I’m Aitor Patiño Díaz, one of the 15 researchers enrolled in this ITN and I’m working in Francesco Ricci’s lab from Rome.

I’m going to write about my personal story and background, so sit tight, this might be a little long…

I was born in Mérida (Venezuela), a small student city high up in the Andes’ mountains. Although it’s a very beautiful region rich in fauna and flora, with very diverse climates, there’s nothing much to do there besides agriculture and studies… People back home are very polite and mindful of others, a bit shy for Venezuelan standards and have an accent characterized by a slower pace and a special intonation.

I come from a small academic family, both my parents are university professors (Universidad de Los Andes). My dad’s a theoretical physicist and my mom’s a researcher in Venezuelan and Latin American 19thcentury literature, so you can think (as I do) that I’m very lucky to have had such a culturally rich environment growing up.

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Me, naive and young, probably thinking what I was going to do in life…

When I was 8, I left Mérida with my mom and younger sister for Toulouse (France) because she was doing her PhD there, needless to say, it was a life changing experience, specially because it taught me French, multiculturalism, diverse gastronomies and brought me close to many people who would later play a very important role in my professional life.

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My mother, myself and my sister, when I was close to Leave Venezuela.

Four years later, we got back to Mérida to continue my high school, during which time I learnt English on my free time with my friends, with tourists, and by reading national geographic and popular science reports. When I got out of high school, I was deciding between studying Modern languages, Science or Engineering. I said to myself that I wanted to work developing some awesome novel technology, and because I didn’t know much about chemistry, I joined the chemical engineering department in my former University…

Engineering Years and then Science…

Although I’m grateful of having shared the classrooms and labs with many people during those years, learning to work fast and to have a practical mindset, I didn’t feel very comfortable in the faculty nor with the classes… It was a bit too practical for me and I really needed to understand the fundamentals, so I left engineering half way through for a new life in chemical sciences.

I was very scared of this change at the beginning, because I had lost precious time compared to my colleagues, and it didn’t go great for me in the purely chemical subjects from the engineering department… So, I took this new career seriously and studied hard in every subject that I had, reading every paper and book I could get my hands into. It wasn’t extenuating because science is fascinating, it allows you to see and understand the mechanisms with which the world really works.

I can say that I had a lot of fun during my undergrad’ and got to work in diverse fields such as organic, analytical and physical chemistry. Because I had many friends in the biology department, I got very interested in what they did to study the molecular machinery upon which life depends, and we used to spend full afternoons discussing this and asking each other questions about our specific fields, sharing nerdy laughs and fun stories.

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Me in the kinetics lab, with some funky and old “security» glasses, with the Andean mountain range in the backdrop

It was at this time that I understood the importance of transdisciplinary research and collaboration…

Molecular biology was such an exciting topic for me that I joined a 2-year specialization double degree where I studied with biologists Genetics, Physiology, Biochemistry and Bioanalytical Chemistry. Topics which I will always refer to as one of the most beautiful and complex in science, it has kept me dreaming of its technological potential ever since I started.

The chemistry wasn’t forgotten either, as I became a teaching assistant in chemical kinetics and catalysis for 3 years until my graduation. Given my experience in the interface between chemistry and biology, I got in contact with prof. Enrique Millán from the electrochemistry lab and he allowed me to work in an interdisciplinary project with biosensors for the diagnose of Chagas’ disease. It was carried out in collaboration with his lab and the parasite’s enzymology’s from my faculty, and although challenging, I learned a lot and knew from that time that I wanted to become a researcher and work in a multidisciplinary environment.

The road to become a researcher is straightforward, but not so clear in 21stcentury’s Venezuela…

To become a researcher you need a PhD, and it’s possible to get one in Venezuela but it’s not easy to do so because of the economic and political situation that we’ve been suffering for some years now… Personally, I wanted to go out and travel, to take advantage of my double nationality (Spanish) and meet people from different cultures, working in challenging projects in diverse environments.

Because of the complex socio-economic situation back home, most young scientist who’d like to leave or spend some time abroad depend on foreign funding to pursue master degrees or PhDs. It was my case, and after many failed applications for financing my dreams outside of Venezuela, I decided to leave my country and continue studying abroad.

But where to go and how?

