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Career stories: Marta Tufet, International Activities Adviser

20 Aug, 2012
Marta Tufet

Marta Tufet

In the run up to A-level and GCSE results days, we’re publishing a series of Q&A case studies from our Big Picture issue on Careers with Biology

After her science PhD, Marta Tufet was not sure what to do next. A job in scientific publishing opened her eyes to all the non-research careers in which you can use science. Now she is part of the Wellcome Trust’s International Activities team, focused on supporting scientific research in low- and middle-income countries.

What did you study at school?
I had a rather chequered schooling. My parents were chemical engineers working for a multinational company, so we moved around quite a lot. I’m half-Ecuadorean and half-Spanish. I learnt English for the first time in Belgium, in an international school when I was nine. Then we moved to Portugal, then to France, where I did the French baccalauréat (the equivalent of A levels), specialising in biology.

Afterwards, I came to the UK in 1999 to do a BSc then a PhD – both at Imperial College London. My PhD was in malaria, trying to find proteins that could potentially be used in vaccines. It involved a year in a lab in Leiden, the Netherlands. The group there had pioneered the genetic transformation of the rodent malaria parasites, so I went there to learn how to do that. When I was writing up my PhD, I started teaching A-level biology and sports physiology at Collingham Sixth Form College, in Chelsea and Westminster.

Why sports physiology?
I’m really interested in sport. I’ve swum competitively since I was four years old, and I play water polo at a national and European level. I am also really fond of skiing and windsurfing.

After my PhD, I was offered postdocs in Strasbourg and London, in malaria and immunology, but I felt I didn’t know enough about what else was out there to make an informed decision. My supervisor suggested I should take a different job for a while, to get an overview of the breadth of science out there.

What job did you choose to get a broader overview of science?
I saw a job in publishing, working for the journal ‘Nature Reviews Immunology’ and thought it would be an excellent way to read about science, find out what’s out there and decide what I wanted to do my postdoc in. In fact, what actually happened is that I started working there and realised that this was the career path I wanted to pursue.

Working there, I met other people with PhDs who had moved out of research and got exposed to all the career opportunities outside the lab that are still related to science. As well as publishing jobs, there are loads of strategic, organisational or administrative jobs in universities and funding organisations that support research.

I was at ‘Nature’ for about three years, then I went to the Charles Darwin foundation in the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador as a science grants writer for a year. The foundation provides scientific research and technical information and assistance to ensure the proper preservation of the islands. My job was to find out how to fund the research. Ninety per cent of the researchers there are Ecuadorian, so I’d speak to them in Spanish, find out what they wanted and then write the grant application in English.

What attracted you to the Wellcome Trust?
I went back to ‘Nature’ for four months, but I realised I wanted a more strategic role, so I took up my first job at the Wellcome Trust. I was a science portfolio adviser for two years. Science portfolio advisers advise the Trust on where we should strategically be funding and liaise with researchers and advise them on grants and fellowships. They also handle some of the bigger, more strategic initiatives. For example, I was looking after one of the Trust’s big research centres in Kenya, plus Biobank, a big cohort study involving half a million people in the UK.

In October, I joined the International Activities team. It’s a similar role, but it focuses on health research in low- and middle-income countries. I work on the African Institutions Initiative, a big programme involving seven consortia of 51 African institutions in 18 different countries that aims to strengthen the ability of Africa to do research. We try to attend the advisory board meeting of each consortium at least once a year, so there’s a lot of travelling.

Qualifications

  • French scientific baccalauréate with biology specialty and English international option (1999)
  • BSc in biology, Imperial College London (2002)
  • PhD in molecular cell biology, Imperial College London (2005)

Career history

  • Teaching A-level biology and sports physiology, Collingham Sixth Form College, Chelsea and Westminster
  • Copy-editor at ‘Nature Reviews Immunology’ (2006-08)
  • Science Grants Writer, Charles Darwin Foundation, Galapagos Islands (2008)
  • Science Portfolio Adviser, Wellcome Trust (2009-11)
  • International Activities Adviser, Wellcome Trust (2011-present)

Top tip

Do some research, do some shadowing in the lab, and try to do some work abroad in low- and middle-income countries so you can get a feeling for what it’s like out there. There are loads of organisations that will take on students to help build a school in Mozambique or collect data for clinical studies, for example.

This article was originally part of the online content for ‘Big Picture: Careers from biology’. Read more profiles and find out more about careers with biology on the website

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