19 February 2018 | General
Connecting women in science

If you had to pick your favourite female researcher, who would it be? This has been the question on social media over the last week and for good reason, the 11 February was the International day for Women and Girls in Science. We are wrapping up our week-long celebration by introducing some of the women participating in COST-funded networks. We asked them about their experience starting out in the world of research, and what drove their careers forward.

Dr Andrea Kutnar – wood scientist, University of Primorska

Inspiration: Maryam Mirzakhani  -   the first woman and the first Iranian to win the prestigious Fields Medal for her work in hyperbolic geometry, used to explore the concepts of space and time.

During her US spell, Dr Andreja Kutnar (University of Primorska, Slovenia) got the chance to move back to her home country: her participation in several COST Actions helped her find a research position in Slovenia.

‘Being part of a COST Action showed me I could definitely build my career in Europe, and have an even better position than I would have had in the US. Building a research career is all about being determined and wanting to do it. Problems can always be seen as reasons to quit, but, to me, they are challenges that I need to overcome. Problems motivate me.'

To young researchers Dr Kutnar says:

"Say ‘yes’ to opportunities - no matter how small, take chances, trust yourself to be successful, and be open to people and ideas. This little effort can get you big results. Have fun along the way!”

Professor Teresa Puig – physicist, Institute of Materials Science of Barcelona

Inspiration: Marie Skłodowska Curie

Dr Teresa Puig’s fascination with science started when she was just a child. Already halfway through her studies in physics, she had the opportunity to collaborate with a research group thanks to the discovery of high temperature superconductivity, a phenomenon enabling electric cables to transport electricity with no losses, used in hospital MRI machines, super high-speed trains and wind turbines. Her COST Action helped her and her team better understand and improve superconducting materials.

She was the only woman in a group of 31 men.

“This discovery marked my professional career forever. I had the pleasure to interact with two great scientists in the field of superconductivity.  I have always admired Francisco de la Cruz (Bariloche Atomic Centre, Argentina) and Jan Evetts (Cambridge University, UK), who believed in me, encouraging me to continue. Now I am Research Professor at the Material Science Institute in Barcelona and Head of the Superconducting Materials Group, half of its 25 members are women. Two years ago, I got an advanced ERC grant , one of the most prestigious research grants awarded to research leaders holding a track record of achievements. I decided that I could combine my scientific career with a fruitful personal life. Both my 13 and 17 year-old want to study science. My perseverance and eagerness to improve helped me through all the troubles and difficult times. Today’s young women have to have faith in themselves, keep going and work hard to achieve what they believe in, both in their professional and personal lives.”

In 2016, 41% of all COST Action participants were women. Looking at less research-intensive countries, one in two participants was a woman.

Dr Katarzyna Dymek - food technology specialist, Lund University

Inspiration: Maria Skłodowska-Curie

Dr Katarzyna Dymek’s involvement in COST network EP4Bio2Med helped her devise a method of freezing spinach and rocket leaves without killing them. Experts from the network found that these methods of keeping plant cells alive could also be used on human stem cells in cancer treatments, without the need for harmful substances.

“Obvious as it may sound, I’ve always dreamt of becoming a researcher. I’ve always admired people with a passion for research. The fact that you can discover the undiscovered and understand how and why things happen in nature fascinates me. How many jobs out there actually give you this opportunity?  My dream was not clear in the beginning; I didn’t know how I could make it come true, and wasn’t sure in which field I wanted to work. I think I was lucky to have taken the right decisions at the right time and to have met inspiring people along the way. Be brave, follow your dream and respect others. There are so many things to be discovered!”

Perrine Paul-Gilloteaux – biomedical imaging specialist, CNRS

Inspiration: Edith Heard, epigenetics specialist

Perrine Paul-Gilloteaux helped set up the first European network on bio-image analysis – COST Action NEUBIAS . This helped her win the CNRS Crystal Prize for her contribution to excellent research in France, her home country. 

Biomedical imaging uses digital technology to observe biological processes without interfering in them. This method can help detect cancer and neurological diseases.

“One of the things that have helped me throughout my career is setting ambitious goals, even when I would have no idea how to reach them. Come decision time, I focus on the goal I set for myself, and that is what pushes me in the right direction, eventually I reach my aim. Then I come up with a new one. Women in research need to trust themselves and follow their instinct, it is instinct that enables us to achieve things. Too often, we end up turning down opportunities because we tend to feel like a fraud. You are an expert in your field, never forget it!”

Professor Bernadette O’Rourke - professor in sociolinguistics, Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh

Inspiration: Professor Kathryn Woolard, Professor of Anthropology

Prof. O’Rourke led a network of experts trying to understand how speakers of different languages deal with language issues in multicultural communities and how that impacts on immigration, European integration and minorities.

“I have been fortunate to have had inspiring academic mentors at different stages of my career who have provided excellent role models. As an early-career researcher, one of the challenges was trying to find time to do research because of heavy teaching loads.”

"When my first child was born in 2009, the biggest challenge was to organize my time to keep a work-life balance.  A key turning point in my career was when I was awarded an Arts and Humanities Research Council Early-Career Fellowship in 2012. This provided me with the time and space to develop my research and lead a pan-European project on New Speakers in a Multilingual Europe. I had the great privilege of being Chair of a COST Action on this topic between 2013 and 2017.  The arrival of my second child in 2014, coincided with my first year as Chair of the Action which was particularly challenging, but I had great support from family, friends and colleagues within my research network and in fact brought my baby along to more than one COST meeting!” Dr O’Rourke added.

Around a third (28%) of last year’s ERC consolidator grant winners have taken part in at least one COST Action over the past 4 years.  These grants help scientists of any nationality, holding 7-12 years of experience, to strengthen their independence by establishing a research team or building on an existing one.

(Please note we have edited the testimonials for clarity and brevity.)

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