Marie Curie Initial Training Network funded by the EC FP7 People Programme, ATWARM, due to the stringent requirements. What personal qualities do you have that helps you in your career? You need to be self-motivated, hard-working, ambitious, have good time management and ability to solve problems.
What is your dream job?
Work in a science museum or on a science-based TV show or similar to be able to share my love of science every day.
What advice would you give to someone considering this job?
The most important thing for fitting into this job is loving the research you are doing. You have at least three years working on the same project. So unless you are truly interested in the subject you will not succeed.
What kinds of work experience would provide a good background for this position?
Any kind of lab work will prepare you for the lab portion of the work. Other aspects such as participation in the local community, being in a sports team or a committee or other organisation are also important, as they are good learning experiences for working within a team, time management, organisation of work and project management.