Here at Wageningen University and Research, we believe an inclusive culture contributes to better research and teaching. In an inclusive culture, everyone feels safe and welcome. The Gender projectteam at WUR is working on this culture in various ways. One such way is empowering women. How do you make a difference? We will be publishing a series of interviews this year, featuring women we feel are role models at WUR.
“There is no single route to becoming a successful scientist. Follow your own path and find out what works for you." Talking to us is Vera Ros, Assistant Professor of the Virology research group, Tenure Tracker and recently, she was awarded a VIDI scholarship.
How does a child born in tiny Sint Isidorushoeve in the Dutch Twente region become a successful scientist in Wageningen? What's your story?
Vera Ros: "I saw a promotional film about Wageningen University and Research at secondary school. I immediately thought: That's where I want to go! I was always interested in nature, especially in how nature works. I had an inquiring mind and was always outdoors. I wanted to understand everything and thought I'd be a forest ranger or something that had to do with nature conservation. I eventually started studying biology at Wageningen in 1997 and after some years living and working elsewhere, I finally came back here."
So you're back in Wageningen, but how did you get from to the dream of becoming a forest ranger to becoming a Virology researcher?
Vera: “Becoming a scientist was not initially my dream. However, during my study at Wageningen, I discovered an interest in insects and microorganisms. I trained as an evolutionary biologist and after I graduated, I focused on genetics and molecular biology. Things turned out like that because I always want to understand something works. I’ve always wanted to understand nature. I found plants slightly less interesting; insects have behaviour and movement."
In the meantime, you've been in the United States. What kind of research were you doing there?
Vera: “I was working on ticks and Lyme disease. It's a fascinating subject, because it's also about interaction. It was a great experience, but I didn't want to settle in the US. I missed European humour. Around that time, I saw an interesting vacancy in the Virology research group."
So, back to Wageningen. Where did your path take you after that and do you have any tips?
“I gave myself till my 40th to get established in research. There's no fixed route. It’s not the case that you absolutely must go abroad to become successful. As far as that's concerned, there's a prevailing standard which isn't true. There are many possible routes, but stay true to yourself above all. Do what feels right and suits you. One important tip I'd like to give is that it’s very important to be noticed. Develop your network, attend conferences, make sure the professional field knows who you are. And this is a tip for those supervising PhD students too. Send your PhD students to all kinds of places. Attract attention to them and at the same time, throw them in at the deep end. That's the best way to learn! We're sometimes too careful here.”
You sometimes hear complaints about the Tenure Track system. How do you feel about it and how do you preserve a healthy balance?
“I have no problem with it. It is hard work of course. Especially in addition to family, sports and friends. For example, I made a conscious decision not to work on weekends. That's the time I want to focus on home. It's okay to be quite rigorous about that. It's not about doing as much as possible, it's about doing the right things and finding the right balance for you. You don't have to be perfect at everything to become successful.
Working in science also gives you a certain degree of flexibility. The emphasis is on output rather than hours of production. To keep the right focus, I sometimes block off some days in my diary and make sure that I'm working off-campus.”
You recently won a VIDI scholarship. What's your next step?
“I want to expand my group. I'm working on taking an increasingly prominent position in the field. Teaching and motivating people gives me energy. There's still a whole world waiting to be discovered, so I want to continue doing interesting research. Questions such as: why are some viruses not visible? And how do they stay invisible? What interactions take place between viruses and insects? It’s very complex and I want to understand the whole system.”