Dianne van der Wal, PhD
Senior Research Fellow, R&D Australian Red Cross Lifeblood, Sydney
What countries have you lived and worked in, and what jobs/roles have you had?
I have lived in the Netherlands (my home country), where I studied, worked in 5 different research laboratories as a research assistant and did my PhD at the University of Utrecht on the effect of cold storage of platelets on their function, death signals and their removal from the circulation by platelet adhesion receptor GPIb.
My 1st postdoc was in Toronto, Canada in the lab of Prof. Heyu Ni in which I studied platelet clearance mechanism in bleeding disorder Immuno Thrombocytopenia (ITP). I found a novel platelet clearance mechanism by the liver in a subset of ITP patients, involving removal of platelet-attached sugars mediated by antibodies against GPIb.
I then moved to Melbourne, Australia for a 2nd postdoc, at the Australian Centre for Blood Diseases/Monash University in the lab of Prof. Shaun Jackson. I investigated the role of scaffolding protein 14-3-3 in platelets and thrombosis.
From there, I moved back to the Netherlands, where I worked as Scientific Officer at the International Society for Blood Transfusion (ISBT). In this role I set up a new educational website platform, maintained the ISBT Science Series and was the liaison between transfusion medicine scientists and the society. I also created all scientific content for the website and edited papers for Transfusion Today and Vox Sanguinis. I moved again to Sydney where I currently work as a Senior Research Fellow at Australian Red Cross Lifeblood (national blood centre) R&D, in the lab of A/Prof. Denese Marks. I now study the various factors involved in quality of platelet components and general platelet function including the procoagulant platelet microparticles. I also worked at University College Dublin for 3 months with Prof. Patricia Maguire, as part of an EHA-ISTH training fellowship.
How did you find your jobs abroad?
My 1st postdoc was through an email I sent to Prof. Heyu Ni. I met with him years earlier at an AABB congress and he mentioned that he was always on the lookout for postdocs. My 2nd postdoc was advertised on the university website and/or websites like findapostdoc.com, naturecareers.com. My 3rd job opportunity was through networking as well as I already knew A/Prof. Denese Marks through the ISBT network. Therefore, I sent her an email to let her know I was interested in the advertised role.
What made you want to work abroad?
There was no funding available in the Utrecht lab, or other labs in the Netherlands at that time. But I was already keen to move abroad, as part of a new (science) adventure as I enjoy the international aspect of the job. To complement my PhD research, I wanted to study platelet clearance in an animal model for bleeding disorders and the Ni lab is well-known for this work.
Second, I moved to Melbourne as my partner was not able to find a job in Toronto, therefore staying there became unsustainable. When I was in Melbourne, eventually my Australian visa expired, and I had to return to my home country again. Sadly, obtaining external funding became challenging and impossible in the end, after many attempts with various funding agencies. I therefore had to find a job in a non-academic role and had to become very flexible.
How did the research environment vary between countries?
The research environments did vary a lot between labs and between countries. There are always small or larger cultural or language barriers to overcome or to become acquainted to, especially in the beginning. Also, style of supervision, funding opportunities, direct assistance from research assistants or students vary greatly, depending on the lab size and the group leader.
What has been your favourite thing about working abroad?
Meeting up with new people and starting over in a new country is filled with opportunities and adventure. To grow as a scientist and to learn from top scientists and get lots of different input and out of the box ideas. To be able to taste the culture and cuisines of the world. The world is your oyster!
Have you faced any challenges whilst working abroad?
The challenge is to start a project and techniques from scratch all the time, sometimes without any technical help. Building up a network takes time, as well as finishing a project well in a short amount of time. This can delay publishing of high-quality research papers quite significantly. Another challenge I faced was the postdoc salary/fellowship vs. the cost of living. Initially I did not do enough research into this and living in an expensive city like Toronto can eat into your savings substantially. Same goes for relocation costs, as these are not always offered.
Do you have any advice for ECR members thinking about moving abroad?
Yes, please contact scientists who have experienced this before and have tips and tricks. Also, contact current and former lab members to ask about their experiences. Gather as many details as possible around working in lab X, e.g., visa, assistance from other people, student supervision, budget, congress visits, holidays, relocation costs and costs of living. If your partner is moving along, check whether they can work and investigate the job market beforehand. Do lots of research into the city of choice and visit the lab at least once before moving there. Investigate if external funding is available for scientists with temporary visas. For a long-term stay, investigate the visa system and requirements for permanent residency. It is important to have a plan B and backup savings in case you must return to your home country unexpectedly. Seize the opportunities and learn from all different roles, even though they are not the number 1 choice. Luckily, it all worked out well for me, and I was extremely fortunate to find a job working in the ISBT office, a role that proved particularly useful in the end and was remarkably interesting. In this role, I learned about science communication and I met many different scientists in the field which increased my network significantly.
Would you recommend working abroad to ECR members?
Yes absolutely, although it can be challenging at times. You can only grow and will learn so much in a short time about yourself and science. It increases your network significantly which remain important throughout your career.