In an effort showcase and amplify the voices of early career researchers in ecology, evolution, and behavior, we are sharing their stories, in their own words.
Juliano Morimoto, DPhil (Oxon.) FLS FRES FRSA
Research Fellow, University of Aberdeen
Can you give us the rundown on your ECR journey thus far, from what type of undergraduate institution you went to, to your current position?
I started my journey in my home country, Brazil. After completing my basic education in public schools (which in Latin America, are of ever-declining quality), I was miraculously admitted to a public University in 2009, at the age 17, thanks to the social quota system. That was when I started my academic journey in my BSc in Biological Sciences at the Federal University of Paraná. During my first year, I was discriminated in the University and in the society in two ways: by being Latino mixed race and by having benefited from the social quota. In fact, I was denied student housing simply because I came from a low-middle income class family and a few of my classmates told me I did not deserve to be at the University. In addition to this, during my first years of University, I faced several adversities (both financial and emotional) which were difficult to overcome. For example, one of the professors in the course admitted (at the end of the semester) that she “tried to humiliate me in front of the class to prove I wasn’t worth to be there, and did everything she could to give me low grades”. But in 2010, I met my first ‘angel’ – Prof Elaine Benelli – who took me under her wings, mentored me, and gave me not only an undergraduate stipend (which helped with living), but also connected me to her international collaborators in the field of Structural Biology. Despite not speaking English well (in fact, I did not speak at all English until the age of 15), Prof Benelli encouraged me to apply for an international undergraduate scholarship in 2012, to visit my second angel: Dr Silvia Onesti in Trieste. Dr Onesti hosted me and gave me the opportunity to complete my monography in her group (equivalent to an Honours thesis) at the Synchrotron in Trieste, Italy. That was my first international trip – an international trip I never thought it would be possible for me.
While in Trieste, I met my third angel: Ms Erica Vaccari – from whom I was renting a room. By destiny, she was a fully qualified English teacher, with a HE degree in the UK. She kindly gave me books to improve my (poor) English, which I studied daily. Up to that point though, I had never written more than 200 words of text in the foreign language. That had to change when I decided to change fields and apply for a PhD in Zoology. Where? Well…Oxford. Because why not?
And so, I did and went on to meet some of the most wonderful people, including my (very patient) supervisors Dr Stuart Wigby and Prof Tom Pizzari, as well as friends (graduate students, fly lab ‘mates’, and Heather Green and family). I must admit that my supervisors were (and are) the best, because it must have been really difficult to deal with my writing! But anyways, could this be any better? It could. I also met Bob May (yes, the Bob May), who for absolutely no obligation provided mentorship and advice (Thank you for everything, Bob).
Things started to look better for me, and I was awarded a visiting scholarship to visit Prof Stephen Simpson’s lab downunder. This was a big deal for me: since I was 6 years-old, I dreamed about visiting Australia. But due to my humble beginnings and lack of proper English, I never thought that would happen – until it did. I must admit, I cried when I found out I was going. And so, I went and discovered Australia was indeed, a dream. A dream that I wasn’t ready to let it go. I went back to Oxford, completed my PhD in Zoology in 2016, and found a different academic position in Australia. Albeit not under Prof Simpson’s supervision and not directly within my field of research, I was determined to take any opportunity to move to Australia for good – that was my one-way ticket! Or was it?
It turns out, reality hit me in the face. I experienced extreme forms of work bullying and harassment, demeaning jokes, and a physical threat, which led me to decision to resign. This meant that, after resignation, I had 60 days to find another job to sponsor my visa or else I would have to leave Australia, unemployed, and with a badly affected mental health. That was when Prof Phil Taylor, Dr Fleur Ponton, and Dr Toni Chapman (and Macquarie University) took on the ‘challenge’, and offered me a job. I am very thankful to them for all the support and mentorship, and as well as the academic independence that I was given – which was in hindsight exactly what I needed to recover from the trauma of being bullied (trust me, the side-effects lasted for years, and almost drove me away from academia altogether). I remained in my position for 2.5 years, while trying every possible route to obtain a permanent residency in Australia. Thanks to the politics in Australia though, this did not happen, which meant that I would have to either find another job in Australia to renew my visa, or leave. I decided on the latter, and left the dream behind (full disclosure, until today I can’t see images of the Sydney Opera house without feeling sad and nostalgic…).
But my new opportunity was just perfect – and in many ways, a dream. In 2020, I started a tenure-track position at the University of Aberdeen (UK) where I am now a Research Fellow (equivalent to Lecturer/Assistant Professor). I lead my research group, and our mission is to give people opportunities to achieve their dreams. I have full support of my colleagues, School and the University, which gives me the ideal foundation to flourish in my academic career. Looking back, where I am now still feels unimaginable. From where I started, it seems like an impossible path. But here I am, telling you this story, so that hopefully you can find strength and hope in your own path.
Can you tell us a bit about your research?
My core research contributions so far have been on nutritional ecology in insects. However, my group’s research is broad, spanning from entomology through to dentistry. In the group, we are attracted to good ideas, and do not limit ourselves to disciplines. The purpose of my group’s existence is to be a platform through which people can pursue their questions, no matter which ‘disciplines’ it may be.
Is there a person or people who inspired you to pursue either graduate school or research?
I was lucky to have an older sister (11 years older) who is a scientist. When I was 7 years old, she had just started her undergraduate and when I was 16, she defended her PhD. She practiced her presentation with me as an audience, and without knowing, I was perhaps one of the very few 16 years-old that new about Langmuir-Blodgett films and Tunnelling microscopy! So yes, my sister inspired me to be a scientist.
What has been especially rewarding for you as an ECR?
To me, the most rewarding part of my job (being an ECR or not) is to help people become their best, to give them opportunities, and to watch them flourish. I had the opportunity to give back to my community, through my outreach projects. In my outreach project, we visited and spoke to more than 500 students from public schools with the lowest performance in the Brazilian National exam. But that didn’t mean anything. They were curious, intelligent, and inspired to tap into their potential. Some even decided to apply to a University after our visit, one of their teachers told us. Isn’t that what is important? To me, there is nothing more rewarding to me than to giving people opportunities to chase their dreams, even if with a simple chat and career advice.
What is one piece of advice would you give to a starting graduate student?
Find mentors that truly care for you and your success. Your mentors don’t need to be big-shots in the field – someone that cares for you is worth more than 1,000 Nature papers.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
Perhaps in an uncommon way, my career (and life) was and still is primarily influenced by women. My inspiration to become a scientist, my ‘academic crush’ (i.e., Marie Curie), the majority of my mentors – both from the past and contemporary – are women. I just wanted to share this to say that, no matter what people think, being inspired and mentored by women can take you to your dreams and beyond!