Women in Science: Building Communities of Support

By Verónica de la Fuente, 2018 Fulbright Visiting Scholar to MIT

Almost one year ago, I returned to the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina, after completing my Fulbright as a Visiting Scholar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). As a neuroscientist in academia from a developing country, it's valuable to spend part of your career in a developed country. Labs in developed countries tend to have more funding, which translates to modern equipment and access to publishing in the most recognized scientific journals. Going abroad also enhances the probability of meeting face-to-face with scientific leaders, thus benefitting your professional network. Therefore, it is enriching to conduct some scientific research abroad at some point in an academic career.

 

Caption: Verónica de la Fuente in the lab.

 

As a Fulbright Visiting Scholar, I worked in an MIT lab, led by Principal Investigator Dr. Kay Tye, a renowned young leader in the systems neuroscience field. Scientific knowledge is not the only thing I have taken from this experience. First, as a female neuroscientist mentoring my own students, I found Dr Tye to be an excellent role model: she is young, brilliant, leading a successful lab in one of the best scientific institutions worldwide, and…she is also a mom. Second, working in that enriching environment gave me the opportunity to participate in discussions on women and other minorities´ participation in STEM fields. 

For instance, we discussed scientific papers about the difficulties that women go through in different stages of their scientific careers. These difficulties faced by women and other minorities are not new; the novelty is how this issue manifests inside academia. Successful women in STEM were invited to tell their personal experiences about how they coped with difficulties, and debates on discrimination and harassment in academia were also organized. Those debates, including those organized by Students Advocating for Increased Diversity in STEM, were actually led by people identifying as minorities or those in positions lower within the academic hierarchy, but supported and encouraged by those in power. That environment was full of discussion, formative, and encouraging, and it motivated me to strongly advocate, from the privileged position I have in my country, for increasing diversity in science and to replicate and organize the type of events that I have had the opportunity to attend at MIT.

 

Caption: Verónica de la Fuente, center and left, participating in gender-related science events in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

 

While there are as many women scientists as men in Argentina, the leaky pipeline becomes evident when analyzing women’s participation across the hierarchy (Gender Equality In Science..., The Research Journey Through A Gender Lens). Although many women choose to pursue STEM careers, many fewer come to occupy positions of power compared to men (Personal De Ciencia Y Tecnología). Moreover, as happens in almost every part of the world, women deal with implicit biases that strengthen gender inequality, creating phenomena such as the sticky floor or glass ceiling, due to maternity leave, domestic and care tasks, for example (How the Entire Scientific Community…). Importantly, the story is not the same for every woman, as there are other factors affecting women’s participation in science, such as their socio-economic situation. Inequality has spread silently but effectively: these biases have even impacted the way scientists have designed experiments worldwide, excluding females as a subject of study in many cases (Gendered Innovations).

Overall, Fulbright brought me an incredible opportunity with different outcomes: not only was I able to gain invaluable academic experience abroad, which I have already started to incorporate at the University of Buenos Aires; I have also become an active advocate for women in academia. I will always remember my time at MIT as one of the best professional experiences I have ever had. Despite these challenges, I am privileged: a university-educated woman with support from my family and institutions. Many women, however, are in difficult situations and need our support. 

 

Caption: Women in Science posing after an event at the University of Buenos Aires.

 

After my Fulbright, I have committed myself to helping close the gender gap, and continuing my formal training through attending conferences and workshops on gender and science. Furthermore, I have organized and participated in academic and general events on women in science, and have given lectures on the gender gap in STEM, including at the Argentinean Congress of Neuroscience’s first-ever talk on Gender and Science, a workshop on skills for young scientists/increasing diversity in STEM at ICTP South American Institute for Fundamental Research (ICTP-SAIFR), and within various departments at the University of Buenos Aires. I also organized a campus-wide presentation of CHRISTIANE, A Scientific Bio-Musical, about the life of Christiane Dosne de Pasqualini, an important French-Argentinian scientist and contributor to leukemia research. Through these events, I have met incredible, like-minded people. By working together to build inclusive science, we can improve the quality of life for everyone, including those who need it most.

 

Caption: Verónica de la Fuente, left, with actress, director, and granddaughter of Dr. Christiane Dosne de Pasqualini, Belén Pasqualini, after a presentation of CHRISTIANE, A Scientific Bio-Musical at the University of Buenos Aires.