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Gabriel Cavalli drawing a reaction scheme on a white board
Dr Gabriel Cavalli

As well as researching bio-nanotechnology and nanomedicine, and mentoring his students, Gabriel is an active member of Surrey University’s LGBT networks.

"I have come full circle"

Gabriel grew up in Uruguay where he experienced a broad education at school. He says that “it was difficult to make a decision on what to study at university; I enjoyed literature and history just as much as the sciences. Not knowing which to pursue, although it was a source of anxiety at the time, was later a blessing.” Biology and genetics were Gabriel’s biggest interests, but having not studied biology for the last two years at school, he thought he would try getting into biochemistry through a degree in chemistry. As a chemistry undergraduate at Universidad de la Republica, Montevideo, Gabriel’s mind was changed. “I realised that my passion was for molecules in the realm of living systems, rather than the living systems themselves” says Gabriel.

Gabriel Cavalli

“Organic chemistry fascinated me a great deal! Mechanisms, explaining how reactions proceeded... I really felt in my element.”

Gabriel’s interests evolved to the application of chemistry whilst he studied for his MRes in organic synthesis and applied biocatalysis. With little funding available for PhDs in organic synthesis, he moved to Imperial College London, to study with the late Dr Joachim Steinke. “I was accepted for a PhD in an area that was not my first choice - polymer chemistry - but since then I have learnt to love it. Joachim had very high expectations from all his students, which came from his reassuring conviction that they had what it took to succeed. Polymer chemistry has given me the opportunity to work in drug delivery and nanomedicine as well as interact with biologists, biochemists and medics. Definitely, in terms of my original interests at school, I have come full circle!”

“As a chemist you can end up working virtually in any field in terms of applications. This is incredibly exciting, and should be showcased more. When I arrived in the UK for my PhD I remember seeing posters from the Royal Society of Chemistry showing that ‘Not all chemists wear white coats.’ That’s the spirit!”

Gabriel now works at the University of Surrey and was recognised as Surrey’s Faculty of Engineering and Physical Sciences 2013 Researcher of the Year for his work in researching the interface of polymer synthesis, and applications of polymers in bionanotechnology and nanomedicine. The British Heart Foundation funds part of his research that focuses on exploring protein-polymer conjugation to develop nanomedicines for cardiovascular disease.

“Working in an interdisciplinary setting (nanomedicine) I work with physicists, physical chemists, biologists, biochemists, medics and even a philosopher, which has the challenge understanding each other: language becomes a minefield.”

Being creative

Gabriel’s innovative teaching methods were also recognised when he was shortlisted for the Surrey Vice Chancellor's Teaching Excellence Awards 2010-2011. With his colleagues, he has increased student engagement and performance by using in-class workshops, blended-problem based approaches using podcasts, as well as online materials as an alternative to traditional lectures. As well as academic teaching, Gabriel supports his students with their research, helping them enjoy the transition from understanding science on a theoretical basis to its application. “Research is the best setting for development in sciences. It is when we discuss with our students and support them through their research that we learn together.”

Gabriel Cavalli

With increasing awareness of the focus on diversity, Gabriel highlights that emphasis shouldn’t be put on academics, but on primary schools and societal attitudes from an early age. “I welcome seeing Lego show women in science - when we get to university, it’s a bit late.” Alongside his research, Gabriel is involved in Surrey's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender networks where he finds “discrimination isn’t outspoken in academia or at the university.” He describes other issues that are equally as important, “Work-life balance is an issue in the sciences, where you need long hours in the laboratory to get results. This hits some, particularly young mothers, more than others.”

Although people in his environment are professional, Gabriel understands that being part of a minority group that suffers discrimination becomes an unwelcome added pressure for some. Gabriel emphasises, “Organisations need to understand that they are missing out on effective and creative workers by not addressing these issues in the workplace. It seems this is happening slowly but surely.”

“If you are gay (or any other minority) then take it as your mission to treasure your life and the lives of everyone else, because possibly you had to learn things the difficult way.”

"I am naturally resilient but Buddhism has enhanced that"

As a Buddhist, Gabriel finds the constant reminder to respect himself and others, and to keep going, reassuring. With academia and the sciences being part of a society involving metrics and rankings, life is a constant measure of self-worth. “You have to keep on believing and work hard at succeeding in your own journey. I try to bring this in to my classroom and my research group as much as I can. Like my PhD supervisor, I have high expectations from my students because, exactly as he taught me, I know I am working with extremely gifted individuals. Sadly, they don’t always see it that way, and we need to work on transforming that. It may be tough, but it’s not impossible.”

“I have settled in the UK and I have a British passport, but I can still see the UK through the eyes of someone who was brought up somewhere else. Britain has a strong class system which is a problem for a lot of people, both foreign and native British. If you aren’t from the correct background or speak with a certain accent there can be barriers which I think is sometimes an overlooked aspect. It is a work in progress.”

Gabriel encourages others to take control of their own futures: “I encourage others not to fear uncertainty and to trust their own pathway, as nothing is set in stone. You have choices and you can shape your own career.”

Words by Jenny Lovell
Images © MPP Image Creation / Royal Society of Chemistry
Published November 2014

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