Dr Tahira Anwar

University of Helsinki, 2019
Tell us a bit about yourself – what was your PhD about and where did you study?
Hi everybody, I am Dr. Tahira, Italian born in Rome with Pakistani origins. After obtaining my Master´s degree in biological sciences, I moved to Finland where I joined the University of Helsinki in order to pursue a PhD degree in Biochemistry. I graduated last December 2019. During my PhD I studied autophagy, a cellular degradative self-eating process. Our cells use autophagy as a quality control system, to keep themselves happy and clean from damaged/old organelles and/or cytoplasmic constituents. Autophagy is activated by our cells in response to many triggers such as starvation, hypoxia, infections, cellular remodeling, etc. Impaired autophagy is implicated in several diseases like cancer, cardiomyopathies, muscular and neurodegenerative diseases. Autophagy is a fairly new field and understanding every step of this fascinating process could potentially be beneficial in the fight against these diseases.

What do you do now? What did you decide to do next after gaining your PhD?
I am looking for a job and when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it made things a lot more difficult for job hunting. After graduating, I decided to leave academia and I have been applying for jobs in industries. I have enjoyed doing research and working in a scientific laboratory, but I am looking to use my expertise and the gained skills in a non-academic setting. I am also looking for ways to be more socially active and involved in science outreach activities.

Has having a PhD helped in developing your career? If yes, what has been the biggest impact? If no, why do you think that is?
Yes, my PhD has certainly helped me developing my career, as well as shape me as a person. I became an independent researcher, completed a very challenging research project, worked often under pressure on multiple projects, collaborated with various research groups and acquired many transferable skills. I worked for 10 years in a very challenging country and a close-up working environment. Despite the many difficulties, I successfully defended my PhD degree, making resilience one of the important characteristics of mine that led me to success.

What’s one piece of advice that you’d offer prospective students considering a PhD?
It´s important to consider all factors before embarking in a PhD journey which can be very tough and challenging. Do you really want to do a PhD? What are you planning to do with it afterwards? Though many things can change during a PhD, it´s important to set and define your goals and what you want to achieve. During my PhD, I struggled a lot with my mental health, caused by the lack of a solid working community, isolation and poor work-life balance. I used to work every day and over the weekends too and that caused me to burnout. I highly recommend setting some boundaries in order to have a healthy work-life balance. Take regularly time off for yourself and for your interests and do not feel guilty! Taking care of yourself is an investment in your well-being and should be an everyday task!

And what one thing would you suggest that new PhD graduates should do next?
For very long time I thought that academia was the only way to go after obtaining a PhD. It is not! There are many things you can do with your PhD; you just have to look around and find the many possibilities and occasions out there for PhD holders. Think of all the skills you have gained, what you like the most and how you would like to put all that in use. Don’t get discouraged, job hunting, especially in such critical times is difficult, but stay focused and keep applying!

Lastly, what’s your favourite memory from your time as a PhD student?
During my PhD I supervised many students working on their research projects in our laboratory. I always enjoyed this part of my curriculum. Mentoring young generations has always been such a rewarding experience. I loved seeing their interest in science and research growing day by day, their happiness in doing an experiment correctly, the enthusiasm when learning a new technique or the excitement when having an idea! We were growing together, they learned from me but I also learned from them.

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