New columnist: Willy Contreras-Avilés

Willy Contreras-Avilés, a PhD student in medicinal cannabis, will write about his life here as an international.

How did you end up in Wageningen?
‘I came here in September 2020 for my masters in Plant Sciences. I arrived in the middle of the pandemic, which was challenging and a bit traumatizing. Everybody was in lockdown and we had to follow all courses online. Also being a foreigner and coming from a completely different culture did not help. It was quite a heavy time for me, and as a result, I still cannot work from home because it triggers me.’

‘In hindsight, it was like my social life was on pause, and there was only space for academia. Not because I wanted it like that: I was simply adjusting to the reality of that time. It seriously affected my mental health, but on a positive note: this period has also helped me to become more aware about the importance of mental health. I learned to pay attention to it, to ask for help, to talk about and speak up about it.’

After your Master’s, you started on your PhD. What is your PhD research about?
‘I was looking for a topic for my master’s thesis focused on plant specialized metabolites, like antioxidants in blueberries for example. A professor told me about an opportunity to do work on medicinal cannabis, and I just went for it. I ended up liking it so much, that I decided to take the Research Master Cluster to write my PhD proposal on the cultivation of medicinal cannabis under UV radiation. The goal is to understand how can UV be used to improve the chemical composition in the flower without compromising the yields. Potentially, if we find something interesting, we could explore applying the same findings to other crops like basil, tomato,lettuce, or other medicinal crops to improve their nutritional or medicinal quality and thus health benefits.’

‘Growing up in a Latin American country, my grandmother had all these medicinal herbs in her backyard. With those herbs, she would treat us with certain infusions to alleviate mild symptoms. This is very engraved in my cultural DNA. That is why I like plant specialized metabolites so much: it brings me back to my roots.’

‘So far, it has been a wonderful journey. My research gives me a daily sense of purpose and I hope it can add a bit more insights to the cannabis scientific and industrial fields. There still is a huge taboo around cannabis, even here in the Netherlands. I would like to contribute to a better understanding of this plant and how we can use it in a regulated way for the benefit of humans.’

As a Resource columnist, what are you going to write about?
‘I would like to write about my experience as an international in Wageningen, working conditions, the housing problem and more. And about mundane things that everybody experiences, written in a creative way.’

‘Also, mental health is an important topic for me. As a university, we have tools and initiatives to deal with this, but still people seem afraid to say out loud that they are struggling. For people it can feel almost like ‘coming out of the closet’ to say out loud that you are struggling mentally. There are a lot of power dynamics in the academic world and it is a highly competitive environment. It comes with a lot of pressure. In the PhD sector of the university, I see a lot of people who struggle and don’t know how to deal with it. Therefore, as a community, we need to normalize talking about it.’

You can read Willy’s first column here.

Also read:

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to write a comment.