How to overcome any obstacles on the path to achieving your dream - interview with Diana Gaete

Updated: Jul 24, 2020

Today I want to tell you a story, the story of Diana. What I learned from her story are the most important skills to successfully complete a PhD: determination and courage. Together with the ability to adapt, the resilience to never give up and the wisdom of learning from every experience.

In these uncertain times it’s very easy to get anxious, demotivated or so worried that keeping a normal life and rhythm can become a challenge. That’s why especially now we need inspiring stories to reflect and reorganise our priorities.

I met Diana during a course organised by the PhD program, but I didn’t get to know her very well back then. A few months later, I met her one morning on the tram on the way to work and I got to hear her story.

I encourage you to talk to people on the tram, in the elevator, in the cafeteria of your institute.. You never know what amazing stories you can discover!

Who is Diana Gaete?

I was born in Venezuela from Chilean parents, they had to leave the country due to conflicts in South America, but then moved back to Chile. Since I grew up in Chile I define myself as a Chilean. My father is a veterinarian, he had a small lab in the house and when I was 10 years old I used to help him to run tests for animal samples. It was fascinating for me and that’s why I loved biology and I wanted to be a scientist. He was also travelling a lot for work, so biology and travel were in my life from the very beginning.

How did you follow up your early scientific curiosity in your studies?

At university I enrolled in biochemistry because I liked biology and chemistry, but I didn’t know what I was going into... In Chile Biochemistry is a 6 years course, corresponding to a master-like degree in Europe, and the first year I struggled, because coming from a small village, with a small school, we didn’t have enough background knowledge. In the end it took one more year but I finished!

What are the opportunities for a scientific career in Chile?

Sadly, in Chile I would be making more money as a waitress than as a biochemist.

This is a pity because there are people who are very motivated about science, but at some point they have to leave the country because it’s not sustainable.

The first years of my career I was never paid, the system can afford to underpay employees because even if someone refuses the position there is a line of people that would take that place for very little money.

For example, I did my thesis in marine biology, studying the toxins of red tides, not because I was interested in the topic but because it was the only place I found where they would pay the internship for the thesis.

Afterwards I found a lab working on cancer immunotherapy, which is what interests me the most, and I was working there as an unpaid research assistant. The project was great and it resulted in a publication, meanwhile a postdoc in the lab was encouraging me to pursue my career in science. So I applied for a master and got the position, but without the scholarship I could not afford to enroll there and I kept working in the lab until I found a paid position in a pharma company. Meanwhile I started applying to PhD programs in Germany but I was not getting any replies.

Why did you choose Germany for your PhD?

In Germany there are many resources to do whatever you want with your project. And even if I want to do a job because I like it, not because of the money, here in Germany employees are treated as human beings and the salaries for PhD students are good. I am happy I can do what I like and get enough money to pay the rent and put food on the table.

How did you decide to move to Germany to apply for PhD positions?

The pharma company where I was working was bought by Pfizer, the branch was closed and everyone was fired. Then I thought it was my opportunity to move to Germany and apply for a PhD from there. I found a work-holiday visa for a year and I got it starting from summer 2016. Until then I started learning German while trying to keep myself motivated reading papers. But it was a difficult time to have to wait, knowing that it would result in a one-year-gap on the CV.

I have to say, I am very impressed by how you can turn a difficult situation like being fired into a new opportunity to follow your dreams.

When I finally moved to Germany, I was looking for accommodation through couch surfing and I found a nice German girl in Hamburg who offered me her couch for one month. I started from zero, applying for any kind of job: walking dogs, cleaning houses, waitressing…

First of all I was very impressed by how many jobs that don’t require qualifications are available in Germany: after only two weeks I found a job! While I was cleaning houses I was learning German by small talking, and people were very surprised that I would do this kind of job since I had a master and was applying for a PhD.

In my opinion you can do whatever job because a job is just a job.

Then I started working as a waitress in a Canadian restaurant in Hamburg, which was perfect because I could speak English, and I worked there for eight months.

Meanwhile I kept applying for PhD programs and I got a lot of rejections, but at least I was getting replies, which was already better than in Chile. Finally, two months before my visa expired, I received a positive answer from the DIGS-BB program in Dresden and I had to prepare for a Skype interview.

Again, I am very impressed by your positive attitude when it got difficult to face many rejections, and by your ability to focus on the silver lining, on the fact that at least you were receiving replies, even if negative.

Photo by @oliver_photographer on Unsplash

What motivated you during these months of applications and rejections?

It wasn’t easy, because I got lots of rejections, my visa in Germany was running out and I was stressed thinking that it was the opportunity of my life.

But I also thought that no matter what, even if I would have failed, at least I tried and I could move on without regrets.

Meanwhile I also met my now husband: he was supposed to teach me English while I would teach him Spanish. It didn’t work out because he didn’t learn Spanish but that’s another story. In this first year in Germany I had a really nice experience, discovering that I could take care of myself and always find a way to pay the bills.

After this I can do everything - I thought.

What did you learn while working as a waitress?

In my opinion the best thing to do is to work for a few months in a non scientific job, to learn to be humble and realise that the people that are doing these kinds of jobs are the ones keeping society together. What we do in the lab is nothing compared to that. It really helps to get perspective and to put yourself in other people’s shoes.

For me it was a motivational experience, because I knew I could do more with my brain. It wasn’t fulfilling to know that at the end of the day when you close the door the job is done. I got the confirmation that science is what I really want to do, and I acquired the awareness that I could make it.

