Category Archives: gender and sciences

Meet Margherita Hack


Born at the corner of via Cento Stelle (hundred stars) in Florence, Margherita Hack was the first woman to lead an astronomical observatory in Italy. She is the most known Italian astrophysicist.

You have just turned 89. What is the biggest satisfaction you have had until now?
I don’t know what to say since I have had so many satisfactions with my job. Maybe when I won the chair of astronomy at the University of Trieste (1964). But then I have received many prizes and acknowledgments and right now I could not tell which one has given me the highest satisfaction. What I would say is that I have had many acknowledgments.

In your youth you have been long and high jump champion and afterwards you studied physics, activities both considered, especially then, not suitable for women.
No, it is not true. At the university we were five women and five men students. As far as sport is concerned, there was fascism then and under dictatorships sport is one of the things that are used the most for manoeuvring, for training young people, for making them more accommodating let’s say. Nevertheless the good thing is that sport was done at large scale, also in schools.

As for your physics studies, did you feel then that you were supported or rather hindered by the people around you?
My parents told me I had to do what I felt like the most and since I liked physics better than the other subjects it was natural for me to choose to do what I felt I was better at.

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On gender, disaster risk reduction and sustainable development

feng min kan

 “Gender equality in DRR does not mean merely addressing women’s
issues – it means addressing concerns of both men and women, the
relations between them and the root causes of gender imbalances”

Since 2005 Feng Min Kan (China) has been the Senior Coordinator for the Advocacy and Outreach Coordination Unit within the UNISDR (The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction) secretariat in Geneva. In this position, she has fostered the idea that both gender equality and disaster risk reduction are imperative to achieve sustainable development.

One of the first things reported in “Making disaster risk reduction gender-sensitive” (published in 2009 by UNISDR, UNDP (UN Development Programme) and IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Geneva, 2009) is that “While women’s vulnerability to disasters is often highlighted, their role in fostering a culture of resilience and their active contribution to building it has not been adequately recognized”.

Disaster management has been traditionally considered as a men’s field. Women have not been really represented at policy and decision making level of disaster management, this also reflects the situation of women in disaster risk reduction at country level, therefore the gender perspective has not been really considered but the reality is that women bear a large proportion of population living in poverty. When people are poor they also live in the most vulnerable areas other people would not even think of living.

In a community for instance prone to the impact of floods, if most of the women do not have much formal education, also due to poverty, they won’t have real access to information nor will they probably understand what exactly the fact that a cyclone with a certain speed is coming implies. If they don’t, they cannot take actions to protect themselves and their families. In this kind of situation women are much more vulnerable than others.

The report also highlights physical and environmental vulnerabilities women face in many contexts. What are they?

In some cultures women are not supposed to learn to swim and climb for instance.

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AIDS treatment in and out of gender

aids treat 2


“It is known that after acute HIV infection women present with higher CD4 counts and lower viral loads than men.  We were interested in looking at whether this difference influenced clinical outcomes.  It is debatable whether these sex differences confer clinical benefits and we hypothesized that they would”, says Elizabeth Connick. She works at the Department of Medicine, University of Colorado, Denver, Aurora, and is one of the authors of the study “Sex, Race and Geographic Region influence Clinical Outcomes Following Primary HIV-1 Infection”, recently published in the Journal of Infectious Diseases.  She was involved since the beginning in the Acute Infection and Early Disease Research Program (AIEDRP) and was principal investigator at one of the sites of the program funded by the National Institute of Health. It was a multicenter, observational cohort of more than 2000 primarily North American individuals (26 sites in the US, 10 in Australia, 2 in Canada and one in Brazil) diagnosed with acute and recent HIV infection whose data were prospectively collected in a database.

“I thought it would be a great opportunity to analyze the data base to answer that question.  When you look in a population of HIV positive people you don’t know how long somebody has been infected.  It is hard to know what stage they are in their disease and to judge whether men and women are progressing at different rates”.

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AIDS treatment in an out of gender

aids treat part one

A dendritic cell


Although the decrease is not sufficient, the first therapeutic AIDS vaccine, designed from the dendritic cells of the actual patients by the Hospital Clinic of Barcelona-IDIBAPS in the framework of the HIVACAT, the Catalan programme for the development of therapeutic vaccines and prevention against the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), has achieved a significant response in the majority of patients.

The trial I results of the study (three more will come), which counted on an international collaboration with teams from France, the Hôpital Pitié-Salpêtriére and the Université Pierre et Marie Curie in Paris/INSERM,  and the USA, the National Institute of Cancer in Maryland, have been just published in the International Journal of Infectious Diseases.

The final aim of the therapeutic vaccine is to minimize the use and to avoid a life long treatment with antiretroviral drugs that, because of their expensive and a life long administration, bring about a great economic burden. Besides, there is no experience over the long term and it is not known if the treatments could bring about resistance, which they happen to do if not well taken, while some of them have proved to bring about side effects (for instance cardiovascular diseases.

“AIDS is unique among the infectious diseases since it is the only one that we cannot cure in spite of having very good drugs”, says Teresa Gallart, immunologist at the Hospital Clinic and one of the 17 authors of the study (9 women and 8 men).

