Career profile: Sandra Caldeira – Deputy Head of Unit, European Commission’s Joint Research Centre

Sandra Caldeira is “Deputy Head of Unit, Health in Society” at the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre in Ispra, Italy. In her current role, Sandra provides high-level support to a range of projects that use science to inform European policy and thus potentially impacting millions of lives. She talked to us about the JRC, her role, and how she ended up supporting European policy making – after completing a PhD and postdoc in molecular biology and working for several years as a journal editor.

You can find the full interview below, and if you are interested in policy related or EC careers, may also find the following resources interesting:


Interview with Sandra:

You are currently “Deputy Head of Unit, Health in Society” at the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre. What does this role involve?

Before I tell you about the role, let me first tell you about the Joint Research Centre. The Joint Research Centre (JRC) is a Directorate General of the European Commission. Rather than proposing policies at the European level, like most other Directorate Generals do, we provide technical and scientific support to all aspects of policy making cycle, e.g. from conception to implementation and evaluation. This starts at the level of policy anticipation, where we have the role of telling the colleagues, or the Member States or the parliament, that – because of certain evidence-based developments – there might be need for a policy proposal. However, as we also work together with our policy colleagues, proposals can also emanate in this way. There is science in so many aspects of policy making – something I think one often doesn’t realise from the outside. For example, if you want to introduce a limit on a particular substance, you need to apply science to determine a limit that is reasonable and applicable. And then – staying with the same example – if you have a limit, you have to say how you are going to measure the substance or compound – so you need to have methods that everyone can use, methods that are validated and accepted. Part of our role is supporting policy definition. But we also work at the level of monitoring and evaluating that policy after it has been implemented – did it work, what can we learn from it, how can we improve it?

In our unit, Health in Society, we work on three main areas. Firstly, health information: here we, for example, use JRC-developed software to collect data on cancer from over 150 national and regional registries, and we treat & further harmonise the data, so we can provide the latest information on indicators that quantify cancer burden across Europe (e.g. cancer mortality, incidence, prevalence etc.). We do something similar for rare diseases, so collecting information from different registers and trying to bring all into one site. With the rare diseases information, here we facilitate interoperability for the hundreds of fragmented registries which contain data on over 6 000 different diseases. In some cases, the registry for one particular country for a particular disease, might be an excel file stored on someone’s computer. We aim to bring it all together and this will provide researchers, healthcare providers, patients and policy-makers with a reliable instrument to improve knowledge, diagnoses and treatments of rare diseases.

Secondly, we also work on cancer healthcare policy. The main project here is currently the European Commission Initiative on Breast Cancer (ECIBC). We have developed evidence-based recommendations on both screening and diagnosis for breast cancer. For this we gather experts, and there is a process of systematically reviewing the literature, appraising it and developing and rating the recommendations. Based on the literature and evidence we have, the project defines – for example – the frequency of screening and at what age screening should begin, and what type(s)of technology should be used, depending on the diagnosis. It also looks at social sciences and communication aspects to define – for example – how should one reach out to the women so they come for screening and how to best communicate the results, positive or negative. Furthermore, we also provide a platform of evidence-based recommendations to cover the rest of the healthcare pathway (i.e. treatment, post-treatment, palliative care, etc.). Taking this a step further, we then define quality criteria from these recommendations, and thus provide a quality assurance scheme which can be used voluntarily by hospitals, clinics and breast Units across Europe. This facilitates implementation ‘on the ground’, addressing health inequalities and ensuring that minimum healthcare quality levels are available across Europe. There are some countries that already have a very good standard of care, but there are some countries that are lagging behind.

The third and final aspect to the unit, and the area I was initially recruited to work on, is on health promotion and prevention of non-communicable diseases. Here, it is mainly about looking at risk factors that can be modified with policy, changes in the environment and so on such as nutrition, alcohol use or physical activity. In the other two areas (health information and healthcare policy projects), many of the projects are long-term, some projects we’ve been working on for 6-7 years. For the health promotion area, these tend to be shorter and we’ve worked on many different things, for example, limiting the use of trans-fatty acids, which are quite harmful e.g. to heart disease. We worked on legislation which is now in force that limits the use of these fats in foods. We’ve also worked on schools and how to procure food for schools in a health sensitive manner. Currently, we also do some work on restricting marketing practices, for example, for alcoholic beverages or marketing foods that are high in fat, sugar and salt to children. We have also worked on monitoring the food composition in different food products where the member states committed to reducing reduce sugar in those food products, for example breakfast cereal or soft drinks. Each country decides how to do this in its own way – for example sugar taxes or other measures – but we help monitoring it. So we acquire data on the composition of certain food products across Europe, we harmonise it and look at how this is evolving and whether we do see a reduction in sugar.

As deputy head of unit, a lot of the work is to ensure these projects run smoothly and successfully: supporting the people; still helping with a little bit of scientific thinking; and a lot of administrative work, like budget, reporting and human resources, and administration. I enjoy it. Before, when I was working on the health promotion part – that was my focus – now I can also look at the cancer and rare disease work and thereby I am also much more exposed to the work of other units within my institution. I love that; ideas pop up in terms of synergies and things that we can do together.

Sounds like a really enjoyable job! As the deputy head of unit, you have a management role in terms of the projects, are you also in charge of a team?

