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HomeCosta RicaMonica Morales Masis: Breaking Research Barriers in Europe

Monica Morales Masis: Breaking Research Barriers in Europe

Monica Morales Masís was born in Cartago and earned a bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Costa Rica, a master’s degree in physics from Wright State University in the USA and her doctorate degree from the University of Leiden in the Netherlands.

Since May 2018 she has worked as a tenure-track professor at the University of Twente in the Netherlands. At this university she formed her own research group which focuses on the development of electro-optic materials which are used as transparent electrodes or as materials that efficiently absorb sunlight.

Monica’s proposal for creating a new method of deposition of hybrid materials was awarded € 1.75 million by the European Research Council (ERC Starting Grant). Winning such competitive European funding support at the academic level has been one of the greatest achievements of her career as a scientist. 88% of ERC Starting Grant proposals applications are rejected.

What did you have to sacrifice to achieve your professional goals?

I see my family at most once or twice a year since almost everyone is in Costa Rica. Although I left Costa Rica about 17 years ago, we maintain very close communication. Even if we are far away, we are very close. The support that the whole family has given me has been immense. Other things that I feel were sacrifices have been not being present at some very special or very sad events. Apart from those, I do not think I sacrificed much.

Working weekends and having little time to do painting and other things that I like require some sacrifice, but I do so because I like my work. As for life with my partner there have been sacrifices, for example, moving twice, but we have given ourselves the freedom, space and support to develop in our careers, which is essential.

Who are your role models in science and technology?

They have evolved over the years. During my childhood in the 80s my inspiration was Franklin Chang-Díaz. I still remember asking my dad what I had to do to be like Dr. Chang-Díaz, He told me without much thought that I had to study physics. And so it was, a few years later I studied and graduated in that career. While studying at the UCR I started to have many more science idols, usually from other countries and Nobel laureates.

My younger sister always remembers me saying, “I want to go to Max Planck Institute”. I didn’t have the slightest idea of what the place was, but I probably had read about some Nobel laureates from that institute. I have an enormous respect for young professors with impressive curricula and very high reputations in their respective fields of work. They are my inspiration. For me it is interesting that at all stages I never noticed if the character I admired was male or female.

But now I have learned that not all girls see it the same way. That is why as a woman scientist, I have a very important role in being a role model for those girls who have some curiosity about the sciences.

When I was at school, at the age of 15 or 16, I was already clear that I was going to study physics at the UCR. One of the reasons I studied physics at first was astrophysics, but in high school I discovered that this was not my area of interest.  I wanted something more applied.

Then I was attracted to condensed matter physics, which later led me to Materials Science. Although it was in high school when I discovered what I was going to study, from elementary school there were signs of my attraction to science. I have two sisters (one older and one younger) who I played with dolls with, but at Christmas I was the only one who asked for chemistry games, legos and even a telescope.

What values should be promoted to young people?

Freedom and equality to express opinions and to decide. To forget prejudices against people or career selection. Just like when my dad just told me I could study physics. It felt so natural, and it never crossed my mind that it was something difficult or ‘a men’s career’. Perseverance, and to do what they are passionate about.

This is very important! Without these two aspects it is difficult to overcome the obstacles that arise along the way, because it is definitely not easy.

Please share an anecdote from your childhood related to your decision to study physics.

I read the science fiction books that my dad had in the house (I was the only one of the daughters who showed interest in them.) When I was in elementary school I remember reading about time travel and UFOs. I must admit I was fascinated and frightened by them. When I got a little more serious I wasn’t excited about UFOs, but I read Asimov instead and books like his.

Then my dad gave me the book: A Brief History of Time, by Stephen Hawking. Later I read 2001: A Space Odyssey… amazing books! I love them! It was definitely science-fiction, astronauts and space that made me study physics. I discovered Material Science much later, and it’s now my passion.

What have been the high and low points of your career?

There was a time during my PhD when I wanted to change my thesis subject. I felt lonely in research and that no one was interested. Now I’ve seen that it is a very common thing that happens to PhD students, which I keep very much in mind when supervising students now. The other moment was during my stay in Switzerland.

Competition and pressure at work make some people react against others based on lack of control or fear of being displaced from their posts. That time period was one of great growth for me. I became much stronger in the area of negotiations and conflict management.

The five years there made me realize that I was no longer a PhD student and had more responsibilities, including my own research group. In addition, as I moved up I noticed more that the world of science and engineering (as well as in many other careers) is dominated by men who make the decisions.

But we are changing it and I am sure it is going to get better in the next few years! There were many best moments. Lots of them. But the climax perhaps was the moment when I left Costa Rica to study in another country. (Wow, how much I had wished for it!)

