Postdoc highlight series: Dr. Martha Vardaki (#12)

This week on the Postdoc Superheroes we have Dr. Martha Vardaki. Martha is a postdoctoral research fellow, mentor and adventurer.

Enjoy the read!

 Quick notes on Martha:
Name Dr Martha Vardaki
Countries she has academic experiences fromUnited Kingdom, Greece, Canada
Martha in keywordswork & coffee addict, self-driven, short-tempered, enthusiastic, empathetic.
Martha as a researcherthorough, overthinker, hard-working, stubborn, organized.
Currently excited about:Podcast: ‘’No such thing as a fish’’ (for the past 5 years) Book: ‘’ To Kill a Mockingbird’’ has really stuck with me since last summer.
Martha’s typical day:        8-10 am: Waking up and getting to work where the first thing I always do is having a coffee and answering emails. I then spend the rest of the morning and sometimes the afternoon on more mentally strenuous tasks such as writing or reading papers.
2- 5 pm: I usually allocate some lab time, physical exercise, or meetings after lunch as I know this is the time that I am the least efficient in concentrating throughout the day.
6- 8 pm: Getting back home I will take my dog out for a walk and cook dinner and the next day’s lunch. I do not like working in the evenings but there are deadlines that sometimes make this unavoidable. If I do need to work long hours for some time, I will balance it with less work over the next week or so. I have learned the hard way to never ever underestimate burnout.
Contact Martha at:Insta @marthouli_v
LinkedIn Martha Vardaki
Twitter @marthouli_v

Hi Matha,

Thank you so much for agreeing to contribute to this project.

Could you introduce yourself briefly?

Hi, I am Martha! I am currently a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Ioannina Medical School (Kourkoumelis Research Group). For the past 10 years, I have been working on the intersection of Biomedicine and Physics by researching how photons interact with life.

I obtained a BSc and MSc degree from the Pharmacy department in Greece and then pursued a PhD in Physics at the University of Exeter (UK) followed by postdoctoral appointments in Imperial College London and the University of British Columbia.

In 2020, I relocated back to Greece under a Postdoctoral Fellowship. My research focuses on the diverse ways that light-matter interaction (spectroscopy) can assist disease diagnosis. Apart from research, I also hold a keen interest in mentoring young women and improving female visibility in science.

What kind of student/pupil were you as a kid?

I was a hard-working but not necessarily well-behaved student. I enjoyed the diversity of subjects taught at school but did not like the fact that knowledge was limited to the books we were given and that you had to memorize them all to do well in exams.

I was always looking forward to get my hands-on chemistry experiments or microscopes but unfortunately, that was only an option on a university level.

What was your experience studying in your undergrad program?

I did my undergrad at the Pharmacy department (University of Patras, Greece) and really enjoyed it. The variety of subjects (Chemistry, Biology, Physics, etc), laboratory classes and practical courses in a 5-year curriculum was exactly what I was looking for to decide what filed I was mostly interested in.

As I was becoming more aware of what research is, I realized that it can (and should be) interdisciplinary. That eventually led to a MSc in Pharmaceutical analysis, and later to a PhD in Biophysics.

Why and how did you decide to go into a PhD?

The decision to pursue a PhD abroad was not hard (kind of expected since I wanted to do research), but the procedure was certainly challenging.

Coming from a small island in Greece, I had no idea what a PhD consists of (most of my family still don’t), let alone how to pursue a paid one in a different country. Gathering as much information as I could on my own, I started applying for positions online and sending emails around with no much luck.

But I was very persistent and 9 applications and interviews later, I was lucky enough to land a PhD position in Biophysics with two amazing people as my supervisors. I am grateful to them until this very moment for what they saw in me.

What was your PhD program experience?

I did my PhD in the BioSpec group, the University of Exeter on the southwest coast of England. The group focuses on all sorts of biomedical applications of Raman, Infrared and Brillouin spectroscopy, and I absolutely enjoyed the three years of my studies both in terms of science and people around me who are now some of my best friends.

PhD in the UK is a program completely focused on conducting research with a duration of no more than 3-4 years and TA being optional. A PhD can be an incredibly stressful and mentally challenging period in someone’s life.

But I honestly think that if you have the right people around you, a PhD (together with the early postdoc years) can be the best time of your career in research: you have enough freedom and time to pursue side projects, set up collaborations but also get involved in outreach or teaching and explore your interests.

At the same time, you don’t have the responsibilities of a PI or the employment concerns of a postdoc. Had it not been for the unsustainable wage, I would totally consider pursuing a second PhD.   

Adventures in the woods with my PhD labmates

Could you briefly describe what your research was and/or is about?

For the past 10 years, my research focuses on the biomedical applications of Raman spectroscopy, a distinct way that light interacts with matter, causing a small change in its frequency. Because this shift in frequency is characteristic to the sample, we can use Raman spectroscopy to identify materials, cells, and tissues with minimal perturbation.

