Phoenix rising : Dr Clara Rodriguez

Clara with her daughters, Claire and Amelie and her husband, Alejandro

“I was born into an academic family. My father was a co-founder for the first University in my hometown, in Venezuela, and when I was just a baby my parents were both lecturers there. I spent the first years of my childhood playing in the hallways of Universidad Romulo Gallegos in San Juan de los Morros. My parents inculcated in me a love for science. My mother, who is an Edaphologist, used to take me to her lectures and fieldtrips. She frequently travelled to very remote locations in Venezuela where she analysed the chemistry of the soils. She was always very passionate about her academic career and did her PhD research when I was 8 years old. We didn’t have many things at home, no sofas or TV, but there were hundreds of books and piles of papers everywhere. My father has collected books all his life, he is a historian and he is always either reading or writing. He also did his PhD in social sciences when I was a child we used to travel everywhere interviewing farmers and cowmen.

I have always been under the impression that most people we knew saw us as a very bizarre family. I was a particularly unusual child, or that is what I think. Most of my primary and secondary school I was the first in my class, or even the first in my whole school. I remember the school headteacher once telling my mother that they owed me points for extra-curricular activities I was involved in; but they didn’t know where to add those, as my scores were already perfect.  Since I was 10 years old, my classmates used to come to my home to study for the exams. I loved explaining all the subjects; specially Mathematics, Biology and Earth Sciences.  Unusual enough, when I started the University I was only 15 years old and by then I had to leave my small town to live in a big, overwhelming city, Caracas. I knew that I wanted to study an earth sciences-related career since I was 12, so I did Geophysical Engineering at Universidad Simon Bolivar in Venezuela.

Since I was a little girl I knew I had to do research and pursue a PhD. Not only because my parents were both PhDs and that was enough inspiration for me to do it but also because both my younger brothers followed their steps very early in their careers. They are PhDs in Mathematics and Quantum Physics. However, many things happened before I finally decided and had the opportunity to do the PhD. After my first degree, I worked as a Geoscientist for 4 years, got married, did a MSc in Petroleum Geosciences, and worked for 4 more years while I had 2 girls.

I clearly remember the conviction and determination I showed when I had the last formal interview to be able to start the PhD. I kept repeating to myself: ‘Just be yourself’. Initially, I felt that my case was weak, being older than the common graduate students and being a mum of two girls (aged 3 and 1 and half). I was wrong, both my interviewers were impressed and seemed very positive about having me at the Royal School of Mines at the Imperial College London. I started the PhD full of energy and very motivated while I tried to keep-up with a very hard routine. My husband was working full-time and my family lived in Venezuela so I hardly had any help. Every single day, I had to: get my girls ready, give them breakfast, take them to nursery, commute from Sutton to London, work on the research for 6 to 7 hours, commute back from London to Sutton and get the girls from the nursery. In the evenings, I had to prepare and give them dinner and get them ready for bed. Bedtime was a bit of a nightmare, so I will need to write another blog to tell you about that.

The first two years of my PhD, I was too busy trying to keep-up with this routine that I forgot how to breath, how to eat and how to sleep. I basically forgot how to live. I wasn’t conscious about my body at all. As a result, I started to get all sort of digestive issues. After a variety of tests, the experts concluded that I had nothing but stress. However, the digestive issues continued and this led to physical and emotional exhaustion. I started having sudden attacks of panic or fear. I was very depressed and convinced I had a terrible illness and I was going to die young and leave my daughters without her mum. I can’t really describe the internal darkness and emptiness I was feeling.

One day, I heard the neighbor telling my husband (in secret) that I would never get rid of those ‘episodes’ just as his ex-wife never did. I felt something burning inside me, like an internal fire and a sudden awareness that I had to do something to get my strength back. ‘Me? the strong woman I know I am, I will overcome this! It is time to get my life back!’ I rose from the ashes, as beautiful as the phoenix. What followed was just like a rainbow after a storm. I drastically changed my habits, I changed my diet and the time to eat became sacred for me. I started to be conscious about my nutrition and the process of digestion. I learned to breathe again and running became an important part of my life. I suddenly felt that I could do anything, even conquer the world. With time, I started to be very passionate about nutrition and fitness and I even started helping people in social networks and teaching in workshops about healthy eating. 

Clara and her daughter Audrey, born in the 3rd year of her PhD

With my new lifestyle, I found the much-needed balance. The perfect balance between being a wife, a mum and a PhD researcher. I was able to focus and enjoy my routine. I won’t lie, it was still a difficult routine. In fact, to add a little bit more fun, I had a baby the third year of my PhD. However, I managed to finish it and, astonishing enough, I successfully defended my thesis with no corrections recommended by the examiners. My husband and my older daughters constantly motivated and supported me. My girls have grown seeing me work hard to follow my dreams. I really hope I can be an inspiration for them, just like my parents and brothers inspired me.”

A guest post by Dr Clara Rodriguez – follow her on Twitter here