Interview with Dr Mai IWASAKI

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Tags: Meet the researchers

Mai is a postdoctoral fellow in Neuroscience, at the French National Center for Scientific Research, in the research group on Molecular Determinants of Pain. She started her fellowship in November in 2015.

Mai, please tell us a bit about your current roles and responsibilities, and your international mobility experience?

My current project focuses on the role of oxytocinergic release in the mid-brain and its potential contribution to emotional and autonomic regulation.

This is my first time moving to a foreign country. Before that, I lived in my birth place, Japan, all my life. However, I have spoken French since I was 4 years old because my school was founded by a French Canadian. Furthermore, I worked under an American boss during my PhD as a research assistantfor seven years at the RIKEN brain science institute, Japan.

What sparked your interest in science?

Since my childhood, I have been very interested in why group conflicts occur around the world, even if people do not hate each other at the personal level. I had hoped to reduce such group conflicts. To do that, initially I wanted to study the dynamics of peer pressure in a group, and how each group comes to opposeothers. After I read a number of scientific papers on the topic, I realised that “fear against the enemy” can accelerate hostile attitudes toward people outside of one’s own group, while it strengthening internal ties within their own group, which segregates the two groups from one another. Therefore, my interest expanded to how “fear in the brain or in the body—such as stress felt in the stomach—“ results in “taking spatial distance from the enemy group”. Now, I am trying to elucidate if bodily expressed fear and fear expression in the brain reinforce each other via neural connection. If I find some positive feedback between them, breaking the link may soften the runaway feeling of fear towards the enemy, and finally a peaceful world may come true. The most trustworthy method to reach this goal was, to me, science.

Did you have any role models when you were growing up?

I attended girls school from elementary to high school. Therefore, all the people with whom I interacted were girls, except for the teachers. In the girls school, everything was done by only girls! When I started talking with guys in daily life, I was already 20 years old,and at university. In that sense, I do not have a role model who showed me how to survive in a society where the majority is guys. The only thing I can do is behave as I always have in front of ladies; that is, be natural.

What were the greatest challenges that you have faced in your career? Do you think those challenges differ from those of your male colleagues?

The greatest challenge so far has been surviving a very tough period of unemployment due to the fact that my laboratory was shut down while I was right in the middle of my PhD course, because it was judged to be not productive enough in terms of publications. During this difficult period, I had to continue working on my PhD project on private time, while working as a part-time research assistant

Irrespective of which gender you belong to, you may encounter this type of difficulty. Fortunately, I have never felt as if I were treated disrespectfully due to my gender.

How would you describe the gender balance in your field? If you have professional experience in several countries, how would these compare?

My current institute in France is composed of master students, doctoral students, postdoctoral fellows, and principal investigators. The gender balance from masters, doctors, to postdocs is almost equal, however, female PIs are very rare, probably less than 10%. When I was working in Japan, the tendency was similar. I think it is because the age of giving birth amongsat female researchers overlaps with the postdoc period, and the achievement during this period is crucial to be promoted as a PI.

What could be done to encourage women to choose a scientific career and to help them progress in this career?

I don’t think we need to encourage women to choose a scientific career, because I chose science without any encouragement, and I was not special or unique at all amongst today’s girls. But I also realised that guys and girls have different way of thinking sometimes. Possibly it may be nice to raise both male and femal teachers for high school science classes so that young students can interact with science from two different aspects.

However, it is true that women may face slightly more difficulties in career development. I think, that female researchers tend to pretend that they are “not a smart person” and praise other people more, instead of advertising their own achievements. This unconscious strategy works very well, because people tend to help a person who looks weaker than themselves. Thanks to that, women can get more supports which would be great benefit for her current project. Some women do not care even if the people do not realise that she is just acting an idiot, and do not care even if people misunderstand that she is really NOT smart, because she is just interested in the advancement of her project itself, not in the reputation on her ability. Yes, this is the problematic part. As far as academia continues to evaluate researchers based on their self-advertisement, the chance of promotion will appear more to men.

How could women play a specific role in filling the gap between science (research) and society in Japan?

