On my first day as an undergraduate placement student at my new laboratory in Madrid (Spain), I attended the weekly seminar. Not a surprising event you might remark, but the experience certainly amazed me! Instead of the typical lunch hour seminar, my first Spanish seminar lasted over three hours, and the students ate \'breakfast\', even though it was 12pm! The lengthy seminar was an emotional affair, full of what appeared to me as dramatic exchanges in Spanish between the boss, the speaker and a few postdocs. Once over, everyone appeared to be on good terms again, and as it was well passed my lunchtime I suggested ‚Äúgrabbing a quick sandwich‚Äù. This was greeted by horror from the Spaniards, who I quickly learned value their long, three-course lunch, and view sandwiches as not just unhealthy, but also positively dangerous! Ironically, it was these long lunch breaks that were to prove vital for my health several years later.
A year after my return to the UK from Spain I developed a chronic pain condition, later diagnosed as fibromyalgia, and was forced to give up the PhD I had just started in England. Since I only seemed to get worse at home, I decided to go back to Madrid to the same lab I had worked in as an undergraduate student. The more relaxed working day and long lunch allowed me the chance to rest and recuperate between experiments. Many Spaniards return home for lunch between 2-5pm, so it was considered perfectly normal for me to go home in the middle of the working day and lie down. Although the disabled facilities in Spain are often limited, I found the Spaniards approachable and always willing to help out a stranger in need. I also discovered that it was more difficult for me to overwork in Spain as there are frequent public holidays, known locally as ‚Äúbridges‚Äù, which extend by one or two days to the weekend. To my surprise, I gradually started improving, and with the help of the excellent Spanish healthcare system and a knowledgeable physiotherapist, I felt ready to tackle the challenge of studying for a PhD in Spain.
To work in Spain, you are required to apply for a national identification number, a process that involves numerous phone calls, forms and unfortunately rather long queues. Although I spoke good Spanish, the fact that I only had one surname led to much confusion. A child born into a Spanish family has two surnames: the first derived from the father‚Äôs family name, and the second derived from the mother‚Äôs family name. Spanish women do not change their name on marrying, however many choose to add on the family name of their husband, leading to a third surname! No wonder they were confused that I only had one! Sometimes well-meaning secretaries took my middle name as my first surname, making it impossible to find my forms later on, as they had been filed under a surname I never knew I had! I was asked whether I was ‚Äúricher than the Queen‚Äù due to the resemblance of my name to that of a certain children‚Äôs writer, and was even mistaken for Victoria Beckham shortly after the Beckhams moved to Madrid!
Once you have successfully obtained your identification number, foreign graduates normally have to be granted \'homologacion\' of their degree in order to apply for a grant. Homologacion consists of official recognition by the Spanish government that your qualification is equivalent to a Spanish degree. To apply for homologacion involves translation of timetables and course outlines, and is a lengthy, often unsuccessful process, in particular for students from the UK where degrees are usually shorter. Luckily, there are an increasing number of grants in Spain that are designed to attract scientists from abroad, including the PhD grant that I eventually obtained from the Ministry of Education and Science. Traditionally, recruitment to scientific academia in Spain was inflexible and more or less closed off to foreign applicants. Mobility of Spanish students was also limited, with the majority choosing to go to their local university and live with their parents, only leaving home aged 28-30.
However times are changing, and science, like all areas of Spanish life, is rapidly growing and evolving. Notably, there is a fresh wave of ministers in the new Socialist government who are also scientists. The recently created Ministry of Science and Innovation plans to increase spending on science from the current 1.1% to a total of 2% of Spain‚Äôs gross domestic product by 2011. A variety of government schemes, including the ‚ÄúRamon y Cajal‚Äù programme, aim to attract young scientists from outside Spain and favour the creation of independent research institutes in order to diversify Spanish science. If the government‚Äôs promises are fulfilled in the next few years, the future of Spanish science looks excellent. I am now nearing the end of my third year in Madrid, and as I sit under the brilliant rays of Spanish sunshine that shine onto my lab bench every morning, I realise that not only has my health brightened in Spain, but my career has also shone too.
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