Welcome to this podcast with special guest Iris Batalha. Iris was a visiting PhD student at the University of Cambridge when we met in 2013. If you listened to the Anatomy of Getting into Science, you’ll remember that I accidentally did my SRF internship there instead of going to the US. Since then it has been 8 years.
Welcome to the A Level Biologist podcast, bringing you the most exciting area in the world right now, covering education and business in life science. Your host is Arian Mirzarafie Ahi, who’s on a mission to do for the body what the Internet has done for the mind. He’s a PhD dropout and the creator of The A Level Biologist – Your Hub, please give it up for Arian and enjoy.
Hi guys, how’s it going? Did you know to read someone’s entire genome out loud would take nine and a half years. Didn’t see that coming did ya?
Welcome to this podcast with special guest. Iris Batalha. Iris was a visiting PhD student at the University of Cambridge when we met in 2013. If you listen to “The anatomy of getting into science”, you will remember that I accidentally did my SRF internship there instead of going to the US. Since then, it has been eight years. Iris is now a course director in nano therapeutics at the University of Cambridge Institute of Continuing Education, a freelance senior innovation consultant at Inspiralia, Spain and USA, a co-founder, director, and editor in chief of the non-profit organisation, “WATT”, “Women ahead of their time”, and a research associate at Peterhouse College.
Iris, welcome, how are you?
I’m good. I’m good today. I’m very happy to be here.
Well, I’m very happy to have you here. Thank you for coming. So, what has your post lockdown summer been like so far?
It has actually been quite nice, because I was lucky enough that I could travel back home; I’m Portuguese so I went to see my family for a few weeks, I could enjoy a bit of the beach and now I’m back in the UK, still enjoying my summer here.
That’s brilliant. The beach is definitely on my list of things to do for this summer. I have not achieved it yet, I’m not sure where I might go, but it’s on the list, I might just go to a pool instead and just pretend it was the beach but there’s still time.
We’ve had many PhDs on the show, including myself as a dropout and I remember being drawn to a PhD, but also feeling like maybe it really wasn’t for me. Why did you want to do a PhD and enter academia?
Well, that’s actually a very good question. I might not give you the more politically correct answer in the sense that I haven’t really planned my research life so well. When I was, you know, doing my undergrad or anything like that. I kind of just, saw which opportunities I had at the time, what were my options, basically. So, I went to study chemistry in undergrad just because I just enjoyed the subject; it wasn’t really a planned career or something like that. I just enjoyed it, I thought it was fun and I enrolled in chemistry and then I had the opportunity of going for a master’s afterwards.
I enjoyed being at the university, I enjoyed studying, I enjoyed the academic environment and when I was doing my master’s thesis, I started discussing with my master’s supervisor about possibilities for PhD, but it was very spontaneous, and natural. So, I applied for this PhD programme, which is, in Portugal, the MIT Portugal programme, it’s basically collaboration between MIT and several Portuguese universities; it’s a governmental programme, I applied for it, and I was lucky I got in. It was just spontaneous, there was no big plan for that to happen.
That’s amazing, especially studying chemistry. I found chemistry very hard, and I know people used to say chemistry was the hardest A level subject, so whenever I encounter people who do chemistry, (my mentor specialises in teaching chemistry as well) I’m just very impressed. What was the focus of your PhD?
I have to say this as well, because it came a bit as a continuation from my master’s thesis. So, during my master’s, I started working in a lab that were doing mainly biomimetic ligands and downstream processing, so basically, pharmaceutical development things but with chemistry applied to it, and I really enjoyed the topic. I enjoyed the lab itself. My supervisor’s a very nice person and we get along well. I had good lab environment; I think that makes a huge difference because of the people who are there I made like lifelong friends from that time.
It was very natural thing to keep going on that topic, so my PhD was the development from that; my master’s thesis was about developing magnetic nanoparticles which function at the surface with what we call affinity ligands that are used to purify proteins in pharmaceutical companies, for example, for downstream processing development. As a continuation of that, my PhD focused more on enrichment of phosphorylated proteins and peptides, developing affinity ligands but with different chemistry. So, the innovation was more about a completely different chemistry, different supports, different applications, even though it was still in the same in the same field.
