Archive | March 2016

Senior female researchers, still too few

This post should perhaps have been published on March 8th. But then, achieving gender equality in science is not something that can be concentrated on a single day; it’s an unresolved and impending issue that we need to think about constantly.


A group of the female group leaders at the PRBB

On December 2015, the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed the 11th of February as the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. As the UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova said on the occasion of the first observance of this day, “the world needs science and science needs women”. Yet, women are still underrepresented in the sciences, especially in high-level, decision-making positions. With differences in countries and disciplines, a general trend arises, with only 28 percent of researchers across the world being female, according to the most recent UNESCO Science Report.

At the PRBB, we are not foreign to this problem. Even though about 60% of the total scientific staff working at the park are women, they only represent 30% of the positions at the group leader level. Also, our flagship series of conferences, the PRBB-CRG conferences taking place twice a week, is also skewed with only about 13% of the invited speakers being female scientists (average from 2011 to 2014).

Positive action is needed to change this, and the PRBB and its centres are starting to make this a priority. In 2015, 12 of the 63 (19%) PRBB-CRG speakers were women. Albeit still clearly too low, this represents a 4% increase from the average of the previous four years, and we aim to increase this percentage even more this year: out of the 37 PRBB-CRG talks planned so far for 2016, 13 are by women (about 30%). This percentage may change along the year, as more talks are organised, but it’s undeniable a beginning far better than any other year.

All centres at the PRBB are also working hard at improving conditions for their female staff as well as encouraging the hiring of more female scientists.

The CRG’s Gender Balance Committee was created in 2013 following the centres’ distinction with the HR Excellence in Research’ logo from the European Commission. Its mission is “to promote equal opportunities for men and women at the centre and foment women’s advancement in scientific career”. Chaired by Isabelle Vernos, it is formed by women and men from both administration and scientific backgrounds and ranging from PhD and technicians to PIs. The CRG is also leading the European Project LIBRA: Leading Innovative Measures to Reach Gender Balance in Research, awarded within the H2020 program and with the participation of ten European research institutes, all members of the EU-LIFE alliance. Its goal is to implement Gender Equality Plans in all institutes addressing four key areas, from recruitment policies and career development, to work-life balance and even the sex and gender dimension of research. Further to this ‘good intentions’ the CRG has taken specific action by organising some seminars related to the Women in Science topic, and with a Women Scientists Support Grant with two calls per year for young female scientists (PhD or postdoc level) with maternity responsibilities.

Similarly, the CEXS-UPF, recently awarded a “Maria de Maetzu” distinction, has also a Gender Action Plan that includes grants to support talented young female scientists with maternity responsibilities in their scientific career development. The Gender Action Plan also envisages other measures such as ensuring that at least 30% of the members of committees at the centre are female, or improving work-life balance conditions.

The IBE (CSIC-UPF) is a younger centre, and an ‘Equality commission’ was created just last summer which is raising awareness about the issue. They are working on creating an ‘Equality plan’ and trying to set up a mentoring program for PhD students and postodcs. They already have managed to tip the balance of their external evaluating committee, formerly composed by six male members, to three men and three women. Now, they aim to reach a 40% female rate in their invited speakers. “We are just starting, but we believe gender balance in science is a key issue, and we try to attract people’s attention to this subject. Every time we find something of interest – material, studies or any kind of documentation – we circulate it to the whole institute” says Elena Casacuberta, one of the instigators of the commission.

The CREAL, the CMRB and the IMIM are the three PRBB centres that have the most balanced men-women ratio amongst their staff, with 54%, 50% and 45%, respectively, of their senior researchers being women. But they also keep this issue in mind, and continue doing some actions to avoid this delicate balance to be upset.

At CREAL, with their committee for equity and the management of diversity formed by representatives from all stages, they don’t stop at the men-women issue, but they aim to consider all other collectives which may be in minority. In 2015, they created an Equity Plan and are taking actions, such as news in the intranet about women and research every fortnight, an online course on the topic, or talks about experts on flexible policies to achieve work-family balance.

The CMRB has an Equality Committee, formed in 2014, which has prepared a series of documents such as guides with non-sexist language, a protocol for a fair staff selection or an anti-bullying protocol. Some of the specific actions they have taken are the setting up, about five years ago, of a room for breast-feeding mothers, open to all women at the PRBB, or some changes in the recruiting protocols, for example asking job applicants not to include any personal data, such as marital status, in their CVs. Also, last year they had an awareness campaign with an online course on gender equality compulsory for all staff.

The IMIM has also guides for non-sexist language –  and the institution is revising all their web content and other documents to ensure they all abide by these rules –  and protocols against sexual bullying included in their Equality Plan (2013-2016).

We have done a lot, but a lot more remains to be done. The road for female scientists is long and winding, as the Beatles said; but it must be walked until we managed to cross that door.


Report by Maruxa Martínez-Campos, scientific editor at the PRBB.

Odour-guided behaviours in mice

On March 11th, Venkatesh Murthy from the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology of Harvard University, US, gave a conference at the PRBB invited by the CRG. He explained his study “An olfactory cocktail party: figure-ground segregation of odorants in rodents”, which was the cover of Nature Neuroscience in September 2014. After a brief introduction to the anatomy of the olfactory system of rodents, he explained that many odours are complex mixtures: different chemicals combine and then we can smell a particular object. His main question was: how well can a mouse pick out an individual odorant from a mixture?

nature-neuroscience_cover-w-captionThey wanted the mice to pick a single ingredient within an odour cocktail. In order to do that, mice were trained to recognize target odorants embedded in unpredictable and variable background mixtures. They used 14 different chemicals, so there were more than 16.000 possible mixtures. It was impossible for the mice to memorize the combination; they had to recognize the single odorant. The test used was the go/no go, in which stimuli, in this case smell, are presented in a continuous stream and mice perform a binary decision on each stimulus. One of the outcomes (the correct smell) requires mice to make a motor response (go) in order to receive the reward, whereas the other requires mice to withhold a response (no-go). Accuracy and reaction time are measured for each event.

Mice could learn this task in a few days, they performed it well, but performance dropped with increasing number of background odours. To understand why, the researchers first had to overcome a problem particular to olfaction.

While the relationship among different visual stimuli is relatively simple – differences in colour can be described as differences in wavelength of light – there is not a simple explanation for describing how odours relate to each other. Instead, the researchers tried to describe scents according to how they activate neurons in the brain. They used optical imaging and computational models to relate behavioural performance to the combinatorial neural representation of odorants in odour receptors.



Using fluorescent proteins, they created images that showed how each of 14 different odours stimulated neurons in the olfactory bulb. Each odour gave rise to a particular spatial pattern of neural responses. When the spatial pattern of the background odours overlapped with the target odour, the ability of mice to identify the target was diminished. Therefore, the difficulty of picking out a particular smell among a cocktail of other odours depends on how much the background interferes with the target smell.

All in all, it was a very interactive session, with the public discussing several issues all through the talk, especially about methodology, so both the speaker and the public got new ideas!


A report by Mari Carmen Cebrián 

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