From the Pasqual Maragall Foundation and the Barcelonaβeta Brain Research Center, we join in celebrating the International Day of Women and Girls in Science on February 11, which was declared in 2015 by the General Assembly of United Nations. Since then, various initiatives have been taken to make women more visible in the field of science and to eliminate gender stereotypes in this field. This year, three women working in the field of research at the BBRC explain how their interest in science was born, how they see the situation of women in the scientific world and what their job is at our organization. Blanca Rodríguez, Paula Ortiz and Tania Menchón share their experience and opinions on such an important day to highlight the essential role of all women working in the field of technology and science for a better future. In addition, Natalia Vilor, a researcher at the BBRC, is taking part in a colloquium on the same day at the Saló de Cent of Barcelona City Council, which brings together four women researchers from Barcelona with different profiles who will share their experiences and difficulties that women find to thrive in the world of research.
How did your interest in science come about?
Blanca Rodríguez, predoctoral researcher: My first contact with science happened during my childhood, almost accidentally, taking walks in the countryside. On one of these walks I remember finding, much to my surprise, the remains of fossilized sea shells among the whitish terrain. When my parents told me why there were shells in Seville if we didn't have a beach nearby, I was totally fascinated. Today, I realize how grateful I am to have received an education tailored to my interests, which would encourage my curiosity and creativity, despite being born a girl and in a family totally far from the scientific world. So my parents taught me to love and admire science because it was the tool responsible for providing answers to my existential doubts. This interest was fueled later, during adolescence, by the realization that science can not only serve as a tool for understanding the world around you but also for transforming it. It is precisely this service to society and, above all, to people in their most vulnerable moments, that made me opt for biomedical research.
Paula Ortiz, Lab Manager and Laboratory Technician: Ever since I was a kid, I've been "more into science than literature," and I even remember having a toy microscope at home! But my real interest developed during high school. I chose the science baccalaureate and taking the biology course was what really motivated me to continue on this path. I learned a lot of things that interested me and with the Research Work I had my first contact with the scientific method and at the same time I had the opportunity to visit research centers and see what a scientific career could consist of.
Tania Menchón, Nursing Coordinator: I have always had a vocation as a nurse, hence my need to live and take part in the Health Sciences. From a very young age, I’ve felt the urge to care for and help others, and I think I’ve always been anxious to know what’s behind it and to try to find solutions.
Which people or models inspired you to pursue a career in science?
Blanca Rodríguez, pre-doctoral researcher: It was the diagnosis of dementia in my maternal grandfather that encouraged me to want to use my curiosity to improve people's lives. I couldn’t understand how it was possible that science, which had helped me understand so many things, now couldn’t explain to me why my grandfather no longer recognized the faces of his daughters or granddaughters. That’s why I decided that I wanted to understand how our brain works and research Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias. It encouraged me to know that I could participate myself, along with other scientists, in answering people’s questions. Today, my mentors at the BBRC, Natàlia Vilor-Tejedor and Marta Crous-Bou, encourage me to continue pursuing this dream, which inspires me enormously with their daily passion and commitment to the project of a future without Alzheimer's.
Paula Ortiz, Lab Manager and Laboratory Technician: It's a bit difficult to talk about "references" because it seems like we have to look for big names from other eras, and I think it's important to value the current situation and the people who are working today. To give an example, I find the work of Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna (winners of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2020) super interesting, and it is a topical issue. But when it comes to inspiring me to pursue a career in science, in my case it's more about the people I've met in my day-to-day life. While doing my doctoral thesis I was fortunate to work with many women at different times in their professional lives, from peers at my own stage to leading postdocs and researchers from their own groups. In all cases they have been people with excellent training, motivated by their work and fighters to keep moving forward, and I think it is in this daily life where you end up looking for models to guide your career.
Tania Menchón, Nursing Coordinator: All the women in my family are, in one way or another, part of the world of health sciences and I'm sure this has driven me to want to be an active part. . Working at the Foundation has given me a perspective that has increased my scientific motivation. Living science from within is very enriching.
Can you tell us about your work at BBRC and how you feel about the world of science?
Blanca Rodríguez, predoctoral researcher: My work at the BBRC focuses on studying how biological aging can increase the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease. That's why we use "telomere length" as a biomarker of aging. Telomeres are structures that are at the ends of our chromosomes and are known to shorten with age at a rate similar to all tissues in the body. In addition, we know that their shortening is associated with a higher risk of developing aging-related diseases, including a higher risk of developing Alzheimer's disease. However, the molecular mechanisms that explain this increase in risk are not yet known. For this reason, part of my work focuses on studying how telomere length relates to cognitive performance, brain structure, and other biomarkers associated with Alzheimer’s disease.
Paula Ortiz, Lab Manager and Laboratory Technician: At BBRC, I am in charge of organizing the lab, its materials and the tasks that are carried out there. We are currently preparing to start all the studies we will be carrying out with the new machinery that will be the equipment of the laboratory for the early detection of Alzheimer's currently under construction. For me, the world of science is exciting because it arouses your curiosity every day. There are always different projects on the move and new ideas come up every day to explore, so it never gets boring.
Tania Menchón, Nursing Coordinator: At BBRC, I am the coordinator of the nursing team and responsible for the management of the biological samples resulting from our studies. My job gives me a different perspective than we might have at first when we think about science, since I experience science from two angles: the first, from the eyes of people who voluntarily participate in our studies; and, secondly, in dealing with researchers who carry out research based on the samples obtained.
This gives me a threefold chance of caring for others, a direct one with dealing with participants and two more indirect ones, that of managing biological samples and being an active part of a project that can help overcome the l 'Alzheimer's.
What steps do you think we should take as a society to promote equity in the scientific world?
Blanca Rodríguez, pre-doctoral researcher: The path begins with ensuring access to quality, feminist public education through which all girls, regardless of their background, have the opportunity to feel represented within the scientific world and get to know the work of other women scientists who have made history such as Elisabeth Blackburn, Margarita Sales and María Blasco. The older ones also have to strive to re-educate ourselves in values and this comes first to unlearn roles and prejudices. Only through this collective effort will we be able not only to get more girls to decide to pursue science, but also to continue to feel valued and cared for in this world.
Paula Ortiz, Lab Manager and Laboratory Technician: I think it’s important to ensure the visibility and representation of women in the scientific world, at all levels. On a day-to-day basis, you find many women in different types of positions, but it is true that most “visible faces” or positions of greater responsibility are occupied by men, and this projects an image of inaccessibility that makes girls we are more hesitant to enter. But also in more basic things, such as children, do not focus on toys or scientific or technological drawings as if they were just for boys. Girls should also be represented to develop interest in these areas.
Tania Menchón, Nursing Coordinator: It's a long road but not impossible. Encouraging and supporting the participation of women in science, and eliminating stereotypes of men and women from childhood, I think it would help a lot for women who have the worries and enthusiasm to do science not to have it so complicated.