Interview with Helena Nader, researcher and president of the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science (SBPC)

Categories: Meet the researchers

On the occasion of International Women’s Day, EURAXESS Links went out to talk to female scientists from various different countries all over the world to hear their stories. What made them chose a career in science? Which obstacles are they facing in their profession? What solutions do they see to foster women participation in science and how mobility can held with this regard.

In Brazil, EURAXESS Links Brazil decided to feature a special interview with a woman with many hats. Helena Nader, who kinly accepted to answer our questions, is both an experienced researcher, but also holds a decision making position in science.

About Helena Bonciani Nader

Helena Bonciani Nader was born on November 5th, 1947 in the city of São Paulo. She completed her undergraduate studies in Biomedical Sciences (bachelor degree) at the Federal University of São Paulo (Unifesp) in 1970 and received a bachelor of education from the University of São Paulo (USP) in 1971. After obtaining her PhD in Molecular Biology from Unifesp in 1974, Helena concluded her post-doctoral studies at the University of South California with a Fogarty grant (NIH).

Helena is a member of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences, of the São Paulo Academy of Sciences, and of the World Academy of Sciences (TWAS). Throughout her scientific career she was honoured with various national and international prizes and academic titles. She is a visiting professor at the Loyola Medical School (Chicago, U.S.), W. Alton Jones Cell Science Center (NY, U.S.), Istituto Scientifico G. Ronzoni (Milan, Italy) and Opocrin Research Laboratories (Modena, Italy). She held the position of dean of undergraduate programs and of research and graduate programs at Unifesp. Before her present mandate as president of the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science (SBPC), Helena Nader was president of the Brazilian Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (SBBq, 2009-2010).

Interview with Helena Nader, researcher and president of the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science (SBPC)

Besides your position of president of the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science (SBPC), you are also full professor at the Federal University of São Paulo (Unifesp). Tell us a little bit about your roles and responsibilities.

Presently, I divide my time between my career at the university and the commitments at SBPC, which are many: from day-to-day bureaucracy to meetings with ministers, rectors, congressmen, and all kinds of people devoted to education, science and technology throughout the country. And, as you know, Brazil is a large country to travel around! SBPC headquarters are located in São Paulo city, but frequently I have to fly to Brasília to participate in meetings of national committees devoted to discuss and advise public policies in areas such as the environment, budgetary issues, research programs, and others. I also spend part of my time writing and preparing speeches and lectures, and talking to journalists and science communicators. At the university, my research work focuses on Molecular Cell Biology, in particular on glycobiology, concentrating on studies of a complex class of glycoconjugates named proteoglycans, with an emphasis in heparin and heparam sulphates. These studies are related to the enrolment of these compounds in hemostasis, in the control of cellular division and in cellular transformation. I still teach classes to undergraduate and medical students, graduate students, and advise papers and theses, i.e. the usual academic life. And I give a lot of myself in everything I do, because I strongly believe that good science can only be achieved with much dedication and passion.

How is the current situation of scientific research for women in Brazil?

If we consider that the regulation of science activities is quite recent in Brazil, I believe that we are in a good position, especially when compared with other science productive countries. For instance, in an article published by Nature called “Global gender disparities in science” (vol. 504, issue 7479) a graphic shows that amongst the 30 most productive countries in science, Brazil shows the highest ratio of female to male authorships (0,678) surpassing all science giants like the U.S., Germany, France and the UK. Other international figures like those presented by Unesco show that Brazilian women are already a majority of our bachelor students (59%) and doctoral students (52%). Even considering science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), recent data shows a striking increase of women´s enrolment in the area. Nevertheless, although we are a majority and the relevance of our scientific production is undeniable, we still have a long way to go in order to conquer gender equity in the world of science.

Do you believe that Brazilian women are discriminated in science, for instance in accessing public funding for research?

There might occur discriminatory attitudes, but I tend to believe that they are sparse or subtle and cannot be generalized. For the past decades, as it has happened in other countries, affirmative actions, regulations and laws have been trying to undermine gender discrimination in Brazil. These actions affect the science arena in a positive way, but still do not solve other forms of discrimination such as the access to decision making positions.

What are the greatest challenges female scientists face?

