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Ilze Maldupa from Latvia and Sergio Uribe from Chile met almost 15 years ago thanks to how international research has become and have since gotten into the habit of parsing scientific concepts at the dinner table and adapted to life in one another’s countries. We met with the lecturer and the visiting professor at Rīga Stradiņš University (RSU) shortly before Valentine’s Day to talk about how they manage to balance their professional and private lives.

uribe_kalnos.jpgThe breath-taking Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia. Photo from private archive.

Home is where your family is

Our conversation takes place as Ilze and Sergio are moving again, this time on a smaller scale – from an apartment to a house in Cēsis. They are not wasting any time and answer our call from their car. Boxes filled with their possessions can be seen swaying behind them on the Zoom screen. ‘We have lived in four different places over the last four years: in Valdivia, Chile, then in Jelgava, and now for the second time in Cēsis,’ says Sergio, laughing and adding that this lifestyle suits him. He used to love backpacking and even now he holds on to the idea that his home is wherever his family is. Ilze feels like Cēsis is her home, despite being born in Jelgava.

Ilze and Sergio kept in touch after meeting at a conference in Toronto and as time went on, their communication became more personable. Although they initially they settled in Chile, the couple got the idea that Latvia was where they want to settle down with their family after Ilze received a post-doctoral research grant in 2019. Initially, they had planned to keep Chile as their family home and that Ilze could travel back and forth, but political unrest in Sergio’s native country changed their plans, and finally the pandemic made them seal this idea.

maldupa_uribe_kongress.jpgThe couple at the congress in Toronto in 2008 where they met, together with Professor Jo E. Frecken from the Netherlands. Photo from private archive.

Finding professional fulfilment

Although Ilze initially dreamed of becoming a dentist, she started to focus more on research during her time in Chile because she could not practice as a dentist with her European diploma. ‘During this time, I learned how to teach, got involved in research and when I had the opportunity to return to clinical work I found that my priorities had shifted. I have always enjoyed variety and I am in no short supply of it now! I mostly do research work and help teach a study course for young dentists. We do a lot of work with postgraduate students,’ says Ilze. Her motivation is to ensure that children in Latvia have healthy teeth. According to Ilze, this can be achieved by conducting research and by communicating scientific ideas to dentists and hygienists. She strives to find ways of making paediatric dentistry friendlier and more accessible. ‘It’s an interdisciplinary issue that requires communication and other social sciences to get involved,’ Ilze adds.

maldupa_uribe_jelgava.jpgAt Ilze’s parents’ house in Jelgava. Photo from private archive.

When you make the decision to move, it’s important for both partners to find professional fulfilment in the new country. Ilze maintained her link to RSU during her years in Chile by the couple participating in conferences that the university organised, as well as by working as a visiting lecturer. Although Ilze’s opportunity to become a researcher at RSU prompted the couple to move to Latvia, Sergio also found a career opportunity and became the leading researcher at the newly founded Bioinformatics Laboratory at RSU and as a researcher at the Baltic Biomaterials Centre of Excellence, which is being established in cooperation of RSU, Riga Technical University, and institutes in Switzerland and Germany. The busy couple usually only finds time to talk through these issues at night. Sergio maintains ties to his clinic Austra Ltd. in Valdivia back in Chile, and the clinic’s name reveals the owner’s ties to Latvia. ‘Radiologists are specialists whose work is very compatible with working remotely!’ says Sergio.

uribe_kalnos02.jpgLatvia and Magdalena Island in Chile are 15,023 kilometres apart. Photo from private archive.

You can't leave research in the laboratory

While scientists in the past used to work in laboratories behind closed doors, contemporary research has become increasingly international. Ilze and Sergio are experiencing this first hand on a daily basis. They estimate that they spend half of their time at work communicating with colleagues from laboratories and institutes in other countries. Australia, Chile, South Korea, India, Iran, Finland, Spain, and Germany are only a few countries with which they are co-operating closely at the moment.

‘Nowadays, research is like a strongly interlinked international network, and individual researchers’ geographic location is no longer important. The pandemic has promoted this trend even further,’

explains Sergio adding that the pandemic has made researchers’ lifestyles more family friendly, because they used to have to travel at least three months out of the year.

Ilze and Sergio find it comical that they spend a lot of time discussing tooth decay. ‘If you were to look at our personal Whatsapp chat, you would see us chatting about the latest studies,’ Sergio says. They would not be able to separate their work and family time even if they wanted to. ‘Working in dentistry or surgery is very practical, you are quite literally up to your elbows in your work. You switch off the lights and lock your office at the end of the day, leaving your work behind, but it is different with research,’ explains Sergio.

Neither of them object, because they perceive their work as a hobby.

maldupa_uribe_cesis.jpgThe family currently lives in Cēsis. They were enchanted by the town’s historical beauty, as well as its reasonable size. Photo from private archive.

‘People say that if you choose a job that you like, you will never have to work. This applies to both of us!’ Ilze says.

When we ask whether they get tired from being together at work, as well as at home, they add that they are not actually side by side constantly. They believe that having mutual goals is one of the most important components of married life.

‘Love is changeable – sometimes it is stronger, at other times it cools off. If you have common goals, love actually grows.

If each spouse goes their own way, it is more difficult to hold on to love. In our case, our mutual professional goals enhance our desire to be together!’