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The Winner Takes It All

The HPLC Separation Science Slam gives younger scientists an opportunity to communicate their research to the HPLC audience in a unique way. The goal is to win the favor of the audience and jury, who take into consideration the scientific content, entertainment value, comprehensibility, and creativity – for the chance to win €1,500.

Here, 2023 gold medalist, Ina Varfaj, PhD Student, Pharmaceutical Sciences, University of Perugia, Italy, talks about her experience at the 2023 Separation Science Slam, female representation, and advice for young scientists at the start of their careers.

What research did you present – and why?

My presentation was about the enantioselective analysis of chiral compounds – specifically, novel psychoactive substances within the synthetic cannabinoid family. I was inspired to take on this research because chirality has been a consistent topic across my PhD projects, and because enantioselective analysis of these illicit substances holds prior importance across many fields, from environmental to forensics. With this in mind, I believed that this area of research could be viewed from a multidisciplinary perspective.

The theme of my presentation involves two passions of mine – science and sharing cultural differences. Recently, I spent some time at the University of Tuebingen in Germany with Professor Laemmerhofer’s research group, and we spent a lot of time discussing the differences between German culture and my Italian heritage. Our different approaches to life are also reflected in our work and having these discussions allows for better understanding in collaborative projects. From these moments, I wanted to emphasize these “peculiarities” and differences to explain science to a broader audience.

Can you describe your preparation prior to the competition?

In the beginning, it wasn’t easy to gather everything together, but I was motivated by creating new things – evident of my love of art in my free time. I’m also passionate about communication and how to facilitate it in each situation. I spent time looking for pictures that could be easily understood for the scientific sections of my presentation, and music that is usually able to reach everybody.

What was your favorite or most memorable moment from the Separation Science Slam?

The culmination of emotions from the presentation makes it difficult to pick just one moment. However, I really enjoyed the moment at the end of my presentation when the audience were singing with me to Mamma Mia by ABBA. Seeing people engage with my work was incredibly satisfying and showed that active engagement is key in our field.

How did the event influence you?

The Separation Science Slam gave me the opportunity to meet a lot of people within the scientific community, building and developing connections. I was lucky to meet some incredibly inspiring figures – people that I’ve read about but never thought I would meet in person. For this, I’d like to thank everyone who made this event possible – I’m very grateful for this opportunity.

I believe that the most important take home message is to be brave and never say no to trying something new. In the beginning, things may seem scary, but by pushing through hardships and taking risks, you will end a project feeling happier and more satisfied than if you’d stuck in your comfort zone. 

Many young scientists are scared of presenting. What would you say to encourage them to take part in events like this?

Of course, presenting isn’t easy for everybody – and there isn’t a one size fits all solution. However, no one is attending these events to judge you or make you feel bad. On the contrary, you should take these opportunities as a way to start and reinforce connections with colleagues. Through networking, we can learn new ways to approach our work and become better scientists in the process. We can always look around and find examples of peers who seem smarter and more successful, but don’t blame yourself – just go for it! 

The three winners of the 2023 Separation Science Slam were all women. How do you think women in STEM can benefit from such events?

Society as a whole can benefit from these events. The Separation Science Slam highlighted the different perspectives within the STEM workforce. These unique and creative solutions help us solve challenging problems – advancing society and the economy with each barrier breaking discovery. Women should have access to the same facilities as men and within an open and inclusive society; I hope that women will be provided with more opportunities to take an active role in the scientific community. 

I’d also like to take the opportunity to congratulate my colleagues Simona and Mimi on their wonderful performance at this event. It was a real pleasure to connect with them in Dusseldorf.

What advice do you have for young scientists at the beginning of their scientific careers?

Based on my experience, I’d have to say the most important things are curiosity and a strong passion for science. You can learn how to deal with problems step-by-step by being flexible and open minded. There are always frustrating moments in a scientific career when things aren’t going as planned, but having the willpower to fight against this frustration and push ahead is what makes you successful. Take every opportunity you can to increase your knowledge – attend schools and seminars, give presentations, and connect with others who can expand on your current abilities. Remember that science doesn’t match with jealousy. On the contrary, we should promote complementarity, which is essential to our craft. And be brave, always.

Image credit: Ina Varfaj

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About the Author
Jessica Allerton

Associate Editor, The Analytical Scientist

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