And the reason for the need to enrich phosphorylated proteins and peptides is because sometimes when you have a disease or something, there are biomarkers in your blood that tell you that you are sick. Some of those biomarkers are, for example, phosphorylated proteins that are not supposed to be phosphorylated but it’s still very difficult to identify them because you have 4000 proteins just in your bloodstream. So, if you have one specific protein or peptides that are hyper phosphorylated, but they still exist in very low amount, if you just analyse them directly, you won’t see them, you will be blind to them. So, you need these techniques that increase the concentration of that kind of biomarker in your sample so mass spectrometry instruments can detect them; that was the topic of PhD., I hope I was clear. It’s not an easy topic, I think.
That is fascinating. I think maybe half the people will have an idea what you’re talking about, and then the other half probably don’t. So, starting with a very simple question for everyone; how would you describe a nanoparticle in general?
Well, there is an official description of what a nanoparticle is, but also scientists don’t all agree necessarily with this description. So, typically, a nano particle has a size between one nanometre and 100 nanometres, basically 1 billionth of a metre so it’s extremely small. Sometimes people that work in the range of 100 nanometres to one micrometre, which is slightly bigger, still call them nano particles, some people call micro particles, so it’s not black and white even in the definition.
But nano particle sounds the coolest!
Yes, nano particle sounds cool. So, they are basically extremely small particles and because they are very, very small, they behave completely differently, for example, if you have a material, let’s say gold, the bulk material gold will be yellowish in colour. A gold nanoparticle will have completely different properties than the bulk material, for example, it will have different colours; depending on the size you can have, gold nanoparticles will be red to blue.
So, the point I want to make is just because they are so small, the surface area they have compared to their volume is much, much larger than a bulk material and for that reason, they have completely different properties. That makes it very attractive for all sorts of applications because they might have good mechanical properties or electrical properties; this is why the nano field is so interesting. Also, they can go inside your cells, which are already quite small so that’s another attractive factor.
That’s amazing. Thank you, Iris. We’re going to learn more in just a second.
What are some of the key issues facing academia today?
There are not that many available academic positions. I think that’s one of the main problems you have; compared to the number of permanent positions you have at a university or an institute, the number of PhDs Students and then postdocs are so much larger than that. So that means that there is no way that everyone will make it to become an academic, not all of us will become a permanent academic.
This is exactly what we touched on, I think with Hillary as well, the retired teacher. And I said, “Why are we pushing more and more people into science, if there aren’t enough jobs at the top for them to get there?”
I think her angle was more around trying to create more jobs especially in Cambridge; theoretically, there are a lot of jobs, but are there?
There are, but I think that that’s precisely the mistake; if you ask me about academia, then yes, it’s very saturated but you have so many options in science and to be honest, I think you need science for everything, right? You only have a Hoover in your house because someone developed the technology; that is science. You have lots of companies and different avenues; you can become a consultant, for example, you can work in a pharmaceutical company if that’s your area of science.
Maybe it’s also important to say that there are more jobs than just becoming a professor or having a permanent position in the university; there’s so many different avenues, you can become journal editor, for example, for a science journal. Sometimes we don’t even know what kind of paths are out there, and you just become very focused on doing a PhD and postdoc, and then becoming an academic.
And even though I do love that, I think we must be open minded to see that the world won’t end if that doesn’t happen. There are so many interesting jobs, you can do, you can create your own job as well; there’s so many entrepreneurs and you’re talking about Cambridge and Cambridge is a really great place. In this sense, I have to say that you meet so many people with very entrepreneurial minds, people who make their own businesses, they have an idea, a science idea, and they just go for it with all sorts of technologies; they just create their own opportunities.
I think this is what drew me initially to thinking I would like to do a PhD; there’s all these interesting scientific things and I want to play with them, and I want to investigate them. So how do you think someone who would want to do that today, could do it outside of just trying to do a PhD and going down that route?
If you have an idea, even if you’re talking about creating your own thing, for example you definitely should see where you can get funding for it. The funding is important in everything, I mean, that’s from all spectrums. I could say in academia, but it’s important in any part; everyone needs funding to be able to develop something.
