February 19th
IC3i Interviews Visual

IC3i Alumni Interview #11: Silvia Benito Martinez

Discover the IC3i Alumni’s professional paths in our series of interviews.

Photo of Silvia Benito Martinez
Silvia Benito Martinez

In one word, how was your PhD journey at Institut Curie?

If I had to choose just one word, I would say “enriching” because it was truly enriching on a personal as well as on a professional level. So far, I can say it has been the most enriching experience of my life.


How did you find out about the program and what attracted you the most in the idea of moving to Paris for the PhD?

It was thanks to a person in my masters. We were in virology class, talking about PhDs and who was applying to what…. He was in another research center doing his Master’s project and in his lab they had told him about this program. So, he had applied and told me about it. It was by word of mouth.

The program itself seemed to me very complete. In general, as a scientist when you look for a PhD, you want to do science and research but not only. You also look for new experiences and learnings. For me, the international aspect was very important because it helps you improve languages which are essential for your professional career afterwards.

For example, regarding my English level, I had done my Erasmus (one year of my studies in a foreign university) in England and I had also spent many consecutive summers as a kid with an English family, so I already had a very good fluency. However, regarding French, I had studied it for 7 years, but I had not practiced it in the country except for a two-week exchange. So, when I found out that the IC3-i Program was based in Paris, I was very happy to know that I could boost my French and keep improving my English at the same time, since the whole PhD was in English. Also, getting to know people from other countries, learning about other cultures, exiting from my comfort zone, going abroad, learning to adapt and grow was highly motivating.

Another key aspect is that, as a scientist, you also look for scholarships. Sometimes, you find very interesting projects in labs, but they are not funded. It is very hard to continue doing research in a place where the economic stability is complicated. That’s why I said that the program was very complete.

The IC3-i program offered research but also its own funding which is key when you are in your early career. For most of us, the PhD was our first job after the Masters.

So, it offered a very competitive package compared to other PhD programs, and also provided great prestige by being a Marie Curie Actions call. I had applied elsewhere of course but this was the most exciting program for all the reasons mentioned, and because of the training. I believe Institut Curie is very famous for its international courses, it is one of the most exceptional academic places where you have additional trainings besides research. Myself, I have attended so many courses along my PhD!


Why did you do a PhD?

Because of my passion for science, for cell biology and I would also add, that it was a little bit by “magic”, because when I read all the projects, I found the one that my then future supervisor had written on skin keratinocytes and the melanin processing by these cells, and I thought it was truly interesting. So, I was very eager to apply to know more about those cells and discover more about cell biology in general. It was pure passion for acquiring new knowledge, and the good fortune of finding a project strongly aligned with my interests.


What did the PhD at Institut Curie bring you?

It was like a trampoline into the professional scientific world. Institut Curie has a high prestige for excellence in science, so I felt deeply grateful when I was selected. It brought me a lot of high-quality scientific expertise. At Institut Curie, you have the chance to meet many key researchers from all over the world, to attend tons of seminars and to learn from the best scientists. Besides, I had a very good supervisor: as I have already told him many times, I learnt from the best. So, it was the Curie atmosphere, the invited research speakers, and the scientists from Curie. All of this provided me with high quality science.

I would also add that it brought me a lot of self-confidence, thanks again to my supervisor. When you see that your supervisor believes in you and motivates you, that’s extremely important and it reinforces your self-esteem.


How was your life in Paris outside academia?

The program allowed me to have and create my group of friends. We all arrived and started our PhD at the same time, we all went together through the ups and downs, we created a very strong bond. I had the best group of friends I could imagine. They were my family in Paris; we did so many activities, going to museums, to concerts, we did so many walks around the city, discovering architecture and beautiful corners, trying plenty of restaurants and cuisines, we did many trips too, to Strasbourg for the Christmas market, to Lyon, to the Mont-Saint-Michel. We also travelled abroad, to Austria, Belgium, Spain and Portugal.

It was really nice that we all started living together at the Cité universitaire campus. After some time, we moved to another residence but kept in the same area not far from each other, just like in Friends series, going to each other places to watch a movie, make sushi, do yoga… and even writing our thesis manuscripts together, we established a library in my room!


Looking back on your PhD journey, how would you describe the ride? Do you think you would have done something differently?

I know that the PhD can be very hard, I’ve seen many friends suffer and go through very difficult times. The project depends mainly on you, you have a PhD supervisor but you are the one performing the experiments and directing the project. One of the hardest aspects is that you have to be persistent and to keep motivated. In my case, that part was not very tough because, as I mentioned, I had a very good PhD supervisor, so he kept my motivation very high. I think that was the problem for most of my friends who had a hard time. They couldn’t find motivation, mostly because their supervisors didn’t motivate them enough, although that is their role: to guide us and to motivate us.

