An Umbrella Academy (Part 2)

How creating a network of advisors shaped my career over the years.

I have an unusual life story. When I was 17 years old, I decided I needed to study abroad to pursue my career in science. Originally from Guatemala, I went to Taiwan to study science due to their booming scientific advance in nanotechnology, an area in which I am now an expert. So, my bachelor’s and doctorate programs were in Taiwan. Later I continued my scientific journey here in Sweden, where I am now improving and gaining more experience than ever.

Know who your advisor is:

“The first thing you need to do is to know who your advisor is” were the words I received when I enrolled at the National Tsing Hua University as a bachelor’s student in the Biomedical Engineering and Environmental Sciences department. I don’t know if it is one system that only applies to the university or is characteristic of Asian universities. I met Professor Yu-Jeen Huang on the first day of classes, and she not only gave me the code that I needed to enroll in the courses but also talked about my career prospects.

As an international student taking courses in mandarin, with an elementary level of the language, it was a big challenge to understand what people wanted to tell me. This went to the extent that I spent one year eating the same dish just because those were the only characters I could read and pronounce. Yes, the same food, for lunch and dinner, every day. At the same time, I was still figuring out how many credits I should take, which classes I needed to take to fulfill my curriculum, and the Chinese characters for biology, chemistry, and calculus. My bachelor’s advisor knew my initial struggles with the language but saw my massive passion and that I was willing to risk everything to obtain the degree. She helped me by recognizing my flaws and mending them. She helped me to contact tutors, which later helped me to get familiar with an educational system that was foreign to me. We have kept in touch from the first weeks of my bachelor’s degree in September 2010 until now.

Knocking doors:

I was familiar with the classes and studied methodology during my sophomore year. I was also ready to do research since that has always been my passion. I turned to the Life Sciences department, focusing more on cancer research projects, and knocked door by door, asking PIs to take me as a volunteer in their lab. This was when I met my second advisor, Jia-Ling Yang. She was surprised by my level of mandarin and science communication and took me on as an intern for a year. I got simple tasks like doing western blot and cell culture, making buffers, and being present during the meetings. I must confess that biology wasn’t my strong background, and I did not understand half of what was discussed during the meetings. I saw postdocs presenting enormous amounts of data and working hard to explain their hypothesis. I also remember running across the campus to arrive at the lab and take care of my cell culture or to make new buffers, even staying in the lab during vacation time reading manuscripts just because I had the impression that I needed to learn more about what I was asked to do. In the last months, my internship advisor sent me to a seminar series to learn how to write a research proposal so I could start my bachelor’s thesis project in the lab. However, I realized I had been dragged into the engineering of nanoparticles for cancer treatment, something that wasn’t within the research scope of that laboratory. However, we kept in touch, especially since she asked me to advise international students on the curriculum system and explain to them how to choose their classes wisely. We had constant lunches over the years, and she was one of my primary references for my postdoctoral application. Now she is enjoying retirement with her family, and we keep sending pictures of hiking and landscapes we enjoy most.

The loved uncle of several generations:

After knowing that I would go back to my department of Biomedical Engineering, I turned to my analytical chemistry professor Yuh-Chang Sun, who knew which research was conducted by whom. He was considered an uncle to all the students in our department. One of the most talented people I have ever met. He always cared about others and helped them to build their careers. I wasn’t an exception. He was the one who asked me what I wanted to do, and he personally took me to meet my PhD advisor (See An Umbrella Academy Part I). My interest in my bachelor’s research was more focused on using nanoparticles to deliver DNA and drugs to malignant cancer cells. Most of our analytical chemistry work was in collaboration with him, and I constantly reached out to him to discuss my life and progress. My first publications were in collaboration with him, and I got the confidence that I was already becoming a good scientist working on animal models. He was the first person I came out with, and with much fear of what would be happening in my future. Since I was alone and afraid of how people would judge me, he took the father figure and advised me how to tell my parents and the rest of my friends that I am gay. He also advised me to go directly for a PhD instead of applying for a master’s degree first. One year before my graduation, he was diagnosed with cancer, and he was on sick leave. Since he wanted to spend quality time with his family, he chose not to be on social media. I was able to get some videos from those students who were very close to him and wished him a prompt recovery. I also told him that I was just in the last stage of thesis writing and that I was graduating on time, thanks to all his support and advice. This April 2022, he passed away, leaving a huge legacy of scientific work and a large group of professionals who admired him and followed his teachings over the years.

An advisor for the heart and soul:

When I arrived in Hsinchu City where my university was settled, I visited a church. There I met a Spanish catholic priest, Anselmo García. Who also became my advisor during my life in Taiwan. With an excellent academic curriculum, a Harvard business background, founder of several universities across Latin America, and the principal auditor of the catholic church in Asia and the Pacific. While my incentive to attend church was because I liked the music, I later developed an interest in discussing philosophy and theology with him. These things were seldom discussed with my classmates or people of my age. I wanted to know how these views were over the past centuries, and he had much knowledge about the topic. He also noted that I had a strong passion for science, and most of his advice was about how to bring the science I am conducting nowadays to society and help others. My constant engagement with working with different groups and people was mainly influenced by him, accepting others, respecting others’ views, and collaborating for better performance. We kept in touch until I left Taiwan for Sweden; we were meant to meet in Europe this year. Unfortunately, he passed away this year, also in April 2022.

April was a difficult month; I lost the connection to two people who had been guiding me for the last 13 years of my life. I felt lost and without direction. The best way to preserve their teachings in the future is to be the person with the high integrity that they taught me to be.

The research network is very broad:

I do not network to get advantages in my curriculum or to ask for a reference letter for a position. I am primarily interested in what people are doing and how things work. I want to learn from their experiences. During my career, I have written e-mails directly to professors whom I didn’t know. But I was interested in their papers and their work, so I had some questions regarding their research. That way I have met several professors from Cambridge, Stanford and even Journal Editors. To my surprise, some of them asked me to have a meeting on zoom to discuss my career perspectives, and some of them have also replied to me with some funding opportunities I could apply to strengthen my curriculum. During my internship project in the industry (Atrogi AB), I also got much feedback about how to be a better employee in a company. I took their advice seriously and became a better version of myself.  I also realized that my advisor network was no longer tied to academia but now also to non-profit organizations, the scientific diaspora from my home country, government entities, and international fundraising.

Being an advisor myself

Finally, I found myself also in a position of being an advisor to others. Leading groups and helping those who were learning techniques I have been practicing for more than ten years. Also, to listen to their concerns and comfort them in desperate moments. Life is very unpredictable, and I am still determining where my scientific career path will bring me in the next ten years. However, now more than ever, I know that I have two hands, one is for helping myself, another one is to help others.


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