Virginia Helena Albarracin
Independent Researcher CONICET, Head & Group Leader Electron Microscopy Core Facility & Research Centre (CIME-CONICET-UNT)
And - Professor, the National University of Tucuman & the University of San Pablo-T
You have to trust your feelings. If you like a discipline within STEM don’t listen to anyone that says that you are not suited to it.
What do you do?
I am a molecular microbiologist; it means that I study tiny things called microbes, especially bacteria living in unexplored environments (soils, rivers, and streams of subtropical areas and high-altitude ecosystems in the Puna as well as urban microbes living near us in buildings, streets, or even hospitals). I try to figure out who they are and what they do in their original environments capturing them in the wild, and then bringing them to my lab. With my group, we do experiments for digging inside the cells, looking through super-powerful microscopes, the electron microscopes. Also, we try to read their DNA where they keep secrets that explain their outstanding ability to resist harsh conditions, such as UV, toxic compounds, desiccation, hypersalinity. We want to learn more from them to imitate their functions and produce new molecules or processes useful for biotechnological application (bioremediation, drug discovery, industrial enzymes).
My work also includes managing the electron microscope facility to let other users work with the microscopes too. So we have a lot of scientists and non-scientists working with different projects in our center: forensic sciences, material sciences, zoology, botany, archaeology, geology, medical diagnosis among many others.
Why did you choose this field?
I think this particular field chose me. Somehow I was driven by different events to the point where I found myself today. At least I did not have a "conscious plan" to be at this position now. I have been always very curious, especially in life and diversity. Science and, especially Biology, give me a way to understand my everyday life in a better dimension. I also embraced science because it gives me the opportunity to choose what to do every day of my life, it is like and adventure! I do not like fixed schedules or boring routines to repeat every day. Creativity and flexibility are the most important things for me. Moreover, the international dimension of science is really attractive, you can work literally in any country you want, the language of science gives you the power to further understanding between people from different cultures and background. This makes your personal life richer.
Nevertheless when I recalled some events that happened during my childhood, as a teen or undergraduate student I am finding some interesting facts; when I was a child, ten years or so, I remembered my father (a science-fiction writer) used to buy scientific magazines ("Muy interesante") for me and my siblings. There was this particular article that amazed me: it was about images of common things around us by taking by electron microscopes (microbes, insects, tissues, minerals) and I thought at that moment that I would like to dedicate my life to do that. Somehow I have forgotten this but when I was at the position of being a Head of and Electron Microscopy Facility it came to my mind immediately and gave me the chills!
What do you look at and think, "I wish younger me would have known this was possible"?
Science has a lot of cool things, but it also has a dark side. The self-demand is huge, you are always blaming yourself for not doing enough, you could have published more, do that and that, write a better proposal and so on. Many times I was really stressed and burned-out for trying to be the best at any cost. But you have to learn that competitiveness and unfairness is in academia. I mean you can work and be perfect in your field but this does not guarantee that you will get the credit you deserve. At the end of the day, the most important thing is that you are happy and satisfied with your work. And that the knowledge you produced is being useful to others - your students for instance. Academia can be really an illusions-breaker, do not put all your expectations on external approval only: i.e. prices, promotions, and so on. My younger me did do not know that at all and it was hard to learn it on the road...
Why do you love working in STEM?
What I love most of STEM fields is the outstanding track of technical improvement it gets at every minute. Microscopy, for instance, is a field where technological platforms for better imaging are being developed at a crazy fast track with higher resolutions. Also, methods in sequencing and the "omics" field, in general, are given biology so many new ways of understanding the hidden mechanisms of cell and biomolecules functions. It is fascinating! I wake up looking forward to analyzing new results from our experiments to better understanding of how our experimental models (environmental bacteria) cope with extreme or unfavorable conditions.
Best advice for next generation?
You have to trust your feelings about it. If you really like a discipline within STEM don’t listen to anyone that says that you are not suited to it just because you are a girl. Ask or support teachers that help you be the best version of yourself.
Inspo quote / fun fact / role model
"The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” - Eleanore Roosevelt