I used to be head of the health promotion team, but now as deputy head of unit, I work with the head of unit managing all the projects. My role is really at the unit level to plan the work programme – together with the team leaders – so we have to plan this on a yearly basis for the next two years and liaise with colleagues in the policy DG. One thing that it is important to highlight is that there is not so much freedom to do things that you think might lead to something, most of our work is “commissioned”. We don’t work on these projects because we want to or we think it’s nice (although we do want to and find them nice!) – we work on them because they are needed and we are asked to. Most of the time we develop the projects with our colleagues – in my case the ones in Luxembourg responsible for public health policies – but sometimes we also have projects where it is the European Parliament or a Member State asking for our support. We have a little bit of freedom – in theory we can spend 10% of our time on exploratory research projects. In practice, at least in my case, there’s hardly time for dedicating this 10% of our time. We are also encouraged to look into what others within our Institution are doing and support their work. For example, recently I’ve been working on something together with my environment sustainability colleagues, looking at the environmental impact of diets and how we can encourage more sustainable diets. This is not something we have been asked to do by a policy DG, but it’s something they have been asked to work on. There always has to be policy relevance to what we do.

How did you end up doing this role?

Towards the end of my PhD, I started looking for alternatives. To work for the European Commission was one of the things I put on the table. To get a permanent position, it’s not enough to apply to a job, like we do in most career areas. Once in a while there are calls organised by EPSO, the European Personnel Selection Office – and you go through this huge selection process where thousands of people apply, and you do lots of different tests and interviews. At the end of this, there is something called a reserve list –and the institutions can only hire permanent staff from this list.  I applied to one of these competitions towards the end of my PhD, I passed and was in the reserve list. That’s where it started. Then I found another job – a postdoc in Portugal, which I was happy in; and eventually became a journal editor at EMBO Press. But one day, I got a phone call from the European Commission – saying that they now have a position, and asking if I would like to attend an interview. So I did, and I really liked the people, and apparently they liked me, and I was offered the job. This was eight years after I initially applied!

From there, it was quite interesting. I was a molecular biologist, who had been working for a journal and suddenly I was working on nutrition. It was a different world: the type of science we’re dealing with is completely different, it’s a lot of epidemiology and a lot less wet-lab. But somehow it was very easy to get into the new topics, health promotion is something that you can easily relate to and you understand the impact it can have – what you do can affect 500 million people – which is very motivating. So it was very easy to get into it and start working, and I guess I was just lucky in the areas of work and projects I had- it went well and I had great colleagues and a great team. It happened naturally that when the deputy head of unit retired, I applied and got my current position.

In what ways is the work you are doing at the JRC similar to the work you are doing in academia and in what ways different?

My work is now very different, because when I was in academia I was a PhD and postdoc working in a wet lab – and now I am in an administrative position.

But there are also positions at the JRC that are more similar to a PhD or postdoc – working in a wet-lab, although without the academic freedom. Although I do think academic freedom is also a little overrated: in the end you can only work on what you have funding to do. In our unit, there is a lot of epidemiology, statistics, this kind of stuff – we don’t have labs. But in my directorate, there are colleagues who, for example, work on in vitro cell cultures and high throughput systems, looking at alternative methods for testing chemicals without using animals. There are colleagues looking at methodologies for measuring different chemical molecules in food, water and air; and there are people working on nanomaterials and microplastics. There’s also a lot of bioinformatics going on. So there are also jobs for those who want to continue to work in a lab.

As a project manager, what do you think were the skills and character traits were responsible for your success and the success of the projects you worked on?

Knowing how to manage your time, prioritise, and speak to people. I think the time I spent at EMBO helped a lot with this – in the journals you spend so much time reading science, but also a lot of time improving (or rejecting!) papers, so it’s not difficult for me to be encouraging and say no if needed but communicate things in a way that doesn’t upset people. Being able to communicate things in a way that gets people on board, somehow being able to justify what you need to do and why you need to do it. I also think being an editor gave me very good attention to detail and to practice questioning things from different angles – before I decide to do something I try to look at it from different angles. Being modest enough to reach out to others to get their input where you need it, without losing time, also helps.

But I also think I was lucky – the type of projects I’ve had at the JRC were, and are, very engaging, this brought us together and I was always fortunate to work in very functional and good teams with great colleagues.

Do your colleagues in similar roles also have a scientific background – and did they also come directly from the lab, or did they – like you – have other roles outside the lab first?

Yes, almost everyone here has a scientific background. I think most people enter the institution in a different role – for example in the wet-lab – and then move into this role.

So if someone would be interested in a role like yours?

You’d need to pass the EPSO test and apply for  an open permanent position – and for my current role, also to have been in the institution for a while. However, we also have temporary positions, up to 6 years and for those you can just apply.

What do you feel is most challenging and most enjoyable about the role?

What I find most enjoyable is that I get to use my brain in so many different areas – all related to health but not specific to very small aspects of science. That’s one of the most enjoyable things – the content – though I also like the people and the fact that my work has an impact that I can see. The most challenging has to do with working for an Institution as big as the European Commission, there are many procedures and bureaucracy that takes a while to get used to.

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You can find Sandra on LinkedIN, on twitter, or (for EMBL fellows, staff and alumni) contact her via the EMBL alumni directory.