Women in Science: Interview with Neus Feliu, researcher and guest editor in Nanomaterials

Why are there fewer women than men in science? Female scientists are under-represented in research, being only a third of researchers globally. Despite the progress in gender equality during the last decades, advances have been slow and there are still disparities around the world. We want to initiate a series of interviews with female researchers to find out more about their experiences. The first candidate of our list is Neus Feliu, who works as a researcher at the University of Hamburg and guest edits the Special Issue of Nanomaterials called “The Biological Impact of Nanomaterials: From Safety Studies to Applications”.

How did you first become interested in nanomaterials?

The field of nanomaterials and nanoscience had always intrigued me. This fascination began when I was studying Chemistry at the University of Barcelona and followed me to the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden where I pursued my career. Through the years, I had the chance to meet many inspiring professors who instilled in me invaluable knowledge pertaining to the design of new nanomaterials with cutting-edge capabilities and novel applications. I became interested in this research area because I find the overall field of nanomaterials fascinating. This work sates the curiosity of the inquisitive mind. It satisfies my desire to learn and discover and proves time and again to be very gratifying work.

Are there still gender differences in your research environment?

Unfortunately, I believe there are. The disadvantages for a woman in science are evident. Although the universities and institutions have made remarkable efforts toward positive improvement over the last decade, women are still underrepresented in the scientific community. It is curious that, despite women having achieved major discoveries in science, the number of women in leading positions at their representative organizations is very low. In addition, compared to men, recruitment levels and promotions of women to full professorship are also low and come with lower salaries. These are complex questions as women have been held back for too long. This is influenced by a variety of factors and I believe that job stereotypes, unconscious biases and cultural influences have played an important role in this matter. The facts suggest that even though efforts have been made, there remains an urgent need for effective new approaches addressing this issue, not only in science but in society as a whole. Campaigns such as “Me Too”, which I support, may help us achieve our objectives.

How do you think women can achieve gender parity?

This is a tough question that has recently been drawn into multiple key discussions. The successful implementation of efficient strategies to achieve woman’s gender parity is challenging. I am not an expert but in my opinion it is clear is that the policies in effect today are not good enough. One essential step is to confront the issue head-on, to increase awareness and education at all levels. There is a need to modify the way society thinks and acts. The policies need to change, and I don’t mean only on paper. On the other hand, having more successful women in leadership will help encourage, educate and broaden the minds and perspectives of the new generation. It is important that society improve its tactics in regards to the promotion and recruitment of successful researchers, both men and woman.

What are the current opportunities and challenges for women in science?

Despite the progress made in recent years, women are still a minority in the many fields of scientific research. To overcome these difficulties while pursuing a scientific career, several issues must be confronted. Over the course of my journey in academia, some of the examples that come to my mind are issues related to unconscious bias and pressures to behave as a traditional model peer, although of course everyone works in different manners and comes from different backgrounds. It is left up to you to break your own barriers, to overcome under-representation in key fields, to work ever harder to gain respect, and to regularly brush off inappropriate and unprofessional comments.

On a positive note, the trend towards placing women in high positions is rising and the presence and strength of the role of women in science and in other communities is also increasing. I believe that things are changing and that, although we undoubtedly need to continue working on it, we will have plenty of opportunities in the near future. In the end, knowledge, integrity, empathy, and technical skill are key fundamental factors in career success and they reflect the individual person, independent of their gender. My advice would be to work hard to reach your dreams, no matter what they happen to be.

On the other hand, I would like to mention that I had wonderful mentors who supported and encouraged me over the years. Without them I would not be where I am today.

How do you think society is implicated in gender parity?

This is a very complex issue. In order to address the problem, there are several concerns that need to be formally recognized. In order to promote and ensure a sustainable path toward gender parity, resources need to be invested related programs. As mentioned before, it is important to implement policies to support the promotion of women into leadership positions by introducing mentorship programs, illustrating role models, etc. In the end, it is all about creating equal opportunities. In addition, one of the measures that is also important to mention, even as an aside, is that of society, e.g. institutions, working toward the development of strategies to support and promote family care, such us maternity, paternity, elder care, equal roles in child rearing, etc. I believe this to be a vital step in the achievement of gender parity. Unfortunately, there is still a long way to go, however, I am of the mind that this will change.

As a last remark, it is important to note that gender parity is not the equivalent of gender equality. Thus, we, woman, also want to be treated as equal peers.

What are you currently working on?

I am interested in understanding how the different physicochemical properties of engineered nanomaterials affect and interact with biological systems. At present, my team is working on the development of new nanomaterials for clinical settings. We are working on basic research in which we try to provide the fundamental understanding needed for application in research. The overall motivation behind our work is to create safe materials that can be used for a variety of therapeutic purposes. I find this research area fascinating as it is exciting to anticipate what the future will bring. It satisfies me to have the chance to apply our research to problems, a continuously rewarding experience.

What is your long-term research goal?

I will work hard to be successful in both my professional career and personal life. My ultimate research goal is to lead a group and in my specific research area. To advance my career I must continue to develop my skills and achieve my project goals. The research I conduct is evolving and I look forward to the clever, new innovations. I find this extremely exciting and do not anticipate my motivation waning.

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