Case study

PhD research fellow — Claudio Parolo

After a broad scientific education in Europe, Claudio is now a research fellow in nanotechnology in the USA, and working with a range of other scientists from around the world on a wide variety of projects

What degree and postgraduate course did you study?

I obtained both my BSc and MSc degrees in biotechnology from University of Padova, Italy. During my Masters, I received an Erasmus studentship to complete my final project at the Catalan Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology in Barcelona, Spain. There, I learned how to use nanomaterials to develop diagnostics sensors and was able to apply my biotechnological background to my nanotechnological work. After my Masters, I went on to study for a PhD.

How did you get your job?

In 2015 I won the Beatriu de Pinós fellowship from the Catalan Regional Government, a scheme which allows people with a degree from a Catalan University to specialise abroad. I used this fellowship to work at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Most of my colleagues secured their jobs either with a fellowship or thanks to good recommendation letters.

What's a typical working day like?

During experimental days, I spend most of my time in the lab collecting data or setting up new protocols. Lab hours tend to vary as different experiments require different working hours. A working day can be anywhere between five and 12 hours long.

Some days are more thought-focused. On these days, I generally analyse the data I've obtained from experiments and, based on these results, I plan future experiments. I'm based in the office for days like this, usually for seven to eight hours.

Finally, I use what I call 'writing days' to prepare papers, fellowship proposals and presentations. These are also spent mostly in front of a computer, but are more stressful with less structured hours since they're geared around a deadline.

What do you enjoy about your job?

I am constantly in a mentally challenging environment where there is always something I need to solve, fix or understand.

I get to know many different cultures thanks to the global reach of the scientific community. My current research group is made up of people from seven different countries, and during the past eight years I've lived in Padova, Barcelona, Boston, London and Santa Barbara.

I also enjoy the flexibility of my working hours. As a scientist I basically work for myself, which means if I want to work a string of 12 hour days then take a day off, I can do it. If I don’t get the work done, it's me who is affected, but I relish the control I have over my working routine.

What are the challenges?

Day-to-day, my biggest challenge staying positively focused. Research is based on trying and failing until you finally succeed, so it's important to always see the bigger picture and to not get demotivated by 'bad' results but use them to improve.

The other big challenge is coping with the competitive nature of the 'publish or perish' culture in research. In recent years, the number of working scientists has increased much more rapidly than the amount of funding and jobs dedicated to science. Because of this, scientists are often judged by the number, quality and frequency of their publications, which makes the pressure to publish particularly intense.

How has your role developed? What are your career ambitions?

I've taken on more responsibilities as I've furthered my studies. As a Masters student, my job was just to repeat protocols developed by others, then as a PhD student I started developing my own experiments and supervising Masters students. At postdoc level, I supervise Masters and PhD students and at the same time have started looking into financing my own research.

In the next couple of years, I'm planning to become a principal investigator managing a research group focused on the development of cheap diagnostic devices based on nanotechnology.

What advice can you give others looking to go into research?

  • Go deep in whatever you are doing. Nowadays, to be a successful scientist you need to be an expert in your field at a global level.
  • Find an excellent mentor. Your PhD/postdoc adviser will define a big part of your scientific career. You should have an honest conversation with a possible adviser asking what they're expecting from you and what they can offer you. You should also ask previous and current research group members what the group atmosphere is like.
  • Don't be afraid to go big. You should aim for the top universities in the world and expand your networking. The more people you know in your area, the most opportunities you will have in the future.

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