One woman’s search for a research home
From the Middle East to Europe and North America, Marzieh Heidaritabar talks to Gentec about the meaning behind international science.
Already, as a thirty-something, Marzieh Heidaritabar has lived in six countries as part of her studies and career. Such is the life of a scientist, these days.
“I always knew I wanted to go abroad for my advanced degrees,” she says. “The level of achievement at European and North American universities is higher than at home.”
Building on a Bachelor’s in her native country, Iran, Marzieh won a European Master of science in Animal Breeding and Genetics (EMABG) scholarship. She spent the first year at the renowned SLU (Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Uppsala) and the second at the Norwegian University of Life Science (NMBU) in Sá.
“Wageningen University & Research (WUR) (in the Netherlands, where Marzieh completed her PhD in 2016 on genomic selection in egg-laying chickens) is my second home,” she says. “It’s a small—but highly social and connected—society of students. I was never bored.” Then, over to Aarhus University Foulum for a post-doc, where she already knew several researchers from collaborations with Wageningen.
“I was right about the European universities,” she says. “All of these are in small towns where students are the majority of the population. The facilities, computer labs and digital libraries are excellent, so are the teaching and technical support.
As a testament to the connectivity of the European science community, Marzieh didn’t have to learn any languages. With international reputations and a large international student body, almost all MSc courses are taught in English and the townsfolk are keen to practise their own language skills.”
During her PhD, she also spent several months at Iowa State University (ISU) in Ames, USA. “The ISU group is one of the best in quantitative genetics,” she says. “I learned a lot from my supervisors (Jack Dekkers is a long-time Gentec collaborator). People are hard workers and the group is so dynamic. I also met some faculty members and geneticists from other USA universities and companies.”
Then on to Canada. During Marzieh’s PhD, the Dutch company (Hendrix Genetics) that supplied her data also worked with Gentec CEO, Graham Plastow. Throw in some reminders about Gentec over the years through workshops, colleagues, some reading and fellow Iranians, and Marzieh decided to reach out.
Marzieh has been in Canada since late summer 2018. These days, she is working on swine data for the first time (data provided by Hendrix). She is exploring the potential benefits of whole-genome sequence (WGS) data to improve meat and carcass quality traits in genomic selection programs of purebred and crossbred pigs. Incorporating the biological information from WGS into genomic prediction models will lead to a better understanding of the genomic architecture underlying carcass and meat quality in swine.
Of course, there are pros and cons to moving around so much. Marzieh has learned about different research styles, communication styles, PhD content (North Americans expect PhD students to teach and take subject matter courses: not so in Europe), new cultures and lifestyles—an openness that hasn’t been available to her friends who chose to stay home.
“The disadvantage is that I always feel I’m not settled yet,” she says. “There’s a cost to physically moving your life from place to place. And there’s definitely an anxiety at the beginning about not being familiar with new towns, colleagues, culture and research. Special thanks to Dr. Plastow and other people from Gentec who welcomed me warmly so that I felt at home. I am very glad to be a member of Gentec.”
For someone who was raised to be quiet, it’s been a positive learning experience.
“I was shy,” she says. “Too shy to ask my supervisor for help. The student culture in Wageningen helped change that. You either get help or you don’t, but you have to ask! If I hadn’t left Iran, I wouldn’t be the person I am now.”