Interview with Dr Maria VASSILEVA

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Maria received her university degree in veterinary medicine in her home country of Bulgaria, and after working as a small animal surgeon, followed by a position at a national regulatory institute, she has pursued a PhD in Japan, working on molecular epidemiology of food pathogens. Following a research position at Kobe University, she is currently teaching in Nagoya University`s international programme. Her current research interests are in the field of public health and nutrition.

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

In my current position, as a Designated Associate Professor in Nagoya University Global 30 International Program, I teach several lecture courses in Biology to undergraduate students, provide academic support as an academic advisor to Biology majors, participate in the admission process in my department, and am heavily involved in various administrative projects and initiatives focusing on further developing the G30 Biology curriculum and the international programme as a whole.

During my university years, I had the chance to participate in a student exchange programme and did a research project in France. Apart from my home country of Bulgaria and Japan, I have experience living in France and in the UK.

What sparked your interest in science?

I have always been fascinated by biology. My parents are geophysicists and they nurtured my interests in sciences in general, providing plenty of relevant books and experiences. Despite my much greater exposure to geology as a child, biology has always been my favorite subject.

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

I grew up in a country where women were everywhere in the work place and gender equality wasn’t a discussion topic – it was a natural state of affairs. Thus, my role models were plentiful. This was partially because of my specific family environment (educated middle class living in urban area), but also because of long-term government policies started a couple of generations before mine. Both of my parents had degrees in science and held similar level positions in R&D sector. Most of my science teachers - and all my biology teachers - were women. A significant portion of my university professors and about half of my fellow students were women, too, despite studying a historically male-dominated profession like veterinary medicine. For me, the idea that my choice of career options is limited by anything else than my aspirations - especially something like gender - was never a topic of concern. And this freedom has given me strength to make my own decisions and to work for my goals. In retrospect, all of my choices were my own and I have achieved every big goal I have set for myself.

What made you decide to become a researcher?

As a child, I was surrounded by books about researchers and I have always been fascinated by the how and why of biological concepts. Especially after working a few years in the field of veterinary medicine, I realised that the day-to-day medical practice doesn’t satisfy my desire to dig deeper. I think that was the time when I made the decisions to move to research. It took me a few years to make it happen, but I`m still happy with my choice.

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

Moving from clinical practice to basic research was one of the biggest early challenges I had. All of a sudden, all my clinical knowledge became irrelevant. It was a very steep learning curve, not made easier by being in an unfamiliar country (Japan) and different language environment. But I’ve come out of it stronger, completing my PhD research project and publishing it an year earlier than required.

My biggest career challenge in fact was having children. There are no intellectual, linguistic or administrative challenges compared to it. What allowed me to continue my career was the support I’ve received and continue to receive from my partner and our families, as well as being blessed with a flexible and supportive environment at my current job. I can’t overstate how much of a difference this support has made for me.

Before having children, just like any other childless young professional devoted to his/her career, I would base my expectations and decisions on the vague approximation of children with dolls. Most of my university friends had their children a decade earlier than me and honestly speaking, at that time, I never understood their obsession with such a boring and far-from-the-important-things-in-life topic. Until I had kids myself.

While my children’s appearance in my life was a conscious choice, the practicalities of having another human being for whom I’m suddenly responsible was an overwhelming and eye-opening experience.

There are two aspects to this – one is the sheer volume of care required, and the other is the realisation that this is not simply “care” – it is raising the next generation of humans. It didn’t take me long to realise the intensity of a child’s needs (both physical and emotional) and the unique, immense connection a baby has with its primary caregivers.

Being a mother is the hardest job one can have, more than a full-time job on its own. And I don’t say this lightly. I have worked in both industry and academia, on jobs with high levels of responsibility and intensity. I’m no stranger to 12-hour working shifts followed by emergency operations through the night or 12-hours experiments and data analysis on a tight deadline. None of this compares to the “regular job description” of a mother – 24/7 full swing with no breaks, no privacy and no sleep – 365 days a year. The worst part of it is knowing that it cannot be “outsourced”, as too much is at stake. Many women come to this realisation after becoming mothers and change their life priorities. This is a painful process, especially if there is little support for their choices.

From my personal observations, nothing of this intensity is happening in the life and career of my male colleagues.

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

In my home country, Bulgaria, women are well represented in my field of science. There are many women in full professor positions and at any other level. The same is true for my professional field of veterinary medicine. My other academic experience is from France, where I’ve met many women in academia.

In Japan, women are well represented at the student, graduate student and postdoc levels. Yet their numbers decrease significantly once we look at faculty positions – from assistant professor and further – with hardly anyone left at the top. My department at Nagoya University is one of the rare exceptions, with two full professors and a few more female associate and assistant professors.

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

Women make up about 50% of students in most science fields, which shows that they don’t lack interest or the ability to do science. I teach in an international programme and our students are from all over the world, including countries where women traditionally are not given many educational options. But those who do get the education and fulfill our admission requirements are just as bright and capable as any male student, often better. There is nothing that separates women from men when it comes to intellectual capabilities, intellectual interests, desire to develop life-long careers and the ability to produce creative research.

The focus on “encouraging women” in social policies will not lead far unless the core issue is addressed. And that is the issue of a “mother”. Let me try to explain my point from a biologist’s perspective.

Raising children is biologically our first priority. Heavy investment of time and effort in extended offspring care in stable family structures is the norm in most mammalian species.

