From the Pasqual Maragall Foundation and the Barcelonaβeta Brain Research Center, we adhere for another year to the celebration of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science on February 11, declared in 2015 by the United Nations General Assembly. The purpose of this day is to connect the international community with women and girls in science, thus strengthening the ties between science, politics and society to seek women-oriented strategies in the field of science. For this reason, during this day, various initiatives are launched to make visible their role in science and eliminate gender stereotypes.
This year, three women who work in the field of research at the BBRC explain how their interest in science arose, how they see the situation of women in the scientific world and what their work is in our entity. Alba Cañas, Patricia Genius and Iva Knezevic talk about their professional experience and share their opinions to highlight the indispensable role of all women who work to achieve a better future in the technological and scientific fields.
1. How did you decide to dedicate yourself to science? What was your motivation?
Alba Cañas, Neuropsychologist: Since I was little, my father used to say the typical thing about “this girl is more about numbers than letters”. When I went to the youth centre I remember that I loved everything that had to do with solving enigmas with numbers, doing experiments, etc. However, when I reached high school, I was not very clear about what to do, but I knew that it was going to be something in the scientific field. When I was in my second year, I met a Philosophy professor who had just finished his Psychology studies, and offered an elective at my institute. I decided to sign up and that's when an interest awoke in me that until now I hadn't discovered: how the mind and human behavior work.
Patricia Genius, Predoctoral Researcher: Well, to be honest, I couldn't find a moment or reason that made me opt for science, it was more of a process. I have always liked numbers very much and since I was little my grandmother used to take me notebooks that she prepared full of mathematical operations so that I could learn them. Already in high school, Biology, Mathematics, Chemistry attracted my attention... It was when I began to feel that a future scientist was beginning to awaken. I think the motivation was seeing that it was such a vast field that no matter what I chose to do, I would be able to enjoy the journey, being involved in a community that aims to help others.
Iva Knezevic, Scientific Project Manager: Curiosity and, I suppose, a certain innate affinity. I remember that I had just learned to read when my parents gave me encyclopedias, one on history and one on natural sciences. Somehow, the one in life sciences always ended up in my hands. I was immediately attracted by its content, different experiments in chemistry and biology. I was really fascinated. On the other hand, the history encyclopedia went almost unnoticed. The same thing happened in the upper grades of school, I was immersed in the world of atoms and molecules, so studying biochemistry was a natural choice for me. During university I discovered cell biology, which later brought me to Barcelona for my doctoral studies.
2. What do you think is necessary to take into consideration when developing a scientific career? What advice would you give to young people who want to be scientists?
Alba Cañas: First of all, a lot of patience. As a general rule, it is usually a long road, full of specialisations and requirements to get to the next step. It is important to persevere, even when it is not clear to you whether you will be able to dedicate yourself to what you want. You also have to be curious about everything that surrounds the chosen scientific field. Sometimes you start your studies for a subject and, once you are inside, you realise that this field is really very extensive. You must be aware of this, because at some point you must specialise in a specific subject. And within this, you will always be in constant learning.
Patricia Genius: I think it is necessary to be aware that it is a long-distance race. We are used to studying and learning for short-term success and being rewarded for quick results, rather than for the process. Science, on the other hand, requires patience, perseverance and effort. To young women who want to be scientists, I would tell them to observe their environment and find references in people close to them, such as family members and/or teachers.
Iva Knezevic: You really need to love what you do, learn to enjoy it and appreciate it. When it comes to science, it requires a great deal of patience, resilience, and meticulousness. A very important piece of advice for anyone starting out in a scientific career, and one that I would have liked to have been given at the beginning, is to remember that you should never be ashamed to ask questions and it is necessary to explore all possibilities for professional development. You also have to read a lot, learn to write articles, know how to communicate the results in conferences and network. Above all, make sure you find a good mentor, so they can guide you in the early years and offer good advice when it's crucial.
3. What is your job at the BBRC, and how do you live the world of science?
Alba Cañas: I work as a neuropsychologist in the Clinical Operations team. My main task is to assess the cognitive abilities (memory, attention, language...) of the volunteers who participate in the different studies. I also really like being able to help to do a little of outreach, as many of these people have concerns and questions about the disease and how the research is progressing. I think it's important to be able to give answers (as much as possible) and to do it from a face-to-face environment and in a language that is easy for them to understand. In general, the participants are quite satisfied when they see that their involvement in the BBRC studies is directly related to these scientific advances. As for science, I think I'm lucky to be in a work environment that allows me to see two aspects: what the disease directly implies in people and, at the same time, how all this data that we collect through visits is useful to understand and make progress in the search.
Patricia Genius: Currently, I am in my second year as a predoctoral student in the Neurobiogenetics Group, within the field of Neuroimaging. The research that I develop is based on studying how genetics impact different brain structures. There are genome-wide association studies that have found specific changes in the DNA sequence that are associated with certain traits in the population. These genetic variants, independently, have a very small effect in explaining the variability of this trait. But when the effect of all these variants is pooled, we can work with an estimate of what the genetic predisposition of an individual would be for a specific trait. In our case, we work with these measures by analysing their association with brain phenotypes associated with Alzheimer's disease. I live science with passion and respect, I have a lot of respect for the profession. I try to learn day by day, and I experience it as a challenge and constant growth.
Iva Knezevic: I am occupying a position of Scientific Project Manager, this means that I am a little more on the “other side” of science. My work consists of both administrative and operational functions, which include the planning, preparation, implementation and execution of assigned projects, the design and writing of study protocols, the elaboration of research proposals in collaboration with researchers, although I am not participating in study visits and analysis of results, I am witnessing world-class scientific research from the BBRC from the front row.
4. What steps do you think must be followed in our society to guarantee the visibility and representation of women in the scientific world?
Alba Cañas: I believe that there is still much to be done, beginning with the education of children. From the outset, I believe that more female references are needed in various scientific fields. In general, the work carried out by women scientists should be made more visible, or at least be equal to that done by men. Certain gender stereotypes must also be eradicated. There are no professional careers more appropriate to one gender or another and this is something that should be promoted from home, educational centers and society in general. I think that at a global level it is also necessary to make it known that there is still a gender gap in this field. It is important to recognise the problem in order to be aware and to be able to begin to remedy it (for example, more women occupying high positions in certain scientific fields could facilitate their visibility in this field).
Patricia Genius: I believe that it is essential to deconstruct the classic image of the activities in which women have been involved, in order to build a firm and real image that gives the visibility that women deserve, and for which they have been working for years. I mean a figure of independence, with decision-making power and aspirations in the professional field. And, consequently, to see more women occupying important positions. There is a lot of female talent, and it is the talent that should prevail above all else. It would be great not to have to ask ourselves in the future what to do to guarantee visibility, but above all we need representation of women in the world, in general.
Iva Knezevic: We need to emancipate and educate both boys and girls from an early age, that girls are capable of anything. We should teach young women that intellectually and emotionally they are just as strong and capable as their male friends. We should educate young men about female strength and ambition, just as powerful as theirs, from an early age. From there, our society must provide the same starting points and non-discriminatory opportunities for both men and women.