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Women in science: Mobility is good for your career

Gaining professional experience abroad can be a career boost for women scientists © Shutterstock
Gaining professional experience abroad can be a career boost for women scientists © Shutterstock

For scientists, packing up their lab coats and microscopes and heading to foreign laboratories can really pay dividends. Thanks to initiatives like Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowships, women are benefiting more and more from making a move abroad.

In 2012, more women researchers travelled than ever before, as reflected in the figures from the Marie Curie Fellowships. The fellowships have been in place for almost 20 years, and have helped to promote a culture of mobility for early-stage career scientists throughout the EU and beyond.

In 2009, 37 % of the fellowships went to women, and in 2011, this rose to 37.9 %. The target is 40 % by 2013, for both research and post-doctoral fellowships. But what do these female scientists think about the importance of spending part of their career abroad? Here are some clues.

‘The Marie Curie Fellowship was key to my career promotion.’

Professor Valeria Nicolosi, Italian researcher at Trinity College Dublin.

The professor

Valeria Nicolosi became a full professor at just 34, a feat that would have been impossible if she hadn’t decided to travel.

‘The Marie Curie Fellowship was key to my career promotion,’ said Professor Nicolosi. She moved from her native Italy to Ireland, and then took up a position at the University of Oxford in the UK.

She is currently a Professor of Physics at Trinity College Dublin, as well as a principal investigator at the college’s Centre for Research on Adaptive Nanostructures and Nanodevices.

‘Career-wise it is essential,’ said Prof. Nicolosi. ‘It is important to learn different skills and learn about different systems.’

‘I was able to move to the University of Oxford and learn crucial skills such as advanced electron microscopy, which enabled me to become an international expert in this field,’ she said.

‘My career would have been very different, I believe, had I not had that opportunity.’

Last year, she won a prestigious Royal Dublin Society/Intel Prize, a medal and a lecture invite, to recognise her contributions to nanoscience.

Marie Curie Actions Research Fellowships – click to enlarge.

The doctor

Spaniard, Dr Natalia Balcazar could speak no German when she took up a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowship to work in industry in the Ruhr region of Germany.

‘For me, the support from the Marie Curie Fellowship was more than enough to enable me to travel,’ said Dr Balcazar, who graduated in geology in 1989.

‘It was a big help to build up a new life in another country. It gave me some security for two years and showed me what my value was in Germany as a PhD,’ she added.

She’s been living in Germany for more than 20 years and believes that it is important for researchers to work abroad for a significant length of time – at least six months – to get the benefits.

‘Shorter times do not let you get the whole picture,’ she said.

Some Marie Skłodowska-Curie statistics

  • The country with the highest percentage of female fellows is Portugal – 47 %.
  • The nation ranked lowest in terms of female fellows is Latvia – 17 %.
  • The UK is host to most fellows, followed by Germany and France.
  • The least number of fellows are resident in Cyprus and Latvia.

The student

For her Marie Curie Fellowship, Zar Chi Aye travelled to Switzerland from Myanmar, where cyclones can kill thousands of people, to study ways to protect people from climate change and natural hazards.

She wants to take the skills she has learnt back to her native Myanmar when she finishes her research.

'I would like to continue in this field working with international organisations like the UN, NGOs or research institutes, and I would like to continue back in my country,' she said.

'In 2008 we were hit by cyclone Nargis, and since then, international projects and NGOs have been working on disaster management, but in many sectors I think we still have a lot of things to do and improve.'

Aye, a 26-year-old computer science graduate, is working at the University of Lausanne on ways for people to evaluate the risk to dwellings from climate, land use and population changes.

'In Myanmar, we have few risk management activities using this kind of very advanced technology like geo-informatics and remote sensing,' she said.

For her research she spends a lot of time travelling and meeting people in her field, giving her valuable networking opportunities.

'It is really a good opportunity to get to know these experts who are working in the field, and maybe they could even be a potential employer,' she said.


The European Commission’s EURAXESS information service supports the mobility of all researchers throughout the EU-27. This service, which was originally called the Researcher Mobility Network, was set up specifically to help researchers and their families plan and organise a move to another country. This involves, for example, providing researchers with information on entry requirements, visas, work permits, as well as data on a country’s communications network, transport, education system and work habits.

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