The Faces Of NGC

An interview with Chiara Galante

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Chiara is the historic face of the NGC. She founded it in 2015 to bring together early-career researchers and  give them an opportunity to discuss science in an informal environment, explore career perspectives and socialize. She is still actively involved, organizing career events and managing the NGC Blog. Chiara did her PhD in the Berninger lab working on glia-to-neuron conversion and identified factors implicated in this process. Now, she is using her multitasking talents in her hectic day job as a science manager. In this interview, we’ll get to know more about her passion for neuroscience and her life outside academia.


Q: Why did you choose to study neuroscience and do a PhD?

Since childhood, I have been very curious about how the human body works and what can be done in pathological conditions. I have pretty much always just wanted to learn new things and quench my thirst for knowledge. The rest wasn't much of interest to me. Doing a PhD seemed just like the natural course of my life and I knew I was not ready to leave academia after my university studies. Choosing a subject to focus on wasn’t as smooth though.

I’ve always been attracted to neuroscience and pathology, but somehow neuroscience seemed to be too difficult for me. Thus, I pursued a thesis in microbiology for my Bachelor’s in molecular biology at the University of Padua. Then, during my Master’s in human biology I stumbled on medical microbiology teachers who couldn’t possibly raise less interest in the subject. Conversely, the next term I studied human physiology with a great teacher and was amazed by the staggering beauty of the brain. That was it, I had to learn more about it! I then entered the world of neurodegenerative diseases, merging my passions for the brain and pathology. I tried to stay in the field, but landed instead a PhD position in one of the top labs working on adult neurogenesis. There was no compromise, as the field of brain repair bridges neurogenesis with neurodegeneration and brain disease.


Q: What did you learn about yourself during the PhD?

I learnt who I am. There were too many layers of misconceptions, insecurities and fears about myself, instilled by others or society. Moving to a foreign country, alone, and having to face some severe hardships in those years made me grow up. I realized how strong I actually am, so much that I can face even big issues thanks only to my own strength. After all, I have to. My mummy is not here to hold my hand, and I have no partner to lean on. I must rely on myself.

I have also learnt that you fail at something only when you give up without “seeing the light at the end of the tunnel”. The lack of success, when accompanied by learning and personal growth, is quite the opposite of failure. No matter how bad things have gone or how wrong a choice has been, I have always taken away something  useful for my life.


Q: What did you like/dislike about leaving your native country, Italy, for a PhD position?

I really wanted to leave Italy. Having a fairly older brother who was already a researcher, I knew that I had to leave my country if I wanted to for example;.  get paid for my PhD (in Italy there are still some PhD positions “senza borsa”, namely without financial support). My parents had already made enough sacrifices for our education, it was time to become financially independent and get rewarded for my work. Besides, the nepotistic system in southern European countries still has a strong influence on academia. So, leaving wasn’t a hard decision, rather a driven one.

I certainly miss my parents, even more now during the pandemic. Living abroad gives you that feeling of constant worry for your family. The pandemic hasn’t made it easier, but we are faring well. With my brother in the USA, our family was already used to being apart for a long time and we have been keeping in touch via video calls between continents for years now. The other thing I really miss is the food. Thankfully, I am a somewhat decent cook and I love to cook and bake, so I save money while eating healthier food than the restaurants’ offer. But an Italian mum’s food remains unchallenged!


Q: You’re now working as a science manager at the Institute of Molecular Biology (IMB) in Mainz. How did you find your job? Could you share some advice for young researchers who want to leave academia?

I got my job thanks to networking! I had many informational interviews with science managers, including IMB’s training programmes’ coordinators. Eventually, all of that paid off. While writing my PhD thesis and receiving unemployment benefits, IMB’s PhD Programme coordinators were looking for a student assistant to help them during the recruitment call; I got the short-term position. While on that job, my current position (International Summer School & Postdoc Programme Coordinator) became available. I applied, interviewed and got it - but only after about eight months of job hunting and 50 applications sent!

I would advise all PhD students and postdocs to dedicate the right time to a career switch, be proactive and open minded. Do not wait until your contract is almost over. Start thinking early on about what you want to do, and always have a plan B. I know how busy the schedule of researchers is, and how high the pressure to produce data is. Still, try as much as possible to build skills that go beyond the “I can pipette and do research”, unrelated to bench work. Getting involved with associations or in other extra-curricular activities will boost your CV with various professional skills. Besides, it is a great way to blow off some steam and de-stress from research, refresh your mind and focus on something else than those experiments which are not working ;)

You should also talk to people, attend career talks and job fairs, join career mentoring programmes if they are available at your institution. Informational interviews and professional networking are precious tools in the pursuit of a non-academic career. Look out for a local career office, they can help you in finding your path and  having a look at different career opportunities. You may have your mind set on one career path, but what about your plan B? And are you sure you know everything about that career that you are discarding a priori? There is always something to learn; even if you don’t recognize yourself in the speaker of a career talk, you can actually learn something that may be useful at your next job interview!

Lastly, be patient. Finding a new job takes time and switching to a non-academic position means you face a lot more competition. So, try to make your profile as unique as possible!


Q: What was your initial motivation to create the NGC?

My lab belonged to a newborn network of local neuroscience labs. We were supposed to be…networked, to cooperate and know about each other’s science. But it wasn’t really like that, and the sense of belonging was missing. So, I wanted to get to know other PhD students on campus, know what they were working on and see if we could learn something from each other. I wanted to take those values purported by the official network of labs and make it real, in a format suitable for PhD students. I also wanted to give PhD students a safe and creative space, where they could discuss science or lab life without fears or inhibitions, and tailor activities in a peer-to-peer way. Possibly while having a beer together.

I am happy with how things have gone, and I am glad that some junior postdocs are now interested in our activities. I hope in the future more people will get involved in this initiative and recognize its value for building a broader scientific community in Mainz. And valuable managerial skills ;)

Written by Isabelle Arnoux; Edited by Gabrielle Sant. Featured Image: NGC/Design.

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