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  • Faithful to my Homeland, the Republic of Poland

     

  • JOANNA BAGNIEWSKA

  • "My mum explained to me when I was a child that when abroad I should always behave as if I am the first Pole my friends and colleagues will ever meet - because they will judge Poland on my behaviour."
     

     

     

    IIt so happened that I have spent most of my life abroad: in Italy, Thailand, China and some other places. I completed my secondary education in Poland and then decided to leave the country once again, moving first to Germany for an undergraduate course there, and then to do a Master in zoology at Oxford.


    It is only here that I stayed for longer. It has been 13 years since I moved here.


    I remember that when I was a child, my mum would explain to me that whenever I am abroad, I should always behave as if I am the first Pole my friends and colleague will ever meet because they will judge Poland on my behaviour. The sense of being a representative of your country makes one more conscious of what Polishness is - and how it manifests itself, sometimes in very surprising ways.


    When I lived in Thailand, my nine-year-old friends had an interesting idea of Poland as a paradise, where everyone owns a colourful elastic jumping rope while they had to make them on their own by tying together multiple small rubber bands. On my way back from holidays, I brought with me a bag full of ropes as gifts. Not your most obvious first connection with Poland, is it?


    Some other time I recall how we worked hard with my parents to organise the best possible Christmas dinner. As it happens, in Thailand you get plenty of tasty and fresh fruits, but no Eastern European shops or vegetables.


    In the exotic food section of some supermarket, my mum eventually found a single beetroot wrapped in cellophane. It cost us a fortune, but used it to make a thin beetroot soup, which is an absolute Christmas classic! There were no poppy seeds either so we used black sesame, which in the course of cooking released its awful juice. I guess that cooking-wise it was probably the most horrible Christmas in our life, but it was so essential for us to keep the tradition.


    One could say that my activity within the student community began with food, too. I came to my first ever meeting of the Oxford University Polish Society only because I was craving for a Polish pączek on a Fat Thursday. I got into the swing of things: I joined the committee, and later became its chairwoman. A few years later I also contributed to the founding of the Federation of Polish Student Societies in Britain.


    This was a healthy getaway from emotionally demanding life as a student at Oxford. When you are there and everybody around you seems to be a genius with a Nobel Prize to their name or on course to get it, it is easy to start questioning your worth and lose your confidence.


    But all the work with the PolSoc reassured me that in fact, we are neither more stupid nor less successful than our peers from around the world. Quite the opposite: that there is a lot for us to be proud of. That is one of the reasons why we came up with the idea of organising conferences such as Science: Polish Perspective that allow us to highlight the most recent research to the broader public and show the Polish contribution to science.


    It is worth keeping in mind that, putting the nationality issue aside, it is a tricky thing to be a woman scientist. Which every year of higher education the percentage of women goes down, not up - even in highly feminised areas of studies such as biology. The system requires sacrifices, constant availability, and extraordinary mobility, and there is no free pass for scientists with families which - whether we like it or not - is a more acute problem for women than men.


    This is precisely why I feel passionate about mentoring programmes such as Lean in STEM. I believe it is critical to show to other girls from Poland that they can get excellent education at Oxford and succeed in this country if only they want to.


    For me, the breakthrough came with my appearance at TEDxWarsaw and subsequent participation in FameLab, a British Council-organised competition to promote science, where I won the Polish edition of the contest and got awarded with the International Alumni Award at the international final. Looking back now, this moment has changed my career.


    Ever since I have been engaging with all sort of activities promoting science: whether that is Science Slam, stand up comedy, Soapbox Science mini-lectures or meetings with students, teachers and people attending the University of the Third Age. I also record videos for YouTube and work with the Discovery Channel, take part - and win - "I'm a scientist, get me out of here", and work with Poland's leading media to popularise science.


    On top of that, I am still a zoology lecturer at the University of Reading and work for the Department of Paediatrics at Oxford, where I am responsible for promoting our latest findings.
     

    In a word my professional career is directly linked to my ability to speak about science more humanly - whether in Polish or English.

     

    Words: Jakub Krupa

    Picture: Jadwiga Brontē

     

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