Developing that incurable curiousity, life-changing events and decisions: the bumpy road to my life as a scientist

I made the decision to start my own little science blog after attending a Wellcome Trust meeting for 1st year PhD students yesterday. The purpose of my blog will be to engage the public with my life as a biomedical PhD student, hopefully inspiring others to follow the same path. But who am I and how did I end up in one of the world’s best universities? The following is a personal insight into my life and why I believe that anyone with a passion to learn, access to the right mentors and most importantly – perseverance – can make it this far and beyond. If you desire something deeply, chase that dream, don’t let it go.

A rough start

I was born in Bulgaria in 1992, in a small town named Karnobat. My childhood was not all rosy. It is not that I was born into a very poor background or had parents that did not love me. Quite the opposite. Certainly, we were not rich, but I have never experienced lack of food, clothes or anything like it. My family was always there – loving and supporting. Right until 1st August 1998, exactly 17 years from today, when I lost my dad. Completely unexpected, he seemed to have had a stroke or a heart failure. No one really knows the exact reason to this day, and we will never find out. We only know that he had suffered from high blood pressure since his twenties, despite being a fit young man. Now 37 forever.  This was the biggest loss in my life, changing it forever. My mum, an accountant at the time – just like my dad – had no other choice but to look for a job with a higher pay, to leave her children with her parents and move to a different place in Bulgaria where she was offered a job as director of a big factory for animal foods. An incredibly strong woman, extremely smart as well.  She was only able to see us a couple of times a months, so my brother and I continued our lives in Karnobat, surrounded by our grandparents on both sides. Our dad’s parents lived a few streets away. We were looked after by my mum’s parents on a daily basis – sleeping in the same room with them, sharing everything. They were all well-known and very respected in Karnobat as they had held important positions prior to retiring. Our family was big and close-knit. We would spend many weekends in the nearby village visiting my great-grandmother. We had a lot of land, and we all helped with its maintenance in one way or another. It is difficult to describe, but it certainly was a completely different lifestyle from the one I lead today.

The bookworm 

Quite different from my brother and many other children around me, I loved to read. I learnt to do so at the age of 5, out of my own interest and by myself. I quickly became known as someone with a great passion for learning who would spend most of her time reading and going to the local library to borrow yet another book. My mum decided to let me start school at the age of 6, without pre-schooling, to keep me together with my older brother. We started in the same class. Him – the playful boy who did not care much about reading, and me – the teacher’s favourite with the highest grades. Apart from maths, I don’t remember having a particular passion for biological sciences or any other subject at the time. Instead, my problem was that I was incurably curious to know everything about everything and to master that knowledge to perfection. A problem that haunts me to this very day.

A big move, losses, achievements and endless worries

In her position as a director, my mum met a Danish businessman and they fell in love. Today, I see him as my dad and love him dearly. Back then, things were more complicated. At the age of 10, I had to move to Denmark and start a new life with my mum, her new husband and my brother. A new life without my grandparents, more than 2,500 km away from Bulgaria and all my friends. A new life with a new language, new friends and a completely different lifestyle. No more sleeping in the same room with others, no more weekly excursions to the village to harvest grapes and berries, no more of so many things. In school, I learnt Danish in 3 months and once again became known as the best student. Apart from that, my emotional existence suffered many set-backs. Only a few years later, my mum’s dad was diagnosed with lung cancer and died a few days after Christmas in December 2004. This was bad, I had lived with him all my life. Unfortunately, it did not stop there. In February 2008, my dear grandmother, my mum’s mum, the woman who looked after me from the day I was born, was defeated by breast cancer. Another 3 years later, my paternal grandmother and my younger cousin, with whom I was very close, followed. My cousin’s death was very tragic – a train accident. My grandmother had suffered from Type 2 diabetes since my dad’s death. Similar to him, she had also developed high blood pressure in her twenties, which later developed into severe cardiovascular disease on top of her diabetes.

