By Ciarán Gibson
Dr Leila Moura is a Royal Academy of Engineering Research Fellow based at Queen’s University Belfast who first came to this corner of the UK through a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Individual Fellowship in 2016. I recently had the pleasure to speak with Dr Moura and hear her story. From training as a chemist in her home country of Portugal. Through challenges she faced when she first went abroad. To how she secured her tenure-track principal investigator position.
With over ten years’ experience building international networks and securing career-changing fellowships, Dr Moura has a wealth of advice to share with early career researchers ready to embark on their first international adventure.
"If sharing my story makes someone more confident about going abroad and applying for a research adventure, that would be amazing. You have to go for it!"
“I’ve known since I was very little that I wanted to go abroad and experience different cultures,” Leila told me. After completing her Master’s degree in Chemistry in Lisbon, volunteering in labs to gain experience, her first time working abroad took her to France in 2010.
“I’m from a poor background and worked through my entire degree. So I didn’t have the means to travel or have an Erasmus experience. Because those things require a lot of investment. When I had the opportunity to work abroad in France, I took it with both hands. I treated it as an adventure. And now here I am ten years later in Belfast!”
And an adventure it was. In the first couple of weeks in France, Leila’s phone and important documents were stolen. With very little French and no friends or family to immediately call upon, she had to wade through communication barriers and the French bureaucratic system to overcome a rocky start to her life overseas. “It’s times like those when you become an adult,” Leila explained. “You have no-one around you but if you don’t panic, and if you aren’t too hard on yourself, it will be okay. Look at it as a learning experience.”
"It’s so important to build a network of people around you who you like to work with, who can mentor you and support you."
Over the next four years Leila completed her PhD in Chemistry, splitting her time between Lyon and Clermont Ferrand – over 150 km from one another – with two supervisors and two different fields of research. “My supervisors knew each other well and their expertise areas were very different, so I had to learn to use the appropriate language to communicate my ideas.”
It was during this time that Dr Moura grew her network of international researchers into the extensive support network she has today. “It’s so important to build a network of people around you who you like to work with, who can mentor you and support you,” she said. “Something you learn as an early career researcher is that you can’t do everything yourself. You need a network so it’s important to grow this. Now all the people I work with are connected and everyone knows each other!”
Having international colleagues has been important to Dr Moura, too. Her colleagues and friendship groups include many nationalities. “The labs in France were very international. French, Portuguese, Italian, Icelandic, Lebanese – lots of other different nationalities. Having an international network helps with your communication skills and it keeps your mind open to other perspectives.”
Some of Leila’s most precious memories from that time were with the people she met. Spending time with friends, road trips across the north of France and spending time with local families.
Professionally, a key highlight for Leila was her viva. By the time she was ready to defend her thesis, she had identified the next person she wanted to work with, Professor John Holbrey at Queen’s University in Belfast. Her supervisor in France invited Prof Holbrey to be on the jury and he accepted. “He had an idea for a project and it matched with my skills. After I passed my viva, it was with him that I applied for the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Individual Fellowship. So after a year’s postdoc in Dunkirk in the north of France, I went to Belfast to start my fellowship.”
When I asked for the best advice she could give someone applying for the MSC Fellowship, Dr Moura stressed that “the most important thing is that everything matches up. The idea, the lab, the candidate and supervisor – they all need to be good fits for each other. Otherwise it can all fall through.”
The entire experience of the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowship stood out to Dr Moura as a time when she had tremendous freedom to do what she wanted to do (within the confinements of the research, of course). “It was the best time,” she said. “I had an excellent supervisor, was part of the QUILL Research Centre, we discussed so many different ideas and I learned a lot. And if I hadn’t have done the MSC Fellowship, I wouldn’t have gone on to apply for the Royal Academy of Engineering Research Fellowship.”
"My supervisors have helped me in my career, so I think it’s important to try and do the same for others. I’m always trying to pay it forward."
In Dr Moura’s final months of her MSC Fellowship, her supervisor, Prof Holbrey, recommended she apply for a five-year principal investigator fellowship with the Royal Academy of Engineering.
“It was tough. I only had three to four weeks to pull together a five-year project proposal. Not only that but there was only one other person at Queen’s that had gone through the process, in a completely different field, so I couldn’t get specific advice. I was so grateful when my supervisor gave me the time out of the lab to work on the proposal and helped me with lots of suggestions.
"Dr Panagiotis Manesiotis, my supervisor in between the MSC and the Fellowship, did the same for me even though I had to cut my post-doc with him short when I got news that I was awarded the fellowship. My previous supervisors in France, Prof Margarida Costa Gomes and Prof Sophie Fourmentin were also extremely supportive and agreed to become collaborators in my Fellowship. Not many supervisors would do this. I feel so lucky to have found people in my career that support me.”
Being the first to go through the process, Leila is now in a position to support any future candidates that want to apply. “I think it’s karma. My supervisors have helped me in my career, so I think it’s important to try and do the same for others. I’m always trying to pay it forward.”
In 2019 she was awarded the fellowship and is now leading a team of researchers, exploring liquid engineering for gas separation. Recently she campaigned to change the policy at the university and turn her five-year position into a tenure track.
“I had brought a large sum of money into the university for this research but my position was only for five years. I spoke with other departments and others like me felt the policies weren’t as fair as they could be. So we worked together and now the policy has changed and I can focus entirely on the research without worrying about job security. My advice for any early career researcher is to make some noise (in the right way!) if you see unfairness at any level. Make sure you’re communicating and work with others to see how you can make changes.”
"Don’t be afraid to tap into new areas. Opportunities can lie on the interface and not within your comfort zone."
As we came to the end of our time together, I asked Dr Moura if she had any other advice for early career researchers.
“Try to have a plan!” she said. “Thinking about what you want to do, who you want to work with, or where you want to be over the next few years can be really helpful. But take every opportunity you can! I am a chemist but now I find myself on the interface between chemistry and engineering. Don’t be afraid to tap into new areas. Opportunities can lie on the interface and not within your comfort zone.”
Leila’s parting words reflected on her time when she was first studying chemistry in Portugal and the journey she took to where she is today. “If I can do it, anyone can do it. You might have to be a little more patient. You might have to fight a little harder. But with hard work, you can do it too.”
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About the Royal Academy of Engineering Fellowship
(taken from https://www.raeng.org.uk/about-us/what-we-do)
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