International mobility in STEM #1: Elena

International mobility in STEM #1: Elena

Since I’ve been abroad, I have had the opportunity to talk to other scientists who have moved internationally for research. It’s been extremely helpful to me to talk to them and hear their stories, as there are unique challenges to living & doing science in a foreign country. From time to time, I’m going to share those stories here on the blog. This is one of them.


LABMy name is Elena, I’m a neuroscientist, originally from Spain, but I have also lived, studied and worked in Greece, the UK and the US. In 2010, I graduated from my masters studies in Madrid, and initially I thought I could find a position to pursue a PhD in a neuroscience field somewhere in my home country. However, after a couple of months of applying to all programs available, interviewing and sending my resume to many institutions and labs, I came across a fantastic opportunity to apply to a Marie Curie program for PhD students, involving six different universities across Europe. The condition was that I had to apply to a destination different from my home country. This was very exciting, but given all the rejections I was getting in Spain – due to an alarming lack of funding, not a lack of training of my own – I was fairly discouraged. However, soon they contacted me from the University of Bristol, in England, to invite me for an interview. A few weeks later I got the good news, the position was mine! It was incredibly exciting and somehow scary. It wasn’t the first time I was moving abroad, but it was the first time that I didn’t have a concrete end date. Somehow I knew I was leaving my home for good, or at least, for a very long time. And it is seven years since then, and I’m still abroad, now working as a postdoctoral researcher in the Salk Institute, in San Diego, CA, where I study a very interesting cell type in our brains called astrocytes, tackling some new questions about how astrocytes aid nerve cells (i.e. neurons) to develop the right connections in the healthy brain.

Moving internationally has given me a perspective that I never had when living in my country. I have learned about many different cultures and met many people who, like me, had to face different challenges to chase their passion. I feel like I’ve grown as a person, and the intellectual stimulation I get from working in such enriched environments is priceless. I’m almost certain that the comfort provided by “being at home” wouldn’t have pushed me in the same way to improve my skills and make a better version of myself, in a professional and in a personal sense. Being abroad in leading institutions has provided me with the chance to meet and network with incredible scientists with whom I had the luck to have very interesting discussions and who gave me valuable career advice.

Naturally, living abroad hasn’t been always easy, and challenges have been a big part of the deal. For instance, English is not my mother tongue, so changing to a daily life in a language that is not mine was undoubtedly difficult. Unfortunately, I also had to face a few situations where my origins or native language were a reason for discrimination, but I was lucky to have the support of others, whichmade the situations less tragic. However, the hardest thing is to be far from my family. We’re a very small family and we’ve always counted on each other’s support. At the time I moved out Spain, my family was struck by a hard situation. I was tempted to give up and come back to be by their side, but with their endless support and strength, they asked me to continue to do what I loved and not to worry. And for that, I’m eternally grateful to them.

I don’t regret leaving Spain. I feel sorry for being so far away from the people I love, but it’s something I got used to. I may feel like going back to Spain in the future, but not quite yet. I’m proud I made that decision almost seven years ago now, and I truly believe I am still making the best out of it.

About Elena: I studied Biology in the University of Oviedo, my hometown in northern Spain. selfThe first time I moved abroad was within the Erasmus program, when in 2007 I went to Greece to do one academic year in the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. After that, I went back to Oviedo, to finish my undergrad. Immediately after my graduation I moved to Madrid to do my master’s degree in Biochemistry, Molecular Biology and Biomedicine and gain experience working in different biochemistry labs in the research center CNIC and Universidad Complutense. In 2010, I moved to England to start my PhD in the University of Bristol, where I studied protein trafficking in neurons in response to stroke. I got my PhD in 2014 and after an intense search for a post-doctoral position I finally moved to San Diego, California to start working in the Salk Institute. I am also involved in several science education and communication projects, especially focusing on underrepresented communities. You can follow all my science outreach on Twitter and Instagram.


If you’re interested in sharing your story of international mobility in STEM, email me!

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