Women in Science

Women In Science (WIS) is a SfRBM Committee whose focus is to improve pathways for women to contribute fully to academic research by promoting the visibility and participation of women scientists in the SfRBM. To learn more about what WIS has to offer, click any of the links below.

Committee Chair
Lin Mantell, MD, Ph.D.
St. John's University College of Pharmacy/Northwell Health System
mantelll@stjohns.edu

FEATURED WOMAN IN SCIENCE


Alicia Kowaltowski, MD, Ph.D., F-SFRBM
Professor, Department of Biochemistry
University of São Paulo, Brazil

Can you talk a little bit about yourself and your scientific journey?

I was born in São Paulo, but I moved to Campinas, which is in the interior of the state of São Paulo, about an hour away, when I was still very small. My parents are both university professors, so I kind of grew up on the university campus in the University of Campinas. They are both scientists in very different areas, but I think I was always immersed in the world of scientific research, universities and academia. When I was at the end of what is middle school here, I was really interested in Biology. I had a really good teacher in school, who taught us about hormones and basic signaling. I thought that was really interesting. So I decided to go to a Technical High School in Biochemistry. I actually studied Biochemistry as a high school major. I had a lot of lab training within my high school years and I think that also taught me that I really liked scientific work and research. When I had to decide what to pursue as a university major I decided to go into medical school with the idea that I wanted to do research and maybe clinical practice also. But as medical school went by, I started to work in a lab, and I really loved it. I started to work with mitochondria under Prof. Anibal Vercesi's guidance as an undergrad and I fell more and more in love with the lab bench work and got less interested in clinical work. I became a medical doctor that only does lab work and doesn't do any clinical work today. At the end of medical school, I did a PhD also with Anibal Vercesi, working with mitochondria and the production of oxidants and how this related to the permeability transition. I did part of my PhD in Baltimore with Prof. Gary Fiskum, which was really important because this was the first time in my life that I saw how research worked outside Brazil, how it was a lot easier when you get chemicals the next day. Then I went on and did a postdoc with Prof. Keith Garlid at the Oregon Graduate Institute, also studying mitochondria and irontransport but now looking at potassium transport. My background, overall, is in mitochondrial bioenergetics. That is what I really do well. Finishing my postdoc, I was hired by the University of São Paulo as a professor, and I've been here ever since. It is 19 years now, and it is amazing that it is that much time, because it doesn't feel like it.

Why did you choose to work in redox field, especially the mitochondrial field?

It was kind of fun, actually, because I was in class as an undergrad and I asked a question to my professor Anibal Vercesi, and my question was related to SOD, which he was explaining in class and he was like, “well, I can't really answer that question here in class you have to come to the lab with me later on, and I will answer that question in the lab”. He was really smart, because he just wanted to show me the lab. He thought it was a good question and he wanted to invite me to work as an undergrad in the lab. Basically, the mitochondrial and redox field found me, but I really liked it, working as an undergrad, so I stayed on and still work within the same area. I think it is really important to have these professors who have good questions and interesting labs, because most scientists are interested in many different areas, and what's going to really catch your eye is where the more interesting people have better questions.

Have you been inspired by someone?

I have been inspired by so many people. I think our area has really good scientists and I am inspired by work, mostly by the beautiful questions. I am usually inspired more by the basic science questions, answering those fundamental physiological aspects of how metabolism works. I wouldn't like to pinpoint one person or another because I don't think that is fair, but I definitely think that the people who supervised me in my life have guided me very importantly, and shaped how I want to be as a scientist.

What is the most exciting research that you have worked on or are working on?

That is kind of funny because I think I get excited by the moment I am in. I don't do “Oh! that was such an exciting point in my life and now it is not exciting anymore!”. I don't think that is a good idea. I think you have to be excited by what you are doing now. I am really excited right now because I worked with calcium and mitochondria as an undergrad and during my PhD, and then I sort of came back to it within the last few years, when we found that different dietary interventions changed mitochondrial calcium uptake. That is something very new that people had not seen yet. I think that is really a central connection in metabolism, because diet regulates metabolism very centrally and calcium is a central regulator of metabolism, and mitochondria are the center of metabolism. So that connection is what I am really interested right now.

What is your pet peeve in science?

I think my pet peeve is lack of controls, and especially believing in kits as if they were the answer to every solution and not doing the proper controls, because you purchased the kit that says that it measures x, y or z. In the redox field, there are lots of kits to measure oxidants, which you need have controls for. And also in bio-energetics and mitochondrial studies, there are a lot of reagents that are sold to measure mitochondrial “ROX” or measure of mitochondrial membrane potentials. These kits do that, but you still need controls and you still need to test if in your situation you are actually measuring what you think you measured. So I think lack of controls is my pet peeve.

Can you tell us about a life challenge you had to overcome?

I don't know if there is an acute one point in time challenge. I think the biggest challenge in my academic life has been overcoming all the red tape and bureaucracy that is associated with it. I think we are trained as scientists to solve scientific problems, but in real life there is a lot of paperwork and especially in Brazil, I think we are submitted to insurmountable red tape all the time. Dealing with that has been the biggest challenge in my life and not losing too much time dealing with that but still getting it done. And not getting annoyed by it. That is my biggest challenge!

From your point of view, what are the major issues in women’s scientific career, and what should WIS and the SfRBM society do to create an environment with diversity and inclusion?

