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Dr Jelena Vladić, NOVA School Of Science And Technology, University NOVA Lisbon, Portugal; Recipient Of The UNESCO – Al Fozan International Prize For The Promotion Of Young Scientists In Stem

Cooperation Is Key To Success

Saying “I don’t know a lot about this, but I want to learn” is halfway to success in scientific projects and ideas. Openness to new ideas and completely different approaches, abandoning safe and familiar frameworks, is that which brings innovation in science

When I completed my pharmacy studies at the Faculty of Medicine and began my doctoral studies at the Faculty of Technology, where I was also employed in the Department of Pharmaceutical Engineering, I very often received comments that, as a pharmacist, I didn’t belong in engineering. That certainly didn’t feel nice, but it very quickly became a huge advantage and the wind in my sails. I first learned to overcome such situations and utilise them for my personal development, while that also turned out to be a professional advantage. Specifically, entering a new field meant that I very quickly had to learn and master new things, which helped me view all scientific problems from at least two different perspectives. I also rapidly overcame my fear of the unknown and developed the courage to go further in a new area.

I can say that my international experience and connections with transnational teams, which have differing approaches and expertise, helped me the most on my scientific journey. Closing ourselves off in a secure environment and only working with what we know certainly won’t lead to innovation, but that is unfortunately very prevalent in academic circles, in my opinion. Stepping into the unknown can be scary, because the lack of knowledge makes you feel insecure. However, after a certain period, when you feel like you’ve actually expanded your skills, research area etc., you are greatly encouraged and desire to continue that personal and professional development.

Another thing I consider as being crucial to my development is the team. Namely, after defending my doctoral thesis, my colleague and I formed a team with operating principles that differed from those of traditional teams. This approach that guides me implies giving young people in science space for creativity, freedom and new ideas. This is what I needed, and it very quickly resulted in me becoming independent in my research.

I’m proud of our work in the field of microalgae, where we succeeded in marrying scientific expertise from the fields of pharmaceuticals and green technologies, microalgal biotechnology, engineering in wastewater treatment and organic chemistry

When I began working with scientists from Portugal with expertise in the microalgae field, I knew very little about microalgae. They similarly lacked any knowledge of my field of green solvents and extractions. Despite huge difference in terms of years of experience between us, we simply sat together and all presented our ideas equally. Saying “I don’t know a lot about this, but I want to learn” is halfway to success in scientific projects and ideas. Openness to new ideas and completely different approaches, abandoning safe and familiar frameworks, is that which brings innovation in science. And that’s why I’m proud of our work in the field of microalgae, where we succeeded in marrying scientific expertise from the fields of pharmaceuticals and green technologies microalgal biotechnology, engineering in wastewater treatment, and organic chemistry. That motivated and encouraged me greatly, such that I now enter new projects with ease and huge enthusiasm.

I also believe that joint approaches and activities are key to responding to the global challenges we currently face. Scientists truly have a great responsibility to offer solutions. However, scientific reactions alone aren’t enough. It is necessary to broaden participation, promote endeavour, and harmonize activities of all groups, governments, policymakers, and the general population. Mutual understanding and respect among all participants, and the opportunity for everyone’s voice to be heard, is key to success, and I hope that, as a society, we will improve this.

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