Fernando Gomollón-Bel, PhD

he/him/his

Where to find him: 

Education:

  • Undergraduate: I studied chemistry at the University of Zaragoza (Spain) and did an Erasmus Fellowship at Sorbonne University (formerly Université Pierre et Marie Curie) in Paris. I graduated in 2011.
  • Graduate School: I did my PhD within my alma mater, the University of Zaragoza, within ISQCH, an institute devoted to chemical research and catalysis. I studied the synthesis of artificial sugars to create new fungicides, and I loved to spend my time out of the lab doing science communication and outreach activities, such as collaborating with local radios, writing for amateur blogs and giving talks and lectures at schools. At the time, I didn’t know that science communication was a career, much less that I would end up dedicating my life to it! I graduated in May 2017, although back then I had already started working as a communicator.

Current job title: Now I am the Press and Comms Coordinator of the Graphene Flagship, one of the biggest research projects ever funded by the European Commission. It involves +180 institutions in Europe, including the University of Cambridge (UK), where I am currently based. On top of that, I often do freelance science writing for magazines (i.e. Chemistry World, C&EN), and some volunteering doing science communication for non-profits like OVSI.org.

What experience first got you interested in science and is that field the same one you went on to pursue? 

I think I have always been in love with science. Both my parents are physicians (medical doctors), so science books were always present around the house. I know it sounds cliché, but I loved doing experiments as a kid, mixing stuff, playing with magnets, learning how to programme websites from scratch – bit of a nerd, I know. I was particularly interested in biochemistry, because it seemed like the ultimate frontier of chemistry – understanding how life works. After high-school, I started a BSc in Chemistry with plans to pursue a MSc in Biochemistry or Biotechnology afterwards, but I guess life had other plans. Along the way, I discovered organic chemistry and… it was too beautiful. And I ended up working closely with biochemists, so I guess it wasn’t a wrong choice.

Tell me about some people who helped or inspired you along the way, in your early training and later in your career. 

Many professors inspired me during my Uni years, I remember my Inorganic Chemistry teacher, Pilar García-Clemente, who was passionate about the history of chemistry and how chemical discoveries transformed the world we live in. She also encouraged me to apply for a Erasmus Fellowship and spend a semester abroad, which was a fantastic experience. Later on, when I had already started working as a communicator, I was really inspired by Laia Pellejà and Lorena Tomás – my colleagues and friends during my time at ICIQ in Tarragona. They are both successful women who pursued PhDs, then worked in different fields like science communication, education, and industry – and now hold leadership positions at ICIQ.  They both encouraged me to follow my dreams and move to the UK, and they always find time for a virtual coffee and chat..

Can you tell me about any moments of doubt you had as a student or early in your career and how you dealt with it? 

I could probably tell you many. Every semester I thought exams were too stressful and thought about quitting. During my PhD, I also considered abandoning several times. And nowadays, I am always asking myself whether I’ve made the right choices. I love my job as a science communicator, but I sometimes wonder if I could be doing something else. In all these moments of questions and doubts, it’s fundamental to have a strong personal support network – family and friends (your chosen family) are key to overcoming hard times. I wouldn’t have survived stressful periods without them!

Can you share two or three surprising twists or turns in your early scientific training and your later career path. 

Life is full of surprising twists, I guess. Like I said before, I originally wanted to study Biochemistry, but never pursued that career. I was also an amateur violinist, and although I never considered that as a viable career option, I played actively until I was 22 – it could have become something! You could say my career as a science communicator started like sort of a twist, too. I was contacted by a couple of twitter friends about the possibility of organising Pint of Science in my hometown – it was the first time this international festival was organised in Spain. Thanks to this, I learnt a lot about event organising, I expanded my network, and I even met one of my best friends today – Juanjo. Besides, thanks to the impact that Pint of Science had on the local media, Juanjo and I were invited to participate on a regional radio show with a weekly science section and, after that, I was offered the opportunity to co-host a regional science TV show, which has been airing non-stop since 2015. It’s been quite a ride, to be honest, but I guess I will only be able to connect the dots, as Steve Jobs once said, once I’m a little bit older.

Can you give some examples of how you have incorporated your non scientific interests into your work. 

Clearly writing is the only answer here. I have always loved reading, and I have always really enjoyed writing – both fiction and non-fiction. As a kid, I participated in writing competitions in my high-school (even got a couple of prizes) and I enrolled in almost every activity that involved creative work. Just a couple of weeks ago, my dad found some PDFs on an old computer of a student “newspaper” that I collaborated with as a teenager, and it brought back so many memories. Coming back to connecting the dots, of course when I was in highschool I didn’t know whether my writing would be useful at all, turns out I wrote over 4000 words today (not counting this interview), this has officially become my job, and I love it! 

Furthermore, I am also grateful to young Fernando for his nerdy interests in computers, HTML, and all that stuff. I use those skills every day at work – being computer-savvy is particularly useful when you work remotely 24/7 and your job is all about communicating via websites, social media, and email. Like I said, you never know when a skill is going to come in handy, so go ahead and take all the training opportunities that arise. Besides, one could say my very scientific training is useless now – at the end of the day, why do I need to be a chemist to tweet about graphene? But it helps a lot. It helps me understand papers better than my colleagues with a marketing background, for example, and scientific training comes with a ton of transferrable, very interesting skills – i.e. problem solving, creativity, critical thinking… And much more. This paper gives some insights on the versatility of specialised training like PhDs.

Is there some advice you could share from your own experience to help someone with a science degree who is just starting off on their own career path.

This is probably the hardest question. I know I come from a position of privilege, so usually I had options to choose from, and wonderful opportunities to learn, travel, and network. That said, I would just advise you to connect with your peers – use the Internet to find people with similar interests and similar career paths. Apply for internships within the topic you like, they give you a little “taste” of a real world job in a short, limited period of time. If, by any chance, you don’t like it, there’s no shame in leaving (the internship ends anyways) and you haven’t wasted too much of your life. 

It’s also interesting to enroll in mentoring programmes. This is something that I hadn’t done myself until this very year, when I found two options that seemed suitable, from the Society of Spanish Researchers in the UK (SRUK/CERU) and the Spanish Foundation for Science and Technology (FECYT). I enrolled as a mentor – to, hopefully, inspire younger generations to become science communicators – and as a mentee, to learn from other scientists and professionals with more experience and, ideally, layout a better plan for my future! Professional associations are also a great place to make connections – I cannot express how much I have benefited from being part of the European Younger Chemists Network (EYCN), for example. 

Finally, because a lot of people ask me this question, if you’re interested in science communication in particular, a couple of friends and I created this free, open-access Notion board that includes information on how to get started, where to get trained, and several companies that often post offers for jobs and internships. Feel free to explore! 

Oh, and last but not least, don’t be afraid to ask for help. I try to find time for anybody who requests career advice on science communication and sends me a quick email or Twitter DM. And many other people do exactly the same – do send cold emails, LinkedIn requests, messages on Twitter. You would be amazed, really.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s