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Julie Gould 00:09

Hello and welcome to Working Scientist, a Nature Careers podcast. I’m Julie Gould. This is the third episode in the series about female scientists in Latin America.

In September 2021, Ana Valenzuela Toro and Mariana Viglino co-authored a career column in the Nature careers section titled “How Latin American researchers suffer in silence.”

Given the premise of this series of episodes, I figured it would be a good idea to speak to these two young scientists to understand why they felt the need to write this article, what their suffering is, and how they hope it will improve as they progress through their careers.

Ana Valenzuela-Toro 01:05

My name is Ana Valenzuela-Toro. I’m a paleontologist from Chile. I did my PhD in Santa Cruz, California.

And I just came back to Chile and now I’m based in Caldera. It’s a small town in the Atacama Desert in the very north of Chile. And yeah, my research is mostly about studying fossil marine mammals.

Mariana Viglino 01:29

Well, my name is Mariana Viglino. I’m also a paleontologist, I’m working as a researcher in CONICET, which is the government branch related to science and research.

And I’m currently based in a city called Puerto Madryn, which is in Patagonia, which is the south of Argentina. And I study fossil cetaceans, particularly I study dolphins.

Julie Gould 01:57

Both Ana and Mariana are paleontologists and have known each other for many years. They got together three years ago to discuss the organization of a professional meeting, where the plan was to talk about the challenges of being a female paleontologist. Ana contacted Mariana.

Ana Valenzuela-Toro 02:12

We were having this conversation. And we noticed that like the things that we identify in the organising committee for this other meeting, were also related to things that Mariana experienced in Argentina.

So it was like, “Oh, wow, it was like this moment where we realized, actually, things are more common than we thought they were.”

And we weren’t even, and we started to identify different factors that we thought they were unique, but actually, they were widespread across the field.

So that is how we started thinking about it. We participated in this conversation in the meeting. We had, like, a roundtable about it, talking about challenges and issues about being an international woman researcher or a woman paleontologist.

And then we continued this conversation, just the two of us. And that is how the column started to have a shape.

Julie Gould 03:09

Mariana sums up some of the similar challenges that both of them faced,

Mariana Viglino 03:13

While sharing our experiences we found that they were actually like a common thread.

And that’s what we try to sort of sum up in the column that we wrote together.

So we saw that we had in common experiences with English, for example, trying to communicate with other colleagues. Or writing papers in English.

For us it takes significantly more time than for someone whose English is their native language.

We also face common experiences in terms of travelling, visa applications, attending international conferences.

And all that goes around that, not only in terms of language, in terms of trying to get to a country, for example, getting funds.

Trying to talk to other colleagues and getting noticed. And colleagues taking you as a peer rather than just someone who was around there.

So we were just, like, sharing stories at this roundtable. And then we got together and shared even more personal experiences.

And we found that there’s a sort of a common thread that goes around every Latin American researcher.

And then particularly for women, there is a gender aspect in all those experiences that made it different from the rest, but at the same time common with women, maybe all over the globe, in terms of getting less recognition.

Our papers. We found that our papers that are written by women, (and this is not just our experience, this is also published in several articles by colleagues). Our papers written by women are less cited, are less recognized. And that actually leads to a cycle where women researchers get even less recognition. And they get even less credit,

And that sort of sums up with the rest of the factors that we were noticing. And that ends up with the experiences that we were having.

And many people actually, after the column got published, wrote us emails or through social media telling us “Oh, I do relate with that. That actually happened to me as well.”

So we were thinking also that the column was sort of an idea to bring together people, and letting them know that this is not just something that happens to just one or two people.

This is actually something systematic that occurs to many people in the academic community.

Julie Gould 05:36

Now, many of these challenges could be experienced by anyone from the scientific community in Latin America.

So I asked Ana and Mariana to share what challenges are specific to women, as both of them were keen to highlight the intersection between being a female scientist, and being from Latin America,

Mariana dives in first

Mariana Viglino 05:54

Being a female and being Latin American actually ends up having your work be more invisible than other female colleagues that work for example, in the United States, or in Europe.

Because you are also Latin American, then you are viewed also as someone who does research of less quality, or it’s not as visible as the rest of your colleagues.

So that actually ends up and brings particular challenges to your everyday task as a researcher. Which might share with some other people, but are actually quite unique, depending on your country, your reality, your access to funding, access to research and all the other factors that we can analyze.

Julie Gould 06:36

And Ana has some specific examples of what has made her feel invisible as a female scientist,

Ana Valenzuela-Toro 06:42

Many of them are subtle, so when you start thinking about it, you start noticing them.

But it’s something that I experienced very often, and I noticed it in other fields too.

But it’s only related to female scientists. It’s that when you are in a in a room, sharing a scientific ideas, or projects or etc, and you have, I don’t know, nobody listens to you.

