Joana Flores

Joana Flores interview: on role models, knowing your limits and choosing your path through experimentation

Your parents don’t have strong links with natural sciences. What made you interested in science and biology in the first place?

I got the idea of becoming a scientist quite early on – when I was 5 or 6, my cousin, who is a chemist, took me to her university and showed me liquid nitrogen. It looked like magic! I was so excited that I started asking my mum for books about science. Later on, in high school, I was also positively influenced by my biology teacher – some students didn’t like his classes because they were tough, but I loved them because he challenged us and made us think for ourselves. We learned to formulate and test hypotheses. It was like puzzle-solving applied to the real world. Those classes sparked in me a sense of wonder for the natural world and for the scientists throughout History who had contributed to advance our knowledge about it. So when I finished high school, I was convinced Biology was my way forward, and I joined a bachelor’s degree in Cell and Molecular Biology at NOVA University of Lisbon.

You mentioned role models who sparked your interest in science and biology. Did you have any other role models during your academic career?

After my undergrad I decided to move abroad and did first a Master’s in Biomedicine at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, and later got a place at the Wellcome – MRC Cambridge Stem Cell Institute to do a PhD in stem cell biology.

Both my master’s and PhD supervisors were inspiring in different ways. Jonas Frisen – my master’s supervisor in Sweden – is a brilliant scientist who has done really cool research on stem cells using carbon dating, but he was also a role model in terms of work-life balance. He would sometimes bring his baby daughter to the office and seamlessly alternate answering emails and changing diapers!

My PhD supervisor at Cambridge, Michaela Frye, was the youngest group leader in our institute and a brilliant scientist, but also really approachable and committed to our development. She gave us space to figure things out on our own, be that a lab experiment or our own career path. I think there are two types of PhD supervisors: the ’there is no alternative to doing research’ type and the ’you should do what’s best for you’ type. My supervisor was the latter. Realising that an academic career might not be the right thing for me was not easy, especially after investing all that time and effort in it, but Michaela was very supportive of me figuring out what was best for me and that made a huge difference.

How did reality differ from your expectations about life as a scientist?

I had quite a romantic view of research before I started my PhD. It was all very linear in my head – ‘I’ll design some cool experiments, then I’ll get some results and publish them’ – very straightforward! However, to do research you have to love the entire process: designing experiments, carrying them out, repeating them endlessly and then starting all over again. I had always loved to read about biology, think about hypotheses, and interpret results, but that is such a tiny part of life in the lab. Research success also felt so much down to luck – someone can be very hardworking, but if they get negative results or they get scooped, they’ll find it hard to publish and that will limit their career prospects. Finally, the further I progressed in academia, the narrower my field of research became, while my interests remained quite broad. So, after only a year into my PhD on RNA biology and stem cells, two topics I found (and still find) super interesting, I felt like I was ready to do something else entirely.

Tell us a bit more about that process of realising that science was not right for you. How did you act on this new realisation?

When I first realised research wasn’t for me, I felt lost – the main thought going through my mind was, ‘if it’s not this, then what?’ All I’d ever thought about was being a researcher. After the initial shock, I realised how lucky I was – I had 2 years of the PhD left to figure it out and I was in Cambridge: a place where you can meet inspiring people and hear about different opportunities in every corner. I used those 2 years to do what I do best: get involved in too many things at the same time!

I would love to say that everything I did was with a clear purpose, but in reality, it was trial-and-error and serendipity: I was trying a lot of different things to figure out what I liked and didn’t like and learning a lot about myself in the process. I joined courses in business and economics at the Judge Business School, which made me consider the private sector as a next career step; I joined an entrepreneurship bootcamp, Enterprisers, and realised I liked the erratic yet creative nature of early stage start-ups; and I organised a conference for the Portuguese Association of Researchers and Students in the UK, which showed me that I loved working in a team. The first few jobs I got after my PhD were a direct result of this experimentation phase. I decided to apply for consulting jobs because they would allow me to continue learning about different topics in a very short period of time. While I was applying for these jobs, I joined a small start-up working on rare diseases, called HealX. It was the perfect job for that transition period: somewhere where I could be creative, learn about business, and help bring an exciting idea into shape.

You left your start-up job to do an internship at the World Health Organisation. How did you come up with this idea and what was that experience like?

Funnily enough, that story began in the lab during my PhD. I was working late with a PI (principal investigator) from our institute and during an incubation period she started talking about her own career: about how when she was young, she wanted to ‘save the world’ and wrote to the WHO saying she wanted to work for them. In the end, she decided to stay in academia, but that story planted a seed in my mind, and when a WHO internship opportunity came up, I applied and was lucky enough to be selected.

The internship was an incredible learning experience – I realised I was still interested in health and healthcare issues – not at the microscopic level, but at the population level. The work was fascinating – I got to do data compiling for a global database, review articles for mental health guidelines, prepare materials for a then-upcoming UN special session. Not everything was perfect, though. There was no real route from an internship to a permanent staff position, because even entry-level roles require around 5 years of experience. I was torn between trying to make it in the global health sector, finding a position in a different organisation to get more experience, or sticking to my previous plan – taking the job offer I had from L.E.K. consulting. After a period of reflection, I felt that being exposed to the private sector, where I would develop project management skills and learn about a range of health issues, was the best way forward. However, I finished the internship with a much stronger desire to work towards a not-for-profit career related to healthcare in the long run.

