Ana Zambrana: Scouting for Science
Updated: Oct 10, 2019
"Am I a scientist scouting for answers, or a scout doing science?"
I was born in Montevideo, the capital city of Uruguay in South America, but I grew up in a country house by the sea, in a place which has now become the City of the Coast.
It proved to be a great place to grow up, keeping a permanent contact with Mother Nature: the starry skies; the winds and the storms amplified by the sea nearby; the dunes next to my house and also plenty of wooded areas; the fauna of an area which was at the time a rural area. I only now realize, that I was connected to the surroundings which actually made up the scientific roots of humankind.
When I was eight years old, as part of a family tradition, I became a member of the Scout Movement and henceforward spent a lot of my time enjoying nature with my group and getting involved in community services. My parents met in one of the first Scout groups in my country; they inspired me to start going to the meetings as soon as I was old enough to join the Cub Scouts. At the moment there is already the third generation of scouts in my family since my nephew joined the Pack in 2015. Activities such as camping in the woods without electricity, building canoes to cross a small river, backpacking in the country sight, climbing hills guided by the Southern Cross and sleeping under the Milky Way without tent gave me a sense of how great life is and how wonderful our Mother Earth is.
I believe strong values that we learned as young scouts remain forever.
Scouting provided me the opportunity to have activities that invited me to challenge myself, to break the boundaries of my comfort zone and to develop many of the skills which are so essential in the adult professional life such as teamwork, empathy or problem-solving. For example, during a big summer tent camp, due to a coming storm, we had to evacuate all the participants to military facilities that provided us with housing and safe rooms to spend a night. All the educators had to make a decision on the spot, and organize the safe transportation of around 100 children and teenagers. We had to act quickly and effectively, talking assertively and caring for the youngsters, making sure everything was okay. Such situations are unexpected but we have always prepared ourselves prior to any camp. In this case, since it was a big group, I had the contact of the Military Base and I had called them a week in advance to organize any possible evacuation in case we needed it (which we did). It all went very well, all the scouts had lots of fun in the big rooms with bunk beds and even some soldiers came to greet us saying they had been scouts when they were younger.
Fast forward 30 years from joining the Scout Movement, I am a Biochemist with an MSc. in Cell and Molecular Biology, specializing in Nanotechnology and Plant Biotechnology. In fact, as a child, and as a teenager, I found deep interest in exploring such a rich surrounding world. All aspects of reality were worth investigating for me, and I found pleasure in getting to understand the explanations for so many inquiries I had: whether in the fields of Astronomy, Physics or other Natural Sciences (my father was an Officer in the Merchant Marine) or in the fields of Social Sciences (my mother had a degree in Sociology and is now an English translator; she helped me with articulating my thoughts in English). But among such a wide range of interests, Biology attracted me the most from the very beginning: I wanted to learn about life itself and its inner secrets.
In high school, I was not particularly good in science-related courses, and it took me a lot of effort in having to study very hard to pass the exams. Probably driven by my school counselor that encouraged me to take more science credits, I majored in Biology in college. I did not find it easy, but I really enjoyed the challenge. However, I was always intrigued by the wonders of life, I had always observed nature with fascination, trying to understand how things worked. Finally, after a year abroad in the US as an exchange student, I made up my mind to start a career in Biochemistry.
Due to the science funding cuts in my country, I’ve had to face great difficulties to work on my projects. I was forced to do my MSc. part-time, since there were not enough funds for a full-time research position, and as a result, it took me twice the time to graduate. I did my MSc. working long hours in the lab, distancing myself from the outside world, operating state of the art microscopes and sophisticated equipment. At the same time, I’ve been part of the Directive Board of the Uruguayan Scout Movement -- a Scientist during the week, a Scout during the Weekend and holidays. Although I am no longer working directly with young adults and children, I contribute from this position to the World Scout Movement, because I believe strong values that we learned as young scouts remain forever.
I can no longer divide these two aspects of myself: Am I a scientist scouting for answers, or a scout doing science?
I’ve come to the conclusion that I am both and they are interconnected.
Scouting gave me the chance to see challenges as a learning opportunity and to experience useful skills for life and research from a very young age. As an adult, I can profit from my many scout experiences and apply them in my current life. I feel fascinated getting results after months of struggling with an experiment and finding out whether my hypotheses are finally confirmed or not. As a scientist who is concentrated on a very specific aspect of reality and exploring the boundaries of the available knowledge, I am thrilled by the possibilities of making my own additions to the scientific endeavor. Moreover, I’ve realized my Community Service to Society is using my science skills for social justice since the research topics I’ve studied - biofortified rice for my Bachelor's degree and Type 1 Diabetes for my MSc. Thesis- had a strong social component.
My undergraduate studies aimed to help people from developing countries whose main meal is white rice. Rice is polished because the outer components, rich in vitamins, rot and get moldy, making it more expensive to store. White polished rice, mostly starch, has almost no nutritious components. Therefore, people whose main meal is white rice have poor nutrition and often suffer from anemia and iron deficiency. The rice developed in my lab (which I analyzed at the molecular level) had higher levels of iron than normal rice; I found it very motivating to work in a project that might be an answer for them to have fewer iron-deficiency health problems. Regarding my MSc. studies, I worked for a project looking for a possible explanation and treatment of heart failure due to Type 1 Diabetes. Once again, my motivation was helping patients to have a longer life expectancy and quality.
The unique circumstances I have faced also gave me the chance to expand my knowledge about science in the world outside the labs. During the last two years, I have also been working as a Biology Teacher for high school students. Teaching science became my part-time job and I've discovered that explaining what I do to my students reinforces my commitment to do research. They bring questions and very unique answers to everyday life, I enjoy the dynamics and the way they make me think outside of the "academic box".
Science communication also became one of my new fields of interest, as I had to explain to my students what I did every day in the lab. Scouting taught me from my teenage years to organize and to direct group activities and to give workshops. It gave me a head start to do science communication, and teach heterogeneous audiences as part of the outreach programs. I’ve taken my research out of the lab to the general public by doing science monologues in my country and other countries in South America, sharing my passion for science from the stage with my outreach group “Bardo Científico”. More recently, I was invited to join the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) Public Outreach Committee. Now I am having the opportunity to work with experienced scientists and to contribute to ASBMB to reach the education and communication goals through a specific committee.
What I hope the most is that despite difficulties, I get to be able to make a fruitful contribution to my fields of interest. Science is a global collaborative activity, and I wish I can have the chance to work in an international environment at a lab abroad again. I had such experience at the ETH Zurich in Switzerland during my Biochemistry studies and would love to have a similar experience during my Ph.D. as well. Also, as a science communicator I hope that as a part of our culture, science keeps spreading and improving people’s lives by adding critical thinking and a better quality of life for all.
I am a scientist scouting for answers, and a scout doing science. Whatever obstacles might come my way, I shall be fearless and march onward -- for science.