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HomeEducation / CultureShifting focus from pharmaceutical chemistry to blue carbon

Shifting focus from pharmaceutical chemistry to blue carbon

  • The IAEA profiles employees to provide insight into the variety of career paths that support the Agency’s mission of Atoms for Peace and Development and to inspire and encourage readers, particularly women, to pursue careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) or STEM-adjacent fields. Read more profiles of women at the IAEA. 

By Ellie McDonald, IAEA Department of Nuclear Science and Applications

Growing up in Montevideo, Uruguay, Inés Sanz Alvarez never thought she would work in a marine science laboratory, much less in Monaco. Originally working in pharmaceutical chemistry, she is now an integral member of a team of scientists studying blue carbon – the carbon captured by the ocean and coastal ecosystems, in a natural system which helps mitigate climate change – at the IAEA Marine Environment Laboratories, the only marine science laboratory in the UN system. The daughter of a lawyer and an administrator, Sanz Alvarez was not exposed to science as a child, but in high school, she began to learn about chemistry and biology.

“Chemistry was attractive because of the lab. I loved the idea of chemistry experiments, and we got to create cool products, with different colours and smells. I was so curious about that,” she said. “With biology, I remember when I started learning about how the body works, I was fascinated by it. So I wanted to learn as much as I could about both, because they inform each other.”

When the time came to study at university, she decided to pursue chemistry and biology, graduating from the Universidad de la República in Uruguay with a bachelor’s degree in pharmaceutical chemistry, a science that uses both chemistry and biology to create medicinal drugs and to study how they interact with the human body.

It was at university that Sanz Alvarez first learned about nuclear science and met the professor who would eventually become her most influential mentor. It was also where she benefitted from the legacy of women trailblazers who demonstrated the possibilities for women in science and, particularly, in radiochemistry. In fact, the department where Sanz Alvarez studied radiochemistry is named after the chemist Estrella Campos, a pioneer in Uruguayan radiochemistry.

“I knew that women were underrepresented in this field, in nuclear science. In my experience, however, I never felt a limitation. My radiochemistry professors were women; my mentors are women,” Sanz Alvarez said. “The professor that truly motivated me when I was at university was Soledad Fernandez, whom I will always remember. She trained me in radiochemistry and showed me how to handle radioactive material in the lab. I learned a lot from her, and she inspired me because she was very young and a very motivated person. She was so passionate about academia and doing research. I was not used to seeing that.”

Adaptability to change

With the support of her family, mentors and community in Uruguay, Sanz Alvarez took the first steps outside of her comfort zone and left Uruguay to pursue a master’s degree abroad. As her environment and daily life changed, Sanz Alvarez relied on her scientific foundation and earned a two-part master’s degree in analytical chemistry – starting in Spain and finishing in Norway.

Adaptability has been pivotal in Sanz Alvarez’s life and career. She did not always know what was coming next, but the very first time she set foot in a laboratory as a high school student, she was confident that was the place for her. Ever since, she has relied on a foundation of expertise in chemistry and a familial support system as she has shifted her focus, her fields of expertise and her geographical location.

“We are hearing every day about the problems facing the environment, and I wanted to learn more and be more involved. That’s the good thing about science in general; when you know something, you can learn how to apply it in other ways. You can adapt,” she said. After a period working in the pharmaceutical science department of the University of Milan, she joined the IAEA in 2022 with the intention of learning something new. “I’m a very curious person, and marine science was a new world for me.”

At the IAEA, Sanz Alvarez began working with environmental chemistry. As part of the blue carbon team, Sanz Alvarez uses alpha spectrometry, a nuclear technique to determine the age of sediment in coastal ecosystems such as mangrove forests or seagrass meadows. Finding out the age of sediment in these ecosystems can help scientists pinpoint how quickly sediment accumulates and by extension, the amount of carbon sequestered in the sediment itself.

Enjoying diversity

“I work with people from all over the world at the IAEA, and it’s unique. I’ve worked in a couple of different places, Montevideo, Milan and now Monaco, and I found this [mixture] very motivating,” she said. About 15 people from all over the world work in the Radioecology Laboratory, from Colombia, Cuba, and Ecuador to Mauritius, the United States of America, France, Switzerland and elsewhere. The academic backgrounds of the staff include marine biology, nuclear physics, oceanography, environmental science and geochemistry. “The Radioecology Laboratory has a very friendly group of people, and they all have really interesting backgrounds. You can learn from everybody,” Sanz Alvarez added.

When asked what motivates her, Sanz Alvarez highlighted the importance of making progress in small increments, and the potential of people with different skills working towards a common goal.

“What always motivates me in science is that you can discover things, you can arrive to something that can be rewarding, not just for me, but for other people as well. I am not going to save humanity, but I will take some little steps, baby steps, and then for people that come after, they have something to start and continue from.”

The IAEA’s commitment to gender equality

The IAEA is committed to gender equality and to supporting the ability of all individuals, regardless of gender, to equally contribute to and benefit from its programmes and activities. To this end, the IAEA strives to achieve gender balance in the Secretariat and to implement gender mainstreaming in its programmes and activities.

Additionally, in 2020, the IAEA launched the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellowship Programme (MSCFP) to support the next generation of women nuclear professionals by offering scholarships for master’s degree in nuclear-related fields. A new IAEA initiative launched in March 2023, the Lise Meitner Programme, offers early- and mid-career women multiweek training visits to nuclear facilities.

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