What were the main lessons and challenges in your time in consulting?

Working in strategy consulting was quite a learning experience, maybe even more so than my PhD. I learned about project management, business, drug development, at a very fast pace. I got to work with really interesting clients, from large pharma companies to small biotech’s. One of my favourite projects involved reviewing the regenerative medicine landscape to advise a client on the most promising areas they could invest in – so close to the field of my PhD and yet so different in focus.

Most importantly, consulting also taught me about my limits. A lot of people experience late night working in their PhDs, but this was different – you are accountable not just to yourself, but to the client, so no matter what happens, you need to deliver on a certain day, even if you have to work until 3am. I have always wanted to deliver the best job I possibly could, so I very quickly fell into a pattern of working unsustainable hours for days or weeks in a row. I had recently moved to London without a support network, which made it harder. I had no time for hobbies – I barely managed to catch up on sleep! Knowing that private sector work wasn’t what I wanted to do long term didn’t help my motivation either. When I say ‘I learned about my limits’ I mean that I learned at what point I have to say ‘enough’ and push back, at what point my mental and physical health needs attention before an Excel model, and that my job is just a job – not my whole life.

Going through a burnout can be a very isolating experience. People don’t like to discuss it openly because they don’t want to be perceived as weak, and they worry it may affect their career progression or the way people look at them. But we do need to talk about it – it’s so common these days to have a work culture where you’re expected to work nights and weekends and neglect your personal life, which obviously comes with huge costs to your mental health. I chose to speak openly about what happened with anyone who asked me about it and, interestingly, people started coming to me to share similar stories. It’s so important to speak up about what this type of work culture is doing to our health and to let people know that there is no shame in struggling.

How do you feel in your current role as a Strategy Manager at Cancer Research UK (CRUK)? Do you feel a greater sense of purpose?

In my current role as a Strategy Manager at CRUK I get to apply my previous experience in research and strategy consulting to solve problems for a great charity, working closely with the leadership team. I work on projects related to all areas of the organisation – e.g., understanding which fundraising products are most promising, how we should structure our cancer information offer, or which cancer types we should prioritise in our funding calls.

One of the advantages of working for a charity is having a strong sense of purpose – and also a better work-life balance. It’s incredibly inspiring to be surrounded by people who are motivated to generate positive impact and work together towards a common goal. Some of my friends think I’m too idealistic, but I don’t think there is anything wrong with a healthy dose of idealism. Otherwise, you are stuck with how things are, rather than realising what they could be if people decided to work on breaking some of the barriers that exist. However, I also think that striving for the ideal solution shouldn’t prevent you from seeing what can be done here and now. Sometimes you can’t get all the way there, but you can walk a few steps in the right direction.

You have also recently embarked on a Master’s in Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Why did you decide to do it and what are your expectations from your new degree?

During my WHO internship I became fascinated by population health because you get this top-down view of the whole health system and how the different parts work together. The idea of doing a degree in Public Health had been at back of my mind ever since, and after much consideration I decided to go for it. It is definitely a big commitment to do alongside a job, a relationship, and friends, but after all this time spent experimenting, I know that public health is something I’m really passionate about. I don’t necessarily know what I will do afterwards, but I now see a career more as a journey than as a destination – with every choice I make, I learn something new and understand myself better.

Joana in one of her travels to the island of Santo Antão in Cape Verde

What would you recommend to women who are earlier than you on their career stage?

I would advise you to experiment with your career choices – you don’t need to specialise early. We’re asked to choose what area we would like to work in for the rest of our lives when we’re in our teens, when our personalities have not even fully matured yet! Having a diversity of experiences is a way to find out what you want to do, and you can apply different elements from each of those experiences to every new challenge. I got lots of project management experience from consulting. My PhD taught me how to break down a problem and how to think critically. Working for a start-up, I needed to be flexible and think on my feet. And in a non-profit a lot of my work is about stakeholder management – understanding who they are, what they care about, and how they can help me solve the problem I’m trying to solve. In a world that is changing so fast, diverse experiences can make you more adaptable, and enable you to solve problems in new settings that you haven’t encountered before.

Finally, learn where your personal limits are and push back when you need to. This can be really challenging for women to do, especially in a workplace where we’re competing with men. But don’t let that stop you from speaking up and getting the support you need when it all gets too much – the person sitting next to you could be going through the same issues in silence. When I look back on it, the time during and after my burnout was both one of the lowest points in my career but also one that I am proud of: I spoke out, got the support I needed, and took the time to think through what I really wanted from life, both at a personal and professional level. Getting support at the right time was crucial for me to get where I am now: doing something I really enjoy, surrounded by like-minded, inspiring colleagues.

Interview by Alina Gukova

March 02, 2021

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