So, it’s more about finding the people who are willing to invest in you, who are willing to invest in your ideas and finding a good team. I personally think that’s the most important factor, no one does anything alone. That just doesn’t happen. Even if you only hear about one person in a company or they are the face of a company, they are not the company; you do need to have a very, very good team. So, finding the people to do that with you, with complementary skills, is even better.
Because there’s things that you don’t know about business. A scientist does not necessarily know everything about how to get funding or how to talk to investors, for example, or you might need someone that understands a bit of law; there’s so many different aspects to it. So, finding a good team and just trying to find investors and people who will believe in your idea, I think that’s it.
That’s fantastic. That’s brilliant. I think you’re right, it’s like a full circle thing, isn’t it? And people end up coming from just one direction and keep going before realising that there’s all the other perspectives and then hopefully you get to the full picture.
Just let me add, because I think this is important as well, I don’t think everyone needs to have a big objective of becoming, say ….
I think you might just want really to enjoy your day to day, find a job where you work from nine to five; you don’t need to want to have your own business or to become a professor. Some people, they are not happy in these kinds of positions, not everyone is happy doing that. So, I think it’s okay as well for you to say “Actually, I want to work for a company that is already set and I just want to have my job, I want to do something I enjoy”. I think that’s important; you need to enjoy what you do. But go in at nine, go home at five, don’t want to bother with all these aspects of creating your own business is fine as well!
Absolutely. My sister has a saying “the way things are, the way things have been, there’s probably a good reason for it”. So, we don’t need to reinvent everything. We’re going to talk more about this in just a second.
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Thank you so much, Iris, for the very interesting insights so far. I think it’s been brilliant. And you did briefly mentioned consulting, so for our audience, what is consulting? And how did you start it? I do want to also mention that what comes to people’s minds in terms of consulting is those annoying YouTube ads with people trying to scam people, you know, so we’re talking to a real person about real things. Now, this is the legit situation. Okay, so what is consulting? And how did you start it?
I think it’s a broad question in the sense that there are different types of consulting. So how I started, after my PhD, I came to Cambridge to a postdoc that was between the University of Cambridge and Medimmune AstraZeneca; that was actually a very interesting time for me, because I had absolutely no experience with industry whatsoever. I was spending a lot of time in the lab at the university, but then I moved to Medimmune and did a lot of my experimental work there. Even though I was a postdoc, I was completely immersed in the industrial environment.
All my colleagues around me, not all, but a lot of other colleagues around me were employees of Medimmune; they were not doing this kind of exploratory research project, they were doing a company project. It was a really interesting comparison, quite different because in industry, you have a very specific goal. You have projects that are even defined higher up, it’s not the scientist in the lab that decides or makes decisions of what happens. They give advice based on results.
They do experiments, they say these are the results and then it goes to a whole different chain to evaluate whether these results are good enough or not to go to the next level, which projects they want to take further which ones they don’t. So, as an academic, that’s completely different because it’s your project, it’s your baby and you decide, depending on your PI with more or less freedom. I had PIs that gave me all the freedom in the world, so I think I was lucky in that sense. You decide then the next steps in your project, what you want to do next, this kind of thing, so you have a lot of freedom in the sense of creative freedom as an academic compared with a job in industry.
I know you asked about consulting, but I want to explain how the entire process happened. And at that time, I had one year funding then I got an extra year of funding from the company. My project was just finishing so we published some papers, had a patent, and had to think about what I’m going to do next.
At that time, I have to say that I was a bit influenced by people around me in general, like friends because people that they ask you, “What are you going to do? Are you going to be a postdoc forever? that’s not the career, that’s just living on say, two years grants, three years grants” and stuff like that.
I was always very academic oriented, of having my own ideas, and of the creative space I have in academia. So that for me, is really the thing that that makes me love academia but at the same time, I have the experience in industry, and industry is so much higher paced in the sense you need to get things quicker, you can’t really stop too long to think about why does this happen? Obviously, in certain instances you do, but it’s different from the academic mind.
