Young GI Angle
How to deal with career downturns or difficult situations in your career
February 20, 2023 | Ainara Castellanos-Rubio
Ainara Castellanos-Rubio obtained her PhD in Biology from the University of the Basque Country in Spain. She gained research experience at the BioCruces Research Institute (Spain), the University of Tampere (Finland) and Columbia University (USA) and is currently an Ikerbasque Research Associate at the Department of Genetics, Physical Anthropology and Animal Physiology at the University of the Basque Country. Her research focuses on the molecular characterization of intestinal inflammatory disorders, with a special focus on different aspects of RNA biology.
One of the most difficult situations in my career was coming back to Europe after a 5-year postdoc in Columbia University in the City of New York. It was not only that I swapped the city that never sleeps for a small village in the Basque Country, but also that I suddenly found myself with the really frightening objective of demonstrating that I could be an independent scientist.
My ticket back to Europe was a two-year reincorporation fellowship. We all know that two years are not a lot of time scientifically speaking, so I had to use that time wisely and efficiently to find a longer, more stable position and to get some funding that would allow me to start my own projects. The first months were though, I decided to accept a temporary position as an assistant professor of microbiology and postpone my reincorporation fellowship. That bought me some extra time and gave me the chance to try another career path. I quickly realized that teaching was not my thing, and although it was good, I tried to make a conscious decision, I really had a hard time that first semester. So, things did not look really great, I was missing NY, I was doing a job that I did not like, and I almost didn’t have time to do any research or apply for grants. But after those first months I started working in the lab again, reading papers, going to conferences, and having new ideas that I used for grant proposals.
And eventually things started to work – I got my first grant, then my first PhD student, a 5-year Ikerbasque fellowship, a technician, international collaborations, a Rising Star Award from UEG, and even a paper in Gut journal for which I am the last and corresponding author. The path has not been easy, and it took longer than I expected, and sometimes I doubted if coming back to Europe had been a good decision, but I am exactly where I wanted to be when I decided I would return home.
I would love to say that if you try hard, you will succeed but unfortunately sometimes things do not work out exactly as we expect. What I learnt from all this process is that you have to be open, to try different options, to know where your limits are and to value everything as a whole. I would lie if I said I do not miss NY, and sometimes I daydream about how things would have been if I had stayed in the US. But I am happy where I am now, I know what I want, I worked hard to get there, and I always have a plan B. The scientific career is full of downturns, the bright side is that when you manage to take off again, the feeling is absolutely great!
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