A gift from Jesus.

Since I was in High School, I had always struggled with accepting myself, especially because a very bad acne rush (of which I still bring many scars on my face).

Although all the difficulties brought by the acne and the many thoughts I had about the willingness of not living anymore, I was very much attached to life by a deep desire to be truly happy. This desire was something so deep that it never left me, and it became more concrete in the passion was risen for science.

I remember clearly how I was fascinated by all the small organelles in the cell and by the atomic structure of the elements. As you can understand the small things had always attracted me. Therefore, I decided to start my studies in Chemistry at the University of Turin in Italy. However, part of me was also still interested by Biology (interest that I had the fortune to explore during my PhD). In parallel with my studies I met my husband. With him I discovered what does it mean to love deeply someone. Our story was not easy at the beginning because we are quite different. Despite our differences, he was always looking at me with a so human and loving glance that I could overcome all our odds and I could learn to love him in the same way.

This glance of humanity I was mentioning is something I have actually met even before during High School in some people, which were all part of the same Catholic Movement called Communion and Liberation. I was born in a Catholic family, but with all the struggles I had during my adolescence I would have certainly left the Church and the faith if I had not met such people. Usually, when people talk about Jesus it is always a very abstract concept and it is hard to believe that is actually Someone very concrete, even if he died 2021 years ago. When I met Communion and Liberation, I could really see and meet some people living in a different way their life, pushed by a deep love for life and for the others without asking anything in return (which is actually the way Jesus was living as described in the Bible). The gratuitous love for life and other people is the one I try to cultivate every day and that push me to look for real happiness.

Going back to my studies and my career experience, after finishing my Master at the University of Turin with a thesis in Organic Synthesis of plant hormones, I started to look for a job. I was not completely sure if I would have wanted to pursue a PhD or not, even though research was attracting me quite much. Of one thing I was sure, if I had to do a PhD, I would have done it abroad. The research founding situation in Italy for PhD students was not attractive and I had the desire to experience something different and to meet new people.

In the meantime, my husband (at that time my boyfriend) had found a job in Milan (Italy) as research fellow with a one-year contract. I also tried to find a job close to Milan, even in companies, but all the interview outcomes were negative. At the same time, I was applying for different PhD positions abroad, when, finally, I was accepted for an interview for a Marie Curie ITN Fellowship in Amsterdam. To be honest, the topic of the overall project was not really interesting for me, since it was on the study of oxygenases, enzymes able to bind molecular oxygen and link it to different organic molecule. The main subject was biochemistry, which I studied only in two courses during university. Moreover, there was also quite some biology concepts and not that much chemistry. However, a couple of the subproject proposed need more chemistry background. Thus, I decided to apply anyway.

I waited some days before replying and accepting to go for the interview. Meanwhile, I went to a spin-date interview with different pharmaceutical companies in Milan. There I met a girl which by chance was also selected for the interview within the same MSC-ITN Fellowship. She was also not sure about going there or not and finally we decided to go to Amsterdam together. I have to say, that was for me a sort of sign from God that I had to attend that interview in a way or another one. Once there, both me and my friend were appointed the PhD position (both in the Netherlands :D) and my adventure started.

My husband also pushed me to accept the position 8he has always supported me very much). Although he had always wanted to stay in Italy, he showed me there that he wanted to stay with me even more, which was for me a great sign of love (probably the greatest). I started my PhD in biochemistry and biocatalysis in September 2017 at the university of Groningen and in January 2018 my husband (not yet husband then) joined me and started to look for a job too. At the beginning the topic was very hard for me because I had to learn everything from the beginning, since I had never worked with enzymes and bacteria before. It was hard and I struggled quite much.

However, my interest in what I was doing and also the beautiful people I met during my journey pushed me to try even harder when things were getting more difficult and not to surrender. Even more, since the beginning, my supervisor was very supportive. He really saw something in me that I had never thought someone could see. Later on, he told me that actually he chose me not for my technical skills, but for my personality because technical skills you can always learn, while your personality is unique and difficult to change. This is something I will always keep in mind also for my future career steps. As you can imagine my interest in biology was fulfilled because, as a pure chemist, I learned how to work in a biological environment and now I can really say I know a bit of both subjects.

At the end of 2018 I got married and I always knew that I wanted to have kids at a young age. Therefore, I would never have given up on my family and my kids for my job. Thus, 4 months after our marriage I got pregnant with my first daughter. It was the beginning of my second year as a PhD student. It was for sure not easy, also because in parallel I started to work in another group for a secondment (always in Groningen) and I had to learn other new things about protein crystallography. Nevertheless, I did not want to give up and again the support from my husband at first and from all the people around me was fundamental. Alone I could never have done it. In September 2019 our beautiful first daughter Alice was born and with her I experienced even more the deep love I was talking about at the beginning and for me she is really a gift from Jesus, the most beautiful. Together with her I grew as a woman and a mother. I gained much more self-confidence, even though there are moments in which I am still struggling with it.

Now I am in my last year of PhD and expecting my second baby girl. There were many moments in which I wanted to give up and, even now, I am still not sure if I am going to finish my PhD. Nonetheless, I know that, so far, I made it and I will keep going until my supervisor will give me the possibility and God the strength through the people I love.

What I would like to say through my experience is that I am not a superwoman (because sometimes I have the feeling people think like “wow, how can you do all the things you do with almost two kids and a PhD going on, etc…?” as what I am doing it is something impossible to achieve. It is very nice for me when people appreciate what I am doing, but I am not a superhero. I am just a normal human being which just followed from the beginning a deep desire for happiness and the willingness of God, knowing deeply that He always know what the best for us at the end is. I really hope it will be possible for me to continue to grow my family (with maybe more kids) and to pursue a career in science as woman and mum.

by Eleonora Grandi

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