You can say the same thing as another person or I don’t know, you’re you’re bringing a new idea to the table.

And then another person say the same that you say before, and they will pay attention to this other person, usually a male researcher, and you are there, like, “Oh, actually, I said that, like five minutes ago, and nobody really listened to me.”

I think that is something very common. One other thing that I have noticed is that when you are in a meeting, talking one-to-one to another scientist, and they say, “Oh, well, yeah, there are some papers coming from Latin America talking about this. But actually I don’t see the scientist. Where are the the scientists who published that?” Well, actually, you’re talking to them. I am the person who published the paper that you’re talking about. “Like, oh, okay, you are Valenzuela-Toro et al?”

Yeah, I am, absolutely. So that is something that it’s that occurred to me personally. It’s like you are invisible.

Julie Gould 08:06

Mariana explains how fieldwork can also bring specific challenges to women in paleontology,

Mariana Viglino 08:12

You’re usually viewed as someone who doesn’t have enough strength to carry tools, or to carry fossils, for example. Usually just, it’s assumed that you’re gonna be able to do it. That you do need a male colleague to do those kinds of tasks?

Julie Gould 08:28

What these women have mentioned so far is predominantly about being a female scientist. So I asked Mariana to share what it is about being a Latin American female scientist that adds to this burden and feeling of invisibility.

Mariana Viglino 08:42

The particular dimension of being Latin American is related to the fact that the access to opportunities that we have here is not the same.

Any researcher in whatever country you work, you’re going to be affected by the political and economical situation of the country you’re in. Whether you’re just living there for a few years, or your permanent career.

And in Latin America, we are continually struggling with the fact that our economies are usually less developed than on the Global North.

So that means having, for starters, less money than the rest of our colleagues. And then also political governments are changing all the time.

And they do affect very profoundly, with a very lasting effect, on how research is conducted.

Whenever there is any far right government, science is gonna have funding cut. And that means not only that, at that point of the history, science is gonna get interrupted and you’re gonna, you’re not going to be able to do research. That’s going to have a lasting effect for many years to come.

And that means many people having their careers cut. Many research projects that are not going to be able to continue.

Julie Gould 09:58

This is something that Mariana is experiencing in Argentina at the moment.

Mariana Viglino 10:03

We are having serious cuts in our funding. We are not sure we’re gonna even have any salary in a few months.

And that actually means having our careers profoundly affected by it. And we still need somehow to manage ourselves and stay competitive with the Global North, where opportunities for funding and access to any kind of research that they want to conduct is not the same. It’s not the same opportunities that we have.

So even though in any country, it’s going to be affected by their current political situation, particularly Latin America, where we have these endless cycles of governments that cut funding in science.

We tend to sort of accumulate that kind of effect in our careers, and that makes us even less visible than the rest of our colleagues.

Julie Gould 10:55

I’m sorry to hear that things aren’t looking very positive for you, especially in the next few months.

Can you tell me a little bit more about that, just so I can hear it from you?

And so can you tell me a little bit about the current political landscape, and how, what decisions are being made and how that affects you and your work?

Mariana Viglino 11:16

We are, we’ve been having serious economical issues in our country for several years now. And the things add up to having recently learned that our funding is going to get cut out for CONICET. Which is anyone who wants to conduct research in Argentina will go through CONICET, which is the government branch of it. You you have the opportunity to get a PhD, a postdoc, and even get a permanent position as a researcher.

But that depends on whether the government which is currently our whichever government is at the moment, for funding for us to conduct our research.

So that means there has to be a political decision to give funding to science. And we’ve had this sort of cycle. Some governments have, did want to invest in science because they do believe that science makes our country grow.

And then some far-right government thinks that it’s useless, and that we don’t need any kind of science. And we are currently at that situation. And with the economical landscape of inflation and the economical crisis that we’re having, that ends up being with an even worse scenario than we’ve had before.

Julie Gould 12:34

And if you don’t mind me asking, how does that make you feel?

Mariana Viglino 12:39

Oh, it makes me feel really hopeless, and really burnt out, and really sad. And I’m really sad, I’m really sad, and I don’t even know what to do.

Um, it’s something that the whole academic community is living, the whole country is living. It’s not just researchers.

But if we want to just focus on researchers, because it’s the subject that we are discussing it’s really frustrating. And it’s really, you feel like you don’t know what to do. And people are questioning whether science is useless, and whether what’s what’s worth of research, and you need to justify sort of justify your work. And then that gives you an extra burden.

And I need to sit down and be creative and have ideas and try to conduct research. And I don’t have the energy nor the thrive to do that. Because I don’t know what’s the point of doing it.

If I’m being honest. It’s, it’s, I really don’t even know how to put it in words, because it’s, it’s really frustrating. And you feel like, at some point, it’s so extreme that you even feel (and that has happened to colleagues, maybe 30 years ago), you just feel like in your country, you don’t have anything to put in, and you do want your research to stay in your country, you want your research to make your country grow.