The other time was to receive the grant from the European Research Council (ERC Starting Grant). Receiving something so prestigious indicated that my academic life could not only continue, but it is at a very high-level position now. Memories that I cherish most fondly are many but the best one has been to see my mom recover from a liver implant. I don’t know what would have happened to me if the result had been different.

What have been the main achievements of your career so far?

I consider every step in my career an achievement. I have enjoyed each and every one of those steps as I see them as great achievements. This is because you never know what will happen, the road is not easy  and the competition is huge.

Finding a good position is not easy either –you have to apply to a lot of places so that at least one accepts your application. I celebrate every achievement because of how much each thing cost.

On the other hand, I have not been a conformist. I am always giving more. That is how we continue to accumulate experiences, and hopefully bigger and bigger achievements. My aspirations for the future: That both my research group and the laboratory that I am now building become bigger and receive great academic recognition.

Please share a funny anecdote related to your work.

There are thousands of anecdotes. In every country I’ve worked, I’ve put together a lot of memories. Like weird apartments where I’ve lived, cycling from work to home in Japan and getting lost on the way, lectures where I was nervous, with microphones falling off and stuff like that. But among the most recent anecdotes is one related to being a group leader and professor in the Netherlands.

On the first day of any course I teach, students wonder if I’m actually the teacher, but that changes very quickly as soon as I start teaching. That confusion happens because Dutch professors are usually extremely tall (they have the tallest people in the world) and most are men.

As for me I am relatively short (1.54 m) and I tend to look younger by the way I dress. I haven’t had any issues with lack of respect since it is something I earn.

How do you face the challenges and limitations you encounter?

The most important thing is to be firm and consistent in our work to face challenges, but being flexible at the same time on how to do it. It is essential to understand that good things usually do not come very easily, so we need to prepare ourselves psychologically.

Then we have to go ahead, work and improve, and if you add that passion for doing things right, it is possible to get quite far. On the other hand, by being flexible I mean knowing that there are many ways to reach that desired goal.

Are the contributions of women in the fields of science and technology different from that of men?

The contribution is no different. Science is science, it has no gender. It has been shown that a woman or a man can receive a Nobel Prize in Physics, Chemistry and in any other field. There are fewer women who receive this award in science, but it has no relation to the individual contribution itself. The problem is that society has historically tried to separate the role of women and men in any field, which is very visible in science and art.

The fact that there are more men known in these areas is a more complex discussion, linked to the education of women in different societies, the opportunities that they have had, stereotypes and, finally, the decision to create a family and not to balance the time that both devote to raising children.

If women carry more family weight, they lose a little in the competition for the same position, not for less capacity, but for time. Fortunately, society has noticed, and if men and women take the same time to start a family, equal opportunities will grow.

What initiatives would you recommend to encourage female participation in science and technology?

Initiatives should start in elementary and secondary schools, as many girls start to become stereotyped from an early age. We need to show more female role models. Go to universities and look for women scientists to invite them to give science talks in schools.

Girls who have an interest in science may feel more identified when it is a woman who tells them about science. But I must be clear: it is not a competition between men and women, but rather to show that science is done equally and in collaboration between all people.

What are the main challenges facing humanity today?

Climate change and social class segregation. And this goes together as a single challenge because in the end climate change will first affect societies with the least resources, that is, those that do not have an infrastructure that protects them from floods, hurricanes and any of the extreme weather cases that happen more and more often.

They are also the societies most affected by viruses, because after a natural disaster, like a hurricane, diseases also begin, and hence the chain of consequences continues. Combating poverty and fighting  climate change are in my opinion the most urgent challenges for humanity at the moment.

What recommendations would you give to young people interested in pursuing a career like yours?

Search where your passion is. In any career it is essential to look for it, because it is not easy. Any step is hard and to take that extra mile requires a lot of perseverance, to fail and get up again, and that is only achieved if there is true passion to continue working on a problem or theme of your career. As Linda Buck (Nobel Prize in Physiology, 2004) said: “Do something you’re obsessed with”.

Another recommendation I give you is if you have friends interested in science, support them! I remember very well when I was in elementary and high school my good friends admired that I wanted to study physics. I was always surrounded by friends with whom I could talk about the future. How many illusions and dreams I discussed with them! I tell girls and teens that being a scientist doesn’t mean becoming that stereotype of a boring, out-of-fashion person.

If you are curious about what a scientist is like in normal life, you can search the internet for research groups in different parts of the world and you will see the great diversity of people who work in the sciences. Also, no matter what career you choose, being smart and confident in yourself will make you much more interesting.

Learn more about Monica in the book The Intrepids in Science & Technology published by Editorial Tecnologica:

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