What is missing are women leaders
An interview with Portuguese researcher and MSCA fellow Joana Carvalho on winning awards, role models, becoming a mother and gender equality in academia.
Could you tell us a little about your background?
I graduated in Biomedical Engineering and Biophysics in Lisbon in 2015.
During my graduate studies I had the opportunity to apply engineering insights to solve unmet medical needs in two internships, one at Harvard Medical School in the United States, where I developed a neuro-assessment tool for timely detection of Parkinson’s disease, and another at PhilipsResearch in the Netherlands, where I built a set-up for real-time monitoring of the human skin.
Motivated to have an experience in a clinical environment, I started a PhD in Computational Visual Neuroscience in 2015 at the University Medical Centre of Groningen, also in the Netherlands, where I developed computational models to investigate visual neuroplasticity in health and disease.
In 2020, I joined the preclinical MRI lab at Champalimaud Foundation as a postdoctoral researcher.
My research aims to unravel the neuronal mechanisms underlying brain plasticity (understanding how the brain changes in response to environmental changes or disease) and to develop techniques that allow to probe the functional organisation and connectivity of the brain with a high level of spatial and temporal detail. In my research, I combine ultra-high resolution fMRI [functional magnetic resonance imaging] with calcium recordings and visual stimulation.
You have won important prizes for your research. Did you have role models such as yourself as a kid? Who inspired you to follow a career in science and become a neuroscientist?
Although I do not see myself as a role model, ever since I can remember I always wanted to be a scientist. I was always driven by the curiosity to discover the unknown.
First, I was fascinated by the Space and the Universe, and I wanted to be an astronaut or astrophysicist. As I grew older, my curiosity shifted to the mysteries of the brain.
I still remember that one of my all-time favourite presents was a microscope that I received when I was 8 years old. I spent my free time searching for samples in the garden that I could observe with the microscope.
I have the luck to have grown up in an environment that cultivated curiosity, scientific interest and critical thinking. In that sense, I think who inspired me to become a scientist were my family and teachers.
There are of course scientists that I have highly looked up to since I was little, such as Marie Skłodowska-Curie, Dorothy Hodgkin, Katherine Johnson, and Jane Goodall. These ground-breaking women scientists showed me that when there is motivation and we are fully committed to succeed, everything is possible.
Ground-breaking women scientists showed me that when there is motivation and we are fully committed to succeed, everything is possible.
This year, the International day of Women and Girls in Science will focus on role women play in contributing to the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Why is women leadership and empowerment in science crucial to achieve a sustainable future?
I believe that only when there are equal rights and opportunities for men and women all over the world can we talk about sustainability.
I am lucky to have been born in a culture where there were no barriers for women and that I have never felt any type of discrimination. However, this is not a reality for many women around the globe.
In 2017, I participated in a project called “Schools of the Future”, promoted by Engineers Without Borders from the Netherlands. Together with a team of engineers, I went to Mozambique to organise workshops with the aim to spark interest for science and technology in teenagers.
One of the things that struck me was young women afraid to touch the science toolkits that we brought, and the overall mind-set was that technology and engineering are not for women. By the end of the workshop, these young women had built fairly complex solar powered cars and were very proud of it and planning to pursue a career in STEAM.
I think this is a good example showing that providing quality education promotes gender equality, which contributes to several of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Also, the fact that progressively we see more women as leaders in STEAM is breaking preconceived notions on the role of women and inspires young women: “If she could make it, I can too!”
Only when there are equal rights and opportunities for men and women all over the world can we talk about sustainability.
How was your experience as MSCA researcher?
During my PhD I was a MSCA early-stage researcher, which was a unique and incredible opportunity as I had access to exceptional training, I established an international network of researchers from different universities, hospitals and companies and I could do international research visits in another lab and in a company.
In 2021, I was awarded a MSCA individual fellowship that allowed me to pursue my own ideas, independently run a research project and establish new international collaborations.
The MSCA fellowship has been a steppingstone in my career. It has empowered me with the knowledge and technical skills to pursue my research interest in the plasticity of the brain, management competences on how to lead a research project and training to apply to grants that can allow me to establish my own research group.
I have recently become a mother for the first time, and although MSCA is a great opportunity that provides good life quality as a researcher, I think some improvements can still be made to achieve gender equality in academia.
For instance, for women that have become mothers during the fellowship it should be possible to extend the fellowship to account for the break in the career and the breastfeeding during the first year of life of the baby. It should also be possible to get the family allowance if you become a mother during your fellowship.
What are your hopes for the future roles of women in Research and Innovation? What are we missing to reverse the underrepresentation of women in science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (STEAM) careers?
I think there are more and more women in STEAM, what is missing are women as leaders and in top positions.
For example, so far I was part of 8 research groups (both in academia and in the private sector). All of them were led by men although the majority of the lab / group members were women. So, despite women being a big workforce of STEAM universities, research centres and industry, there are multiple factors (such as negative gender stereotypes, hiring discrimination, career gap due to motherhood, hostile/discriminatory environments) that prevent women to become leaders or even to get equal pay as men.
In my view, we are missing incentives, training/mentoring, an improved STEAM academic and entrepreneurial climate and a change in mentality that will allow women to lead. In academia one of the major problems is that a permanent position is achieved late in the career and that in the early stage of the research career women (typically more often than men) dedicate more time to childcare.
Nevertheless, I see with very good eyes the future of women in STEAM. Over the last years there have been a number of initiatives to promote gender equality (dedicated grants for women, professional development training, equalitarian parental leave and more educated faculty members on gender bias). I hope we start to see women having prominent roles in STEAM in the next decade.
There are more and more women in STEAM, what is missing are women as leaders and in top positions. […] I hope we start to see women having prominent roles in STEAM in the next decade.
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