Working as a scientific researcher for the EU

When one thinks of an EU job, an office job in a suit is most probably the first thing that comes to mind. However, the EU has many departments (Directorates General) and employees that focus on a huge range of topics; scientific research is one of them. People often associate working for the EU with studying things such as law or international relations, and it’s therefore interesting to be reminded of just how many different academic studies, education profiles and interests could lead someone to working in the EU. But what kinds of things are researched? how does this work? and how does one end up with such a job? I interviewed Diego Alonso Albarracín, a Trainee working at the Food and Feed Compliance Unit of the Joint Research Centre (JRC), a Directorate General of the European Commission (EC), to get an insight into what his job is like.

Who are you, where do you work and what is your position/function at the JRC?

My name is Diego and I come from Spain; I’ve studied all around Europe and right now I’m doing a traineeship for 5 months. I’m working on a set of antibacterial substances called coccidiostats that are regulated by the European Union, which help farm animals to avoid coccidiosis. Coccidiosis is a disease that is caused by a microscopic parasite called coccidia that is transmitted via the droppings from infected birds. It is also a disease of stress brought on by parturition, weaning, shipping, changes of feed, or adverse weather conditions. Coccidiosis is an economically important disease of cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, poultry, and also rabbits, in which the liver as well as the intestine can be affected. 

We have a small team here of around four people, however we also work with other groups. Our core business is to provide the official control laboratories in the EU Member States with analytical tools allowing them to perform efficient and reliable control of the feed additives on the market. We should also ensure that these controls are taking place in a harmonised way within the EU; in essence if one laboratory in France declares a sample to be compliant, the same conclusion should be reached by any other official control laboratory in EU that would perform the same analysis. All projects that are carried on are undertaken to support and enforce EU policies or to provide scientific evidence upon which new EU policies would be based. We are doing ‘Regulatory science’.

It is important to keep up to date with new regulations by attending conferences and workshops within the company and with external partners. We often carry out meetings with other NRLs (National Reference Laboratories) to discuss ongoing projects and any problems that may arise.

My closest team consists of two team leaders and a laboratory technician that I work directly with on quite a new study aiming at providing the Member States with an efficient tool to help the EU market entrance control.

After this traineeship, there are different paths I could take; one would be to do a PhD, another to go into the regulatory aspects of food safety like authorisation of substances, and the last would be to stay in the field that I am in now which is more technical and analytical. Any of those three options sounds good, so what I’ll do when this position comes to an end is to look at different options, consider how they will help me in the future and apply.

What is it like working in the commission?

The main thing I’ve liked about working here is the difference in cultures and languages; you can always find a person from where you’re from to speak with, on a more personal level. If you make yourself useful people will give you independence and let you do your work, so it’s a very relaxed environment. But at the same time everything we do affects the European citizens, so it’s a really important job and you have to take it seriously. You need to have a balance between professionality and social factors, because you’re working to tight deadlines, as part of a team. 

How does the fact that your research is for the EU change the job, as opposed to it being for a private company?

One of the big differences is that, because what we do is based on current trends, for example right now there’s a big talk about the environment and protecting it, a lot of the projects that we’re doing are designed to back up some of the projects that are going on within the European Union. Here we do a lot of laboratory tests, but we also collaborate with many external partners, national reference or official laboratories, governmental organisations or academic etc. with who we exchange and share a lot. What the European commission does is ensuring that these methods and processes used for testing specific materials are validated, which means they protect the interest of European citizens, environment, and health.

How did you land in this position?

I studied at an International School in Luxemburg, and then went to University in Bristol, England. There I studied forensic chemistry, because I was interested in chemistry, but I wasn’t too sure about what I wanted to do with it so I chose a topic that would keep me interested. I thought it would be good to learn some analytical chemistry with that. When I finished university, after the Summer, I decided to look into the health and fitness world, althoughmost would consider itunrelated, and I did a course in human nutrition for fertility and pregnancy, looking at national and international dietary guidelines. From there I realised that I liked the analytical aspect of science, focusing on the foods we eat and our health. I then went to Scotland to do a master’s degree in food science and human nutrition.

What advice would you give to students interested in becoming researchers?

It’s not always a straight path and it’s not always easy to get into the career or path that you want, especially if you’re not sure where you would like to take it. At the beginning all you know is chemistry, biology, physics or any other related research, but it’s difficult to find a specialisation. I would suggest to follow the path that you think would get you to where you’d like to be, to try and find an interest within those sciences (in my case food) and then when you’re applying for a course to make sure you look at the specific modules or individual lessons to see whether that would then lead you to a job you would like. Another thing that I did was to look in LinkedIn at people from different companies, and I tried to see what their background was and how I could link my studying to what these jobs normally require. Then if there’s anything missing you could always take small courses to fill out your CV.

Amelie Scicluna / S7ENa / EEB1 Uccle

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