I think my reality as a woman in science is very different from the reality in the US in science. In Biochemistry in Brazil, women are the majority - that is already a big difference. I don't feel like a minority because I am not a minority. Another difference is that in Brazil salaries are always the same. I am not in favor of this, actually, I think people should be stimulated to do more and think more, but in Brazil, if you are an assistant professor, an associate professor or full professor, the salaries within these three different levels are exactly the same. As a side effect, there is no pay difference between men and women. There is also no stimulus to do more, which is wrong part of it, but there is no payment gap for women, so I do not feel discriminated in that way. It is a very different reality and it makes us think, why it is different. Why are there more women in Biochemistry in Brazil? I think there are some advantages in Brazil that I don't see in the US, that the US has to think about. One thing I don't understand is how Americans have kids. I mean, there is no paid maternity leave in the country, how does that even work? I think that is something that the US has to think about very carefully. In Brazil, there are six months paid maternity leave for women when they have or adopt babies. So that is very different for us. Another thing that I think is different is the costs of childcare. If you look at childcare in the United States, it is very, very expensive, which also makes progress for women in science much more difficult. I am not going to say it is cheap in Brazil, but it is more affordable relatively to our salaries. Making these things happen in a country gives women equity so that they can go forward and be competitive within their abilities, which are the same or probably even higher than the abilities of men. Another thing that I think is important for women in science is to have role models. Because there are more women than men in Biochemistry in Brazil we have had, for many years, examples of very strong women to look up to, and I think that is what Women in Science is trying to do within SfRBM.

What is the best advice you have ever received, and what is your advice for young scientists and women in science?

That is kind of difficult because it is so specific. I think one of the big turning points in my life was when my former PhD advisor told me to try out for the position that I now have in this department. I was away at my postdoc, and I was enjoying doing science as a postdoc and he said,” You know, there's this position, this department is very good, you should try out for this”. I did, because he told me to. So I am here because of that. I think that was a big turning point in my life.

My advice to scientists in general is that it is all about the science. If you are doing good science, if you are learning how to make good questions and answer these good questions, in the best of your abilities, and you are producing quality science, that should take you forward. So worry less about politics and all the mess that both our countries are in right now and focus on becoming a really good scientist! Because if you are the best at what you do, people will want you, independently of where and when.

Finally, can you tell us somethings people may not know about you?

I am pretty transparent. I don't think there are many things that people don't know about me. Maybe some of my scientist colleagues don't know that I play violin. I have been playing ever since I was five or six years old. Music is a big part of my life. I think it is really important to have some kind of activity outside of academia. This is an activity for me that is a lot of fun, because I meet lots of people who are very different, who have completely different jobs, but also always really interesting. Also, I do my own gardening. I like digging holes in the dirt. I think having other interests is important – it keeps us human. 


PAST FEATURED WOMEN IN SCIENCE

Christine Winterbourn, Ph.D.
Yvonne Janssen-Heininger, Ph.D.
Daret St. Clair, Ph.D.
Samantha Giordano, Ph.D.

OPENING DOORS

WIS organizes the annual Opening Doors Event which provides the opportunity for education, dialogue and networking among scientists during the Annual Conference. Topics vary each year and the event will feature a guest speaker.

SfRBM 2019

Professionalism - Building Success in Science

Dr. Sonia Flores is a long standing member of the redox community and a national leader on diversity, inclusion, and equity. She is a member of the NIH working group that develops recommendations on how to address issues regarding unprofessional behavior in science and medicine. This interactive session will address harassment and bias in the field of redox biology and medicine and approaches on how to minimize such problems in the communtiy. WIS invites all SfRBM 2019 attendees to join us at this event.

SfRBM 2018

Everyone Needs a Yoda: The Importance of Mentors Throughout Your Scientific Career

  • "Mentors at All Stages in Your Life", organized by Becky Deegan and Sam Giordano
  • Ideas on what makes for great mentoring as well as challenges in mentoring
  • Over 50 people in attendance, with senior Society members, including Victor Darley-Usmar, Doug Spitz, and SfRBM president Rick Domann, leading discussions
  • A great networking opportunity, as reported by participants

SfRBM 2017

Who is the Indiana Jones of Your Team?

  • An adventure in team building
  • Discover and share insights into how team dynamics support lab productivity, recruitment, and collaboration
  • All levels welcome - undergrads to PIs
  • Dress for adventure! High heels not recommended

SfRBM 2016

Enhancing your Professional and Personal Management Skills

2016 Opening Doors Speakers
Kimberly Dunham-Snary, Ph.D. Edward Moreira Bahnson, Ph.D. Ines Batinic-Haberle, Ph.D.

SfRBM 2015

Opening Doors Event Summary

SfRBM 2013

The Balance Between Family and Science Throughout Your Career

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"Women in Science"

By Dr. Viduranga Waisundara
National Institute of Fundamental Studies, Sri Lanka

They are unspoken of,
hidden and kept in the shadow.
Yet some have blossomed,
leaving the darkness below.
The names are few,
but their net worth is more than the number
fort history has seen to it,
that their records are kept in slumber.

They have battled through culture,
transcended religious barriers,
to pursue their passion,
their scientific careers.
Their findings have not been acknowledged,
yet they did not pine for glory,
for those who know their might,
know their struggle and story.

Emilie du Chatelet, Caroline Herschel,
Sophie Germain, Lise Meitner,
Sonya Kowalevsky, Theano,
Maria Gaetana Agnesi, Emmy Noether,
to name but a few,
but their contributions to science,
deserve accolades and awards,
but they have accepted instead, silence.

Let us live by their example,
and keep contributing to expanding knowledge.
Let us not think of reward,
for women in science have been living with tallage.
Let us think of it as our passion
keep the nobility of our work in mind,
for our discoveries in science,
will ultimately redeem mankind.