Saturday, July 13, 2024

In Conversation With Elisa Dioguardi

R&D Scientist with a Ph.D. in Biomedicine from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm

With a Ph.D. in Biomedicine from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Elisa has experience around Medical Science, and she is currently an R&D scientist in an international pharmaceutical company. Growing up in Italy, Elisa had a rough start when she lost her mother to breast cancer at the tender age of ten years. While opening up on this childhood memory of hers, Elisa says, “One day, when I was at the hospital, I was reading a scientific poster on the wall, and I decided that I’d study Science. And here I am, doing research on cutting edge technologies to help people.”

She has a keen interest in Science which fills her curious nature. In addition, Elisa is a Scientist who holistically approaches solutions for the greater good. Fantastic energy, proactive, self-organized, and the drive to contribute value to society and advance human health are some of the core values that describe her well.

Speaking about becoming successful, Elisa points out the perspective we are taught, “We often relate success to wealth. From a very young age, we are asked what we would like to do or what job we aspire for to become successful. We have been told that success means money and that we should make smart decisions to reach such a goal. As a result of that, we follow the safest path, searching for some sort of stability, a job that pays well, forgetting what we really love in life. Sometimes, without testing all the options. Success for me is being satisfied with who I am and recognizing that I am a happy person.”

Her journey gives hope to those who may feel helpless even at a young age. Elisa’s life offers hope to many people and enables them to realize that life can be challenging. Still, you can transform struggles into strengths by seeking new opportunities and being determined to achieve your goals.

Breaking gender stereotypes at home and work and driven by curiosity, Elisa’s research work and skills go beyond understanding complex technology across multiple sectors. Driven by her fascination with seeing molecules and how they assemble, Elisa chose to study structural biology, a discipline that allows obtaining atomic resolution of macromolecules.

“Combining structural biology to biological questions is a powerful recipe for understanding nature. From virology and oncology to female reproduction, I have always been interested in studying proteins with high relevance for human health,” says Elisa.

She joined for a short while Endometrix, a Medtech startup focused on developing a mobile app for tracking symptoms of endometriosis. “This is a chronic gynecological condition affecting 1 to 10 women. Unfortunately, women suffer in silence since it is a condition with a widespread lack of awareness”. Elisa is currently a Scientist working with a pharmaceutical company, committed to the Research & Development of drugs for rare diseases.

Elisa’s Early Life & Career

Reflecting on her teen years, she shares some advice to the youth, “A teenager’s life can be challenging in its own way, and picking up the right type of friends helps. So, if I reflect upon those times, I’d suggest falling into the right category of people and treasure love and meaningful relationships.”

Having gained a lot of experience and knowledge both in the industry and academic environments, Elisa Dioguardi is a team player who loves to work in a diverse group. She says, “It would be too boring living a life in a not diverse place. I like exploring and diving deep into people’s stories if I have the opportunity. I feel that there is so much to learn from each of them.”

Life throws hardships to all of us, but few bring the good out of it that radiates. Her desire to find a purpose out of challenges and how she embraces lifelong learning and continues to learn despite having so many accomplishments is inspiring.

Join us in learning more about her life journey, the challenges she faced along the way, how Elisa overcame her hardships, and the daily choices that led to where and what she is today!

Elisa Dioguardi, with a Ph.D. from KI Sweden, is a Scientist & Researcher who has a keen interest in understanding nature and went on to learn structural biology and X-ray crystallography.

What was your dream as a kid, and what did you want to be as an adult?

Well, it sounds like a cliche, but I’ve always been curious since I was a child. And this is something that it’s still in me. Sometimes I get the impression that we don’t differ so much from our childhood. Even though I’m 38 now, I sense the same attitude I had when I was young. I like questioning, knowing why, and being surprised by people and situations.

My childhood was a little bit traumatic after losing my mother, followed by my aunt’s demise a few years later. Amidst this, I remember a day when I was at the hospital where I promised myself that I’d be doing Science to understand illnesses. I guess that’s the reason why I’m a scientist today. So, I knew already what I wanted to be at the age of 10.

I’m sorry for your loss. It must be so hard for you to cope, especially as a young child. I hope you found the strength to recover from the loss.

I believe that we all are aware of post-traumatic stress as a type of disorder after experiencing a shocking event. However, there is something even more beautiful, known as post-traumatic growth. And this is a turning point that the person experiences after the tragedy. My past is part of me, and it shaped me to become the person I am today. It has been a long journey, and I’m perfectly fine and happy to share it with you.

