Women in Science - Dr Laura Spagnolo

I am a Reader in Structural Biology. I joined the University of Glasgow in 2016. I am married to a non-scientist, we have two children (ages 9 and 5). I graduated in Pharmacy in Trieste, a wonderful city in the North East of Italy. I then enrolled a PhD in Pharmaceutical Sciences in Padova. As part of my doctoral studies, I spent 18 months doing research at EMBL-Heidelberg. That happy period of my life taught me how rewarding and productive a diverse research environment is, and it transformed me in an aware European citizen, and a citizen of the world.

After obtaining my Dottorato di Ricerca, I worked for a one year postdoc at the Italian synchrotron. I then moved to the UK to work at the Institute of Cancer Research in London.
I started my first independent position in 2009, at the University of Edinburgh, first as a Lecturer and then as a Senior Lecturer. During those years, I highly benefited from the interdisciplinary environment and enthusiastic attitude of all my colleagues at the Centre for Science at Extreme Conditions. The approachability of many senior colleagues at the School of Biological Sciences was also important. I moved to Glasgow in 2016, because I was looking for new challenges and I saw a great opportunity to contribute to the establishment of a world-leading centre for structural electron microscopy. Exciting times are ahead!

How do I balance caring and research? Unfortunately, there is no real balance, or at least I wasn’t able to find it. One has to find an acceptable compromise. The hardest time in my career was when the children were very young. Institutions should pay particular attention to staff coming back from maternity leave. Luckily, times are changing: I hope that my daughter will have it easier than me. I regret having had children in older age. Many factors contributed to this choice. First of all, an Italian doctorate is awarded later than a British one. Morover, the long hours required in my postdoc would have never allowed me to succeed in science and start a family earlier than what I did. Furthermore, I am in a relationship, which was most of the time a long-distance one: I’ve been married for 17 years, and only just shared an address with my husband for the last 6… In fact, only upon moving to Glasgow we have (most of the times) breakfast and dinner as a whole family.

Internal motivation was crucial in my career. I also found inspiration in my “adoptive PhD supervisor”; as an early career PI my colleagues David Finnegan and Cait MacPhee were great role models. These days, I really appreciate interacting with collaborators and colleagues from my university as well as from other institutions. One of the most exciting aspects of science is the continuous process of learning from others: more senior scientists, our peers and our students. I’m happy to say that I got to know some rather interesting people in this job! I would have never had a career in science without my husband’s strongest support. Step by step, career moves took us 2300 km from the places in which we were born. These moves were often dictated by my scientific career. He always supported, encouraged and advised me wisely. I hope I did the same for him. We are a good team!

Incidentally, I read a biography of Marie Curie in primary school. I thought it was quite interesting, however I must admit I’ve always been a bookworm and at that time I enjoyed reading biographies in general. My real inspiration came in Trieste, while I was working at my MSc project. I had chosen an experimental project instead of a library one simply because I knew it might have been my one and only chance to see what scientific research really is before moving on to work in a pharmacy. I loved that project: designing the experiments, implementing them, interpreting the results… The person who taught me how to use a Gilson pipette is Silvio Sosa. Working with him, I thought I would thoroughly enjoy a career in science. The real game changer though was the time spent in Luis Serrano’s laboratory. I will always be grateful for the opportunity he gave me to work in such a truly international and vibrant environment, and for his example.