Today we celebrate International Women’s Day! This is an opportunity for us at EURAXESS China to look at some of the measures the European Union is implementing to create an equal playing field for all researchers and scientists regardless of their gender. We will zoom in on the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA), a funding programme that supports researchers in developing their creative and innovative potential through advanced training and international and intersectoral mobility.
100.000 researchers have benefitted from this 20 year young programme, many of them insiring female researchers from within the growing EURAXESS Global network. Keep on reading to meet some the women scientists who are MSCA grantees to find out about their careers and their ambitions as women in science.
Since their creation, the MSCA have placed strong emphasis on promoting gender and equal opportunities for their fellows, and within their projects. Indeed, the MSCA require transparent recruitment and high quality employment and working conditions for researchers, in line with the principles of the European Charter for Researchers and the Code of Conduct for the Recruitment of Researchers (read more).
In addition, MSCA grants permit part-time working and parental leave. Post-doctoral researchers who wish to resume their career after a break, for example to raise children, can apply to a dedicated panel of the MSCA Individual Fellowships.
As a result, MSCA are widely regarded as best practice in promoting gender balance: nearly 40% of MSCA fellows are women, a share significantly higher than in other parts of H2020, as shows Figure 1 which focuses on the gender breakdown within applicants and grantees for the MSCA IF 2016 call.
In line with Horizon 2020 commitments, the MSCA promote gender equality at several levels:
- Proposal evaluation: evaluators receive training on unconscious gender bias;
- Human resources: equal opportunities are ensured in MSCA projects, both at the level of supported researchers and in project supervision;
- Decision-making: The MSCA Advisory Group consists of more women than men.
- Research projects: projects integrating the gender dimension in their research and innovation content, where relevant, have higher chances of success (https://youtu.be/Hq4eWo30RfY)
In the 2016 MSCA-Individual Fellowship Call, women represented only 39% of all applicants, yet 43% of the selected fellows were female.
On the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the birth of Marie Sklodowska-Curie, and only a few years after the 100th anniversary of her Nobel Prize win, we hope that such measures will further contribute towards creating equal opportunities for all researchers, regardless of their gender.
Today, we are celebrating the one hundred thousandth fellow supported by the Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions since its launch 20 years ago. To mark this milestone, thirty highly promising researchers have been selected to showcase the EU's actions dedicated to excellence and worldwide mobility in research. 18 of the group of 30 high-calibre researchers are women.
Tibor Navracsics, Commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth and Sport, said:
Celebrating the award of the 100 000th Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellowship is a great moment to recall the importance of this programme, which supports our brightest and best researchers in tackling the big societal challenges facing Europe. Marie Skłodowska-Curie paved the way for future generations of female researchers. On the eve of International Women's Day, I am especially proud that the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions pay particular attention to gender balance, and with more than 40% of fellowships awarded to female scientists, are the best performing part of Horizon 2020 with respect to gender.
These 30 chosen researchers represent the 100 000 fellows who have been supported by the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions over the past two decades. The group includes 28 European nationals, one from each EU Member State, and one fellow each from Colombia and New Zealand.
Their research topics cover an impressive spectrum, ranging from tackling climate change and ground breaking cancer research to the prevention of radicalisation. For every single one of them, the EU grant is a crucial boost for their career and the chance to improve citizens' lives by advancing knowledge and innovation.
By enabling researchers to go abroad and supporting cooperation between institutions and industry, the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions play a vital part in strengthening Europe's research and innovation capacity. Therefore, these 30 have outstanding potential: they achieved the highest evaluation scores in the 2016 call for proposals for individual fellowships. They competed with 8 916 proposals submitted by other researchers; of these, nearly 1200 proposals were selected for funding.
Meet the Inspiring Female MSCA Awardees in our EURAXESS Global Network
On the occasion of International Women’s Day, we bring you interviews with some of the smart, talented and courageous female MSCA Fellows within the EURAXESS Worldwide Network. Be inspired!
Eri, can you introduce your research interests to our readers?
In my scientific career, I have studied structural aspects of the ubiquitin-proteasome protein degradation system (UPS) using hybrid approaches of structural biology, such as cryo-electron microscopy, NMR spectroscopy, X-ray crystallography and mass spectrometry. My research interests focus on understanding how UPS enzymes efficiently perform their functions to degrade components that are no longer useful. I am currently working at the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry as a project group leader and I am studying the structural dynamics and functional mechanisms of the 26S proteasome using cryo electron microscopy. I am funded by the Marie Curie Actions Career Integration Grant.
You were previously working in Europe with an MSCA IF mobility grant. Can you tell us a bit about your professional choices, and what particular circumstances lead to your work in Europe?
