A mentor for the coming generation

While progress has surely been made in recent years, we all know that there remain some important barriers to full gender equality in science and many other fields. It’s not enough to change minds alone: traces of old habits linger in educational systems and institutions.

The best way to expose gender issues – which are often subtle and emerge in unexpected ways – is to give voice to those who have witnessed them first-hand. The Berlin Institute of Health has launched a series of talks and sessions with this in mind. The latest event in the “Talking Biography” series featured MDC group leader Ana Pombo, who gave a talk about her research followed by a mentoring session for early and intermediate career female scientists on October 15 at the MDC.

Ana’s work focuses understanding the intricate organization of chromatin – a complex mixture of DNA, proteins, and other molecules in the cell nucleus – as it changes to alter the activity of genes. This process requires that strands of DNA containing genes be brought into contact with regions that control their activity. Such sequences may lie at considerable distances from the gene, and sometimes even on another chromosome. The mechanisms that orchestrate this dance of strands are still unknown. A major challenge remains to identify gene regulatory sequences such as enhancers and match them to the appropriate genes. For about a decade, Ana has been developing a novel approach to the problem that she calls Genome Architecture Mapping, or GAM. All the pieces have now come together and are generating a wealth of new information about gene regulation.

Ana Pombo Foto: David Ausserhofer/MDC

Ana Pombo Foto: David Ausserhofer/MDC

Ana has been leading her own group since taking a position in 2000 at the MRC Clinical Sciences Center in London. In 2013, she moved her lab to the BIMSB at the MDC. So she has been in the game long enough to experience many of the challenges that still face young women who choose a career in science and who hope to start a family, as she has. An impressive group of young colleagues showed up at the October event to hear her share her experiences and offer advice.

“One thing I have noticed is a trend in the way men and women present themselves differently in job interviews,” she says. “Usually these situations aren’t as much about your science – a panel has usually read your papers, or can easily do so – as assessing you as a person and a future leader in science.” Men seem to be more aware of this, or are more comfortable with presenting themselves as the protagonists of the projects they have been involved in. They are more ready to say “I have done this,” whereas female candidates frequently retreat behind a more modest “we”, even when they actually did most of the work.

It’s a moment when you’re essentially selling yourself, she says, to people who don’t know you. One thing that will help young women candidates, she says, is to offer better, more realistic preparation for interviews.

Another thing she noticed upon becoming a P.I. was the number of decisions that are made over dinner or coffee or in other informal settings – which may exclude participation by junior women group leaders who are busy managing a young family. But there’s a price: you may feel left out and have to find other ways to be heard. It helps simply to be aware that internal politics and gossip are a sort of underground “currency”, she says.

Discussions with female colleagues have exposed another trend: she thinks that women are usually more comfortable in organizations with a comparatively flat hierarchy, where their voices and their creative ideas are more likely to be heard and make a difference. It’s a different feeling than when you are embedded in a more pyramidal structure, where politics and old institutional habits play a larger role. “But it’s possible to survive in either,” she says. “The main thing is to be aware of the situation.”

The most frequent questions she gets from her younger colleagues concern the secret of managing both a promising career and a family. “In my case, I had to give up some of my hobbies,” she says. “Your family becomes your hobby away from science, and your science is your hobby away from your family. It can certainly work, and it’s an experience I wouldn’t exchange for anything.”


More on Ana Pombo’s research group: Epigenetic regulation and chromatin architecture

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