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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.

First in Europe: one of the most precise Mass Spectrometers in the world



A couple of months ago, the CRG-UPF Proteomics Unit at the PRBB – run by the Centre for Genomic Regulation (CRG) and the Pompeu Fabra University (UPF) – announced the installation of one of the most precise mass spectrometers in the world, marketed as Orbitrap Fusion Lumos, becoming the first place in Europe and the third in the world to have this tribrid instrument.

You can read more about this innovative mass spectrometer – which can achieve simultaneous analysis and quantification of more than 10,000 proteins from ten different samples in a single day! – in a post entitled “The CRG Becomes the First European Centre to Have One of the Most Precise Mass Spectrometers in the World” and published on September 29th in Biocores – a directory of the core facilities, technological platforms, and scientific services in Barcelona.

You can also read an article published in Ellipse – the monthly newspaper of the PRBB – in which Eduard Sabidó, head of the Proteomics Unit, tells us about how mass spectrometry-based proteomics is helping to solve complex problems of molecular biology and translational research (see page 6 of this months’ edition of the Ellipse).


Fostering science interest in children: STEAM conference in Barcelona

A guest post by Andreea Munteanu, a researcher at the CRG.

logo steam barcelona

Mid April saw the celebration of the first Barcelona STEAM conference on the premises of CosmoCaixa. STEAM stands for STEM + A (Arts). “But what is STEM?”, many people, friends and family, have asked me.  It is an acronym referring to the academic disciplines of Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics. This term was coined 15 years ago by the National Science Foundation from United States to designate the necessity of an integrated science education in schools. This need was the result of a wide-spread concern about the decline of science education and innovation in United States, and a concern about the gap between the provided classical education and the required 21st-century skills. As a result of this awareness, education policies around the world, especially in the United States, Singapore, UK, Sweden and Finland, have introduced innovative STEM projects starting from elementary schools, and have strengthen STEM training for teachers. Over the years, the emphasis  acquired a new dimension: to foster creativity and curiosity within STEM, and for this a general concept of ‘Arts’ was introduced. And thus the term STEAM was born.

robotics steam


The increasing number of STEM initiatives around Catalunya have lead naturally to the first STEAM Barcelona conference at CosmoCaixa. Personally, attending the conference allowed me to talk in person with educators and representatives of institutions that I highly admire for their dedication to fostering curiosity for the world in kids of all ages. I will mention a few:

  • –  George Lucas Foundation for changing the education system, from kindergarten to secondary school, inspiring creativity,  passion for learning through innovative, replicable, and evidence-based programs.
  • the community for science education in Europe, an initiative of the European Comission, to promote and actively support Europe-wide collaboration among STEM teachers, educators or science researchers and policymakers.
  •, and – centers from UK that work together to provide state-of-the-art facilities for training anyone involved in the teaching of science, from teachers, to school directors and volunteers.

After the two days of the conference, I left with the feeling that the STEM fever has finally arrived in Catalunya, and especially here in Barcelona.  The city of Barcelona, through the collaboration with the New York Academy of Sciences, initiated last year the project STEM Barcelona, consisting in bringing science to high schools through workshops organized by PhD students.  The Catalan Research Foundation (FCRi) together with other foundations initiated last year Petits Talents Cientifics, a program for fostering the passion for science in elementary and secondary schools, for training  teachers and strengthening the participations of parents in science projects. Associations, universities and schools have joined in European or National projects to provide the material and the training for science teachers starting from elementary schools, as it is the case of Escola Carme Auguet in Girona. In other places, parents have joined together in organizing science festivals or workshops at their children’s shools.

All these exemples are only a tiny fraction of the STEM initiatives around Catalunya, as researchers on science or education, teachers, parents and school representatives have initiated projects or self-organized science for kids of all ages. Research institutions in Barcelona, such as the PRBB and IRB, together with museums and schools, actively participate in these projects.

Nevertheless, there is a long way to go, as this is only the beginning. The gap between the education system and the real world’s necessities and opportunities is very big, and it is changing so fast that we cannot expect the education system to adjust accordingly. Therefore, I strongly feel that, as parents and researchers, we need to pro-actively participate not only in large scale science festivals, but at home and schools, protecting and nurturing every child’s spirit of curiosity, engineering, innovation and creativity!

Books and authors that inspire scientific vocations!

thewaythingsworkAt the PRBB we started a campaign about a month ago called #passion4science. We are asking researchers around the globe to try and pinpoint an event, person, book, whatever, that caught their attention as a child and got them excited about science, about trying to understand, to learn, to experiment…

We will be posting the results in storify and will do another post about it here soon, as well as sharing them through social media, so keep an eye out for #passion4science!

But since today is International Book Day – and in Catalonia, where we are located, it’s a very spetial day, SantJordi, the patron of our region – we want to share a subset of those comments with you.

Books that ignite #passion4science!

These refer to books that respondents remember as being crucial in initiating their fascination with science. Enjoy them!

In-silico selection of targeted anti-cancer therapies

The Biomedical Genomics group led by Núria López-Bigas at the Pompeu Fabra Unviersity have recently published a paper in Cancer Cell describing the landscape of anti-cancer targeted therapeutic opportunities across a cohort of patients of twenty eight of the most prevalent cancers. They first looked for all the driver mutations (mutations that ’cause’ the cancer) for each individual cancer, then collected information on all the existing therapeutic agents that target those mutations, and finally, combining both datasets, came up with anti-cancer targeted drugs that could potentially benefit each patient. You can read more about this paper on their blog post.