And you want to give back to the government who has invested many years in you having a PhD and you’re studying a career and you’re having opportunities you want to give back to the society. And you just feel like they are just pushing you out.

Julie Gould 14:17

For Ana in Chile, things are looking better, the political landscape is more stable. But finding financial support for doing science in Chile is still difficult.

And if you do manage to get your research done and written up, getting it published is another hurdle.

Ana Valenzuela-Toro14:32

It’s so hard to get money for paying editorials to publish your work. So we then, and we have then our papers or manuscripts. And we need to start thinking “Well actually, this is a great paper, but we cannot submit it into a great journal, because the greatest journals are the most expensive ones.”

So we need to start taking this decision with this top-down decision where we’re like oh, “Okay, no, this no. This journal? No, actually, no, thanks. Thanks.”

And yeah, so then we finish publishing in, like, less visible journals with less impact, which is also, it’s really bad because then your paper, your research, is less visible to other researchers around the world.

Julie Gould 15:21

There is an association between visibility, impact and quality. And there is a tendency to think that research published in a less well known journal is of lower quality, says Ana.

Ana Valenzuela-Toro 15:32

So that is another endless cycle where research is less visible, and they have less quality. And it fits this idea that science made by Latin American scientists, especially women, is less valuable, has lower quality than those who are performed by other scientists.

Julie Gould 15:52

Both Ana and Mariana agree that the lack of visibility of women in science in Latin America stems from the difficulty of becoming a scientist in the first place. Accessibility is a major hurdle, says Mariana.

Mariana Viglino 16:06

It’s really hard to get there, to even get to university and study a scientific career, let alone doing a PhD or being a researcher. Difficulties just end up summing up at each stage. And it gets even harder at every stage.

So depending on where you started, whether your family was able, for example, to support you through college or not, whether you were able to study English or not, that makes the whole difference.

And that’s why I was just reviewing our column, and we said at the end of it, that if you wanted to think about a female Latin American scientist, probably you were struggling to get a name.

And it’s not because we’re not there. It’s because we’re not being visible, we are not, people are not paying attention to us enough.

But we are here. We have enough skills and beyond that, to conduct research. We just need to get more visibility.

Ana Valenzuela-Toro 16:58

There’s this bias, unconscious bias, that they put on the minds of the brains of early adults, young girls, where they make them believe they are not capable. But it is not right. I mean, I think, at least here in Chile there’s a lot of effort to make the landscape more even for young girls and young boys so they can choose and trying to develop their, their skills in a similar way.

But still you can see the legacy of this patriarchal way where females do this, males do that. So I think it also has some repercussions.

Julie Gould 17:37

To finish our conversation, I wanted to know what Ana and Mariana would like to see change in the future, to make a career in science easier for women in Latin America.

Mariana Viglino 17:48

Um, tricky one. I think, what we’ve been doing, let’s start with the daily things that we’ve done. I think, with the everyday task of, for example, if you organize a meeting, inviting a variety of people to give lectures, whenever you have to suggest reviewers, such as reviewers from different countries and from different gender identities, that’s something that anyone from the academic community can do.

I would also say that I think it’s for the better science that we need to increase diversity in research groups.

And there are some things that we can do locally, and then others really depend on decision-making people actually making top-down politics to actually increase the presence of women and other identities which we even haven’t gone into that because we’re not, we’re not part of that community. But we do know that they struggle even harder than women. There has to be some, at some point, it has to be sort of like a decision to actively increase diversity in research groups.

And that’s only going to lead to better science and more fun science. There’s not anyone I know who has an increased diversity and who has had boring ideas or has had a bad time doing research.

Julie Gould 19:16

Ana, what are your thoughts on how things could improve for the future generations of female scientists in Latin America?

Ana Valenzuela-Toro 19:23

Yeah, sure. So I think that we have to really be conscious about diversifying our role models. We need to really put more attention on, the society need to pay more attention to the different faces, the different identities behind science.

And I think another thing is that we make to be, I mean, we have to make a first for elevating women to decision-making positions.

So it’s a, it’s nice to have a woman in there, in science, but things will not change if women are still having secondary roles in science.

We need the, women need to be there, up there, and take the role, and take the lead of how politics and policy will be conducted in the future. I think that is really important.

Julie Gould 20:19

And I think they’re right. So towards the end of this series, we will be hearing from some female Latin American scientists who have made it into these leadership positions. And they will share their career stories with us. Thank you to both Ana Valenzuela Toro and Mariana Viglino for taking the time to speak with us.

In our next episode of this series about female scientists in Latin America, we’ll hear from a woman whose research grant applications were rejected when she tried to return to work after starting a family in Brazil. Thanks for listening. I’m Julie Gould.

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