Moving Ecology: Sandra Varga

In this series we share the experiences of ‘globetrotters’ in ecological sciences, who have traveled all over the world during their research career. In this post, Dr. Sandra Varga discusses with us her experiences moving from Spain to explore academic opportunities in Finland and the UK.

Where are you from originally, and where have you moved to during your academic career?

I’m originally from Catalonia, Spain. I did my undergraduate degree in Plant Ecology and Physiology in Barcelona (Spain) before moving to Oulu (Finland) for my PhD. After that, I did a postdoc in Jyväskylä (Finland), and then I moved to Lincoln (UK), with a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Individual fellowship in 2015. I then became a Lecturer in Life Sciences at the University of Lincoln and since last year I am a Senior Lecturer at the same institution.  

Why did you decide to move?

A combination of factors. The first movement was a bit by chance. My partner at that time was going to Finland to do his PhD and I was looking for opportunities at the same time, so we thought it was a good idea to moved to Finland together and explore possibilities. The second time was because I needed to change scenery. After 11 years in Finland I thought it was time to explore the world and change my academic environment. Lincoln and the UK was on my mind, as one of my colleagues had recently moved there and was talking very highly about it.

What do you study?

Working in the greenhouse in Oulu, Finland.
Working in the greenhouse in Oulu, Finland.

My research is focused on understanding how plants interact with their environment, both with mutualistic and antagonistic organisms, linking aboveground and belowground processes. I use sexually dimorphic breeding plants to investigate how the different sexes differ in their relationships with other organisms, and especially with arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi. 

In addition, I investigate the causes and consequences of plant sexual dimorphism for plant-plant, plant-pollinator and plant-herbivore interactions and how arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi may influence these associations. I combine observational approaches with manipulative experiments both in the field and in greenhouse conditions, and use molecular and physiological methods.

Were there unexpected differences in language or communication?

Yes. Lots! Finnish is a beautiful language, but one of the most difficult to master, with very long, never-ending words. Compared to Spain, I found communication in Finland much more straightforward, without the need to engage in small talk. I remember going to my first social gathering and being sat next to 12 other people who were looking at their own glasses in silence, which felt to me like long, awkward pauses that needed to be filled. It took me some time to appreciate that sharing a space with other people in silence is not a bad thing at all! Moving to the UK after that, it again took me some time to ‘re-learn’ that it may not seem polite to simply ask your colleague for a favour without talking first about the weather.

How do research practices differ between countries you lived in?

Skiing over the frozen sea in Finland.
Skiing over the frozen sea in Finland.

The biggest difference is perhaps in the amount of paperwork required (UK wins!).

Are there any differences regarding attitude towards science or research from the general public between places you’ve lived?

I think the general public in Finland seemed to me more connected to nature (and science) because they have it all around them. Kids grow up knowing lots of plants and animal species because that is part of their education, and the general public is really proud of what they have. In the UK, I think the general public is much more engaged in activities and societies to promote nature and science, but I found both countries seem to care more about research than Spain for example.

What did you not realise would be different where you moved to?

When I moved to Finland, I was aware that I was going North and that the weather would be challenging, but I didn’t realise that the lack of sun during winter could have such a big effect on people’s mood.

Were there any unexpected challenges associated with moving (e.g. visa process, bringing equipment, grant or permit challenges)?

Not in my case, no.

What do you love about living abroad, either in research or otherwise?

The whole experience: going to a new place, exploring new sites, meeting new people, discovering new food, new bands, new experiences, different ways of thinking, facing new challenges…  

What do you miss about your ‘home’ country?

When I am asked this question I always think about four things: friends, family, food and weather. When I first moved abroad I missed my friends massively. But I soon made new ones and I also found ways to keep the communication going with the old ones. Then family. More than family, family events, because my family was and will always be close somehow, but I missed many important and less important family gatherings for example. Then food: tomatoes won’t ever taste as good as the ones from my mother’s garden! Weather. You get used to everything and every country has its moments, but especially in the middle of winter in Finland I missed the sun.   

Do you have any advice for other researchers who are considering moving abroad for their career?

Classic field gear to protect myself from mosquitoes while bagging individual flowers in Finland.
Classic field gear to protect myself from mosquitoes while bagging individual flowers in Finland.

Yes, be brave and do it! The number of valuable experiences you will have, both personally and professionally, from moving abroad is countless. Even if moving abroad doesn’t work for you, that could be a very valuable lesson.

Do you intend to move back? Where do you hope to be geographically in 5 years’ time?

I always try to move forwards, never back 😉 Jokes aside, no, I don’t intend to move back to Spain and I think I never did. Unfortunately, Spain is not investing as much as it should in science, and according to colleagues it is very difficult to have a successful career there and maintain a healthy work-life balance at the same time. I’m very happy in Lincoln, and this is where I call home now, so I hope to be here in 5 years’ time.

Read more posts from this series here. For more international perspectives, read our series on Getting Your PhD Around the World.

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