By Ciarán Gibson
This week I was delighted to have the opportunity to speak with Vivian Petersen Wagner, a research fellow at the University of Sheffield’s School of Dentistry. Vivian successfully applied for the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) Fellowship in 2020 and after an initial delay due to the pandemic, she started her fellowship in October 2020.
Hailing from Porto Alegre in Brazil, Vivian has developed her career in her home country, the USA and the UK over the past eight years. In this interview she told me about her early career research journey, her experience applying for the MSCA Fellowship, and how she got to where she is today.
Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me. Can you tell our readers a little about the start of your research career?
Vivian: Hi! I’m Vivian and I started my career in Porto Alegre where I completed my undergraduate degree in dentistry at the Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul in 2013. After that I started my PhD at the same university. During that time I got the chance to do a year of PhD research in the US at the University of Michigan.
Sounds like a fantastic opportunity. Was that your first overseas experience?
Vivian: Yes and no. My father is a university professor in computer science so I grew up around science and research and what that entails. He did a few sabbaticals overseas when I was younger so I got to travel with him to places like France and Germany.
When I was finishing my undergraduate degree, he encouraged me to do my PhD abroad but I got an offer in Brazil to work with a very experienced researcher so I decided to stay in my hometown and I applied to do a year of my research overseas instead. The opportunity arose to work with a Brazilian researcher at the University of Michigan at one of the top dentistry schools in the world. I knew I had so much to learn from him so I applied for a scholarship to move to Michigan and was successful! I spent a year in the States. I felt a tremendous amount of pressure, because the school is so highly regarded, but I had great supervisors that supported me throughout my time there. After returning to Brazil and completing my PhD, I started postdoctoral research at the University of Campinas.
That sounds like an amazing experience. So when did the opportunity to work in the UK come about?
Vivian: The University of Campinas, or Unicamp for short, has an established relationship with the University of Sheffield. My supervisor at Unicamp was the first professor from that University to go to the dentist school at Sheffield and there’s been a regular exchange of visiting researchers between the two cities ever since. I remember in 2016, when I was doing my PhD in Porto Alegre, we welcomed a researcher from Sheffield who was visiting the school to establish new collaborations and at the time I didn’t think that one day I would not only be working with her in the UK but that she would also be my supervisor! So in 2019 I went off to Sheffield and took part in a year-long visiting research programme funded by the São Paulo State Research Foundation. And it was during that year that I was introduced to the MSCA Fellowship by my supervisor in Sheffield and she encouraged me to apply.
And congratulations for securing the Fellowship! What was the MCSA application process like?
Vivian: It was challenging! In my previous experience of applications the focus was usually on the research subject and the methods I would apply. With the MCSA you have to think outside the box and consider a lot of other elements like how you will communicate with the public and policy makers, your risk assessments and contingency plans, and how the research will impact society, my colleagues and my own career. It was a lot more than what I was used to. But the process was so beneficial to me. I learned a lot! Even if I wasn’t successful, I felt that I was still learning a lot that would help me with future applications and my career in general.
Were you able to get much support with the application?
Vivian: A great help was the University of Sheffield’s EU Research Support manager. They helped me register on the EU portal, told me what documents I would need, and gave tips on what I should or shouldn’t include in the application. My supervisors were also really supportive, giving me encouragement and time out of the lab to write the application. I’ve been very fortunate to have great supervisors who have helped me forge connections and have supported me throughout my career. And my family! They read through it and gave me feedback too which was really helpful. Everyone was on board which was great.
How have you found life in the UK?
Vivian: It’s been great. Everyone is so welcoming and caring. In my department they’re always asking questions, finding out how I’m doing and inviting me to things. I really enjoy the working environment in the UK. And the university is so multicultural. Whenever researchers from abroad came to Porto Alegre, for example, it was a rare occurrence and so they’re the centre of attention. But here you are one of many people from overseas so you feel that you can more easily fit in.
And how does it compare to the US?
Vivian: I find there’s a big difference in the lab cultures of the UK and the USA. In Sheffield my colleagues and supervisors worry that I’m working too much and check that I’m doing okay more often. They encourage me to work only during work hours, avoid working on weekends, enjoy my hobbies, go out and travel. In the USA, I felt the culture is based on a lot more pressure on the research and with a lot more competition between colleagues. I left the USA a lot more mature and with a lot more lab knowledge than when I arrived, but there were some stressful moments too. I prefer the working environment in the UK so I was happy to get the MSCA Fellowship and come back to Sheffield.
Has Covid impacted the research?
Vivian: It has. I could have started my fellowship in May 2020 but because of the pandemic it had to be pushed back to October. Starting something new can always be a little slow but it has been slower this time around to get started with the research due to Covid. There are some restrictions in the lab but it’s not too bad. For example, the main lab where I work usually fits five researchers, now we can have only three. We have time slots for our work, we need to clean things more often, wear our own lab coats, face shields and masks - the usual precautions. But it’s great that the university and the library are open so it could be worse!
Well we all hope that normality will return to the lab soon! Finally, Vivian, what advice can you give to any early career researchers thinking about research abroad?
Vivian: Try! It’s important that you try your best when applying for something like the MSCA. You’ll never know how it will turn out. People said how good this opportunity would be for me and recommended I apply but there were also some people telling me how competitive it was and to prepare myself for rejection. It’s important to focus on trying your best. And even if you don’t get it, the whole experience will teach you a lot. When I was awaiting the results, I didn’t feel anxious about the outcome because I felt I had already learnt so much just by going through the process. So try!
Another piece of advice would be, only tell those around you who will support and encourage you. I’ve had negative experiences in the past when I told a lot of my colleagues about other things that I had applied for. Some were negative and told me to prepare for rejection, which wasn’t helpful, and others that were a lot more positive put unnecessary pressure on me to succeed and that wasn’t helpful either. So for the MSCA I just told my family, my supervisors and a few friends who were all supporting me. Because in the end, if you don’t get it, it’s just between you and those people. You know you did your best and you can move on to the next thing. And I think that’s a good piece of advice for any career choice you make.
The last thing I would advise is to find a mentor or supervisor that will guide you, support you and motivate you. A lot of times we get demotivated and tired, and that’s normal. But if you have someone by your side to help you through these moments, you can regain your confidence. I am very lucky to have four supervisors that taught me a lot about research but also guided and encouraged my career until here: Manoela Domingues Martins (Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul), Rogerio Moraes Castilho (University of Michigan), Pablo Agustin Vargas (University of Campinas), and Lynne Bingle (The University of Sheffield).
Excellent advice to all our readers. Thank you so much, Vivian, for taking the time to speak with me today and I wish you the best of luck with your future research!
Vivian: Thank you!
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