I grew up in one of the oldest districts in Madrid. I was actually born in Argentina but my parents moved to Spain when I was very young. The flat our family lived in was quite typical for Madrid, it was built in the late 1800s and had a very long central corridor with all the different rooms of the house off that.
My dad used to work for an organisation that did educational projects across Latin America. Their main headquarters were in Madrid but he would often be away for a month or more at a time travelling around Latin America.
My mum was a psychoanalyst and worked from home. Her private clinic was in our house and so, when her patients came in, me and my brother had to hide in our room. Playing without being noisy was always a challenge.
School was a very special period for me. I grew up in the centre of Madrid so there wasn’t much greenery around but my parents found us a school on the outskirts of the city that used to be a farm. We used to be picked up by bus really early each morning to be taken there.
It was really small and everybody knew everyone. We did a lot of outdoor activities, I remember it as a very active and enjoyable environment - I don’t actually remember ever sitting in a classroom. There was so much open space.
When I was there I had this inspirational science teacher called Juan. He would take us on fieldtrips to identify flowers or plants or insects and we would then go back to try to classify them. He put us in direct contact with nature. That’s when I realised that I liked Biology a lot more than anything else. By the time I left secondary school, I knew I wanted to pursue something biological or health related as a career.
I did my degree in Spain and, back then, science degrees were not as specialised as they are nowadays. I did a Biology degree and we studied everything from botanics and ecology to cell and molecular biology. It’s shorter now but when I did my degree it was five full years – the first three were quite generic and in the last two you would specialise. During the degree I began to realise that I was drawn more and more towards lab biology and, in particular, molecular genetics - so that’s what I chose to specialise in.
I started looking for research opportunities in labs. The university I went to was also in Madrid and there were several research institutes on campus. Through a friend of a friend I met with a principal investigator of a lab where they were doing molecular genetics using fruit flies and started doing a placement with them. I liked the work a lot and when it finished they offered me the chance to stay and complete a PhD.
That was my way into research. For almost five years I studied genetics within a fruit fly, trying to understand how genes direct the identity of cells. At that point I had a very strong focus that one day I wanted to be the boss of my own lab and for that I needed to do a post-doc. That’s what brought me to London.
When I initially landed in London I’d never been out of Spain for an extended period of time. The first year was hard getting used to the way things were done.
And then there was the language.
I’d been learning English for many, many years when I was in Spain and I had got myself to a level that was considered proficient over there. So I imagined that when I came over I would have no problems communicating.
When I arrived here I couldn’t understand people. I couldn’t understand the accents, people spoke so quickly or they’d be using some sort of slang that I’d never come across. I found it so difficult. I remember being in the pub with my mates from the lab and they were having this very heated conversation about something and I wanted to join in but by the time I’d worked out what I wanted to say the conversation had moved on.
It was hard from that point of view but the lab I joined had students and post-docs from all over the world and that was really nice. In a way we were all sharing the fact that we were away from home which gave us all a different perspective. Speaking with people from around the world helped me feel more understood.
I’d found a group doing studies with zebrafish at UCL. I arrived with the idea that I’d be there for a couple of years but I ended up staying with them for almost ten. That’s where the specific research interests that I have at the moment took shape.
The group were looking at how the brain forms in zebrafish but, on a conceptual level, it was very similar to what I’d been doing with the fruit fly. One of the advantages of using zebrafish is that they are vertebrates and all vertebrates essentially develop in the same way; so understanding the way zebrafish embryos develop can then help us understand how human embryos develop.
Zebrafish embryos also develop really quickly. In just three days the embryo hatches with all the organs pretty much formed. Another advantage is that zebrafish embryos are transparent which means you can put them under the microscope without manipulation and see the cells with a level of detail that you do not get with any other vertebrate.
All this allows us to see how the tissue rearranges and how different organs start to assemble and take shape. This process is not so easily understood using other organisms. I’d never been in contact with anyone working with zebrafish before and when I saw them I thought ‘This could be so much fun, I could learn so much using these embryos’.
The group were looking at how the brain forms and one of the structures that derives from the brain are the eyes. I got particularly interested in how the cells that will become the eyes are set aside from the rest of the brain very early on and then develop. That process is what I studied in detail for my post-doc.
I learnt a lot about the genes that are important to identify the group of cells that will later become the eyes and how these cells behave to become the first rudiments of an eye. There’s a lot more things to understand which is what I am pursuing now as an independent researcher.
I finished at UCL in 2010 and started looking for independent research positions in the UK but I always had the idea of going back to Spain in the back of my mind. I got an offer to go back to the same place I did my PhD in Madrid as an independent researcher. I was there for six years or so and established what I wanted to be my independent research and what I continue to research now - how the eyes form and how, when those processes are affected, you end up with malformed eyes.
After about 5 years back in Madrid I started to think about where I wanted to stay in the longer term. I’d found it hard to settle back in Spain – I’d been in London for a very long time and started to feel like it was my home.
After all those years I was used to the way things were done here. You’d be surprised but there are little things that are done here that you would assume are the same all across Europe but it’s not the case.
There’s other things as well, like you go out for dinner here and you say to yourself ‘What do I want? A Thai? A Japanese? An Indian?’. Back home there’s Spanish gastronomy – and it’s fantastic – but I couldn’t find much more and I started to miss my Japanese and my Indian once in a while.
When I came back to London this time around, I felt at home from the first day. London is a very special city to live in. I’d grown to love it.
I’ve been at St George’s for two years now, its been very intense and I’m enjoying it a lot. During the first year I predominantly focussed on teaching. It’s been a learning process understanding how the programmes are organised, about assessments, about how best to organise my modules and other administrative bits and pieces. I’m enjoying the interaction with students a lot.
Over the past year I’ve been able to apply for more and more grants for my research as well as teach. I was able to get one and that has allowed me to do my research with zebrafish in the lab – to get the materials needed, and to hire a research assistant to be my hands in the lab. I would be completely unable to do research without the grant.
The environment that I’ve found here at St George’s, and the possibility of doing both research and teaching, has been really enriching. I hope to continue doing my research here into the future but I want to continue to maintain that balance with lecturing.
With St George’s being solely focussed on healthcare research and education, it gives a cohesiveness to what we do that you don’t always find in other institutions. Here I feel part of one big team.
Dr Florencia Cavodeassi is a Senior Lecturer in Developmental Biology at St George’s, University of London.