I am still funded by the MSCA IF mobility grant because I suspended the grant during my 6 months maternity leave. I initially came to Germany as a JSPS post-doctoral fellow after completing my Ph.D at the laboratory of Prof. Koichi Kato. I held a joint post-doc position at the laboratories of Prof. Wolfgang Baumeister and Prof. Keiji Tanaka. I was not planning to pursuit my career abroad and was actually planning to go back to Japan. As my project was not finished within my JSPS fellowship, I extended my stay at Prof. Baumeister‘s lab. At the same time, I found it easy to work in Germany where work and personal life are well balanced and gender equality is better achieved. That was one of my main motivations to stay abroad. After a short second post-doc I received an offer for a group leader position from Prof. Baumeister. The position is still not fully independent but I was guaranteed to perform my own research with support from Prof. Baumeister. However, there was a limit for my research funding and I applied for a Marie Curie Actions Career Integration Grant which helped a lot to launch my own research.
Now that the grant is finished, what would you say was its impact on your career?
The grant started right after I started my group. Although I have access to many instruments in the department, I needed to buy several instruments (e.g. HPLC, centrifuge, electrophoresis system) and consumables to set up my own lab and the Marie Curie grant was important to set up my research. I would like to note that I took 6 months maternity leave during the funding period. Marie Curie funding was quite supportive and I suspended my funding period during the maternity leave. After coming back to the lab, I was able to publish some papers as a senior author and am preparing several papers. This is a big step and important to find a next position because my position is not tenured.
What did this mobility experience to Europe bring to you, in terms of skill or career development?
In Europe and in the USA, I saw many talented students who change the field completely. I believe that those kind of people make a breakthrough in their field. To work in different labs and communicate with scientists from different countries enriches your scientific knowledge and provides novel insights. It also improves your communication skills. The Japanese scientific system is hierarchical and there are still many scientists who stay in the same lab throughout their scientific career. I believe this interferes with the dynamic nature of scientific discovery. In my case, I am in the middle of my career path but these experiences brought me wide knowledge in my scientific topic.
How and where do you envisage your future career?
I would like to stay in academia but my husband and I struggle with the ‘dual-career’ problem and also have to juggle parenthood and work. My husband is working in the same field and we need to find two positions in in the same location at the same time in near future. That will be challenging for us. It is difficult to depict our life in a specific country like other scientists in our generation and we have to be rather flexible when it comes to job offers.
What took you to Newcastle University?
I got an offer to work as a Marie Curie Early Stage Researcher (PhD student) in the EU Horizon 2020 funded Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions Innovative Training Network "BIORAPID" and Newcastle University was the consortium partner hosting my project. It is a great University in terms of research and development.
How different is studying in Europe from India?
I have been exposed to education system in the Netherlands and the UK as I did my Master's from Wageningen University and Research Center, the Netherlands. There is greater emphasis given on interdisciplinary research, application based learning, collaboration, networking and international exposure. Overall, development as a scientist/researcher is of great importance in Europe; so is dissemination of research to the general public. I have also learnt how to use social media resources to promote research and connect with other scientists. Work life balance is another aspect which is given a lot of priority irrespective of which stage you are in a scientific career.
What do you bring from India to Europe?
Mostly food! Although, it is never too difficult to get Indian food in the UK. On a more sentimental note, the love and support from my friends and family.
What are the advantages of being a female researcher?
There is a lot of encouragement and opportunities for female researches in terms of scientific and personal development. Initiatives such as NU women, Newcastle University's Women's Network provide a forum for women to share ideas and provide mutual support for their career development. The policies are really friendly and there is tremendous encouragement for female researchers and scientists to take on leadership and managerial roles. There are a lot of opportunities to showcase your talent. I have participated in events like Soapbox science, a novel public outreach platform for promoting women scientists and the science they do. I represent Chemical Engineering research associates in the Equality and Diversity Committee. It has really helped me learn a lot and develop not only as a scientist but also as an Individual. The support from colleagues and mentors is overwhelming.
Have you discovered any new leisure activity in the UK?
I have had the opportunities to be involved in organisations and associations outside Academia. I am an executive officer at the National Students and Alumni UK where I get to interact with Indian students and alumni across UK. I also love exploring the many parks they have here in Newcastle as well as trips to the river and sea. Newcastle is a lovely city to be in with really friendly folk.
Congratulations Valerie – we hear you have just been awarded an MSCA fellowship! Can you tell us a little about the research project you will be doing?
Thank you. I will be investigating how certain types of DNA mutations could be tolerated in bacterial cells. Most mutations are bad and affect cells negatively; some are slightly bad with little effects on cells. How do these mild mutations persist in cells? Do they affect RNA stability and folding? How do cells minimise the effects from altered RNA structures? These are the questions that will be addressed in my research.
