Women in Science, future group leaders?

Dr. Roni Helene Grace Wright

For our first profile of women in science we chose to interview the Dr. Roni Helene Grace Wright (RHGW). She is originally from Scotland, where she first studied at Eirias High School (North Wales, UK). Initially, wanting to work in crime scene investigation, she obtained her Bachelor in Biochemistry and Immunology at the University of Strathclyde (Glasgow, UK). During this time she decided to dedicate herself to scientific research and enrolled in the Molecular Biology PhD programme at the University of Glasgow (Glasgow, UK). After successfully defending her thesis, she found a postdoc position in the prestigious laboratory of Miguel Beato at the Centre for Genomic Regulation (CRG) in Barcelona, Spain. As well as a myriad of science-related activities, she is currently pursuing her research in the same laboratory while she is preparing to become a group leader. 

What are you doing in your job?

RHGW is trying to understand how breast cancer cells exploit energy pathways in order to grow and spread in the body. Hence, she wants to use this knowledge to find new therapeutic approaches for cancer patients.

A typical day of a researcher goes entails more than experimental work. In order to continue her research she takes care of writing projects to obtain grants. She is constantly interacting either one-to-one or through e-mail and Skype with collaborators about her and their projects. When her work allows her the time, she reads and writes scientific articles related to her field. Once in a while she gives presentations or listens to talks from her peers at scientific conferences. Beyond her day job as a researcher, she is also involved in many other activities and has taken on other responsibilities. She is part of the gender balance committee at the CRG. As if it was not enough, she also teaches PhD students (oral presentation skills, chromatin and gene expression, etc.). She teaches immunology and microbiology as well at the International University of Catalonia for undergraduate dentistry students. She mentors Master and undergraduate students in the laboratory. Finally, she teaches scientific experiments to kids at local schools. As a small extra, she loves to read about dealing with stress in science, mental health awareness, pressure on scientists to publish, what it means to be a woman in science. Well as you can see, she is a bit busy.

What is your work about, in a few sentences?

RHGW is working on post-transcriptional modification and metabolites that play a major role in cancer progression. Specifically, she is focusing on ADP-ribose modifications which are a major source of energy. The large and rapid generation of ADP-ribose is crucial to supply energy needs. This is particularly true for the cell nucleus where our genetic information is found. Nuclei require large amounts of energy to regulate the expression and activity of our genes. Interestingly, RHGW and her colleagues demonstrated that this type of energy generating machinery is overexploited by cancer stem cells in order to spread and grow faster, leading to more aggressive cancers and eventual metastasis. Her research may have an impact on public health accompanied by strong clinical interests. Finding ways to inhibit cancer stem cells to use such mechanisms may offer new approaches to prevent cancer progression and recurrence. 

Technically, how do you look at such mechanisms? 

RHGW is growing cancer cells either on sticky plates or floating in flasks. She regularly feeds them – a bit like little pets. Her work relies mainly on live-based detection. This means that she can monitor energy (ATP) fluctuation directly inside living cells. To do this, she and her collaborators previously tagged ATP with fluorescent probes. Once successfully incorporated into cells, these probes allow the team to easily analyse ATP increase or decrease in all cellular compartments depending on selected stimuli.

Related to this work, she won the first prize as science presenter in 2013: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y6Ez9qkK9Xk

Links to her articles: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=roni+wright

Are people around you familiar with your work?

RHGW : “I feel a bit uncomfortable when people tell me that I am smart when I tell them that I am a scientist”. 

Her close family doesn’t really ask what she is doing. But her partner knows everything about her work, they regularly talk about precise and complex concepts of her research.Talking about her work outside of the scientific community helped her to get new scientific ideas.

How do you feel as a scientist? What have been the most challenging part so far? What are you the most proud of?

She told us that her PhD supervisor believed research to be 95% frustration and 5% enjoyment. RHGW : “I think that it is actually 99% frustration”. On the other hand, she feels that it is amazing to do what she loves to do. For her, it is a privilege to do science, a chance that not everyone has access to. 

