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Finding success (and fun) as a woman in science

Cardiff University
From Portugal to Wales, Veiga is determined to continue studying for degree after degree. Source: Sara Veiga

It takes guts to consider a career in science as a woman. Competition for funding is fierce. Long-term contracts can be hard to come by, leading to job insecurity. Hours can be long, muddling plans for motherhood and other passions. 

Sara Veiga takes them all in stride — and has fun along the way. Veiga is from Braga, the third largest city in Portugal and quite religious. She remembers the beautiful walks around the city centre, stopping at old cathedrals dating back to when the country was just a county and snacking on “francesinha” — a meat sandwich swimming in tomato and beer gravy — one of her favourite foods to eat back home. 

Her academic journey began in 2009 at the University of Coimbra, one of the world’s oldest unis and a highly-ranked one today. Here, she earned two degrees, one after another. She got her Licentiate degree in Biomedical Sciences and a master’s degree in Pharmaceutical Biotechnology. 

In summer 2015, she landed a position as a summer trainee at Harvard University to study the experimental evolution of genetic instability using yeast as a model of cancer progression. From there, she’s continued to expand her research experience in molecular biology, both in Portugal and the US. 

Her journey did not stop there though. Veiga now pursues a PhD at Cardiff University. After graduating, she plans to continue to work in the extracellular vesicle field in a post-doctorate position.  Below we find out more about why she chose Cardiff University, her life in Wales and three fun facts about herself.

What are some of the challenges of being a woman in STEM? How do you overcome them?

During my years in research, I have found myself working more often with female scientists. I’ve always been surrounded by strong, brilliant women, doing amazing work in science, and I am very inspired by all of them. However, there are still many challenges that women face in STEM. Especially if they work in a field that has been more traditionally associated with men, recognition for their work and capacities can be a struggle. Motherhood, and wanting to raise a family can also be looked down on.

Cardiff University

Only 27% of the STEM-related industries are women. Source: Juan Mabromata/AFP

With all these obstacles, do you still plan to work in STEM?

Yes, definitely. In my view, it’s only if we continue pushing forward, by making ourselves heard and showing our amazing work in any area of it that we inspire other women and little girls to pursue careers in STEM. Gradually, those differences, which are still very obvious now, will be less prominent. Hopefully, soon, every STEM field will be equally appealing to women or men, and younger generations feel like they can choose any career that appeals to them.

What made you choose to pursue your PhD in the UK? 

Considering the fact that all my other academic degrees were obtained in Portugal, I was curious of how it would be to study at a uni abroad. There are also many more opportunities in different unis in Europe than if I just focused on Portugal. 

Did you have a mentor? 

I do have a female mentor from the mentoring scheme by the UKEV-UK Society for Extracellular Vesicles, a scientific society that is related to my PhD work. We have only met a couple of times, but it has been very helpful and inspiring. She has helped me highlight and develop my transferable skills, as well as put me in contact with possible people who have helped me during my PhD. However, I do consider I have a few unofficial mentors. Funnily enough, they are all the women with whom I have worked with or am currently working with. They always inspire me in the most diverse ways and encourage me to always do and be my best.

Cardiff University

Picture taken through a laboratory microscope which shows a protein obtained from ticks salivary glands to be used for melanoma tumoral cells — a kind of skin cancer. Source: Mauricio Lima/AFP

Do you think it would have made a difference if you studied at a local institution?

In my opinion, I don’t think so. Braga has a very good uni — the University of Minho — with several prestigious and international mentions for the diverse and exciting work being developed there. It was just a matter of opportunity and what was available at the time. 

What do you like most about Wales?

Wales is so naturally beautiful, so probably nature. It has amazing coastlines, beautiful mountains, immense fields, and it’s so green! People are very welcoming and friendly too and as it’s a small country, there’s a feeling of closeness and bonding.

If you could list your favourite things about Cardiff, what would they be?

The street food scene because I’m someone that loves food and trying different ones, so the Cardiff food scene for me is superb. There are so many nice little cozy independent restaurants and pop-ups happening all the time for you to try. Cardiff has beautiful parks, amazing for when you just need to get out and walk. Another thing is I love the fact that I can walk anywhere in the city which makes me happy and comfortable. 

What has been your most memorable, non-academic experience in Wales so far?

My most memorable experience since I’ve been here was when I went to Brecon Beacons with my laboratory friends. We climbed Pen y Fan — the highest peak in South Wales — in the middle of February. I have never been so cold in my life, but it was the most beautiful day with the bluest sky. I loved it. 

Another experience I can add was when it snowed here on Saint David’s Day in 2018. It was an exciting thing to experience because I had never seen that much snow in my life before — to the extent that we had to stay home.

What’s the local food in Wales like? 

Oh I like Welsh food! It’s not too different from the food in the UK, but there are some national dishes that are really nice. My favourite is the Welsh rarebit — a mustard-cheese sauce on toasted bread served with bacon and onion chutney. Lamb cawl is like a stew and also very tasty. 

I’m not a particular fan of raisins but I will however eat them in Welsh cakes — also known as bakestones. The leek is a national symbol for this country, so there are also many dishes involving it. Lastly, my least favourite dish is more of a British thing. I don’t enjoy beans, so any dish with beans is a no-no from me.

Cardiff University

Veiga enjoys exploring the beautiful countryside in Wales and the rest of the UK. Source: Paul Ellis/AFP

What’s one thing from Wales you’re planning to bring back to your friends and family back home?

I have taken Welsh cakes with me before to share with the family which they all loved. It’s always fun to get them something written in Welsh and laugh when you see them try to pronounce it (I don’t even know how to either because Welsh is really hard!).

What’s one thing from home and how do you substitute it?

Food is probably what I miss the most, I always try to cook things I would eat back home. As I do have a big group of Portuguese friends in Cardiff, it’s been nice to get together and miss home a little less. 

Although one thing I miss a lot, which I can’t really substitute, is the sun. Portugal is very sunny and warm, and the UK is a bit rainy! It hasn’t been too bad for the past few years during spring and summer, but I do miss seeing the blue sky for days on end.

What advice do you have for international students looking to start a new chapter in the UK?

Bring a raincoat and an umbrella. Jokes aside, just enjoy your time there. The UK is a really nice place to live. Of course there are cultural differences and particular things that you learn along the way, but this will happen anywhere in the world. At the same time, it’s such a culturally diverse country, you can meet people from all around the world.

Cardiff University

Besides the weather, Veiga loves everything Wales has to offer. Source: Sara Veiga

Lastly, list three fun facts about yourself:

  1. I am the size of an average red kangaroo
  2. I am unable to bend my thumb without bending my index finger as well
  3. I know loads of useless random facts about the most random things

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