It took a journey across continents and long years of searching before Dr Tanya Hutter found her way in life. But when she did, she knew it straightaway.
‘That moment was amazing,’ Tanya says of her first experience as a scientist. ‘The challenge, the excitement, the sense of finding out what no one else knew, it was just incredible. I was hooked from the start.’
Now a researcher, entrepreneur, and family woman, Tanya’s story began almost two thousand miles away in Ukraine.
She was born in the last decade of the Communist regime of the Soviet Union. ‘Life was tough,’ she says of those hard to imagine days behind the iron curtain of a totalitarian state.
When the Soviet Union collapsed at the end of 1991, her family seized their new found freedom and took the opportunity to escape to Israel. But life there was scarcely easier.
‘I didn’t speak Hebrew and spent the first year in school just sitting there, not understanding a thing. But I kept at it and eventually got the hang of it.’
That lesson in persistence was one which Tanya has turned to time and again, and, she admits, has served her well throughout the years.
‘If you just give up, you’ll get nowhere,’ she says. ‘It’s that simple.’
Tanya finished school at 18 with no idea what she wanted to do with her life. ‘Back then I wasn’t interested in education, or anything to do with planning for my future,’ she says. ‘I just wanted to party and have fun.’
But Tanya didn’t have a choice about her next move, and it was far from being a party. Military service, compulsory in Israel, dominated most of her next two years.
Following that, aged 20, and still not knowing what to do in life, her parents suggested she studied to become a nurse as this would be a stable job and always in demand. ‘I may not have known what I wanted to do, but I knew I didn’t want to be a nurse,’ she says.
Instead, Tanya headed for Ben-Gurion University, adopting an unusual way of choosing a course.
‘I didn’t like humanities, which meant there was only science and engineering on offer. I’ve always thought chemistry sounded cool, so I went for chemical engineering.’
For most of the four-year course, Tanya was an average student, and working part-time as a cashier in a shop. But when the final year dawned, and with it a research project, her life changed.
‘They gave me a white coat, a lab book, safety goggles, and a problem. I was told to study the aggregation properties of vesicles that can be used to load a drug inside, so it can travel to where we want it in the body. I went mad for it. I loved finding out all the research that had been done on it before, and the challenge of actually making it work. It took some real effort, but I did make it work and my findings were later published in an academic journal.’
If that was a clear hint about what Tanya should have been doing with her life, she still took a while to realise it. She tried two jobs in the industry, and both lasted only a couple of months.
‘It was boring. I did not enjoy it, and I felt that I can do better’ she said.
Instead, she headed back to University, this time in Tel Aviv University, for a Master’s degree in Materials Science and Engineering, and with a research supervisor from electro-optics.
That was when I think I knew I loved doing research, and for the first time in my life, I was determined to be the best.
It was hard work, but I actually enjoyed all of it. In addition to materials courses I needed to take for my course, I took extra courses in optics and lasers as I wanted to learn more. I got a distinction and came top of my class.’ In the meantime, she married her partner, Dan, a software engineer. She says, his support was an important part in her achievements.
Tanya did so well she was offered a full scholarship by the renowned Trinity College, Cambridge, and so headed for England. And while studying for her PhD in the field of nanotechnology and sensors, Tanya had her first child, Anna. ‘It’s ok to have a child while you’re studying,’ she says. ‘I was confident in myself and in my abilities to do the research work, so I knew that I can make it work. I was thirty, it was the right time for me, so I went for it.’
Two years after Anna was born, and just after finishing her doctorate, Tanya started down the path of entrepreneurship and founded her first company, SensorHut. ‘I was working part-time at the University to support myself while I was trying to commercialise a new gas sensor technology’.
Four years later, she was pregnant with her second child, Evan. This time, it was more challenging to take time off work, as she was raising money for her company and collaborating with clinicians on various time-sensitive academic projects. ‘I was working right up until I went into labour,’ she says.
Recently, Tanya co-founded another company, Kalium Health. The company develops a home test-kit to measure potassium in the blood, in an attempt to help the millions of people who suffer dangerously from abnormal blood potassium levels.
As well as being involved in both companies, Tanya carried out research at the University of Cambridge, supervised students, and has even found time to write a children’s book. Unsurprisingly perhaps, it’s about Charles Darwin, one of the finest scientists the world has known, and an attempt to make a career as a scientist appealing to more young people.
After 10 years in Cambridge, Tanya moved to the USA to become an Assistant Professor at the University of Texas at Austin.
Looking back on her life, Tanya reflects, It’s ok to take a while to find your way. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties that I realised I wanted to be a scientist. Both my parents were not scientists and I was never exposed to it at home.
On her remarkable list of achievements, she says, ‘I think I’ve done so much because I enjoy what I do and never waste a moment. With two small children, you have to be efficient while at work. I’m always running around!’.
“I enjoy every day at work, because every single day I do something I haven’t done before. I’m constantly being challenged and constantly learning. I also work with a lot of incredible people from so many different backgrounds, and that’s a real privilege.’
And Tanya’s most important piece of advice for anyone thinking of trying to follow in her footsteps?
I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I was young. I was always average in life and did not aim high, until I realised that you can do what you set your mind to do. I told myself I could be the best in what I decide to do. Even now, I think that when I try something new. And if I can do it, others can as well.
Illustrations showing Tanya at work are by Maureen Mace and Tony Underhill who are a part of Cambridge Urban Sketchers.
Story was written by Simon Hall.