1. What is your name?
Dr. Mariya Lyubenova
2. Where do you work and what is your role/job title?
I work at ESO, the European Southern Observatory and I am an astronomer. Half of my time I spend on conducting research projects and supervising students. My area of research is exploring how galaxies in the Universe form and evolve. The other half of my time is dedicated to duties towards the Observatory. My main role is to be the scientific gatekeeper of ESO’s Education and Public Outreach Department (ePOD).
3. What were the main ‘career decision’ milestones in your life so far?
The first one was the decision to move to Germany to obtain my PhD degree in astronomy. This is when my career as an astronomer began. The next milestone was a couple of years ago, when I had to decide whether to continue with an academic career or rather move to an industry job. Finding a long-term academic job at a university, observatory, or a research centre in astronomy is not an easy task therefore I was prepared to explore other job opportunities.
4. Who are the people who most influenced your career direction?
Growing as a girl and studying in a humanities high school, it was not surprising that when I expressed my interests towards physics and astronomy my family was startled as they expected that I would pursue some earlier interests in medicine and languages. Nevertheless, they supported me without hesitation in my choice for university studies. Later in my career I benefited immensely from the support of several mentors, first my supervisor at the Department of Astronomy at the University of Sofia in Bulgaria, then my supervisors during my PhD at ESO, and last some very close science collaborators, with which I developed strong working relationships.
5. Does your job allow you to have a lifestyle you are happy with?
Yes, definitely. My job allows me to meet with really talented and enthusiastic people on a daily basis and to travel to amazing destinations around the world. Most important – it gives me the freedom to develop and implement my own ideas for scientific projects. As a mother – it gives me a good flexibility to participate in the life of my daughter.
6. How did you go about getting your current job?
I had to apply to an international call for applicants, which was describing the main roles and responsibilities of the job, as well as the needed qualification. I had to submit a cover letter describing my motivation for the job and why I consider myself as a suitable candidate. I had to also provide the so called “research statement”, where I described my past and current research activities, as well as what new scientific projects I would like to develop over the next few years. Additionally, 3 senior colleagues, familiar with my work had to submit letters of recommendation in support of my application. About a month later I was ultimately excited to receive an offer for first an on-line interview and a few weeks later for an additional in-person interview. At the end I had to complete a 2 hours written assignment with tasks typical for the job. Then the long waiting begun until I eventually received the good news that I was selected for the job.
7. Describe a typical day.
I start the day by checking my email for letters from colleagues and collaborators. I usually compile a to-do list for the day, where I first put the most urgent tasks. Throughout the day I attend various meetings regarding my functional work or on science topics. The type of work I do changes from day to day. There are days when my attention is fully on preparing press release materials. In others I dedicate a significant amount of time to data analysis and writing the results into scientific publications. I enjoy the informal science chats with colleagues over coffee, which very often convert into new research projects with unexpected outcomes.
8. What are the main tasks and responsibilities?
The main task and responsibility for my functional work within ESO is to ensure the highest scientific quality of ESO’s educational and public outreach materials. Additionally, I coordinate the astronomical image production team, as well as the ESO Science Outreach Network, which has representatives in 25 countries around the world. I also work with our graphics designers to prepare the ESO exhibitions at various outreach and scientific conferences. As a scientist, my tasks include the supervision and mentoring of students and younger colleagues, leading and collaborating in various research projects, writing scientific articles and attending conferences.
9. What are the main challenges?
I tend to get easily excited by new ideas and projects. Therefore I often face the challenge how to keep running them all on time.
10. What’s cool?
To work at the forefront of astronomy science. The constant food for thought that research offers. The cultural diversity of my colleagues.
11. What’s not so cool?
The time pressure before deadlines.
12. What particular skills do you bring to your workplace?
Apart of broad science knowledge about astronomy (which I keep on developing every day!), I contribute with very good diplomatic skills, as well as team leadership.
13. What subjects did you take in school and how have these influenced your career path?
I come from Bulgaria and there I studied in a bilingual high school, majoring French and English languages. The school profile was in humanities rather than STEM. However, being fluent in another language than my mother tongue allowed me access to a much broader literature to satisfy my hunger for knowledge on the topic of my then emerging passion – astronomy. During the last year of high school I joined the editorial team of a popular astronomy magazine where my language skills were very valuable to monitor the news flow. Soon I was writing articles on my own. Learning how to learn foreign languages was highly important for my chosen career path, as scientists frequently travel and change country of residence.
14. What is your education to date?
I have completed BSc in Physics, MSc in Physics and Astrophysics, and a PhD (Dr. rer. nat. as they call it in Germany) in astronomy.
15. What aspects of your education have proven most important for your job?
Definitely my PhD. This is the time when I learnt how to conduct scientific research, how to analyse data, and how to approach difficult problems, cut them into smaller pieces and ultimately resolve them.
16. Have you undertaken, or do you plan to undertake any further training as part of your job?
Yes, I continue my education through targeted courses on either scientific topics or more general and applicable in various job situations, like management and student supervision. Some of these were organised by my employers, others I took by myself using the immense possibilities that online courses offer. This year I will be attending a course on advanced project management. I have also attended numerous training schools on various science topics and I continue to attend workshops where I learn new techniques for analysis of scientific data. Due to my most recent job in science communication, I also took some general courses on communication science.
17. What have been the most rewarding events in your career so far?
The first one was when the project that I had proposed was awarded with 24 hours of observing time with ESO’s Very Large Telescope, using a very special instrument and a technique that compensates the blurring of Earth’s atmosphere using a powerful laser. The competition for observing time on this telescope is really high, my project was quite bold, so I felt very pleased that the time allocation committee has selected it. The second extremely rewarding moment was when I received the offer for my current job, as I felt it as recognition of my long efforts and continuous learning on the path of becoming an astronomer.
18. What personal qualities do you have that help you in your career?
Continuous desire to learn new things, persistence and resilience to overcome difficulties, open mind towards others and their ideas
19. What is your dream job?
My current one!
20. What advice would you give to someone considering this job?
If you want it, go for it! The path won’t be easy and it’s Ok to change your mind and do something else instead. The world needs science, and science needs all of its talents. Everyone has unique talents and skills and whatever you decide to do for a living, be sure that it will be extremely valuable.
21. What are the three most important personal characteristics required for the job?
Resilience, open mindedness, desire to never stop learning
22. What kinds of work experience would provide a good background for this position?
For my work as a scientist: a research internship, PhD studies, and post-doctoral experience. For my work as scientific consultant of an outreach department: internship in science communications or journalistic experience