The courage you display is astonishing. It’s inspiring because losing someone so dear to you at a young age and experiencing it once again must be devastating. How did you cope, especially as a young child? Who/What was your inspiration during the time?

I guess the choice of studying Science was a way to face my fears regarding illness and loss. So fast forward to now, I’m a Scientist, doing research to understand why we get ill and what we can do about it. I found it essential to stay close to people who loved me and re-established new habits and routines as a young child. Luckily, time heals.

Coming back to your question about having an inspiration, I am a person who prefers to be inspired by real acquaintances. I appreciate reading books and stories which I feel connected with, and I follow up artists or activists. However, the best part is getting inspiration from the people around me. I treasure what people offer and what they can teach me. So, I think my role models would be my friends and the people with whom I have meaningful relationships because I sort of know who they are and where they come from.

For example, one of my best friends, who I admire so much, is a very dedicated teacher who loves her students and her job. She has a master’s degree in arts and decided to take two specialization degrees in learning disabilities to best support her students, also those who might have some difficulties. Her dedication and passion are perfect sources of inspiration.

So, she is a role model who is intelligent and passionate about what she does and has a very defined purpose of what she wants to do for a larger group. So, yeah, that could be an example of the kind of inspiration I seek.

I get inspired if I feel that I can learn something from that person. It is a way to enrich myself and become a better person.

I think it’s safe to say knowledge is your inspiration.

Yeah, knowledge represents a significant portion of that, I would say. It comes in all sorts of shapes and forms, and it is very much connected to experiences. For instance, moving to a new country, learning new languages, being in an international context, motherhood, and unemployment are all experiences that enriched my knowledge. Therefore, I tend to maximize my learning lessons depending on the situation in a manageable and sustainable way.

Then, let’s call you a lifelong learner!

Absolutely! I’m always thinking and projecting what I’m going to do next because it is fun. But still, I try not to detach from where I am right now because that would be like not living the present. I was a bit more impulsive in the past, but I try my best to work on my negative side well.

That’s nice that you already know your weaknesses because most of us are unaware of them. On that note, what advice would you give to your 20s something? And is there something you would do differently now?

I would say not to rush. At the beginning of my 20s, I was happy as it was the beginning of university, and I finally started to feel better. It was a new environment, I found new friends at the university, and finally, I could begin studying Science. So, I was looking forward to the path that would unfold for me.

During that time, I started to broaden my interests to do something out of myself, becoming interested in many other matters, including art, history, psychology, tech, and theatre.

But, in essence, I would say not to rush. And yeah, always try to see what other opportunities might give you. That would be a good lesson, I believe.

In addition, I would like to say that high school days can be pretty challenging for many teenagers. And things can quickly go against you if you don’t pick the right type of friends. So, if I reflect upon those times, I would suggest falling into the right category of people and cherishing meaningful relationships.

Okay. What is your strategy for rewarding yourself? Do you feel the need to accomplish something to celebrate yourself, or are you someone who embraces self-love organically? And what’s your technique around self-reward?

I think it’s super good to acknowledge the fact that you are good at something or even feel good with very simple things. So, for example, if there is an achievement at my work or in my personal life, I celebrate, cheer myself up and realize, wow, this is amazing! It can be a small gesture like a special after-work or a celebration at home with my family, a movie night, or a nice dinner.

For instance, when I was a Ph.D. student, I was so focused on the project, and it was challenging to navigate the pressure of getting no results. In addition, it takes a lot of time to achieve the overall goal as a student. So, I would encourage students to not entirely project all the expectations on a long-term goal but instead actively celebrate small achievements. Also, one can make a retrospective analysis and try to put them on a timeline.

I agree! What do you think the turning points have been in your life?

There are several turning points in my life. But, of course, when you take the first one, I think you change direction, then there will be another one consecutively.

However, my very first turning point was the choice of learning structural biology and X-ray crystallography.

Then the second was having moved abroad. I moved to Sweden, and I chose to move there because of the project and the beautiful city of Stockholm. Also, I knew that the Ph.D. in Sweden is slightly different from other countries. I have learned so much over the last ten years. Overall, I’m pleased with my decision; all this would have been impossible if I hadn’t moved. So, I think that’s a significant turning point in my life.

