Interviews with Scientists: Noelia Dominguez Falcon

Interviews with Scientists: Noelia Dominguez Falcon
10 months ago

Interviews with Scientists: Noelia Dominguez Falcon

It’s time for another of our Interviews with Scientists features, and this week we were delighted to catch up with Dr Noelia Dominguez Falcon, a lecturer in Biomedicine at the University of East Anglia, UK! 

Noelia has been a guest author for the Hello Bio blog several times over the years, sharing excellent advice on dealing with PhD pressure as well as her top tips for PhD success. She is also a keen podcaster who has been featured in our Podcasts by Scientists series, and we thought it was time to catch up with her to find out how her career has been progressing! Noelia completed a BSc in Marine Sciences and a MRes in Biomedicine in her home country of Spain before moving to the UK initially for work experience, but stayed on to complete a PhD at the University of East Anglia. She then spent two years working as a Senior Research Associate before starting her latest role as a lecturer in September 2022.

In this great conversation, we found out more about Noelia’s career, her passion for student engagement, and her thoughts on female representation in STEM…


Hi Noelia, it’s great to speak to you again! Please tell us a little bit about your latest role at the University of East Anglia?

I am a Lecturer in Biomedicine at the School of Biological Sciences here at the UEA. I teach mostly cell biology-related content, but I also teach some aspects of cellular signalling, and I also cover connective tissue physiology in homeostasis and disease, particularly tissues like tendons.


What was the focus of your PhD research?

My PhD looked to combine several regenerative medicine strategies for the regeneration of ruptured tendon tissue. I looked into the development of scaffolds fabricated with 3D printing using in-house developed polymers that matched the tensile strength of real tendon tissue. Then, these polymers were populated with stem cells derived from adipose tissue, which were previously differentiated to a tendon-like phenotype. We called this an "artificial tendon construct" and was fabricated with the main aim to serve as an implant that will regenerate the tendon much faster than conventional treatment. The customised scaffold serves as a support for the weak damaged tissue, and the stem cells offer faster rates of tissue regeneration and collagen secretion, which is the main component of tendons and that is greatly damaged during injury.


Did you always want to work in science when you were younger, and if so why?

I think I was always one of those "intense" kids who was always asking "why" to their parents. I have always been fascinated by our world and how things work, particularly the human body. I became hooked on biology in school as I started to understand how things work, and since then, I knew that science was my purpose - although I had no idea how I was going to make it!


What excites you most about the work that you do?

Lots of things, but if I had to choose one that would be without a doubt, being in contact with my students! I honestly love being in a lecture room and just passing knowledge on to them. The COVID pandemic was a shock for all of us, but I think the younger generations took a serious hit. I believe in teaching with passion and closeness, and I like to inspire my students and bring them back some hope and cheer. I have lots to learn, but I hope that they feel like I did when my biology teacher inspired me to pursue science.


What are the biggest challenges that you face in your current role?

Wow, difficult question! Overall, I think transitioning from a lab-based job to a teaching role has been the biggest challenge. I have always been busy in the lab with my research, but the workload that accompanies this job is something else. You need to "divide" yourself in multiple tasks, most of them dedicated to students. There are a large number of things that require your attention daily, and some of them are complex such as preparing an exam or marking a large amount of coursework for the first time. When I was 3-4 months into this job, I realised that sometimes I can't tick off everything from my to-do list. Whereas in the lab, I always ticked off everything, as my experiments and (little) admin relied solely on me. Even though some admin tasks and marking also rely only on me now, sometimes things take longer, and you just have to push it to the next day. Hence, I think knowing that I can't reach everything at all times has been challenging for me. I am quite hard on myself in regard to my professional life, and although I know I get things done, I get frustrated when I can't do it as fast as I can! However, there is a learning curve with this job, and like many things in life, it just requires patience and resilience. Luckily, I have both! I am also very lucky to count on a wonderful team here in my department, and everyone is always so happy to help and mentor you, which is a blessing!


You are passionate about student engagement - why is this so important and what techniques do you use to inspire your students?