RHGW : “I am proud of my students. I see them evolving and doing amazing PhD’s, amazing post-docs, in amazing places and I’m feeling really proud that a little bit of the reason why they succeed so well it’s because of the training I gave them”. She is also proud of giving training courses for undergraduate and PhD students. More recently, she is proud of her last publication in Science, even though the experience, having taken several years, was extremely frustrating.

How do you feel as a woman in this environment? 

She would like to see more role models, more young women as group leaders, more women being keynote speakers and more in the highest positions. In the past, she also felt uncomfortable when she was unnumbered, during a meeting for example. This sometimes prevented her from having her voice heard. Although she feels that it’s getting better she would love to have someone to speak with, other women in the same career progression. On the other hand, she does not remember any negative incidence based on her gender along her career. Furthermore, the gender balance committee in CRG has helped her immensely particularly because she is a woman.

Note for students and group leaders: one experience that pushed her to further raise her voice and be more self-confident was during a small meeting with her peers. This meeting was focusing on her field with small groups where everyone could share their ideas. As for many scientists, this kind of meeting made her feel that people were interested in her opinion. She became more self-confident which renewed her motivation in her work. Conclusion:  Send your students and postdocs to scientific meetings (be they big or small). 

https://www.sciencemag.org/careers/2017/10/women-ask-fewer-questions-men-conference-talks-new-studies-suggest

https://www.latimes.com/science/story/2019-06-25/men-ask-more-questions-at-scientific-conferences-manels

https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-03688-w

Why Do We have Such a Problem With the Way Women Speak?

Why do women drop out of science more often than men?

According to RHGW, in the UK, a lot of women would drop their post-doc position because of the high cost of child care. Furthermore, gaps are created in their career due to the lack of help related to maternity leave and child care. As a consequence, they cannot compete against others that would not have such gaps, such as men or single women. In conclusion, if there is no help from the country or the institute, scientific mothers are at a disadvantage. Similarly, the stability issues mentioned earlier (no group leader = no job), is definitively another dark point, especially taking the family into consideration. 

RHGW: “Another issue comes from the fact that we [as women] do not feel that we are good enough. I don’t want to generalise men or women, but we, as women, are really bad at this”. RHGW explained that women are generally more self-critical. For this reason, women sometimes don’t go for it. This is in line with what we call the imposter syndrome. 

RHGW: “I won’t apply because I won’t get it.”

In order to fight lack of self-confidence, RHGW gave us some advice.

RHGW: “Be aware, this is the first step.”

RHGW: “Also it is easy to go back to vicious loops of feeling bad again after a failure, you need to keep going.” 

RHGW: “Be brave, it does not matter if you fail, you still have to apply for more grant” or anything else.

RHGW: “Accept the good feedback from your peers as well, from your colleagues, your boss, students, etc. They don’t give you those good feedback to be nice but because you deserve it.”

In line with RHGW comments, we invite you to read these articles: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/05/the-confidence-gap/359815/

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41562-019-0686-3

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-57749-6

What advice would you tell to your 10-year-younger self? 

RHGW: “Have faith in yourself! In 10 years you will still not believe in yourself but if you start now you will most likely do more things that you thought you were capable of.” 

What are your next objectives?

RHGW: “keep going, keep writing grants and I would love to be a group leader.” 

In your opinion what is excellent in the way we do science nowadays? On the contrary what would need to be changed? 

She thinks that scientific communication inside the scientific community has massively increased and improved due to social media. She is open to new creative ways to communicate science nowadays.