Has it always been your dream to become a microbiologist?
Yes. I discovered the thrill of conducting research as an undergraduate, and my Microbiology and Molecular Biology lecturers were particularly encouraging to my intention to get a postgraduate degree. Since then, I have met more mentors who were willing to provide guidance in realising my ambition.
Do you think there is a special need to encourage women to enter science?
Absolutely. Women should be encouraged from an early age to think that most – if not all – jobs are not gender-specific, and women have equal potential to flourish in their respective career. For early-career women scientists (like myself), the more significant issues then become how to remain in science and whether we are doing enough to retain young female trainees in science.
You have chosen the UK as your research destination. What excites you about research in Europe?
The diversity of biological research in Europe is stimulating. European scientists are also encouraged to move around a lot, and this sort of mobility helps to broaden one’s skill set at the individual level and to create a diverse pool of minds at the institutional level. Personally, being in the Europe will open up plenty of networking opportunities, which could be seen as emerging collaborative opportunities.
You are also very actively engaged in running the Scientific Malaysian. Can you describe your work for those readers who are not familiar with the publication?
Women should be encouraged from an early age to think that most – if not all – jobs are not gender-specific, and women have equal potential to flourish in their respective career
Scientific Malaysian is an initiative that aims to connect Malaysian scientists across the world and to promote scientific advancement. One way to achieve our aims is through the publication and distribution of the Scientific Malaysian Magazine, which is populated by opinion articles, career advice, interviews with scientists, creative science writing, etc. I have been in the Editorial team since 2012, and one of my roles is to highlight and publicise interesting research that is being carried out in Malaysia.
For you personally, what is the main goal of communicating science?
For me, communicating science is important for convincing others of our ideas, disseminating the implications of our research, as well as educating and influencing policy-makers. In essence, communication is considered effective when the receiver party understands the conveyed message.
I am sure lots of your peers would like to know your advice on securing an MSCA grant. What should future applicants look out for?
The unbelievably large amount of time required for writing a convincingly feasible project! Also, seek help to address the project’s weaknesses at an early stage – it will be too late when the reviewers pick up weaknesses that are not sufficiently addressed.
As a researcher, which goals and ambitions do you have for your future career?
I hope to move significantly towards research independence, conduct research that benefit the society and environment, and don’t mind being a sounding board for young scientists. And of course, more monetary rewards are highly appreciated!
What is the state of women's studies in China?
Women's studies as an academic field started in the middle of 1980's when China opened its doors to foreign influence. The country started changing; however, new issues also emerged. Suddenly, young girls often found it more difficult to get a job, or they were paid less. When factories were restructuring, women workers were laid off first. After the events of 1989, the interest somewhat cooled off, up until 1995, when the UN's 4th World Conference on Women was held in Beijing. This brought a new wave of interest in gender studies.
What sparked your interest in the field, and research and academia in general?
When I was a kid, I liked painting. But during Cultural Revolution, universities were closed down and the society was upside down. I worked in a factory for eight years. All the workers had been encouraged to study philosophy, and I was the head of our study group. Every weekend we read works of Mao and Marx. We didn't have a lot of books but what we had sparked my interest in philosophy. In 1977, the universities opened their doors again, and philosophy seemed like the best option. My mum who was a professor at Tianjin Normal University certainly had an influence over me. I wanted to become a teacher at the university which is another reason why I went into academia. Thanks to my mother, I knew women can do as much as men, or more. I also learned a lot from interviewing women from the generation of the May 4th Movement thanks to my research - female doctors, philosophers, and film directors.
What is your motivation?
My motivation is to do something for the real world. I am interested in what is going on, I want to show that through my research in women's studies, I can contribute to the world and understanding of gender.
How do you translate the theoretical knowledge to the public?
One thing is teaching, another thing is writing. As an academic in gender studies, you must always keep an eye on what is going on. You need to communicate with the young generation, as well as all people around you.
Marie Curie is a prestigious European funding. How did you learn about it?
I got to know about it in 2010 from the Vice-President of my university. However the application deadline was in only one month. Later on, I met with a senior scholar in Copenhagen whom I knew for years. We agreed on working on the project together, so I applied the following year. Only writing down the application took over a month.
What are your tips to future applicants?
The key thing is a very good idea, which you need to work on. Also, you need to read carefully all available documents, to understand how your application is reviewed and examined. I read almost everything I could find, in order to understand how my research fits into the purpose of Marie Curie. Research-wise I didn't want to work on something completely new. This is not what Marie Curie is about, you have to have your foundations solid, work hard and take it further. Ideally you should also have a good working partner at your host institution. This is important especially for young researchers who just finished their PhD.
What are the biggest challenges for female researchers? Compare the situation in Europe and China.