The road to become a migrant scientist is different for everyone that I’ve known, but in my case, the first stop had to be Spain (Tenerife) in order to get my paperwork straight. This is a beautiful little island just outside of Morocco, with a lovely weather and full of Venezuelans, it has a strong touristic sector in which I worked with my wife for some months, saving the much-needed money to keep moving…

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Me and my wife in Tenerife, during a short road trip in the island…

We wanted to live in continental Europe and to keep studying in order to have a professional life here, and with much help from friends and family (where muchis a true understatement), we managed to go to Toulouse to do our master’s.

I knew that I had strong theoretical background, an interest in nanotechnology and some knowledge in molecular biology, but I didn’t really know what to do in a specialization degree. I said to myself, learn the techniques and then do what you want with that, because they are tools to support your experiments, so I joined an Analytical Chemistry master’s degree in Toulouse’s Paul Sabatier…

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Long exposure of Toulouse’s beautiful sunset during the summer…

Funny how life turns around!

During my master I had the chance to work with very talented French and international students, in a city that saw me growing, with lots of friends but with no time and almost no money, in a weird way it felt like home… The efforts payed well, because I was trained in detecting and quantifying molecules with a wide range of techniques and to analyze the data with advanced statistics, I was able to travel and meet awesome scientists during my internships.

The first one, during the first year, was in Japan, a place where I had always dreamt of living. I won a scholarship to go to Nara’s Institute of Science and Technology, in the Kansai region, right in the heart of japan, very close to Kyoto, Nara and Osaka. I wanted to go there not only to travel and eat (loads) but also to learn spectroscopy. I worked with photonic molecular switches under the supervision of Kawai and Nakashima sensei at the Photonics Molecular Science lab. We worked with a novel family of self contained photoacid generators, training in organic synthesis, NMR and UV spectroscopy, MS spectrometry and HPLC. In a personal note, I know that this place changed me, the way every travel should, and I also got into photography at this time (See my Instagram profile, @lifesamples).

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Nara welcomed me with its Sakuras in flower, this was one of the very first pictures I took there!

After finishing my first year, I went back to Toulouse to finish my master’s with a desire to have an industrial professional experience, because I had always been in academia. So I went job hunting and was put in contact with Tristan Aillet, who proposed to me an internship in automated microfluidics for the continuous synthesis of nano-objects in Solvay’s R&I center in Bordeaux. I was working on the optimization of a novel reactor that was using smart algorithms, there is a non-disclosure agreement between us which means I can’t write much about this project, but now I know what type of industrial job I’d like to have in the future, it starts by R&D and finishes in “something”.

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Amazing street art in Bordeaux’s Darwin open air space.

 Getting a job in an R&D department…

To get an interesting job in an R&D department, leading projects or working independently, you need to get a PhD. This was great for me because, curious as I am, the PhD was always in my plans and the only thing that I needed was to find a nice project and a country to move to. In Solvay’s lab, I got to meet several researchers from ITN’s in the Marie Sklodowska Curie Actions who told me how it worked, encouraged and helped me in the applications. I regularly checked the euraxesssite, where all European Projects are, and started applying to those who interested me.

Because there is no shortage in offers, I had to look specifically for projects that involved the fields I had always been interested in, a mix between nanotechnology, biology and chemistry.

Because I’m a bit homesick, I wanted to be based in a country where the culture was the closest to mine, with exceptional food, nice weather and plenty of sites to photograph… From the scientific standpoint, I wanted to work in analytical chemistry applied to Biotechnology, or Nanotechnology.

And one day, I found this ITN whose general field is NanoBiotechnology, you can imagine my excitement, I still remember those days!

Between all the partners in the consortium, applying to Rome was a no-brainer for me, because my lab’s expertise is exactly what I stated earlier, Italy has all the personal requirements I had and I’m extremely happy that it ended working out! I’ll be working together with Lorena (whose introduction post you can find here).

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The moon in the middle of the colosseum’s arcs.

Because I’m just starting, I couldn’t extend myself in writing exactly about what I’ll be doing, but it seems that I’ll be working with Lorena integrating sensing modules into our DNA robot and collaborating with the other ESRs in achieving their goals… I’m excited and looking forward to this, because there is great chemistry between all the group and their projects are also very exciting.

You’ll be able to read about those and follow our PhD’s by checking this site, so stay tuned to meet the other researchers, they’re really cool and interesting people!

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