Yes I am! Like I said before, students took a hit during the COVID pandemic. Everything moved online, and I think part of that sense of duty to physically go to uni, sit in lectures, and overall, be present throughout the degree, was completely lost. The attention span of our students is also decreasing, and we need to work harder than ever to engage them and retain their attention, so that they keep learning effectively. I particularly like to use something that we call "gamification of science". It is an umbrella of techniques by which games or play-based activities are presented to students, so they actively participate in the session, with the main aim of enhancing their deep learning and sense of belonging. For example, this year I developed a game for a revision workshop as part of my cellular signalling lectures. The game contained images seen in lectures and a riddle or a question that the students had to solve in teams without looking at their lecture notes. Students were highly participative, and none of them looked at their lecture notes! I have also taught some content with Lego blocks...and students were shocked at first but very glad to see it!


Women remain underrepresented in all fields of STEM. What more do you think could be done to improve the gender balance in science?

I think one thing we can all do is to promote visibility. Showcase role models, practice science communication...etc. All those are great tools to show the world the fantastic female role models we all have around us. For example, even though I deeply admire Marie Curie, it is difficult for me to identify with someone who has won not one but two Nobel prizes and was responsible for one of the biggest scientific discoveries of human history. Those success stories are absolutely amazing to show the place that we as women deserve in science. However, stories from women doing the groundwork are equally valuable. Diversity is a powerful tool, and the more we use it in science, the more girls and young women will feel they can identify, and hopefully more will get into science.


Who are your female role models in science?

I think Rosalind Franklin has always been a massive role model for me, but I am very lucky to work with fantastic women in teaching and/or research who inspire me every day to be better!


What is the most important lesson you have learned in your career so far?

That you need to believe in (and be) yourself to keep going. I had my first science job in 2013, and even after 10 years between labs (including moving away from my home country) and now lecturing, I still struggle to believe that I am good at my job or if I am making a difference. We all suffer sometimes from imposter syndrome. However, it is the times that I have believed in myself that I have excelled at whatever I was doing. We can all fall from time to time, and it is absolutely fine to do so. We just need to get up and keep going.


What’s the best piece of advice you could give someone just starting out on a PhD?

What a great question! The best advice I can think of is that you need to be happy and sure of yourself when doing a PhD. A PhD can be very isolating, and it is a very significant piece of work that you develop by yourself in 3-4 years, so there are going to be lots of hours in the lab. It requires patience, discipline, and a big sense of responsibility and commitment. However, it shouldn’t jeopardise your health, and if you discover you aren't happy doing a PhD, there is no need to go forward. And if you know it is worth it, just keep going, and believe that the day of your defence, everything will be worth it.


How do you see your career progressing in the future/where do you see yourself in 10 years?

I see myself being a much more experienced lecturer, inspiring students to be great scientists, and developing greater engagement activities - maybe even commercialising them! One can wish... also, I wish to have the cutest little cottage for me and my partner.


Outside of work, what do you enjoy doing most? (eg. hobbies, passion projects, etc)

Hmm, good question! We need to have some passions outside work. I think my biggest hobby is cooking. Anything savoury or sweet, you name it, and I will cook it. I am Spanish, and we have a big culture surrounding food. My grandma taught me everything I know, and I am the happiest when I am in the kitchen! I can say my partner benefits from this hobby... I also enjoy a good, chilled session of punch needle embroidery. Recently I made a cushion from scratch! I have also been enjoying gardening recently. I have a nice selection of plants on my front porch, and I like taking care of them. I also love cycling - me and my partner have foldable bikes and we like to pack them in the car and just go somewhere remote to do some cycling!


What do you think is the greatest scientific discovery or invention of all time?

This is a difficult question! I think one of the greatest discoveries was the DNA and its structure. Not only is this the basis of who we are as humans, but it has also changed how we study diseases, and hence how we can treat or tackle them.


What’s your favourite science quote?

“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood” - Marie Curie


And finally… is there anything else you would like to tell us about?

As an advocate for women in STEMM, 2 years ago I founded my own podcast. Everyone is welcome to listen to it, it's called "I Belong Here", and it is available on Spotify and Apple Podcasts. I showcase female role models working in STEMM around the world and we have a nice and chilled chat about their science and their own stories and background.

I am also very pleased to share a community in Zenodo that the Bioscience Teaching community has made available, and also my own play-based learning community:

As a teaching community here in the school of Biological Sciences we share some of the teaching practice that we develop and everyone is welcome to have a look and even download some assets!


Thanks for such a great interview Noelia! It’s been great to catch up, and we look forward to seeing what else you achieve over the coming years!

Connect with Noelia Dominguez Falcon:


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