Jessica Santiváñez

Strength through setbacks, illness, and learning to love yourself

Overcoming difficulties helped Jessica Santiváñez find herself and thrive in life.

‘I learned to love myself through that”, she says.“And if you don’t love yourself, how can anyone else love you?’

Born in Lima, the capital of Peru, Jess knew early in life she wanted to be a research scientist.

Only 10 years old, for Christmas her parents bought Jess a microscope and model of the human body.

‘I loved experimenting. I would catch ants to look at their massive jaws under the microscope, or take blood from my body and put that on a microscope slide.’

‘I knew I wanted to help people. My grandmother had skin cancer, and got cured, my family have a history of breast cancer, my sister has a chromosomal disorder, and a family friend has Parkinson’s. I think that helped me know I wanted to help find remedies to stop people suffering.’

Studying at a school with strong international links, and with the support of her parents, Jess decided to go to university overseas.

A lover of big cities, people, and busyness, and having grown up in Lima, she chose Imperial College in London to study a degree in biomedical sciences.

‘I thought it was a chance to start again, a new me, because I was seen as a bit of a nerd at home. But it was a big challenge moving to a new country.’

‘I learned how to cook, really worked hard on my English, and made a point of talking to as many people as I could, really throwing myself into my new life. I always thought I was an introvert, but I started to realise I might actually be an extrovert.’

In her free time, Jess practices aerial skills.

Jess loved her time in London, enjoying the galleries, theatres, and arts scene of London.

The final exams for her degree brought a formative moment for Jess. ‘I was really stressed, I didn’t sleep much, but I somehow found a survival mode. I realised I could be stronger when it felt like everything was falling apart. I never gave up, and it was a real surprise to find I had that in me.’

The hard work paid off. Jess was awarded a first-class degree, and, still sure she wanted to be a research scientist, applied for PhDs. But the competition was intense, and she failed to find a place.

‘That was demoralising’, she says. ‘It was my first time for big, proper interviews, and I didn’t make enough of an impression. I felt like a failure. But I refused to give up.’

Jess applied for Masters degrees instead, and was awarded a scholarship to study neuroscience in Edinburgh.

She loved the new city, and her life there, but faced emotional trauma. The relationship with the man she had fallen in love with broke up.

‘It really marked me, I was so hurt. But I coped by going crazy socially, going out clubbing, joining societies, meeting lots of new people. That really helped my self-confidence, and it helped me learn that life isn’t about others, it’s about you. That was a critical turning point for me, the start of the life I really wanted.’

Following her Masters, Jess once again applied for doctorates, and this time was offered a place everywhere she approached. In 2013, she moved to Cambridge to begin her PhD in clinical neuroscience, with a prestigious Gates scholarship.

‘I met some amazing people in Cambridge, but that also gave me an attack of impostor syndrome. The people were so inspiring and I wondered how I got there.’

‘I coped by working harder in the labs, but also socially. I took as many opportunities as I could, going to events, joining committees, organising exhibitions. And it worked. All that made Cambridge the happiest years of my life, a great platform to develop me. I became the version of myself I always wanted to be.’

Cambridge will always remain a special place for Jess.

‘It not only boosted my personal growth, but introduced me to my partner. Max caught my attention at a friend’s party but we didn’t exchange details. I remember I tried hard to impress him with some nerdy comments. He apparently found these endearing and located me weeks later. I wasn’t looking for a relationship, but I couldn’t resist his sense of humour. He’s made me laugh every day since.’

Jess also learnt an important lesson in dealing with people as she worked for her doctorate.

‘I had a difficult relationship with my PhD supervisor, it was very hard to start with. We just didn’t get on. But then I started to realise what she wanted, and so adapted my behaviour to get the most out of our working together. Since then, I’ve never had any issues with any bosses.’

But Jess’s third year in Cambridge also bought a significant and debilitating setback. Returning from backpacking in India, she started to suffer itching all over her body. After a series of visits to her doctor and specialists, she was diagnosed with urticaria, an autoimmune skin condition.

‘It was horrible, I just didn’t know what was happening to me’, Jess says. ‘I had to change my life to cope. I changed my diet, stopped drinking alcohol, and had to be very careful to make sure all my clothes had been well-washed with allergen-free detergent.’

The condition means Jess occasionally suffers sleepless nights and has to take time off work.

‘I lost a lot of friends because of it. I stopped going out as I didn’t want to explain what I was going through. It was isolating, but my partner was brilliant. He helped me through it, forced me out of my misery, and I also went back into my survival mode. I started to understand how to cope with it. I realised I wasn’t immortal and learnt to take care of my body.’

On completing her PhD, Jess decided to move away from university life. Against intense competition, she won a prestigious place on the Future Leaders programme at pharmaceutical giant GSK.

‘I wanted to work in the industry because I realised I’m a big picture person’, she explains. “Academia was too isolating for me. I wanted to help as many people as I could with my work, which is why I moved into pharma.’

She is not only enjoying her job but her work-life balance.

‘Now that I know how to manage my urticaria I live life to the fullest. I travel a lot, go to as many music concerts and festivals as possible, and keep up with my hobbies. Max and I have an intense life rhythm because we like to make the most out of every opportunity. Our friends and colleagues are often perplexed by the amount of energy we have.’

As for her next move, Jess is thinking about America, for yet more experience of life, and to broaden her CV.

‘I think everyone should aim high, even if it sounds daunting’, she says. ‘If I hadn’t, I would never have achieved all that I have, and wouldn’t be where I am today.’

Story was written by Simon Hall.

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