Consulting was something I hadn’t tried yet; it was also more about the curiosity of doing it. I had this idea that consultants can grow a lot in that kind of career, and you can make a lot of money as well, it’s not that money is my main driver have to say, but obviously, it’s nice if you think that you might in the future like a good salary. I mean, everyone wants that even if it’s not your driver. And I thought “why not give it a go” because imagine if I really love it. So, I decided to apply for this consulting job at the time and I was just lucky, I guess, I got it. Like, I got the first job I applied for.
I started working in this consulting company. But the consulting I’m doing now is very different; that’s why I’m saying there are different types of consulting. At that time, I was mainly doing competitive intelligence, a company will hire you to understand their competitors, find out whatever they want to know about them; then it will depend which company we’re talking about, but it can just be, how is their product? Or when are they launching?
Or how is this clinical trial looking, so you might go to conferences, just to talk to people to understand a bit, the competition, these kinds of things. I learned a lot; I worked out for a few months, I didn’t stay for long but in those three months, I really did learn a lot and the people that I was surrounded by were very good. I learned new things. I had only been in conferences as a PhD student or a postdoc; completely different approach because then you’re just really interested in the science and how does it work but as a consultant, you actually want to know other things. You want to know exactly what you’re selling; the commercial side and it wasn’t going to the same kind of conferences as well.
So, the problem for me was that I really, really struggled with the fact that (please, I don’t think we can generalise because I know people who love consulting, so this is more of a personal perspective of mine) I really miss the part of the creative, of being in the lab or having my own ideas. I don’t like executing only, I like creating, I like having ideas and so I really, really missed that and it was very tiring for me at that time, because I wasn’t used to those kinds of working hours consulting.
It’s not that they were even like crazy, crazy hours, but it’s just different, a very different approach. I might spend nights in the lab or something but because it’s a more relaxed environment in the sense that you don’t have to be productive, productive, productive. You can just be, oh, let me see how this experiment goes or let’s try this. It’s a different kind of environment. So consulting, for me was very draining.
At that stage, I felt that I wanted to do other stuff as well, I wanted to go out with my friends and to have time to just do whatever activities I wanted to do outside work; for me that that was a difficult thing. So, I decided to go back to academia; I spent three, four months doing competitive intelligence, I learned a lot, but I really wanted to go back to nanoscience and at the Science Centre with the Department of Medicine, it was an interesting project. I just decided I’m going to go and apply for it. I’m sorry if I’m taking too long, but this is just the entire process of how consulting was different for me.
Now, I’m back working in consulting, but I’m doing innovation strategy consulting, which is completely different. Also, I’m freelancing, which means that I get to choose how many projects I want, which projects I want; it has pros and cons as obviously, sometimes you want the stability of being employed by a company, but then you need to do what that company tells you. If you’re freelance, you can tell that company “Yeah, I like this project. I don’t want to do that. I don’t have time now”. I enjoy it as well.
That’s amazing. So, you got to a point now where you enjoy; that’s the main thing, isn’t it? Wow, fascinating. There’s so much more to learn. Thank you, Iris. We’ll come back for the next segment
And we’re back. So which countries have you worked in so far? And where do you see yourself living in the future?
I’m Portuguese so obviously, I studied in Portugal, and I had the experience of working during my PhD there and during my PhD, my PhD programme had lab rotations, and I had the option of going to different labs. Even though I already had the thesis, I knew what I was going to do, I wanted to explore these options. So, I actually went to the US at the time to Wayne State University and I worked on a really interesting topic, single molecule fluorescence; it was completely different from what I was doing. I just went there for the experience, the experience of going to the US that I had curiosity about, but also trying a different topic and the lab rotation was something completely different. I was really, really interested in that. Later, I came to the UK; I’ve been in the UK for seven years now. I mean, I’ve met you eight years ago when I was here as a PhD student, and then I came back and stayed for seven extra years.
It’s interesting; science is a unique language. I wouldn’t say necessarily that it’s very different to be in a lab in Portugal or in the UK or the US, culturally maybe but you have always people from everywhere in the world, it’s so multicultural. It’s all about the science of course, depending on the lab you’re in they might be better funded or worse funded and this makes a difference obviously, as you have access to more instruments or less; it’s easier if you have funding. But apart from that, I think more from a personal perspective, I really enjoyed knowing new people especially people from everywhere in the world.
