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Careers split apart, but marriage held

Now Javiera Aravena-Calvo is, like her husband, a scientist in Copenhagen. This is after career twists that included volunteering in a lab in Israel.

It was back in 2014. Plant scientist Javiera Aravena-Calvo suddenly heard the wail of a siren and felt the searing rush of adrenaline. She and her husband looked at each other:  What was going on?

»A neighbour shouted: ‘Run to the shelter!’ We ran, and waited there until the sirens stopped. We heard the explosions of the rockets being intercepted, and realized we were under attack from Gaza,« Javiera Aravena-Calvo remembers.

Partner to an academic

What is it like being a partner to an international academic that moves to Copenhagen? In a series of articles, the University Post looks at how spouses and couples manage a career with, or without, their global scientist partners

Other articles in this series include:

New country, new identity for partners of academics
‘Second time in Copenhagen after hardship and compromise’
‘Of 26 spouses, only two were men. He was one of them’
Career abroad or family, that was the question
Difficult conversation coming up for long distance couple

On other occasions, she saw Israeli Iron Dome missiles intercept incoming rockets, leaving the white cloud of the impact behind.

»We even got some of the debris of rockets on our Faculty. It was all very shocking for me and something I could not get used to during those weeks of conflict.«

Israel was her idea, but he got the PhD

There were other reasons to leave Israel though.

Her husband Pablo’s career as a plant biologist had surged on ahead. He was soon to finish his PhD, and he had offers lining up. But she was at an impasse, volunteering in a laboratory with no work visa, no PhD prospect, and no clear way forward.

READ ALSO: New country, new identity for partners of academics

It was not always supposed to have been that way.

Javiera Aravena-Calvo and Pablo met when they were both 20-year-old bachelor students of Bioengineering at the University of Concepción in Chile and got married after finishing their studies. They were both ambitious, wanted an academic career, and preferably somewhere abroad.

It was our first year of marriage, my husband was just starting his PhD with a lot of stress, and I on the other hand, felt like I was wasting my time.

Javiera Aravena-Calvo

It was Javiera that pushed for Israel as a destination, as she was interested in the work of Alexander Vainstein, a professor working on plant genomics.

»It was my original suggestion to go to Israel, but he ended up getting the scholarship, and he actually started his PhD in the Faculty where I wanted to apply. I moved with him to Israel, and Pablo even contacted people to help me, but it was him that got the position.«

READ ALSO: Second time in Copenhagen after hardship and compromise

She had hoped that her research-track bachelor’s degree from Chile would qualify her to start a PhD, but Israeli rules stipulated that she needed a master’s.

»I was very frustrated, we went all the way to Israel, and for me it was to no avail. And my only option was to study, as my visa was not for work,«  Javiera Aravena-Calvo recounted. She realized that she, if she wanted to stay with her husband in Israel, would have to take her master’s there. A six month wait before the master’s programme started didn’t help things.

»I was used to always reaching my goals, and suddenly I had no choice. It was our first year of marriage, my husband was just starting his PhD with a lot of stress, and I on the other hand, felt like I was wasting my time. There was a lot of conflict between us,« she remembers.

Not a safe place to be

Javiera Aravena-Calvo felt like she had to do something, so she asked if she could volunteer at the plant genomics lab until she could start her master’s. As it happens, this turned out later to help them both.

I have this mentality from my own country that somehow pregnancy is a threat to your professional life, and I couldn’t help feeling that I was delaying things again.

Javiera Aravena-Calvo

She started her master’s degree, and afterwards she returned to the lab, volunteering there as she waited for her husband to finish his PhD degree.

»I started to learn Hebrew there. I enjoyed being involved and it was motivating. I found out that it was a big help if you are starting in a new country to do something where you are interacting socially with people that are related to your career goals,« she says.

It was at this point, studying for her master’s and then volunteering while waiting for her husband to finish her PhD, that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict flared up again. Suddenly Israel didn’t seem like a safe place to be.

READ ALSO: Career abroad, or family: That was the question

»We were both looking into our options: Germany, Switzerland, and other countries too. We didn’t feel ready to return to Chile, as there were not that many opportunities there. But somehow we maintained our trust that we would manage in the end.«

It was a Danish student visiting the lab that mentioned a postdoc opportunity in Copenhagen for her husband.

Now it is ‘your turn’

Javiera Aravena-Calvo and Pablo arrived in Copenhagen in 2017.

In Denmark, as Pablo continued his research, Javiera Aravena-Calvo finally got a work visa as a spouse to a visiting researcher, so she could also look for employment.

»I felt a lot of opportunities opening for me, and my experience in Israel had primed me for applied work in industry,« she says.

As it happens, when Javiera Aravena-Calvo finally did get offered a job in Denmark, fate would have it that she learned that she was pregnant. It was unplanned.

She decided not to pursue the job that she had just been offered.

»Now I felt that I was delaying my career again. I was doing Danish lessons, so I was not doing nothing, but I have this mentality from my own country that somehow pregnancy is a threat to your professional life, and I couldn’t help feeling that I was delaying things again.«

Career was important to both me and my husband, but until now, it was Pablo’s career path that we had followed. Now, just as it was ‘my turn’, we both got lucky.

Javiera Aravena-Calvo

After the birth of their child, it was finally time for Javiera Aravena-Calvo to get going with her career. Pablo was nearing the end of his contract in Copenhagen.

He said to her: »It is where you get your PhD that decides where we go«.

After years of struggling to align their careers, good fortune finally came to the couple: Javiera Aravena-Calvo was offered a PhD in Copenhagen, and Pablo got a new contract here.

»Career was important to both me and my husband, but until now, it was Pablo’s career path that we had followed. Now, just as it was ‘my turn’, we both got lucky.«

Javiera Aravena-Calvo has taken a life lesson out of the twists and turns of her career path:

»When you are a couple, you need to be more flexible, to open up and share your goals with one another, and to broaden these goals. In other words: to compromise. It is not just my life anymore. Yet both of us are in science, so this has helped us understand and support each other.«

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