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Pivoting my career in science, not quitting

From “the road to extinction…” To “the road to nowhere…” These are the sentences you can find in the first and last pages of my PhD thesis. Studying for a PhD can be a very challenging and demanding task, and, for me, it was also a time for extinction. It was a time to realise that, regardless of my passion for science, a career as a scientist was not for me. Consequently, a lot of troubling questions were popping up in my head - “What do I want to do next? What am I actually capable of doing?” It was surprisingly difficult to find the answers to these questions. I had spent most of my time in academia, searching for answers to scientific questions. Yet, there I was, on the road to nowhere, unable to answer my questions about the future.

Then, one day, an idea came to my mind and “Eureka!” Everything was crystal clear. I thought “Why don’t I use the skills acquired during my PhD to answer my questions?” It felt familiar, and it did not require any special equipment. All I had to do was to use the scientific process. I had my questions and a list of hypothetical career paths that I needed to test. Volunteering appeared as a solution for testing the different options, and this is how, a few months later, I found myself pivoting my career from scientific research to science education, exchanging the laboratory for the classroom, the pipette for the chalk. At that time, I was living in Switzerland, so I reached out to Instituto Camões, an organisation of the Portuguese Ministry of Foreign Affairs that promotes my culture and language abroad by coordinating, among other initiatives, an educational programme for children that speak Portuguese as a heritage language. After a few discussions, we thought that bringing inquiry-based learning methodologies and experimentation to the classroom was something I could do in collaboration with the language teachers, promoting science and language integrated learning and using this a tool to increase student’s motivation and expectations for the future.

Nine very talented and motivated teachers embraced the challenge and together we designed and delivered fun and novel lessons of Portuguese, where students were able to explore basic scientific concepts and learn new vocabulary. One of the most interesting lessons was about pollution and climate change. We performed an experiment to show that high amounts of carbon dioxide cause an increase of temperature, and we used the career story authored by polar scientist Dr José Xavier in the book “Uma volta ao Mundo com cientistas portugueses” to understand and discuss the impact of climate changes in living organisms. For me, this book turned out to be an indispensable tool to try a career path and build a bridge between two worlds: science and language education. What I saw happening was that pupils not only understood the concepts and principles of the scientific process, they also showed more motivation to learn their heritage language and a higher aspiration for the future. In their own words “I loved the class and learned many things that I did not know about”, “I understood that science is cool” and “I would like to be a scientist”. There is no greater feeling than that of a mission accomplished. And this is how from the road to extinction, to the road to nowhere, I now stand on the road to adventure.

About the author: Marta Marialva

Marta has a PhD in evolutionary biology. Her restless temperament, and passion for science and education led her into what she calls a chapter of the “dreams come true” book. Today, she is the co-founder and CEO of GINKGO-kids, a non-profit organization that uses hands-on science activities as a tool to promote critical thinking in young minds. She loves the smell of popcorn, to walk through fallen leaves when seasons change, and everything else that feels like climbing the highest mountain.


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