What is your story before you started your degree in Cambridge?
I grew up in Sofia, Bulgaria, in times of chaos and controversy, as the country made its transition from communism to democracy. Since the very moment I started school, I was pushed to study hard, closely supervised by my ambitious grandmother. I started Russian language at the age of 6, English at 7, and German at 10. I often had to study under candle light, because there was a shortage of electricity and each evening it would stop for a few hours for the whole population. Luckily, despite the high expectations at home, I studied with ease, thanks to good memory, and usually had time for fun and to hang out with friends. My passion for science emerged in my high school years, when I became fascinated by physics and biochemistry. I attended an English Language high school where I was actively involved in student event organizing committees, and also contributed to editing and writing for the school journal. After school I would go to dance classes and, to earn some pocket money, I also worked as a cosmetics distributor-consultant for a multi-level marketing brand for several years. The latter gave me a strong practical experience with real work and self-management very early on and taught me skills for life. Being raised by my mother and grandmothers, we had some financial hardships at times, so I always worked on the side since the age of 14.
I obtained both my BSc and MSc from the University of Sofia, which is where my research career started, initially as a voluntary trainee and later as a research student in one of the labs. During my BSc, I travelled twice to the US as part of the popular ‘work and travel’ programmes for the summer vacation. I worked in a family-owned hotel in Ogunquit, Maine, and in a restaurant, a bakery and a Cafe. This experience changed me a lot, I faced some challenges arising mainly from the cultural and continental differences, but I learned a lot and just loved it. I came back more confident and even keener to travel and experience other cultures. And so, not long after I obtained my BSc degree, I left for New Zealand for nearly two years, where I worked at the University of Otago, Dunedin, on two different research projects related to cancer and cell death. There I travelled often, enjoyed photographing wildlife and made friends from all around the globe. However, I felt quite homesick and, despite initial plans to settle, I returned home once my second contract finished.
Upon my return to Bulgaria, I started work for the local branch of an innovative German medtech company, spun-out of the Medical University in Hannover. I joined partly to challenge myself because I was very academically oriented and wanted to experience industry first hand before starting a PhD. I am very glad I took this step as it helped overcome any scepticism I had about industry and I really enjoyed my couple of years there. I loved the combination of the very good work/life balance it offered, together with a higher pay compared to similar level academic positions, also the lack of stress and the better organisation, and could easily see myself staying there longer if they did not have to close! I then returned to the university but could not find a PhD topic that interested me enough to spend 4 years with, so I decided to apply abroad. I had confidence that with my experience I was competitive, so I applied to the University of Cambridge, where I had several friends already. I went to three interviews and received an offer for a full scholarship for a project linked with industry, which felt very appropriate and I accepted without a second thought.
What is your field now and what do you love most about it?
My degrees are in molecular biology and genetic engineering. I am the second scientist in the family after my mother, a palaeontologist, which means very early on I knew that one day I would be doing a PhD, just because I thought everyone did so. I have worked in various areas, rather than following one path of narrow specialisation, partly due to my travels but also to my varied interests. With my PhD, I have finally settled, so to say, in the area of epigenetics. What I love about this area is that it links environmental impact with how our genes work, and our lifestyle or the lifestyle of our parents and grandparents with our health and longevity. There is also a very exciting applied aspect to this field, which is of increasing relevance to the pharma and biotech industries. Epigenetic marks can be valuable in the early diagnosis of cancer, and this was the basis of a start-up concept I developed after obtaining my PhD in 2014. I worked on this for around 2 years and managed to attract £125.000 of funding with the support of the Babraham Institute, the Cambridge Judge Business School and business mentors. There is much yet to discover in this area and the amount of groundwork to be done versus the difficult access to the right patient samples and slow progress put my initial start-up project to a halt, but I continue to work in this direction. Lately, I also explore the links between epigenetic marks and the processes of biological ageing and rejuvenation – another exciting area.
What drives and motivates you?
A good team or a great goal can both be massive motivators for me. Having both together is best – sharing a common goal with others and working together towards achieving it. The goal must have impact, make a change for the better, take things to another level, or perhaps be a cross-disciplinary endeavour. I like thriving on the edge of knowledge and getting things done by answering unanswered questions and solving unsolved problems. In good company.
What are your ambitions for the future?
My immediate future lies with my current academic post at the University of Edinburgh. Other than that, I don’t have a set plan or a specific goal, as I am still adjusting to a family life with two kids. I started my family at 35, at a time when I was busiest, engaged with exciting projects, with lots of ideas and with plenty of opportunities ahead. But I had to stop, because I knew if I didn’t do it then, I would never find the right time and there might not be another opportunity. And I am very glad I gave myself plenty of time before plunging into family life because one’s lifestyle changes a lot, and it can be a tough transition.
Further ahead, I hope to be a part of an inspiring team or organization and to work on goals that fuel my imagination and enthusiasm. That could be either in an academic or a non-academic setting. I do not exclude the possibility of getting involved with a biotech or a medtech start-up venture again. Another possibility is to help other academics translate their work and explore the commercial potential of their inventions. It will depend on the opportunities, I quite like to be surprised by what life has on offer next.
There is an increasing effort to achieve gender equality in STEM. Do you believe that women in science still face gender-specific challenges? What is your experience?
I have definitely experienced that. Parenthood is more demanding for the mother for a number of biological reasons to start with, while demands for performance are the same for men and women when hiring for posts or competing for grants. The current structure of academic progression is definitely not well fit for women unless they sacrifice family or personal life.
What is your advice for young ambitious women?
Hard work cannot be avoided – this is a must for success, but we as women also have to learn to stay focused. Be smart and take every opportunity to develop yourself and explore. Be inquisitive and restless. Do not stay at home and wait for the opportunities to arrive at your doorstep. Go out, communicate, connect and expand your horizons.
Nelly was interviewed by Íris Luz Batalha.