What is your story before you started your degree in Cambridge?
I grew up in Portugal and as a child, I spent most of my time trying to understand the world around me. You could find me analysing small objects with my toy microscope or trying to create a solar oven out of aluminium and cardboard. I hosted exhibitions in my room for my neighbourhood to come and see magazine clippings of the latest developments in science. My curiosity began to take shape in high school as I started to experience the correlation between hard-work and achievement. This period was fundamental to wire a strong work ethic into my character.
For my BSc degree, I studied biology at the University of Lisbon. This course was broad enough to fulfil some of my curiosity, however my path into the future still felt unclear. To explore new options, I decided at the end of my second year to learn photography and Mandarin, using the pocket money I had earned from working at my mother’s shop on the weekends. These activities were fundamental to broaden my perspective. By the time I completed my undergraduate degree, I knew that I wanted to go abroad, and I was accepted into the Quantitative Biology MSc at Imperial College London in the UK. My experiences that year were extremely enriching and culminated with my field work in India, where I worked with crocodiles and pythons to determine the sustainability of rearing reptiles for meat.
At the end of my MSc, I came across a PhD project on biofuels at the University of Cambridge. This project materialized my keen interest in applying science for the benefit of society. Due to the lack of financial means to pursue this project independently, I initially applied for a PhD scholarship from Portugal. This application was not successful, and I spent one year working as a lab assistant near my hometown. I did not stop dreaming of bigger things and the following year I applied once again to the biofuel project. This time around I was accepted onto a fully funded PhD programme from the University of Cambridge itself. This marked the start of an incredible new chapter and it is one of the strongest references that I have on the value of persistence to achieve the “impossible”.
What is your field now and what do you love most about it?
My PhD research focused on optimizing biofuel production from crop waste materials (second-generation biofuels). The overlap of this theme of research with issues such as land availability and food availability, sparked my interest in understanding sustainability issues at a broader level and across several scales. I had the opportunity to discuss these themes further at the Cambridge Forum for Sustainability and the Environment and, during the second year of my PhD, I completed a 3-month placement at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), where I learnt about the policy framework for implementing and evaluating agri-environment schemes.
By the end of the PhD, my aim was to integrate and disseminate research on sustainability to all stakeholders in the field, to advance the debate on issues such as food security and climate change. I found the perfect opportunity in the University of Cambridge Careers Service webpage to join Frontiers, a big Open Access publisher, and build their sustainability program. I led the launch of two new journals, Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems and Frontiers in Forests and Global Change. In the journal launch process, I developed significant negotiation skills to recruit high-profile experts to join the editorial boards and to have authors submit their work. I managed these journals on a daily basis, as well as a younger journal, Frontiers in Sustainable Cities. It was a thrilling experience to see the journals grow and gain a voice in the sustainability debate. On its own, Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems published over 200 publications and had over 1,000 experts on the editorial board during my time at Frontiers. Having had first-hand access to extraordinary scientific advances, I became eager to facilitate the implementation of research outcomes as policy and practice. This prompt me to join RAND Europe to work on providing objective, rigorous and unbiased research to tackle issues that I am passionate about. I am thrilled with this chapter of my life.
What drives and motivates you?
The common thread in my motivation has been the eagerness to learn and to have new experiences. I have learnt that as long as you are willing to work hard and believe in yourself, you can nurture several interests and lead an enriching life full of quirky and diverse chapters. It is this possibility that gets me out there every morning.
What are your ambitions for the future?
My near-future ambitions are to continue to instigate action on causes that I care about. The fragile state of current world affairs means that there is plenty of potential to foster actual transformation. We need to climb through this window of opportunity and sow the seeds of change. I hope that by making research evidence available to all stakeholders, I can contribute to accelerating the pace of change. I believe that such an inclusive dialogue is a crucial step forward in achieving sustainability at all levels.
What is your advice for young ambitious women?
My advice to young women is to not be afraid of using your ambition and to challenge yourselves. You can find incredible strengths in the toughest moments.
In the words of Eleanor Roosevelt: “A woman is like a tea bag; you never know how strong it is until it’s in hot water”.
Carolina was interviewed by Íris Luz Batalha.