We still face some of the old problems that remain in sexist societies, like Brazil and so many other countries. Women, scientists included, usually have to conciliate a professional career with most of the housekeeping and motherhood work. This is changing in Brazil, I believe that the young generations are changing that, but in a very slow pace.

Scientific careers require a lot of dedication; they are time and energy consuming and require mobility, so I believe that some women either give up in order to take better care of the house and family, or live in a constant conflict, running against time and guilt. Or even choose not to have a family! I was particularly lucky in that matter since I married another scientist who understood and encouraged my career, but it is not the case for most women.

What could be done to motivate more women to choose a scientific career?

It has to start very early, as we enter elementary or high school, when there is the great chance to show a young girl that she can become a scientist, a mathematician, a physicist, a biologist, and so on. I understand that this is very much related to the way that parents, teachers and the media treat and show science to youngsters, so it is very much related to education patterns and the public communication of science.

During the past decades, there have been either governmental and/or nongovernmental initiatives in order to raise the interest in scientific careers in Brazil. I recall the Mathematics and Physics Olympics that are promoted all over the country every year – with a significant participation of young female students. There is also the annual National Science and Technology Week with active involvement of universities, S&T institutions and students from all over the country.

Last year, we at SBPC, started to include the so called Family Day at our annual meeting, where families from the host city are invited to bring their children to visit our annual science and technology exhibit. It was a great success of public and audience, especially considering that our last meeting was held at the state of Acre, in the Amazon region, a remote area of the country. I do believe that many girls there had the chance for the first time to get in close contact with scientists, laboratory equipment and experiments, and that is a seed to lighten up the desire to become a scientist, to work with science.

The importance of science is not always understood and well accepted by the non-scientific audience and the society in general. A better scientific communication would help in this regard. Do you think that women could play a specific role in the popularization of science in the country?

Yes, I do believe so. It is interesting to note that in Brazil, we also have many more female than male science journalists and science journalism professors and researchers. So, there is a significant group of female science writers, journalists and science communication researchers working in media, at universities and research organizations. They are already playing this role in the popularization of science.

Also we, at SBPC, have been doing a daily effort in communicating science and its policies to the general public. Our communication group has five female journalists, and I believe I can also include myself as a scientist who loves to communicate with the general public through all possible media!

You have been at the head of SBPC for almost two mandates now. The new interim Consecti President is a woman. Do you believe that there is a process of feminization of decision making positions in science?

More than we had before, but much less than we expect. Indeed we do have some women with mandates for decision making positions in science. Some of our major universities, like the University of São Paulo, the university I work for [Unifesp], the University of Minas Gerais, and others, are or were led by women as rectors. We also have a considerable number of women acting as head of departments, presidents of scientific associations and, most recently, as state secretaries of Science and Technology. We still have not had a female minister of S&T, but that can happen at any time.

Is there any good initiative to promote gender equality in Brazil or any other country that you would like to highlight?

There are some initiatives like the L´Oreal Prize for Women in Science* that I find quite interesting; some Brazilian scientists have achieved this and other prizes devoted to women in science. I also understand that, nowadays, we have a considerable number of gender studies which include the role of women in science as well as books and other outreach programs devoted to show what women scientists have been doing.

Do you think that international mobility of researchers and scientists plays a role to reduce machismo and empower women?

It certainly does. International mobility is essential for all scientists and especially for women, so that they can establish relations with colleagues around the globe, promote their work, learn what other women are doing, and how sexism still affects women scientists in so many places. That is a way to empower and to promote affirmative actions amongst women scientists from different cultures and origins.

Are there any specific measures that you believe can encourage international mobility of female researchers and scientists?

In my understanding grass roots actions are much more effective than official or governmental patronized measures. One important role in that matter can be expected and achieved by the national associations for the advancement of science like the SBPC in Brazil, the AAAS in the U.S., the EuroScience, and others. These organizations are the meeting point of scientists in most countries, so it is an important environment to claim for a better and growing participation of women in science worldwide.

Thank you very much for your time and congratulations for your inspiring career!

Attachment: Helena Nader, researcher and president of the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science - SBPC (Special International Women's Day feature) (679.47 KB)