Amidst all these tragedies, their toll on me and perhaps even because of them, I was determined to achieve even more. Although I had had dreams about becoming a journalist and the next J.K. Rowling, these started to change when it became apparent that I was good at science. My teachers noticed. I was given material for older students, to challenge me and keep me motivated. As a result, my specialist subjects in high school were maths, physics, biology and chemistry. At the age of 15 and in my first year of high school, I decided that I wanted to become a doctor. An endocrinologist. I wanted to help people with Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases, in particular. People around me were concerned that I would burn out. ”Don’t work so hard… Don’t raise your hand to answer all questions every time, others get scared…”, the paradoxical advice coming from some of my teachers. Even my parents would tell me to relax. But I didn’t. I read extra all the time, in school, at the beach, everywhere. At this point, you are probably thinking that I was socially isolated and very boring. But in fact, I talked and still talk a lot, so I had many friends and joined many social activities. Altogether, my family, friends and several key teachers kept me sane and provided me with invaluable support.

Yet I worried. Worried that I was not good enough. That I should be better. Worried that I was not smart, but just hard-working. I heard of others who were doing very well, some of them from a strong scientific background with the opportunity to attend extra lessons, summer schools and the like. They had to be better. In comparison, I was nothing, I should improve, become just as “perfect”. This worry became my greatest asset and enemy, all at once.

From medicine to biomedicine 

The day before I had to submit my university application, I took a U-turn. With the highest grades and no apparent barriers, I was determined to apply for Medicine at University of Copenhagen. And then the barrier appeared. I was too young. People told me of this unwritten rule that you would be told to wait until the age of 20 to enter Medicine. I was only 18 and suddenly very disappointed.. But I paused and thought about everything for a second. I had recently completed a research project at Odense University Hospital, working on obesity and genes in the roundworm C. elegans. This had been so exciting, so I had decided that once a medic, I would pursue a career as a clinical scientist and establish my own lab – a new dream. I loved the thought of being able to help people with metabolic diseases through novel discoveries. So I changed my mind. I was not going to wait two years before starting university, and there was a great new programme in Molecular Biomedicine at the University of Copenhagen, which offered just want I wanted: a ticket to become a biomedical scientist. So I applied and started as a university student in September 2010.

Fast-forward

I had my tough moments in University because of that same worry of not being good enough. I spent a ridiculous amount of time on my studies to make sure that I knew everything no matter the course. My incurable curiosity paid off: I received my Bachelor’s degree in June 2013 and got accepted to do a Master of Philosophy at University of Cambridge in the UK. As of money, my parents did not have to worry about my education. I was lucky to be Danish – Denmark offers you free education, pays you to study and even gives you money when you want to study abroad. On top of that, I applied for several scholarships, making sure that I would be financially independent once in the UK.

In Cambridge, the endless worry became worse, fuelled by the presence of so many high achievers in this incredible city. Yet, people seemed to appreciate my work and even told me to work less (deja vu). Fortunately, I happened to have two extremely supportive supervisors who continuously tried to boost my confidence and convince me to believe in myself. So I did and decided to apply for the Four-Year Wellcome Trust Programme in Metabolic and Cardiovascular Disease, which is also administered by the Institute of Metabolic Science.

A dream came true. Following a tough selection process, I was one of four to receive a scholarship with start October 2014. I can’t describe my happiness the day I got the news. This was greater than anything else in my life because of my personal reasons to do research in this particular area, dating back to my childhood and my decision to contribute to the enormous body of work that ultimately aims to prevent people from dying from the very same diseases that stole family members away from me.

I have just completed the Programme’s first year, which involved three rotations in different labs. As of yesterday, I have also submitted my research proposal for my three-year PhD project that will start this October. So far, it has been amazing. I have developed confidence in my own abilities, and I enjoy my work, surrounded by a great bunch of friends and colleagues. When describing it to others, I usually say that I am lucky to be working on my hobby: it keeps me motivated and thirsty for more.

My message to those who took the time to read my story: follow your dreams and don’t be afraid of your own worries. Seventeen years ago on this day, I suffered the greatest loss which changed my life forever. Today, I know that my dad would have been proud to see that I persevered and followed my dream despite the bumps along the road. The next three years won’t be all rosy, I know. But where there is a will, there is a way.

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2 thoughts on “Developing that incurable curiousity, life-changing events and decisions: the bumpy road to my life as a scientist

  1. Who says you can’t become the next J.K. Rowling while pursuing your dream of setting up a new lab? Science needs scientists to be more open, more communicative, and this is certainly a good start. Keep it up! Already looking forward to the next post 🙂

    Like

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