Advocating open science

  • January 11, 2024
Advocating open science

Maria Pawlowska talks to Gates Cambridge about her career in science policy after Cambridge

Being a Gates Cambridge Scholar changed my life and made possible all that I am doing today.

Maria Pawlowska

Maria Pawlowska has gone from doing science to making science research more easily available to all, both in Europe and now in Canada.  

Her commitment to science started with an early fascination with palaeontology, fuelled by trips to the Smithsonian Institute and a high quality, less formal approach to teaching in elementary school in the US. Her family lived in Oak Park, Illinois, and Washington DC for two and a half years after her mother, who is a law professor, won a Fulbright Scholarship and then returned to Poland. 

That love of palaeontology led Maria to apply for a joint undergraduate degree at the University of Bristol in Biology and Geology on a course designed for future palaeontologists, directed by Professor Mike Benton who advised on the Walking with Dinosaurs series. Her mentor was Professor Phil Donoghue who ensured that a Science paper she worked on during her degree had her name on it and wrote her recommendation letter for her PhD in Earth Sciences at the University of Cambridge and for a Gates Cambridge scholarship.

Maria’s PhD focused on biogeochemistry and microfossils from a formation which was over a billion years old. 

When it came time for her future husband Jakub Szamałek [2009], to pick whether to do his PhD at Oxford or Cambridge, she gave him an ultimatum. The two had been conducting a long-distance relationship for some time and Maria told him to come to Cambridge. “He made the right choice,” she laughs. The two are celebrating their 20th anniversary this year.

Jakub was also awarded a Gates Cambridge Scholarship and Maria [2007] says that being a Scholar was the best part for her of being at Cambridge. She still has friends from those days. Half her bridesmaids were Gates Cambridge Scholars. “Those scholars are still some of my best friends and I am so proud of them all,” she says. In addition to enduring friendships, the scholarship gave Maria much appreciated financial security.

Policy analyst

After Cambridge, she worked as a policy analyst for a year in London while Jakub was finishing his PhD. At the time she was keen to get out of academia and says she was acutely aware of the injustice of an academic hierarchy which meant her PhD from Cambridge impressed people more than one from another university, even though she thinks she is no smarter than any other postgraduate. “People think more of me because of where I was at university. It opens doors for me that remain closed for others and that is unjust,” she says.

Maria is a big proponent of community colleges and the way they are able to change people’s lives. She now works with a lot of smaller institutions and really values their emphasis on teaching, mentoring and the student experience, something she says elite universities like Cambridge could learn from. As a Polish student in pre-Brexit UK, she recalls  a number of occasions when she was asked if she was the cleaner at college or graduate events.

After London, Maria and Jakub spent about eight years in Poland where she worked first as a gender studies lecturer at the Polish Academy of Sciences  andon gender equality in the Prime Minister’s office. She says her parents’ views on feminism – her father, a sociologist, was one of the the first men to take paternity leave – fundamentally shaped her as an adult.

She then took a job at the British embassy in Warsaw as a science attache before being appointed as the coordinator of the International Research Agendas programme at the Foundation for Polish Science, the largest source of science funding in Poland outside of the state budget. The programme was responsible for redistributing EU structural funds dedicated to advancing the applied sciences in Poland through bringing together talented researchers from around the world. 

Canada

Maria, Jakub and their young daughter Matylda moved to Canada in 2021 at the height of the pandemic, having bought their house unseen. It was a stressful experience she doesn’t want to have to repeat, but the family are well settled now and love Canada. They wanted to give their daughter a more international and progressive education in a small town on the ocean where people can just drop by for visits, where girls can be anyone they want to be and difference is embraced. Maria says it reminds her of her childhood in the US. “It feels like home,” she states.

Maria is now working on a project introducing open science to Nova Scotia, the first Canadian province to do so. Open science is a  movement to make scientific research and its dissemination accessible to all levels of society, amateur or professional by sharing it through collaborative networks. “The project is exciting and we are very much doing it bottom up with a very broad community of scholars, administrators, students, NGOs and others. I want to build on what is already happening in the province and support it,” she says, adding that that includes incorporating indigenous ways of knowing into open science.

She says the support she has had from senior figures within academia has been a breath of fresh air and she doesn’t think this would have been the case in Poland where she often felt undermined due to both her sex and her age. “I am being judged on the merit of my work and not on what I look like or on being a woman.  I am able to speak my mind and am assessed on the merit of what I say. I cannot stress how exciting that is. I am not battling every single day,” she says.

She adds that she will be “forever grateful” to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for their support. “The best thing about Cambridge was Gates Cambridge,” she says. “To this day we call ourselves the Gates Cambridge family. Being a Gates Cambridge Scholar changed my life and made possible all that I am doing today.”

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