Coinciding with the publication of that paper, the lab has crafted a new IntOGen interface which presents the results of this analysis. You can see it and learn more about it here.

About Linux, Freedom and Science

Today we recover this post “Why Linux is awesome” by CRG researcher Guillaume Fillion in his blog “The grand locus“. He explains his personal experience with this operating system, what he has learned by using Linux and why, in his own words “it has made me a better scientist”.

Curious? Read the full post! We’ll tell you the take-home message: “Following my experience of using Linux, I believe that freedom and openness lead to knowledge and competence“.

Share your #passion4science!

passion4science logo

Do you love science? Do you remember what made you decide to become a researcher? Was it a person you met, a movie you watched, a book you read, anything special that happened to you as a child? Were you 16, or 12? 8? 4?

Whatever it was that sparked your passion for science, share it with us – your story may inspire young people to start their path in this exciting career!

At the PRBB we are organising “BioJúnior” for next April 17 – an event aimed at young students who are about to embark on their career journey. We are trying to collect as many anecdotes, experiences, reasons or feelings as possible to help spark their interest in science and research. Will you help us?

Just tell us your story. You can do so via Facebook, Twitter or Google+, tagged #passion4science. You can write it in English, Catalan or Spanish.

All comments received will be used during the students event, as well as further shared with the world through social media or other means*. So don’t forget to share your experience – and do share this message with all your peers!!!

*All information submitted through the #passion4science campaign, including your name, may be shared through the PRBB social networks or by other means, always under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 3.0 license.

Sydney Brenner receives honorary degree from the UPF


Sydney Brenner has been many things in life. The son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe in South Africa; a bright student who then became a tireless scientist; one of the first people to see the double helix model for the DNA from Watson and Crick; a Nobel laureate and recipient of many more awards. To this list, he can now add the title of the first scientists to become a doctor ‘honoris causa’ by the Pompeu Fabra University (UPF).

It was an honour to have Prof. Brenner at the PRBB, where the ceremony took place last April 3rd. After signing the book of honour of the university, he was taken to a packed Conference Hall – I have never seen it so full.


He was walked down the corridor by Arcadi Navarro, director of the CEXS-UPF. Three researchers did their laudatios honoring three different fields to which Brenner has greatly contributed: Miguel Beato (on molecular biology), Fernando Giráldez (on developmental biology) and Jaume Bertranpetit (on evolutionary biology).

It was then Brenner’s turn. He seems weak in his wheelchair, with his   respiratory aid suitcase always next to him. But the moment he stands up and starts talking to the audience, he is transformed into his best: a scientist that has been creating new areas of research from scratch all his life; a self-made researcher who has changed the face of modern biology; a man who can captivate audiences with his knowledge, experience and wit.

But don’t take my word for it. You can listen to his whole acceptance speech here:


Later on the day I had a chance to interview him. Again, he looked tired up to the moment we started speaking; then all his vitality unleashed. The secret to his success? I asked him. His modest answer was: “I was born in the right place at the right time”.

He talked about the current ‘slavery of PhDs’ in America and suggested young researchers should move to new areas of research, new subjects where experience doesn’t count, because nobody knows anything (yet).

He dismantled ‘big data’ as being mostly noise, and insisted that one has to decompose big problems into soluble problems in order to understand things.

He highlighted the importance of scientists – “who know how to solve problems, unlike politicians”- in education and health for the general society.

He regretted the way funders are becoming more and more conservative and unwilling to take risks, with the consequence that ‘new things in science are dying’.

And he remembered his time in Cambridge, UK, where a group of young researchers had many ideas that everyone thought were crazy but that – thanks to the trust and support of the MRC – turned out to change biology as we know it.

All in all, an exciting time with Mr Brenner… watch this space for a full interview with him, which will be published in the next issue of El·lipse!


A report by Maruxa Martinez, Scientific Editor at the PRBB

All pictures and the video are from the UPF.

El·lipse: Last edition of 2013!

The 2nd CEXS-UPF Symposium on Evolutionary Biology that took place in November at the Barcelona Biomedical Research Park (PRBB) opens this edition of El·lipse, the park’s monthly newspaper.

portada ellipse 70

Also on the topic of evolution, Salvador Carranza (IBE) tells us about his research on reptile phylogeny. Other news include new findings on senescence and embryo development, lung cancer diagnosis, ‘mini-kidneys’ created from human stem cells, the benefits of long-term breastfeeding, new molecules involved in metastasis or computational models to decipher biological problems. On a more personal note, Baldomero Oliva (UPF) tells us about his scientific career and the secret to become a good scientist: patience and stubbornness. The current-affairs debate deals with a very topical question, raised by a recent article in The Economist: is there a reliability problem in science? Find out the different opinions of four researchers at the park!

You can read a multimedia version here.  To download a PDF version please click here. We hope you will enjoy this introduction to what we are doing at the PRBB!

El·lipse: Celebrating the 5th PRBB Open Day

The 5th Open Day at the Barcelona Biomedical Research Park (PRBB) opens this edition of El·lipse, the park’s monthly newspaper.

Other news include the celebration of the CRG 10th anniversary, new proteins important for cell division or for tumour growth, how stem cell dysfunction links cancer and ageing or a new drug against skin cancer. You will also learn about the “Jennifer Aniston” neurone from Rodrigo Quian, from the University of Leicester (UK), or about the effects of radiations from mobile phones on our health, a subject that Elisabeth Cardis (CREAL) and her group are studying.

You can read a multimedia version here.  To download a PDF version please click here. We hope you will enjoy this introduction to what we are doing at the PRBB!

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