That is a difficult question. Because researchers sometimes do not understand the motivation of another’s researcher’s study even if the study is in a field which is close to their own studies. So, gaps already exist inside academia before we think about the gaps between science and society. Furthermore, we tend to present only the “showy” and “catchy” parts at a science expo, and that can accelerate the rival spirit amongst researchers--because we are often exposed to never-ending competition to get research grants! Internal disunity which is caused by a competitive atmosphere in academia is always looking for problems. Considering that, maybe women can play this role…to advertise “the weakness and problem in your study” to the rest of researchers. If we can show weakness amongst each other, the rivals may become friends, and it can foster a more cooperative atmosphere where we can conduct bigger projects, and we will be able to arrive at the scientific truth much more quickly. Such “open or out” attitude will eventually encourage the unity between science and society. But to allow this situation to occur, researchers need to be evaluated not solely based on the vainglorious “ground breaking” achievements of today, but also equally based on a honest “hackneyed” achievement which formed the basis for the research of tomorrow.

Is there any good initiative to promote gender equity from Japan, or another country you've visited as a researcher, that you would like to highlight?

I have heard that most of universities or public research institutes in Japan chose female researcher for a professor position in case the past achievement level are the same compared to another best candidate who is male. But it is still not enough. Because many female researchers postpone tplans to become pregnancy to produce the same amount of publications as what males produce before she gets a permanent position, typically that is, a principal investigator. A postdoc’s employment contract often relies on annually winning fellowships, so every year we need some achievement. Otherwise, we will drop out from an “ordinary” career track. A researcher’s ability should be measured by his/her productivity per a working hour unit to promote gender equity.

In addition, research achievements should be evaluated not only by their impact or novelty, but more on their honesty and accuracy; which is what women are good at expressing.

The reality is, almost none of the data we get from doing daily experiments are novel, for do they provide us high impact results, but we need to exaggerate the importance of the data so that the data sounds like they have a really high impact. This is the only way to publish, and to get grants, and to feed ourselves. This exaggeration process has wasted a lot of time and resources in academia, I guess. Why can’t we just be honest in describing the scientific nature we found? Any fact which is revealed by decent science tells valuable information about nature, no matter how boring it sounds. I think, that recruiting committees should ask candidates to explain how their research has gone bad, and how the candidates’ ability was low enough to leave many problems during the past research. This anti-advertising style presentation will also clarify how honest and clever the candidates are, and typically, women candidate would be more comfortable to describe herself in this style, I personally believe.

In your experience, how important is mobility for researchers’ careers and how feasible is this for female researchers?

In daily life, we researchers are exposed to tons of scientific reports from all over the world, thanks to the internet. We are already cosmopolitan in virtual space. Because of that, when I was searching for a laboratory to join for the next career step, the fact that I chose a laboratory in geographically distant place did not mean anything special. Typically, researchers are more specialists than generalists, and the choice of laboratories where the researcher can work is limited. Therefore, if a woman researcher has a family, a compromise about the working place between husband and wife will come up. I have not encountered this problem yet, but I still do not have a good solution for it.

Are there any specific measures that you believe can encourage international mobility of female researchers and scientists?

I don’t know, because as for international mobility, in my opinion, gender bias seems non-existent?

What are your hopes for the next generation of female researchers?

Once half of the overall population of researcher becomes females in the future, scientific work will be evaluated by 50% of women. Probably because the scientific topic which males consider important are sometimes different from what females are interested in, so as more females join science, more budget will be distributed to “female tastes” research; women will,then, have more freedom in science. Therefore, I hope girls come to research only if they have a big question to answer, using the scientific method. Even if such sort of research does not exist in current science, they can launch a new field by themselves. I hope they will a risk and will not care about self-reputation too much. Then, I hope they will make many good research friends in scientifically distant fields, and do their best to see some achievement before they die, then finally, pass it to the next to the next generation.

How can you (we) pass on your (our) passion for research to the next generation of women?

Maybe I am already standing on the side of the next generation. And maybe I don’t need to pass my passion to the next generation on purpose. I believe their innate passion will be inspired by scientific works of our generation.