Cityscape From Limmat River in Zurich, Switzerland

Where are you currently living?

I currently live in Zurich, Switzerland, on the edge of the city near the Hönggerberg campus of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH Zurich), where I work as a member of the research management team for the National Centre of Competence in Research (NCCR) Digital Fabrication.

What did you study while at UGA?

I studied genetics in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences and applied biotechnology in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences (CAES). I graduated with a certificate in international agriculture in 2011 after a final semester abroad studying grapevine breeding in Udine, Italy, coordinated by the CAES program office. 

What has your career path looked like since graduation?

After returning from Italy and graduating in spring 2011 with a bachelor of science in genetics and the certificate in international agriculture, I applied to several technician positions around the U.S. It took time, but finally I was hired at the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research at Cornell University, where I had a summer internship the year before.

The year I was there was a great opportunity to scout out doctoral programs in genetics and plant breeding, and eventually I applied and was accepted to several American universities, as well as the University of ZĂĽrich. Since my semester abroad in Italy, I was inspired to return to Europe to study, so I took a bit of a risk and moved to ZĂĽrich in 2012. I studied the genetics of fungal plant pathogens in the science and policy program there, defending my thesis in 2017. 

I was certain I did not want to continue an academic career, so after graduation, I spent several months unemployed and looking for opportunities. Without the sturdy social safety net in Switzerland, this would have been a very anxious time for me. Finally, I took a temporary position as a research-proposal coordinator at a research consortium at the NCCR Digital Fabrication at ETH Zurich.

Switching fields — from life science to architecture, engineering, robotics, informatics, and materials science — was an extremely rewarding experience. My background in research was as valuable as my lack of familiarity with the science.

In combination, this gave me the right perspective to ask the simple and direct questions required to clarify the large research proposal the consortium was preparing. The research proposal was highly successful, and I was invited to continue working in the consortium’s research management team, where I am now permanently employed.

The main objectives in my position are to initiate and coordinate activities in the areas of education and equal opportunities, sometimes within the consortium, but often on the national level in coordination with partner associations and the other NCCRs  — for example, #NCCRWomen showcases women in Swiss research in short, one-minute videos.

As Switzerland is densely multicultural  — it has four national languages: German, French, Italian and Romansh, which are spoken in different regions — it can be very challenging to coordinate national programs and campaigns. This challenge, however, provides one of the greatest satisfactions of my job.

What are some of the key life lessons and skills that you gained from your time as a CAES student?

I still remember taking “International Agricultural Development” with Professor Maria Navarro and the profound effect it had on my thinking about international development and collaboration across cultures.

Professor Maria Navarro gestures while explaining a concept in a classroom setting

It really impressed on me how well-intentioned researchers, activists or volunteers can face absolute failure of their projects simply because of the underlying mentality that they have the solution to fix the problems of the less fortunate.

That all stakeholders have part of the knowledge and power to find and effect solutions, and that collaboration and knowledge-sharing is the only road to create real change, is a life lesson I will never forget and that I still reflect on in my work now. 

My semester abroad also had a profound effect on my worldview, as I had never lived outside the U.S. and had only briefly traveled to the United Kingdom before. Living in Italy, I overcame a lot of romanticized ideas and observed numerous commonalities, as well as differences.

Research was conducted much the same way as back home, people commuted to work in carpools and met for drinks in the evening. The main difference was the fantastic fresh food, wine as the beverage of choice and the bar-lined cobblestoned streets.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to improve my Italian much while there, as everyone wanted to practice their English with me! When I went home, though, I had a strong desire to return to Europe and see other lifestyles and cultures.

Tell us about the value of your degree since graduation — how did your time at CAES prepare you for the real world?

The greatest value of my CAES degree has been opening my eyes to different perspectives and seeing the world differently.

The courses and experiences abroad showed me some of the pitfalls of international aid, colonial mindsets and romanticized ideas about other cultures.

In short, it prepared me well for a multicultural career. It gave me the confidence to visit and live in other countries, but also a greater cultural intelligence and discretion. 

Kaitlin McNally stands at a modern lectern with a speaker at the Parity Talks IV event at ETH Zurich

Parity Talks IV, ETH Zurich (Photo by Flora BrĂĽhlmann, ETH Zurich)

Parity Talks IV, ETH Zurich (Photo by Flora BrĂĽhlmann, ETH Zurich)

Kaitlin McNally holds flowers while standing with other awardees at the Robotic Fabrication in Architecture, Art and Design Conference

ROB|ARCH 2018: Robotic Fabrication in Architecture, Art and Design Conference (Photo by Edward Meltzer Photography)

ROB|ARCH 2018: Robotic Fabrication in Architecture, Art and Design Conference (Photo by Edward Meltzer Photography)

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Kaitlin McNally stands at a modern lectern with a speaker at the Parity Talks IV event at ETH Zurich

Parity Talks IV, ETH Zurich (Photo by Flora BrĂĽhlmann, ETH Zurich)

Parity Talks IV, ETH Zurich (Photo by Flora BrĂĽhlmann, ETH Zurich)

Kaitlin McNally holds flowers while standing with other awardees at the Robotic Fabrication in Architecture, Art and Design Conference

ROB|ARCH 2018: Robotic Fabrication in Architecture, Art and Design Conference (Photo by Edward Meltzer Photography)

ROB|ARCH 2018: Robotic Fabrication in Architecture, Art and Design Conference (Photo by Edward Meltzer Photography)

What advice would you give to current CAES students?

Don’t wait — try living abroad! During college is one of the best times, and for some, it might be the only opportunity.

Then when you do live abroad, keep an open mind, embrace the culture and make friends with the locals! 

What has been one of your favorite places you have traveled since you graduated?

It’s so hard to name a favorite as they all have their qualities, and it always depends on who you travel with! Living in Switzerland has the benefit of being right in the middle of Europe, making it easy to hop over the border to Italy, France, Germany or Austria, all of which offer fantastic food, beautiful scenery and cobblestoned old towns.

But my favorite has to be Switzerland itself — the snowy mountains are beautiful from close and far, I have a big weakness for melted cheese and chocolate, and the trains go everywhere and run famously on time, making travel easy. Also, I have fallen in love with the people, the culture and the lifestyle that I share with my husband and young daughter.