In 2016 Eva Hevia published her 100th paper, had her second child, celebrated her 40th birthday, and won a £14k prize which she will use to strengthen links between scientists in the UK and her native Spain. David Payne attended the prizegiving.
Hevia, professor of inorganic chemisty at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, described herself as a “molecular architect” after receiving the Society of Spanish Researchers in the UK’s inaugural Emerging Talent Award at the Spanish Embassy in London this week.
She went on to describe the importance of organometallic reagents to humankind and their role in the manufacture of food packaging, agrochemicals, medicines, perfumes and cosmetics. The downside, she added, is that they are expensive, finite, carry toxicity concerns, and the supply chain is far from certain.
Her team’s focus is exploring synthesis of mixed metal compounds as a means of building new molecules, which are ultimately more sustainable and cost effective.
If Hevia and other representative’s of SRUK’s 600 members who attended the prizegiving have concerns about June 2016’s Brexit vote and its potential impact on collaboration between British and other European researchers, they weren’t showing it.
Instead the mood was quite rightly celebratory as she outlined how the prize money will help fund opportunities to promote her team’s research area across Spain. This will include a lecture tour of Spanish universities, where — Hevia feels — organometallic chemistry is currently under-represented.
The cash will also enable two PhD students to travel from Spain to Scotland to undertake a five-month research project at the lab Hevia shares with her nine-member team, which currently includes postdocs and PhD students from Spain, Italy, Scotland, and England.
The SRUK prize attracted 52 entrants which were then whittled down to five finalists. Hevia was unanimously declared the winner by a judging panel of nine Spanish scientists who are based either in the UK or Spain.
Panel chair Ginés Morata, a biologist and research professor at the Madrid-based CSID — Centro de Biología Molecular Severo Ochoa — said choosing a winner was not easy but the judges were struck by Hevia’s “tremenduous activity” and noted that she was also a mother of two daughters. He added: “We are missing a lot of talent [in Spain.] I have a sad feeling about that.”
SRUK President Maria Jimenez-Sanchez said the award, sponsored by a charitable foundation established by the Spanish banking group Santander almost 25 years ago, aimed to “support the professional development of our members, give them stability, and promote research.” She added: “We were really impressed with Eva’s CV. She wants to use the funds to promote scientific exchange between Spain and the UK. We were also really impressed with that.”
Nurturing younger talent is both an aim of the prize and was identified by Professor Hevia, its first winner, as a strong personal priority.
A key component of nurturing talent is strong mentorship, which I highlighted recently in a blog about entrepreneurship. But it’s also about giving early career researchers the tools they need to do their job. Early career researchers need fewer burdens and more support, as an editorial published two months ago as part of our “plight of young scientists” special issue put it. Competition leaves researchers with little time for anything not tied directly to getting ahead, the editorial noted.
A second article profiles some researchers who have left academia, and the reasons why, noting: “The hours, the workload, the instability of postdoc positions, the expectations, the low pay, the pressure and competition, the lack of opportunities and the fear of failure: all can combine to make the early-career years difficult indeed.
“The same is true in many other jobs, but young scientists have more reason than most to be disillusioned when things do not go to plan. Almost all have completed a PhD. And almost all would have been told that the qualification — and the effort and dedication involved — was the first step on the ladder to a permanent academic position.”
But perhaps this is being a bit bah humbug (or “grinch,” to quote a colleague) with Christmas coming. ‘Tis the season to be jolly. The evening, hosted by Federico Trillo-Febueroa, Spanish Ambassador to the UK, was certainly that, and more.
David Payne is chief careers editor, Nature