Whether we like it or not, there are fundamental biological differences between the genders when it comes to reproduction. Women as a gender take the heavier biological role in this aspect – both the physical burden of pregnancy and the equally critical early period of the child’s development– from nursing to establishing a mother-child bond through extensive interaction. The “game” is biologically uneven.

Another important biological factor is that the window of opportunity for female reproduction comes at a moment of one’s career initiation or critical early stages of its development.

However the “game” is made even more uneven by social systems that practically exclude the participation of the father and the extended family from the child raising responsibilities. How much energy, enthusiasm and creativity one would have if working on two full-time jobs? Is it then hard to imagine why so many mothers prefer to quit the only job they can actually quit? Is it then hard to imagine why more and more women simply opt out of this child-raising game all together and decide not to have children?

This is literally a running competition between a group of people with two legs and a group of people without legs, with everyone being surprised why the two-legged people can run faster and how to encourage the legless people to run. How about giving them their legs back? How about redistributing the child-raising responsibility more evenly?

Obviously this picture is an oversimplification and overgeneralisation. I personally know many men who are devoted to their family responsibilities and supportive of their partner’s career choices. But they are still a minority and their choices are rarely supported by social structures – sometimes such choices are harmful to their own career prospects.

The current policies of “encouraging women” relating to mothers can be summed up with the following: outsourcing childcare so that mothers can join the workforce. This is not a redistribution of responsibilities. Children’s needs for individual parental attention and active intimate relationships with their primary caregivers are not taken into consideration here. Somehow everyone agrees that it’s almost impossible to keep a long-distance intimate relationship between two adults because reduction in the quantity time brings a reduction of quality time, but no one seems to worry about the parent-child relationship when the quantity of time they have is reduced to the bare minimum of brushing teeth together. My university prides itself for having childcare facilities that are open from 8am until 9pm and which accept babies from 2-months old. As someone with background in veterinary medicine, I can’t help but see this as child farming rather than child raising. No doubt, this is a cost-effective strategy. But is cost reduction our ultimate goal? Time and time again research has shown that the family environment is the single most important factor in predicting the outcome of a child’s intellectual, emotional and even physical development. In other words, such a policy approach gives a “win” for women’s participation in the workforce at present (good for women, good for the workforce), while at the same time creating a “lose” for achieving the full potential of children who are the work force of the future. This doesn’t make sense to me from a national long-term strategy point of view. In fact, it doesn`t look like a long-term strategy at all.

What needs to be done is a fundamental paradigm shift. A shift from “encouraging women” to “supporting families”. A shift from acknowledging women’s right to work to acknowledging every member of the society’s right to be supported to develop to its full potential – especially children. A shift from short-term goals like “How to increase the number of women in science now?” to long-term goals like “How to assure that those – men and women - who carry the burden of bringing up the next generation are supported in their dual role of participating in the workforce and raising well-developed children?”. A shift from a society focused on the young, the strong and the talented to a society focused on social and family structures that create the young, strong and talented.

What we need are social structures where parenting is made gender-neutral (within biological limits of course!), where both parents are expected to be heavily involved in child raising. Then and only then we can have gender-neutral workplaces. And then we won’t have to talk about how to encourage more women in science or any other career field.

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

Women are naturally involved in education, thus they play a key role in increasing the educational level of the next generation, including science awareness. Educate women in one generation and you`ll increase the education level of the nation for generations. Moreover, women are naturally excellent communicators and they often resonate well with projects involving science communication and community outreach. I believe this is a perfect area for women in science to shine and I’ll be happy to see more effort being made in involving more female researchers in such initiatives.

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?

Not at this moment. Though I’m open to have another conversation on practical steps that can be taken to implement the concepts I outlined above.

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

Living and working abroad, from undergrad to postdoc and even now, has been very influential on my appreciation of differences between cultures; thus, each time it has been a very enriching experience. On the other hand, in the early years of having children, even attending local conferences that required more than a day of travel was difficult for me, let alone extensive travels abroad.

Mobility for researcher’s career is a valuable experience, but expecting extensive or frequent mobility from people with families and children is unrealistic. Frequent travel can be a logistic nightmare for working people with children. Frequent relocation for a new position is putting the career of the partner at risk or is creating single parents. Emphasising mobility for scientific career development is important, but making it a must for people above the PhD level (who due to their age are expected to have young children) is unjustified in my opinion.

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

Short travels, for conferences etc., are much easier when young children and one supporting family member are allowed to travel - and be reimbursed – together with the researcher. How about special grant category for parents with young children? Mobility for new positions is easier if there is a strong support for families in the host institution - from moving, general information support, childcare, to real support in finding a job for the other partner in the family. This type of support services has been an increasing trend in European institutions, including EURAXESS, and is something to be congratulated. I want to see more of it in the future.

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

My hopes are that more women will decide to stay in academia and challenge the status quo rather than accept it, making their workplace a more humane environment for everyone irrespective of gender.

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

I do exactly this in my my current position– sharing my passion for research and showing my students how much more there is that is unexplored and unanswered. Textbooks often present science as a list of facts, omitting not only the history of the discoveries or the people behind them, but also the open questions and the challenges ahead. Instead, I try to develop my courses through the human explorer perspective.

Along the same line of thought, one very practical thing that can be done is adding more names and faces to science textbooks, so that young students can find out how many amazing women have contributed to any field of science.

And, as it has become clear already, I don’t believe girls need more encouragement than boys to be interested in science. What women do need though is to see that science is a viable long-term career option; one that can be continued even after one has children.