In my research, I am taking this approach a step further by using deep Raman spectroscopy to probe molecules of interest, hidden behind layers of other molecules (a polymer, a glass container, or even tissue itself).

The applications of this technique can have a vast impact on medical diagnoses as it allows to identify malignant tissue (i.e. cancer) in certain depths of the body in a completely non-invasive manner. In the photo, this is me setting up a deep Raman experiment on an optics bench.

What advice would you give your younger self starting a PhD program?

I guess publish as much as you can and start applying for fellowships from very early on.

Also, try and get involved in many projects (as this usually comes with publications and contacts) but also this is the time to pick up new skills.

It sounds a lot within the span of a PhD but looking back now I tend to think that a

PhD should be more about getting to know yourself and acquire all sort of skills

rather than obsessively focusing on your experimental results. 

What have you decided to do after your PhD and why?

I knew I wanted to do research since my BSc, so I didn’t really have to think about my options after finishing my PhD. My only worry was how to find a postdoc position that I really like and with a long enough contract to be able to spend some quality time in the lab rather than looking for my next paid job.

After a short stop at Imperial College London, I found a long contract for an amazing project in Vancouver, Canada. I stayed there for 3 years, but I never stopped trying to get my own (rather than my supervisor’s) ideas funded, aka applying for fellowships.

I was finally awarded a State Scholarship co-financed by Greece and the European Union to relocate back to Greece for 2 years and looking forward to the next step!

My post-PhD institutions around the world: Imperial College London, UK (left), University of British Columbia, Canada (top right), University of Ioannina, Greece (bottom right).

What PhD has given you and how you use it now?

My PhD together with the first years of postdoc taught me many things: how to collaborate with people, how to write papers and review them, how to put together my own Matlab code for preprocessing and analyzing Raman spectra, how to supervise and be supervised, how to manage projects and most importantly time.

It also gave me more confidence in doing research and in myself.

I consider the whole trip through academia to be a constant training that made me who I am now.

I am trying to give back what I gained over this training both in research (through student supervising) and in life (through mentoring).

What are your other superpowers?

My pomeranian dog, escape games and travelling are my top favorite things.

I also try to spend much of my time volunteering which mainly revolved around mentoring young women through different organizations (YWCA, Greek women in STEM).

Last year I also started getting involved with R.E.A.L. Science, a networking platform which connects STEM scientists with secondary education to provide students in Greece with career advice and inspiration.

In the middle: Coloring together with my mentee in one of our first meetings back in Vancouver, Canada.

What is the hardest in doing what you are doing and how do you deal with that?

Maintain your motivation no matter what (even when nothing seems to work out), especially when working independently as we postdocs usually do, can be very challenging.

Failures are part of our daily routine and it is very hard to accept them, especially when you compare yourself and your stats (h-index, talks, publications) with all the bright minds in the field.

This is called ‘’imposter syndrome’’ and is very common in academia regardless the level of confidence that one might have.

Two things have helped me going through this: hard work and my network.

Hard work acts as a safety net because when you really do your best, it’s harder to blame yourself for failure.

Talking to your network helps gaining a more realistic perspective on your thoughts and feelings. My network was people I have previously worked with and mentors and I am forever grateful for their support.

What are you the proudest of?

I am very proud of being stubborn enough to pursue a PhD in Physics despite my background was on Pharmaceutical Sciences, and of completing it.

I am also proud (and relieved) that at some point I was able to grow up independently in the lab. That was one of my greatest fears as I always thought that I was not clever enough to do Physics. I still think that this is true but I also believe that this can be counterbalanced by hard work.

If you could teach people one thing, what would it be?

To be kind and supportive, but also to not let stereotypes and biases control your thoughts.   

Who are the people you follow on social media and enjoy they content?

Many of the people and groups I follow on Twitter (which is what I mostly use nowadays) are related to outreach.

A few of them are doing some wonderful work with mentoring young students: YWCA in Vancouver/ Canada (@YWCAVAN) for young girls’ mentoring, REAL Science (@RealScienceEdu) for supporting education in Greece, Greek women in STEM (@GR_WomenSTEM) for mentoring young women and Greek Girls Code (@GreekGirlsCode) for enhancing female visibility in STEM. 

Are there any tools, resources or software you are obsessed with at the?

Matlab is a tool that I was taught how to use during my PhD and have stuck with it ever since. I am using it for spectral pre-processing and subsequent data analysis.

I have recently discovered Biorender, a tool for scientific drawing, and I am currently loving it. It makes figures look so pretty!

Is there anything you would like to add?

Thank you so much for your time, Alex. All the best with your blog, and new move 😊

Thanks a lot!

Where people can find you?

Insta @marthouli_v

LinkedIn Martha Vardaki

Twitter @marthouli_v

Thank you!

If you want to read more stories of academics start with these:

Postdoc highlight series: Dr. Jo Mensinga (#8)

Postdoc highlight series: Dr. Brianna Le Busque (#5)

Postdoc highlight series: Dr. Renske de Leeuw (#2)

Postdoc highlight series: Dr. Chantal Lucini (#1)

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