On the other hand, she finds the pressure to publish to be far too high. Related to this, the rules to get funded may be unfair. To get funded you need to write grants. The evaluators will judge if you have a good project, a strong CV (mainly the list of your publications), high-ranking institute, a broad professional network (collaborators, companies, etc) and the potential impact of your project for society. However, she told us that in order to get funded, most of the grants require you to already have been funded. In other words, this is akin to asking a 20-year old to have already had 10 years’ of work experience. Other kinds of involvement such as teaching, awards, science dissemination are considered only as extra merits. Another issue comes from highly funded projects earmarked for areas with a high “impact on society”, such as clinical drug targets.

RHGW : “there are other topics doing basic research for the sake of knowledge which is just as valid. Hence, it’s going to be much more difficult for them to get funded. I’m not sure it is fair.” 

Stability seems to be another issue. The usual academic path following the PhD continues to several post-doc positions which may, or may not, lead to group leader. This means that in the academic system there is no future if you do not want to become a group leader, even though you may love science and just want to pursue a career in scientific investigation.

RHGW :“you would not say to a junior doctor in the hospital, after being a doctor for 5 years, that you are going to kick him/her out! Because you want to keep their knowledge, they succeeded to get within the system.”

RHGW : “You see talented researchers, with so much knowledge, with so much to give, who just want to do good science and still there are not welcome to stay.”

RHGW : “So the question is why? Why are we not keeping them? It’s a shame!”

RHGW : “If this was changed, it would have a massive impact on scientists (women and men) but also towards scientific success.”

We also would like to add that several governments, especially in Europe, are facing the “brain drain”. Although we may have a highly talented pool of scientists, this system is not favorable for attracting and keeping them in our countries. This is not only due to stability issues but also to money standards. Most of those in science are not doing this job for money, they nevertheless deserve to be respected and compensated at the highest levels. As highly educated professionals, that are pushing the limit of knowledge, they should receive excellent work conditions. Unfortunately this is far from reality for most of the scientific community. 

What are you doing related to women in science?

RHGW is part of the gender balance committee at the CRG. This committee is composed of a large representation of the staff from each area of the institute: technician, PhD, Post-doc, human resource, group leader, communication team. They meet once per month where they discuss gender related issues and prepare action plans and tasks. As an example, she received financial assistance from the CRG to take care of her child. Indeed, the grant she obtained allowed her to pay for an extra hour of childcare three times per week.

RHGW: “It made a massive difference for me, not only for my scientific work, but also about my stress. It completely changed me! These small changes make a major difference

Is there anyone who inspired you before and inspires you now?

When she was doing her PhD, she was inspired by a talk given by Karen Heather Vousden (former head of the Cancer Research UK)

RHGW: “For example, she [Karen Heather Vousden] had this beautiful photograph of her with a kid in her backpack on her way to the lab. I went out of this talk full of energy.”

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karen_Vousden

RHGW: “today I am inspired by people around me, both women and men, my peers, scientists from my lab or other lab. I think we inspire each other.” She is also inspired by those initiating new projects, their own business for example. 

Would you like to add any extra comments? Would you like to share a quote?

RHGW: “I have faith”. She is a strong believer that if you do what you love, and if you are good at it, things will most likely work out.

She also loves Barcelona from an academic and family point of view. 

RHGW : “It is a great place to raise children; lots of parks, museums, beaches. Childcare is really cheap compared to the UK and the CRG has helped me a lot in this aspect.”

You can find more information about Dr. Roni Helene Grace Wright here

Linkedin: https://es.linkedin.com/in/roni-wright-206a00a

Research Gate: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Roni_Wright

Comment from the interviewer Dr. Sarah Hurtado-Bagès

“I personally met Roni during a conference in Barcelona thanks to my boss. After this first touch we invited her to give a talk in our institute where she introduced her work. That day, I found her extremely professional, convincing and determined. Since then, we have met several times and I have to add to the previous list that she is also really funny, humble, accessible, passionate about her work and really supportive. It is always comforting to discuss science and more with her, thanks to her personality as well as her strong experience. For me, she is part of the list of women in science who is inspiring her generation as well as the next one. Thanks again for everything!”

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