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Meet Marta Sanz Solé

marta sanz drawing

Professor and member of the research group on Stochastic Processes at Barcelona University, Marta Sanz Solé was recently elected as president of the European Mathematical Society (EMS) for the 2011-2014 period. It is the first time both that a Spanish person and a woman hold the position.

What does it mean to you to be the first woman holding this position (if something?)

It means the challenge implicit in a position of responsibility. I live the fact of being a woman with naturalness, maybe because even if inside the profession women are not the majority at all at the high levels, they are though well represented at middle and students levels, at least in Barcelona, where they are almost 50% of the total. I don’t focus it as much in what the position represents as a woman but in what it does as a math professional.

But I guess being the first one in doing something might give a special feeling, isn’t it so?

Well, yes, it is undoubtedly a differential element and although I don’t perceive gender discrimination in my environment (I have always gained the same salary as my male colleagues) where this is true, it might be an example that I guess can help to show things can get much better. Anyway I don’t like to put myself as a paradigm, probably because I am a discreet person, but yes, the fact that I am a woman can be useful as a counter example.

What does the position consist of?

The organization includes all the European countries from a geographical point of view and it represents the voice of the mathematicians in Europe. There are many issues transcending local and state sphere of action, such as infrastructures needed for carrying out research or the incorporation of young professionals around the continent and the entity has more legitimacy than single countries to be addressed to by politicians.

What are the problems young European mathematicians leaving university have to face?

Basically the possibility to find a more or less stable situation in a reasonable life time period. The incorporation arrives very late. When you finish your PhD thesis you have to become independent from your research advisor and at the same time you have to produce enough to become attractive for the labour market. This is happening in a situation made of unattractive postdoctoral contracts and where, moreover, mobility is required for scientists in a period of their lives when many would like to build a family.

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Meet Carol Greider

greider disegno

Carol Greider, Professor and Director of Molecular Biology and Genetics at the John Hopkins University,  co-discovered the enzyme telomerase in 1984 when she was a graduate student of Elizabeth Blackburn at the University of California, Berkeley. Their research on the mechanism through which telomeres (DNA sequences repeated at the end of chromosomes which allow genetic information to be copied integrally every time the cell divides, formed by telomerase) protect chromosomes from degradation has been awarded last year with the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. The two women shared it with Jack W. Szostak. Greider leads a “curiosity driven” lab of ten people (3 men and 7 women including her) researching the role of telomeres and telomerase in chromosome maintenance and stability.

Is it true that you went to the first press conference after being announced the winner of the Nobel Prize wearing big glasses and fake moustache?

Yes, it was part of the fun.

Why did you do that?

There’s a famous picture of Barbara Mc Clintock after it had been announced that she had won the Nobel Prize (1983, for her discovery that the genetic material is not fixed but fluid) wearing Groucho Marx’s glasses so, as a joke, I wore them.

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When sex matters

when sex matters

“Women have to know that many of the medications they are taking were identified and the dosages defined based on studies on male animals or men. And it’s well known that women metabolize some drugs differently, their size is different and even the underlying causes of the diseases might be different. Does that mean the medication is bad? No, it means that we need to define the population for which the medication provides the most benefit with the least risk at a reasonable cost”, says Virginia Miller, professor of physiology and surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, USA and president of the Organization for the Study of Sex Differences (OSSD), an international society for basic and clinical scientists.

The first time I have ever heard about sex-gender bias in biomedical research and gender medicine, some months ago while reading the Science magazine, my first thought was how come I had never wondered how it was possible that drug prescription have the same dosages for me, not even 1,60 meters tall, and let’ say for my Dutch 1,90 meters tall male friend if it’s so obvious we are different. And, as I do every time I find out something new and interesting to me, I started guessing that maybe I wasn’t the only one ignoring the issue and its causes. So I started researching the topic.

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“Engineous” encounters


Control sensors that know every house’s real energy expenses, high security systems, home cinema, wireless band width communications inside the houses, led usage in new contexts such as streets and car headlights and software solutions for the reconstruction of faces from bone remains.

These are only some of the examples of what can be achieved from getting together professionals coming from all the different areas of telecommunication technologies and computing focusing on domotics engineering, optical engineering and virtual reality applications with the aim to facilitate the life of building users, optimize energy consumption and offer new services through the exploitation of virtual reality.

This is what they do at CeDInt, the R&D centre of the Universidad Politécnica of Madrid of Madrid directed since its beginning, in 2004, by telecommunications engineer Asunción Santamaría.

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The missing criteria in Research Funding

disegno palomba

Ten years after the publication of “Minerva’s daughters” the situation of women researchers -not only in Italy but also across Europe- hasn’t changed much. At least that’s what the latest report promoted by the European Commission The Gender Challenge in Research Funding reveals.

“When being a man or a woman should really count, that is exactly when considering the difference is taken as an insult to the neutrality of science” Rossella Palomba says.

The famous socio-demographic and sociologist Rossella Palomba, one of the most outstanding European figures on gender studies, was one of the 16 experts forming the “Gender and Excellence” group set up by the European Commission to provide recommendations on the improvement of transparency in the procedures used in selection committees for the award of grants and in access to research funding in general.

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