How was the thesis or your journey in the university different from Italy? What are the differences from your perspective?

Each journey is individual and depends on many factors, like the type of the group, projects or techniques, size of the collaboration network, funding, and expectations. Overall, Sweden has very well-organized doctoral programs, where students earn enough to live independently.

At university, we speak English and get exposed to this beautiful international network. I don’t remember experiencing the same level of internationality during my master’s at the University of Milan. We were working and speaking Italian all the time. So I think this prohibits the level of exposure to the international landscape. Having said that, it might be different now.

What are your thoughts about diversity? Does it help or hamper us as a group? And how does it shape us as human beings?

I love diversity. It would be too boring living your life in a not so diverse place. And I can tell that I experience it every day at home since my partner is Swedish. The beauty of it is that we constantly adjust ourselves and our relationship with extra care and an open mind by mitigating our differences.

Diversity is also great in the workplace because it gives the opportunity to test and develop your personality as a team member. Also, you learn to communicate effectively and collaborate happily.

That said, it may sometimes slightly hamper work-related things because if you don’t manage to understand and communicate with each other effectively, it can reduce momentum at work. Also, some people can find it challenging to cultivate the mindset of how each other thinks and perceives in a diverse working environment.

How do you manage daily stress? What tips and techniques do you practice for mental wellbeing?

I’d say that the most important thing is to keep your body healthy. That’s the number one rule. So, I tend to do some sport with my 5yo child. I try to mix it with some exercise or causal outdoors. Also, I think doing some yoga helps calm the mind.

Regarding managing daily stress, I tried to keep a sustainable way of living. I also do it at work, where I learn to prioritize and avoid rushing through tasks. As an impulsive person, I remind myself not to think fast or get things done quickly. There is time for everything, and I don’t need to complete my to-do list in one day. I usually leave my Sundays for relaxing playtime with the kids. Evenings are for reading. It’s good to find a strategy with even small things, as long as you feel a purpose to it.

Could you share with us the future of Biotechnology? For example, Robotics has proven beneficial to healthcare. We have robots performing surgery. Tech and Medical Science are merging faster than ever. According to you, what types of degrees in this sector are potentially good for jobs and career opportunities?

I think that technology can definitely help if used in the right way. For example, you mentioned robotics, which is great because if you want surgery from the best surgeons in England, you can still do it from any part of the world. That’s brilliant.

Nowadays, there are digital tools to follow up on patients’ specific symptoms or even predict prognosis. But, back when I joined Endometrix, a startup focused on helping women with endometriosis, I was surprised how many women suffer in silence without receiving the right support.

Tech might help to reach a faster diagnosis for a large portion of people. I think about undiagnosed neurological conditions and mental wellbeing and how stressful it can be to live without knowing the root of the problem.

Coming back to courses or degree recommendations to the youth, I think it really depends on what you like as a person. So, if I had the opportunity to discuss it with my niece, for example, I suggest not worrying about choosing one category because the world is becoming multidisciplinary. So you can work and contribute in a team with someone from a different field line and create something new. And I think being diverse and multidisciplinary is key to developing new technologies. It’s also essential to have a certain amount of knowledge to drag your curiosity towards something.

Alright. Do you think holding a degree is still relevant in today’s fast-changing multidisciplinary work culture?

Within my discipline, research, I would say you absolutely need a degree. You would need to go through a strict learning experience. I think Ph.D., in general, trains your mind and way of thinking. It makes you a resilient person. So, I would encourage students not to stop learning because we constantly need to explore and learn.

Sometimes, those that do not complete academic education also end up great as they get too good at executing over the years. I guess we are all different, and it depends on how good you are.

Let’s take photography as an example. I sometimes hear many people would just take a course in one genre of photography and start practicing the art. But I think the best photographers are people who studied the basics in classes and the aesthetics of photography. They can excel in several genres of photography.

So, if you don’t cover the basics, you cannot thrive so much. However, there are always exceptions and people who are so talented without any special training.

Yeah, I think we need to build a strong foundation, understand the core concepts well, and perhaps build on top of that. Also, stay curious and get better.

Absolutely. I think you need to set the ground to be able to move on at a large scale. And it also depends on the person you are. Some of us are content with executing the task, while others love striving more. For the latter one, an appropriate education would certainly help. Lastly, the competition in certain disciplines is so high that a degree is more than welcome.

