A day in the life: The biologist who thrives with psychology

09-03-2017

Ever wondered what an ESRF scientist’s or engineer’s life looks like? Are they all day working on their next Eureka moment or do they spend long hours in front of the computer? Do they have a sense of fulfilment? And does being a woman make any difference? The International Women’s Day is celebrated this week, so we have decided to follow five women on their day-to-day routine to give a flavour of their lives.

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Text and photos by Montserrat Capellas Espuny

Montserrat Soler López was always fascinated by the start of life. This led her to study developmental biology and, after that, she applied for a PhD on the, for most of us, whimsical “morphology of octopus sperm”. Alas, her future mentor, in charge of this PhD, had other plans for her and she dived into the world of X-ray crystallography instead, which eventually led her to the ESRF today.

Morning

Tram stop, Ile Verte, Grenoble. After the first coffee of the day (she normally racks up to four a day), Montserrat takes the tram to go to the ESRF. She hasn’t had a proper break in the weekend, since she’s been local contact for users from the Institute of Science and Technology of Vienna until late on Sunday. “It is quite intense, but I like to work with users. Most of them are very grateful for the support we provide, and I really enjoy the relationship we forge as we have deep discussions about common scientific challenges”.

 When she came to the ESRF, in 2014, Montserrat brought with her the know-how of a technique called yeast two-hybrid, which was not used at the ESRF at the time. This technique allows scientists to investigate protein-protein interactions in vivo. Since her arrival, many other ESRF scientists have started using this method, as well as scientists in the neighbouring Institut de Biologie Structural (IBS).  This morning, she has a meeting with Ana M. Mariscal, a PhD student from Barcelona who is at the ESRF for 3 months learning to use this technique.

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Ana M. Mariscal (left) shows Montserrat Soler her samples.

Lunchtime

Montserrat goes for lunch with fellow biologists who use the lab she manages, both from the ESRF and the EMBL, the neighbouring institute. And grabs another coffee before heading back.

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Afternoon

Time for the weekly group meeting.  Montserrat’s core team consists of a post-doctoral researcher (Gabriele Giachin), a PhD student (Romain Bouverot) and a technician (Samira Accajjoui). They all work together in a project on Alzheimer’s disease. Montserrat initiated this project because “Alzheimer’s is a very complex disease and so far there is no medicine that can heal it or slow it down. It is incredible that more than a century since its discovery we still know so little about it”. The team focuses on the study of a protein complex involved in mitochondrial bioenergetics and that also seems to affect the production of amyloids, a typical signature of Alzheimer’s brain. In the group meeting, everyone’s voice is heard and there is a discussion among the team. Montserrat tries to constantly improve her management skills. “Before coming to the ESRF, I spent 7 years in Barcelona, surrounded by men, who mostly told me that I should be more aggressive to staff to get things done. This is not my style, and I certainly think that the staff should be doing their work convinced about what they do, and not just because they are told so. I come from a very strict family and I would never want to inflict fear in the people in my charge.”

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Montserrat catches up with her email and some projects, like different seminars and a symposium she is organising in the coming months at the ESRF. She enjoys her job, she says, despite being away from her home, Barcelona. She misses home and her partner, so once a month she flies or drives to the Mediterranean city. Her love for science drove her to quit her job in Barcelona 3 years ago, where she suffered from the infamous glass ceiling. “You feel that to work among men, you need to behave like them. This is the problem, we need to change men’s mentality, but also women’s. Education is the base of our society. It is not only about the laws, it is also about educating kids so that they realise that men and women are equal. Unfortunately there is still a lot of work to do”.

"It is not only men; women also need to change their mentality to educate kids in equality"

 “I lived in Barcelona, close to my family but I wasn’t happy at work. If I’m unhappy at work, I find it hard to be content at home. Now, I thrive in my job here, I have a great boss, Gordon Leonard, who gives me a lot of freedom in the way I manage the CIBB laboratory and lets me lead my own research. I need what I do every day to be fulfilling, otherwise there’s no point in doing it. So moving to Grenoble was definitely worth it”.

Evening

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Time to go home to the small, airy apartment that overlooks the Isère river in the lush green side of town. She normally has dinner, watches the French news, then the Catalan news and reads before going to bed. She loves reading philosophy and psychology books: “I do it purely for my personal enrichment. I am a big fan of Michel Foucault and Hannah Arendt, both of them write about psychology, management and the best way to take decisions within groups. They help me to put myself in other people’s shoes. By reading them, I´ve also realised that I thought I was very open, but in fact I have a lot of preconceptions and I need to be more critical in general. Only like that will I be able to lead my life the way I want to”.

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Text and photos by Montserrat Capellas