International Women in Science Conference

Abstracts

Prof. Nadia Rosenthal

Magnificent obsessions

As scientists, we are all bitten by the same bug of universal curiosity and have the same dread of personal failure, but women have the additional burden of discrimination. As the feminist Gloria Steinem commented, anyone who thinks that today's society is comfortable with women in power needs glasses. At the beginning of the 21st century, we are generally comfortable with the abstract notion that a woman is equally entitled to satisfy her scientific curiosity. Female life scientists abound in academic institutions, at least until the positions, money and space become limited, at which point the attrition rate is embarrassingly high. There are a thousand subtle and not-so-subtle ways to discourage a young researcher, to distract her from the joys of discovery and dissuade her from demanding more space or more support when she clearly needs and deserves it.

It's important to identify our own impediments. We are not all well enough equipped to deal with competition - for positions, promotions or papers - and competition is a constant in research. It is critical to recognise the power imparted by external research funding and to insist on what we really need. Male or female, you won't get what you do not ask for in this world.

How do we promote a sense of entitlement amongst women in science? The common denominator among female scientific leaders is a personal passion for science, of which they never lost sight. How can we protect the original curiosity that drives us into the field in the first instance, and fires the necessary engines to steer one's personal path through the obstacle course of today's competitive research environment? The characteristics that help scientists realize their dreams include the resilience necessary to withstand the tribulations of the profession in order to keep focused on discovery, and on the promise of epiphany that originally drew us into the field. Any strategies we develop or employ to survive and flourish must begin from that wish to understand. The politics and practicalities of research are necessary parts of the game, and can work just as well in our favour as against it. But the centrepiece has to be the science and our obsession with a magnificent question.

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