Dr Maria Ocampo-Hafalla, Lab Manager for Education and Science Educator, Crick Institute
I was extremely fortunate to have mentors that realised I loved science and encouraged me to pursue it. I see my current role as an opportunity to serve as a role model for all the pupils we work with and to highlight the diversity of STEM careers.
While she was still at college in the USA, Maria successfully applied for an undergraduate science training scholarship supported by the National Institutes of Health. Maria received a stipend to conduct biomedical research in a laboratory from the age of 18, and she annually presented data at national research conferences and held summer internships at other research institutes. Recalling her early career, Maria explains: “It was very rigorous training which I didn’t fully appreciate until I left, but it opened my eyes to creative ways of working and to the importance of perseverance and preparation…and I learned to be flexible and resilient.”
In 2005, Maria completed her PhD and began shortlisting future mentors in London. As a DNA repair person, Cancer Research UK's London Research Institute [LRI] quickly rose to the top of Maria’s list. She moved to London and fell in love with the city.
Reflecting on her move to the UK, and her previous immigration to the US, Maria explains: “Moving between different countries and working in different environments, even during short research internships, has taught me to adapt and embrace new opportunities. I really value my Filipino-American roots, but adaptability and mobility have been crucial in my career.”
Maria worked at the LRI for 10 years, where she held individual postdoctoral research grants from the USA National Science Foundation and the European Commission’s Marie Curie Fellowship scheme before becoming a principal scientific officer. When the LRI became part of the Francis Crick Institute, Maria saw a new opportunity and applied for a role in the Education Team. Moving from academic research was a real change, but Maria knew she wanted to be a part of the on-site teaching lab and education programme being developed at the Crick. “Coming from a science background into public engagement and science education, I had to ensure that I knew the curriculum very well. Becoming familiar with the educational framework surrounding the outreach work we were doing required different competencies, and transferrable skills were key.” said Maria.
Maria was able to transition into her new role because she had constantly developed her skills in public engagement and science education. At university she co-founded a society for students interested in science careers, and she has pursued public outreach and mentoring ever since – coordinating SIS (Sisters in Science) for girls in Harlem, partnering with the Royal Veterinary College to deliver biochemistry masterclasses for Camden A-level students and acting as an inaugural postdoc journal keeper for NatureJobs are just a few examples.
Reflecting on her career, Maria stresses the importance of doing what you love: “I enjoy doing science and talking about science with young people tremendously, so I was very fortunate to join the Crick when it was building its education team. Now, I devote my time to encouraging pupils to consider science careers and in helping them to increase their scientific skills, a role I had been doing happily on a voluntary basis throughout my career.”