Sarrah Ben M’Barek is a happy PhD student at Plant Research International. She has been awarded a fellowship that allows her to spend two years working uninterruptedly on her PhD at the Wageningen institute.
Working on Mycosphaerella is interesting as well as important, tells Sarrah. ‘It’s an important fungus that affects wheat. Seventy percent of all cereal fungicides are ones that work against Mycosphaerella. In Tunisia, where I’m from, up to half the harvest is lost because of the disease. And we are also seeing M. graminicola isolates developing resistance to fungicides.’
Sarrah started in Wageningen with a Master’s in Plant Biotechnology and graduated two years ago. ‘I wanted to continue with a PhD, but first went back to Tunis. There I supervised practical lessons at the university where I did my Bachelor’s. I got a Tunisian scholarship for six months, that could be renewed each year, and I started my research at Plant Research International in June. The good news with this new scholarship is that I can stay here and don’t have to travel back and forth every few months.’
The Unesco fellowship is sponsored by L’Oreal, and is for young women in the life sciences. She was selected after being nominated by her country of origin. ‘I think they also look at the status of the place where you work and the importance of your subject. And PRI is known worldwide in this field of work.’
At present more women in Tunisia seem to be continuing with a PhD, says Sarrah. ‘Maybe men start looking for a job because they feel they have to start earning money. I haven’t seen much of my boyfriend the past few months, but that’s part of the sacrifice you have to make for science.’ But the fellowship is indeed stimulating. ‘It has given me self-confidence. And I like doing research and experiments, although it’s sometimes hard. Every experiment and everything we read is like a small piece of knowledge. Now I can pursue a research career that allows me to be where exciting discoveries are being made with technologies that are constantly evolving, and that keeps me intellectually sharp.’
In February Sarrah will travel to France to collect her fellowship. ‘That’s part of the deal, that you show up at the ceremony,’ she smiles.