The truth in my case is that I had the most positive experience I could ever imagine. It went beyond my expectations; it was great in every aspect. My personality, my PhD supervisor’s personality, the project and the lab were a perfect fit.

The hardest part for me was the writing. You have to wake up every morning, sit in front of the computer, stay motivated and stay focused, which nowadays, especially with the screens and social media, it makes it harder to concentrate and to keep a good state of mind. I had to set myself some boundaries to be able to focus and be as positive and productive as possible to write my thesis manuscript.

The greater part when I look back: the PhD itself was the best experience I could choose for my first job in my professional career. It allowed me to develop myself in many ways; not only in science and research but also during the PhD, you develop so many additional skills in so many ways: creativity, communication skills, interpersonal skills, project management, actually, management in general, of people, of resources, of time and pressure... If I could go back, I would still do it and I would recommend it to anyone who wishes to do it. I wouldn’t change a thing, it was perfect as it was, even with the hard parts. Overall, it was so positive that I almost forget the hard parts.


What are you doing now?

Right now, I work in a company, so I moved into the industry, and I am within the Research and Development department. I am no longer doing experiments; I am no longer working on the bench because I was motivated to continue developing my career as a science communicator. This idea came to me thanks to Institut Curie because there, I strongly developed my communication skills and passion for it thanks to numerous courses and conferences where I had the opportunity to give presentations, and specially also thanks to my doctoral mission within the Communication Department. I enjoyed preparing presentations very much, as well as giving talks, poster sessions and networking. All of this led me to choose my current role as Science Communication Manager. My company belongs to the cosmetics sector. We mix nature and science to obtain active ingredients which are then sold to cosmetic clients, who include them in skin & haircare products. Since my PhD was about investigating the cell biology of our skin and pigmentation, my scientific background together with my expertise in communication was highly valuable for the position.


Can you tell us more about your company?

The name of my current company is Provital. They extract every ingredient from the plants’ world: flowers, trees, seeds, fruits... which are beneficial for the skin cells and the hair. Everything is natural and extracted from vegetal components. Moreover, biotechnology is also very present in the development of many of the products we produce, such as in vitro cultures of plant stem cells and new lines that I cannot reveal yet, but which are very promising. I truly love my current job and the place where I work. It is a very nice way of putting science into application and for the benefit of society – in a more direct and translational way than maybe in academics where it takes many years to arrive at something that we can really touch.


What is your dream, or goal in your life?

So far, I am following my dreams and passions. My dream at 23 years-old was to become a scientist by doing a PhD and I managed to accomplish it. I think, as you evolve through life, you have different dreams and goals, and you keep on discovering new things that you enjoy more. The expertise and knowledge that I acquired during my years at Curie, made me reach a scientific level, which currently allows me to understand and discuss science from other topics, and, at the same time, it allows me to evolve into the communication field that I enjoy more now.

After the PhD, I dreamt of myself communicating science around the world and this is exactly the position that I got: travelling to congresses and events, so far in Europe and America, and supporting R&D, commercial and marketing departments about the science behind the products, the efficacy, what happens to cells… My role is to create communication strategies to make scientific data comprehensible. So, I believe I can say that I am now accomplishing a new dream.

My general goal in life, is to be happy and achieve it, by doing the things that I love. I honestly don’t know what I will be doing in five or ten years, but I hope that I keep growing as a person and that I still have challenges. I also hope that I will be surrounded by a nice team because I believe people are the most important.


To finish with, what advice would you give to the freshers embarking or about to embark on a PhD journey?

I would give 2 main recommendations:

to really be fascinated and feel motivated about the project. Make sure that the project makes you curious, that you want to know more about it, and that you enjoy reading about the topic. to be able to get to know your PhD supervisor before starting your PhD. I was very lucky that the program invited me to Paris for three days so I could know in person my future PhD supervisor, the lab and the group. I could ask questions to the group members and to my PhD supervisor before starting. Having all those informal and personal interviews will certainly help you decide the best option for you. You will never know exactly how the person is, but it will give you already a feeling, that is essential in my opinion. Even if it is online, I encourage people to have a talk, to get to know the PhD supervisor, and to openly discuss about their commitment to the doctoral student’s supervision and working conditions, such as respecting schedules. These things are important in academia.

Sometimes, in science, people can go a bit irrational about discovering new things, demanding to do experiments without time limits by mistreating PhD students; on the other hand, there are many cases where the supervisor abandons the student, either for a lack of time or interest. We need to talk openly about all these important issues because it is about the mental health of doctoral students, and we are a big part of the research base.


Interview conducted by Chloé Delevoye & Marine Poupon-Landreau in December 2023.