I think my interest in science began in high school when I was getting prepared to take the national exams (being in Greece) to compete for a position in a University. I had a great teacher in organic chemistry that I really admired and who became my model and inspiration to become a teacher. The educational system in Greece was such that you basically ended up in the school of your choice but without really knowing what opportunities were available after finishing school. I was interested in chemistry, liked math, and enjoyed physics so the best that I could do was to become a chemical engineer. That was my choice; I loved to learn and was always looking for something better and different.
Many times I have told my students that if I was to start again I would become a doctor. This was my original dream, but prof
M. Ierapetritou with graduate students, 2007.
essional guidance was not very strong in Greece so we did not have all the information that we needed to make the right choices. My dream was not able to materialize with such a lack of support. However, nowadays, if you actively pursue an interest, you will make it happen. Currently, I find myself working on very interesting biomedical problems including the design of a bio-artificial liver.
Working in academia you have the luxury to be your own boss. You work on the research areas that you prefer, with some restrictions based on funding, but pretty much you can find ways to promote what you really like to do and convince people to fund your work. A second, but not secondary, driving force to working in academia is my desire to stay close to young people, to work with them, to teach them, and to be taught by them.
It will sound surprising, maybe not to my fellow engineers, but the most difficult part of my career is, was, and will be, managing people. No matter if you are an undergraduate student, graduate student, or postdoctoral fellow, it is really challenging to convince someone of your dreams, to make them believe in them, and to work towards achieving them.
I have been impacted by a number of people throughout my career, including my parents to whom I am very grateful. They had to make a number of sacrifices so that I could have everything I needed. I will never forget that. Of course, they tell me that they appreciate the fact that I have been around the world so they have had the excuse to visit! But I think the person that has influenced me the most has been my husband, who is also a member of our academic community. We share the same career aspirations, are able to communicate with each other about problems at work, and are able to give each other strength and courage to press onward. He has been an inspiration from the first day I met him as a postdoctoral fellow at Princeton University and has helped me realize the things that will make me happy.
My parents, and my country in general, are not among the richest countries so I learned from early on that you need to work to achieve something and nothing comes without struggle. I sometimes get disappointed when I meet students that have everything in front of them and do not appreciate their value. I try to convey this message to all my students although sometimes it is very hard if you do not have the right background -- but I will continue to try!