In China, the situation is now very hard. When we started women's studies in 1980's, there was more space, everything was new. When I came back from the UK in 2004, I discovered that the whole society has become more conservative. When I moved back to China, it was hard to find a job in the beginning - I didn't fit in any department. The students have also changed. Before, the understanding was that if they worked hard, they would get a degree and then a job. But the situation started getting less favourable - female graduates get jobs harder. Schools also do not encourage female students to go into science. The lack of women in science - and as a result, a lack of role models - is a world-wide problem, similar in Europe and in China.
Why do you think that's the case?
There is a widespread idea that women are better suited to do literature or history, rather than physics or maths. I try to show that it is the society that thinks this way. It pushes girls away from certain fields from an early age. Gradually, they will adopt this view as their own. Yet another thing is the lack of women in top positions in research. Even in humanities, female professors are rare. More men than women reach the high rankings. When I came back to China in 2004, I was shocked to see how many women choose not to stay in academia. It is not they don't want to, but the environment makes it difficult. Some of them were from countryside; their family needed their money. So it is not just about the gender, male or female. Chinese society is unequal also in other terms - the rich and the poor, the city and the countryside. These categories influence gender inequality too. They are all connected, and in gender studies you must link women's issues to other issues as well. It is a big challenge to tackle. I am glad for the past two years, as Marie Curie gave me a fantastic chance to focus on my research and carry on.
Your scientific career has lead you to various countries and continents before taking you back to your home country, Brazil. How does it feel to be back? Why did you decide to return to Brazil?
I decided to return to Brazil mainly to pursue a career in which I would be able not only to share my knowledge, but also make a difference in other people’s lives. I see in some Brazilian universities, particularly at the University of Campinas, a great potential in academic science for the near future. And I think I have a lot to contribute to develop a better research environment here, especially for women. In addition to all the challenges of doing research in Brazil, what I miss the most is the details that used to make my daily life so much easier, and quite efficient, in Europe or in Japan.
Do you feel that your experience abroad might have helped you gaining some valuable assets in terms of “soft skills”? If so, how do you feel that these could be shared or passed on, perhaps benefitting your students and the Brazilian institution – UNICAMP - where you are currently based?
Yes, for sure soft skills have been helping me over the years. Adaptability is one of them. I got used to travelling and moving around and therefore to adapt quickly to new environments. Differences are not huge obstacles for me as before. I have been growing as a professor and researcher by being open to unexpected challenges. This is helping me not only to better understand my responsibilities in a broad sense, but also to communicate better with my students through their differences. And my research is also progressing with a strong interdisciplinary approach because of that.
How does one feel as an expert on Waste Management in our current world – especially after the two largest sports events in the world – the FIFA World Cup and the Rio Olympics, attracting large numbers of people, have been hosted in your home country? In a nutshell, what waste management solutions would you have brought in, if it depended only on you?
Waste management is a huge challenge in Brazil, as it is in most developing countries. We still have not addressed properly the many environmental issues related to it. Improper disposal, soil and underground contamination are still problematic in most of the cities. The infrastructure implemented for both events have not guaranteed a long term solution to these problems. My research area mainly involves waste prevention. It means that waste should be strictly avoided in all stages of the supply chain. Differently from recycling, waste prevention deals with a new concept of consumption, towards a sustainable society. So, despite all the challenges that Brazil is still facing in waste management, there would not be a better time to discuss waste prevention initiatives than now, when major regulations and policies are being revamped and discussed in Brazil.
Do you think there is a special need to encourage women to enter in science?
A girl cannot aspire to be a scientist if she cannot look at successful women in science. Today, women are not represented accurately in science or in published works. As a woman, I know how difficult it is to strive in science. We urgently need to promote these successful and determined women scientists as role models to our children, teenagers and young adults. It is important to show science as a worthy path to pursue for any woman as it would be for any man. However, all these efforts will go to waste if women are subsequently still disproportionately disadvantaged in scientific careers, compared to men. Hiring procedures, grant-allocating processes and publishing routines must be changed. There is no single and easy solution. It should be a continuous effort of our and future generations to ensure equality between women and men in science. To recognise the problem is surely an important first step.
What would be your dream, if you had some kind of super power to instantly turn all your research experience into the application of a project for Brazil, or even for the whole world?
One of reasons that I decided to be an environmental scientist is related to the damage that we can inflict on other species with our activities. These impacts are changing drastically not only the planet’s climate but how we cohabit with nature. Most of my research involves the concept of environmental costs. Today it is cheap to cut a tree because we basically do not pay a fee to the environment for taking away the existence of that tree.. It would be interesting to see our governments considering the cost of damaging the environment as the main factor in the decision making process… And be willing to pay for it. A preserved and protected environment unquestionably secures better public health, education and a future sustainable society.