This week on #MeetAScientist, get to know Teresa Ambrosio, a fourth-year PhD student studying Chemistry at the University of Nottingham. She runs a blog and Instagram account, which is centered on her experiences navigating through academia, imparting career advice she’s gathered over the years. In this interview, she shares her journey to chemistry, as well as her inspiration for getting started in science communication and advocacy.
When did you first identify as a scientist and what does your work focus on?
I have a MSc in Organic and Biomolecular Chemistry and I am doing a PhD in Sustainable Chemistry. I am currently at the last year of graduate school and I am working on Palladium catalysis. This is a hot topic in chemistry as 40% of the production of pharmaceuticals and fine chemicals (like Chanel N5) rely on this type of reaction. In Italy, the word “scientist” is used to identify the most brilliant minds in this world, like Marie Curie or Rita Levi Montalcini. So my initial idea of being a scientist meant winning the Nobel Prize or being all over the news. The first time someone addressed me as a scientist was in my 5th year of university when a PhD student told me I was going to be a part of the next generation of scientists, even though I had never considered myself as one. After my Masters graduation, I started thinking independently about science—about all the gaps in chemistry and how I could find solutions. Before starting my PhD, I submitted a research proposal to apply for a PhD program in Berlin and another application to a professor in Amsterdam about an idea on carbon dioxide storage, both of which were unsuccessful. My initial PhD project was based on a biomimetic reaction that I discovered in the first three months of my PhD.
Where did the idea to start a blog come from?
My first year of my PhD career was a disaster. The group was small—just myself, another guy, and my supervisor, who had plans to move to another country to carry forward with his academic career. My lab mate was very hostile to me. He thought that I was a failure because I didn’t fit the rule of academia that you have to sacrifice yourself for science. He was constantly complaining behind my back with the other work associates in my office and neighbors’ labs. When my old supervisor told us he was leaving the country, I honestly thought it was a miracle because I could finally move away from that toxic environment. I found another supervisor and lab to work for. But it wasn’t possible for me to move immediately, I had to suffer for six more months. This resulted in failing my first year. My mental health was at my lowest, but I was wise enough to reach out to the counseling centre at the University.
So I started a blog in October 2017 and an Instagram page a few months later as a way to get out from academia. I started talking about the struggle of doing a PhD on my social media platforms and my profile skyrocketed in a few months. My experience resonated to so many people and many started looking up at me for having the courage to speak out about this broken system.
What events happened recently that got you thinking again about harassment?
Over the last few weeks, the Royal Society of Chemistry, an independent institution with the aim to promote the chemical science, had to deal with some of the worst problems in academia: academic bullying, mental health and diversity in science! Really? Is this their job? Or universities should provide help to students/staff? Why do they stay silent? Like if all this crap was going on in any other private institution, authorizes would lead an immediate inquisition. But we are students, not employees so we don't have any right. We can only provide support to each other!
Since launching the blog and social media account, what has been a story that has resonated with you?
I got the following private message from one of my followers on my Instagram page two months ago:
I decided to drop out my master’s in chemistry because my professor received a sexual harassment complaint and he’s currently under investigation. I didn’t feel comfortable working with him. This behavior of them perpetuated the fact that there are more women friendly areas than others. For example, in my old lab there were no more that two women at time. But I was a well-known feminist, talked to girls to go and work there. I told them to they could be comfortable and calm working there because the professor was decent. This isn’t the case in every lab. Many other professors in my department are under investigation for sexual harassment and the university keeps protecting them. So, no female student wants to work there and are migrating to labs directed by female professors. At the moment, there are only four women PIs and it’s sad that our options are limited by the fear of abuse. It is unfair that we can’t enter an area of research because some unethical men are in charge of it. But the saddest thing is that authorities at the university are blind toward the problem.
She was desperate asking me what to do. I felt powerless reading her response. After all, I am a student like everyone else trying to finish my PhD. I just wondering how I was supposed to deal with this? Considering universities have done very little to tackle the problem, the only option we have left is to support each other.
What other accounts do you recommend?
Follow the page @ph_d_epression on Instagram/Twitter and subscribe to the website thephdepression.com. Susanna Harris, a 5th-year PhD student at Chapel Hill in North Carolina created this space to support students struggling with mental health in grad school. The page on Instagram reached more than 8K followers on Instagram and more than 2k on Twitter in less than six months. I was one of the first contributors to the page talking about my story of struggling with depression since the age of 14.
What advice do you have to trainees trying to make it in academia?
Make noise, don't ever think that speaking out against the injustice and making your voice heard are wrong. Document your experiences and don’t be scared to put them out on social media. Seek the support of the 500 Women Scientists communities and other communities such as the 500 Queer Scientists. The bullies are at the end of their road. Recently, funding agencies have been considering taking grants away from PIs charged of academic bullying and sexual harassment. Encourage universities to create diversity and equality offices. We have this in the UK and we also have to fill a wellbeing questionnaire every year (anonymous) to keep track of the conditions of grad students. Together we’ll be the meteorite to trigger the extinction of all the dinosaurs in academia!
Which pieces of advice would you give to young female students who want to become scientists?
I would recommend every woman studies science, not only because it’s beautiful, but also because it can be empowering. It allows for critical thinking and in the long run, it opens up a number of opportunities for what you can do with your life. I was born in a small village in Southern Italy with more cows and sheep than people. I’d never met a scientist until my first year at university. My parents don’t have degrees and I am the first generation of scientist in my entire family. Growing up, I didn’t have any role models or anyone to look up to. I just had myself. The situation is different now because social media has broken the barrier of communication. There are loads of associations and programs such as Skype a Scientist that connect scientists to the public. So if you feel isolated in your own environment or like you are a minority, reach out to your own community, whether in real or through the Internet. Seriously! No one is alone anymore.\
Teresa Ambrosio is a PhD student in Sustainable Chemistry at the University of Nottingham. She graduated cum laude from La Sapienza – the University of Rome in 2014. Her current research is based on C-H activations and how to develop more sustainable chemical reactions. To design her research, she looks at the way nature does some chemical reactions and works to successfully replicate that same chemistry in the chemistry lab.