Since you had faced the traumatic event of losing your loved ones at a very young age, could you share how you found the mental strength to cope with it? Also, what is your advice/message to people who have faced a similar experience in life?

I guess I’d tell someone young who has lost their mother/father that time heals people. And it’s okay to feel depressed and not know how to move on. But it’s critical to move forward, no matter how deep your loss is. Acceptance is the first big step towards healing. There is a purpose in life, and your whole life is ahead. So, you cannot just forget it.

Time heals everything; nobody has a perfect life, so eventually, accept it. Like Albert Einstein said: balance is about movement.

Also, as teens, we think we are facing the most critical problems in life. But the truth is, we all have our own issues going on. So, never minimize others’ pain; try seeing others’ life and put yourself in their shoes. And that would be mind-blowing. That’s what I learned later when I was in my 20s.

My strength was maybe the struggles I already had as a child. Because of that, I’ve become stronger, and of course, I have gotten help from my family and friends along the way.

I think it’s essential to have the right connections in life.

Yeah, that’s an excellent point – it’s okay to be depressed but don’t get stuck with it. Instead, accept and acknowledge the pain. It’s okay to carry it with you, but you got to move forward.

How do you align your personal life and work-life? And how do you succeed and grow in both?

I always balance the two things – professional and personal lives. To me, one part does not exclude the other. So, I cannot be a better mother if I’m not professionally satisfied, and vice versa, they are two things that align together.

So, how to achieve success?

You need to first understand who you are and what drives you. Everyone has a different drive, and you need to know which one is yours. It is good not to think about your next step necessarily; instead, think about what makes you happy and what you would like to do in the future. So, keep finding yourself by embracing constant awareness of who you are and what makes you happy personally and professionally.

Work and personal life are no more two different entities, and the line between work and personal life is getting blurrier. So how do you blend both, or what’s your formula around work and life integration?

It’s funny because as a result of the pandemic, the workplace has entered our homes. In the past, we would always try to keep them separate as much as possible. Now we take meetings in our living room, with half of the clothes on😉. Unlike many others, I’ve continued to follow the exact mechanism even now.

So, after working hours, I forget everything about work and try to be fully present with my family. And when I’m at work, I entirely block my family unless it’s essential. This way, even my kids grow to respect my time and work, and eventually, they will do the same. But it was not the same when I was a Ph.D. student, I had so much going on, and my brain was constantly thinking. So, it depends on each individual. You have to train your mind and find what makes you give your 100% at work and family.

What are your thoughts on gender stereotypes and how to deal with them?

In my family, we don’t have gender stereotypes. We help each other, and we try to share all 50%-50%. For instance, on parental leave, I went back to work when my son was 6 months so my partner could also experience changing diapers 8 times a day.

At home, we are both parents, and there is no such thing as a woman’s job or a man’s job. When thinking about labeling, I dislike when language emphasizes even more stereotypes. The classic example in STEM is the definition of a “woman in science” or girls in Science – we are all scientists. Maybe I would distinguish scientists who are good from those who are bad. Or when we had the first Italian astronaut going to space, all the media referred to her as a female Astronomer. I believe even the type of language has to change.

I don’t know how my kids will end up because once they get out of their family bubble into society, they might have problems with stereotypes. But I hope they will be feminists too.

Here’s the last question for the day! What is your definition of success? And what life advice would give people to become successful?

I had this discussion a very long time ago with a friend of mine. We are thought that success relates to wealth. From a very young age, we are asked what we would like to be and what job we aspire for to be one day successful. We have been told that success means money and that we should make smart decisions to reach such a goal. The outcome of such a lesson is that we follow the safest path, searching for some sort of stability and a job that pays well. We tend to forget what we really love, and we become afraid to test the available options. Of course, I don’t deny that financial freedom is unimportant. Even more for women, money also boosts confidence in a certain way and for sure opens doors. But it’s not success in itself.

And so, success for me is being satisfied with who I am and recognizing that I am a happy person. And I think that this is a great success, especially after all these years of completing the challenging journey of my Ph.D. and personal growth. Of course, it has been full of ups and downs. But looking back, recognizing my achievements, and seeing how many chapters I closed in my life gives me a great feeling.

Well, it was lovely talking to you! Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts, tips, and life journey. And we wish you the best in all your endeavors!

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