Here in Cambridge, I met so many diverse people from all sorts of countries, all sorts of cultures and that helped me shape the way that I see the world myself. It’s different to when you go on holiday or when you see on TV news about that country; when you meet people, become colleagues and friends with people from different countries, different cultures, some of them almost opposite to mine in their beliefs. If people are good hearted and open minded, somehow you actually enjoy these interactions, because both people end up shaping their own ways of viewing life; you are able to connect to someone who thinks differently from you. So, I think for me that that’s the beauty of being in different countries.
Where do I see myself? I’m very lucky, I got this fellowship from Akasha Foundation recently; it’s called the junior leader fellowship and so I might be moving to Barcelona, I don’t know. It’s a three-year fellowship so whether I’m staying in Barcelona or will be back in the UK or going somewhere else after, it’s something that I don’t know yet. I’m very open to experiencing different places and different countries; I don’t know if I would like to live long term very far from my family but that’s more of a personal thing. Who knows, I might change my mind; I might move to the other side of the planet.
Not deterred by COVID. whatsoever.
No, no. Yeah. Well, that’s changing now.
Very hopeful. That’s fantastic. You’re also a co-founder of WATT, “Women ahead of their time”, an initiative to provide young women with relatable stem role models. WATT have also launched a podcast, which you can find by searching “Women ahead of their time”
Iris, what are the key things you’d like young women to know?
So, this initiative happened a bit spontaneously, because I had a friend here in Cambridge that started talking with other friends. We have met so many interesting people from different countries, so good at the science they are doing. They started chatting about how it would be interesting to make a book of stories of these women; where they come from, and how was it for them? How did they end up in Cambridge to start with especially from different social economic backgrounds, different cultural backgrounds? It’s a very interesting mix. I wasn’t involved at that point but then my friend, Carolina came to me. I’m not one thing; yes, I am a scientist, but I love writing and I have other interests besides just science. Carolina said, “You really enjoy writing, do you want to jump in this project? we’re thinking of doing a book.”
And I said, “Yeah, yeah, let’s, let’s do it”. So, I joined and then there were a couple more, that are now co-founders that joined just after me. We all knew each other from Cambridge somehow and we started working on this project of gathering stories to make a book. First, it was quite difficult to find funding to publish a book on this and then also, it’s static writing; you publish these stories, but in 10 years’ time, maybe they won’t make so much sense anymore because these people will be in a different stage of their careers. So, with that in mind, we started thinking maybe we should instead have an online platform/website where we publish stories, reach a wider audience.
We can keep adding new stories, we can reinterview people later in life, just to know how they are and most importantly, we really wanted to be a support network. As we were discussing with each other as friends, we realised most of us have lots of questions.
When you read an interview of a CEO say, you think “Oh, this person, they always had it figured out. They knew exactly where they were going. They were so driven”. Yes, they were driven but a lot of times when you speak with these people, you know what happened, that at some point in their life, they were lost, asking what do I do next? Like I was when I was finishing my postdoc; I was thinking, what should I do? Should I google consulting? Should I do another postdoc? You don’t necessarily have answers, and it’s so important to have people to tell you “That’s okay” and how it was for them because you relate to these stories; you think “Oh, I’m actually going through that. I’m not like an alien”. I thought “I don’t know what I’m doing and everyone else does”.
You’re not alone.
You’re not alone. Exactly. You’re not alone and I think this was the idea of this organisation and how it grew.
I have to say, it is a bit sometimes difficult for us, because we’re all volunteers and we all have our day jobs; it’s something that we really want to keep alive but sometimes we do struggle. I basically lead the editorial team, writing the written part of the website or interviewing people. When you also have your day job, want to do all sorts of different things, want to have friends in life, it’s difficult to keep all these things going. We do it because we believe in the power of actually having this kind of network platform where you can meet people and see what they’re going through; so that’s how it happened.
Thank you so much, Iris. So that’s WATT, “Women ahead of their time” – you can find the podcast and the website. Thank you again, Iris, thank you for listening. And remember, one gram of matter contains as much energy as 10,000 tonnes of TNT. Bye