It was important to clearly see what I want to do and who I want to be.

Moreover, I am now aware of being able to make it no matter what and always have food on the table and a roof over my head.

Going back to the interview for the PhD position in the DIGS-BB program, how did you deal with the selection process?

I read everything about the DIGS-BB, prepared for the Skype interview, arranged the room to look nice and myself to look professional, I even tested Skype in advance. Everything was ready, but when the call started my computer died and I had to use my phone. I was very stressed, they asked me exactly about the topic I didn’t want and I didn’t know how to answer the question about my motivation to join the PhD program. So I didn’t think I passed, but the interview was supposed to last 20 minutes and we spoke for almost 40 minutes, after which they invited me to the selection week in Dresden.

I came by bus from Hamburg on the first day of the interview week. The busses here in Germany are not like in Chile, where you can recline the seat and sleep: I was stuck with a huge guy in the back and I could not sleep even a minute!

I put all my efforts in the poster presentation that was happening on the first day, but the group leaders I applied to didn’t show up at the poster or didn’t pay any attention to it.

Several students came to talk to me about my poster and at some point another professor, a really tall guy, screamed at me: “You are the girl of the tumor poster! Tell me about your poster!”

We talked for one hour and a half and I didn’t even feel the time passing, my mouth was dry from the extensive talking. He mentioned to me that he loved my cover letter and the fact that I was working as a waitress. It felt weird that he knew so many things about me and I didn’t know anything about him!

On the second day, the candidates were examined by a panel of five professors. I was very stressed and forgot who I was... I even forgot the word "transcription factor"!

In the evening I got the email saying that I failed the examination and therefore I was not accepted to the PhD program. I was desperate thinking that I blew up my only chance and I called my dad crying.

While I was crying in the shower, I remembered that one of the student representatives that gave us a tour of the institutes mentioned that, if we were very motivated, we could contact the professor directly in case we failed the exam. I contacted the professor Ben Wielockx asking for an internship, since he seemed very interested in my poster and I was worried to have two whole years without scientific experience on my CV. I could not believe it when he wrote me at the same time asking to meet to discuss the project!

The meeting started in a funny way: we were supposed to meet on the second floor, but in Chile it corresponds to the first floor so I was waiting on the wrong floor. Luckily he found me and he started explaining everything about the project.

He wanted me to join the lab!

When I talked to the lab members I felt like it was another test, so I was trying my best to be interesting, being as funny and knowledgeable as possible. Afterwards I was exhausted, but when they asked me when I could start I answered: Tomorrow!

I was supposed to start on the 15th of May 2018 but I came on the 1st and sat in the library to read all the papers, I was so motivated and excited!

People told me I had a smile from here to Tokyo.

After I joined the lab, I was encouraged by my supervisor to re-apply to the PhD program in fall, and I got the position.

Why did you want to do a PhD?

I always knew that I wanted to be a scientist, and the people who supported me along the way told me I could do it. Through all my experiences I knew that I wanted a job that challenged my brain and fulfilled my curiosity.

What helped you to get the PhD position?

For sure some luck, if Ben would not have been there I would not have gotten any position, but also perseverance. The selection process in the DIGS-BB is a very stressful procedure, they test you on many different aspects.

The first time I didn’t think I was strong enough to do it. But after being in the lab, they took me by the hand and convinced me that I could do it, that I was already doing it.

What are the perks of doing a PhD in Germany?

Definitely having whatever technique you can imagine is a great advantage, in Chile you have to wait months to be able to use a specific microscope, you need to use “the smell of an antibody” as my teacher would say, while here we can “shower in antibodies”.

The best part is that if you have an idea you can pursue it.

I love my project, having the possibility to use amazing techniques and being able to develop my ideas.

Who are the people that inspire you?

The majority of people that inspire me are women in science.

Inspiring people are very smart and good professionals, they excel at what they are doing, but most importantly they are good people.

Mentors teach not only how to do the job but also how to be fully a human being, a 360 degrees person.

The first person who inspired me was in university my teacher of macromolecules. She was an awesome teacher and even if her exams were very difficult, if you failed the test you felt that it was your fault. She would kill you with kindness. She was a teacher that would light you fire of curiosity, she would let you experiment in the lab and learn from your mistakes.

Then the two postdocs, one in the immunotherapy lab and one in the pharma company. Both of them are extremely intelligent women and great scientists. They always took time to help me understand, asking questions and inspiring confidence. They encouraged me to go for a PhD telling me that I was capable, that I could do it.

Lastly, Ben inspires me because he is a great person, he gave me a chance showing interest in my poster and in my work. He liked my personal story and the fact that I was working as a waitress to apply for PhD positions. Ben is a mentor that encourages you to propose ideas and pursue them.

Photo by @goian on Unsplash

After listening to Diana’s story I was deeply inspired by her ability to always find the silver lining: for every missed opportunity there’s another one ready to be grabbed, if only we are courageous enough to look for it. I am grateful to her for sharing with me her humour and positive energy, which clearly fuel her perseverance. Her story is an invitation to be grateful for what I have and inspires me to work hard to achieve my dreams!

For those of you who are still not sure if you are ready to get out of your comfort-zone in order to follow your dreams, I would like to leave you with a beautiful quote that Diana told me at the end of the interview:

You don’t lose the fear but become braver You can do everything even if you are scared

She told me that she has been scared every single day after coming to Germany, but this didn’t stop her from taking action and achieving her goal!

Now think about the obstacles that are on your path:

are you willing to get uncomfortable to overcome them?

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