From Cuzco to Canada: Latina scientists who succeed (together) away from home | future america

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In 1993, when Yanet Valdez Tejeira decided that she wanted to be an immunologist, in her country, Peru, that career did not even exist. So she chose to migrate. First, she went briefly to the United States and later to Vancouver, Canada, where she did her PhD in Microbiology and Immunology at the University of British Columbia. “I was very concerned about understanding what happens to our bodies, how we defend ourselves against infectious diseases,” she says today, 26 years after migrating. Although her country could give her some tools to resolve this question, she was clear that she would achieve more while in Canada, where there are more resources for research.

What I didn’t suspect then was that science can be a hostile world for women. Even today, Unicef ​​has pointed out that the areas classified as STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics, for its acronym in English), continue to have a high gender disparity. Only 35% of those enrolled in higher education in these fields are women, while 72% of the world’s researchers are men.

When it comes to publishing scientific articles, one of the strategies to gain more prestige and visibility, the outlook does not change. In June of last year, the prestigious magazine Nature published a study titled Women earn fewer science credits than menfinding that women are much less likely to be featured in an article or patent than their male counterparts and that “women’s scientific contributions are systematically less likely to be recognized.”

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“The road is traveled differently when you are a woman,” says Dr. Valdez. “Even more so when you are Latina. Here, in Canada, I don’t know another immunologist who looks like me, with dark hair and brunette skin. You don’t have an image of someone who does what you do and looks like you.” And it is that being a woman adds the challenges of being Latina. In 2008, the magazine Plos One published a study that showed that scientific articles signed by Latin American authors received fewer citations than those whose first author was a European person.

When he was younger, in order to survive, Valdez chose to ignore those problems. “Equality was an issue that was not talked about and they recommended not paying attention to it, not making noise.” But after watching the documentary Picture a Scientist, In which the harassment of women scientists is shown, he was able to see his life again: the inequality, the double effort, the microaggressions. “I went back to look at my story and realized every aspect of it,” she says.

From his experience, he was left with a certainty: that part of his job should be to fight to eliminate those barriers. Four years ago she founded the Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Committee at the Canadian Society for Immunology, of which she is currently chair. With this, in 2021 she got one of the central panels of the annual congress that the Society holds to be on gender, racism and diversity. “It was done at the beginning of the whole conference and before the main plenary, and the atmosphere changed. As we had shown, with experiences and data, that these biases are unconscious, during the event there was another attitude towards the scientists. For example, men were no longer interrupting women during talks,” she recalls.

In addition, Dr. Valdez is part of the network Immigrant and International Women in Science (IWS) of Canada, created by several scientists, including Colombian Edna Patricia Matta, PhD in biochemistry from McGill University, who now lives in Ottawa. Matta remembers in detail how she migrated to do science. She worked in laboratories without knowing English, she learned to crystallize proteins with tools that she had never seen in her country, they suggested to her that she did not have the skills to be a scientist, and the researcher in charge of her told her that he was in love with her. By refusing it, he tried to boycott it. “In 2018 we noticed that we were many migrant scientists, so we created the IWS to support us, to help us,” says Matta. “You think you have a disadvantage, but with the Internet you understand that it’s not a matter of intelligence or knowledge, but simply a matter of resources and having someone to help you navigate.”

Diasporas that are organizing

Patricia Castillo, a marine biologist and doctor in biomedicine from the University of Murcia, Spain, knows very well what it is to migrate to do science. In Ecuador, where she was born and raised, she moved to various cities in order to investigate, including passing through the iconic, Darwinian island of the Galapagos. She did her doctorate in Spain, research instances in the United Kingdom and France, and, before returning to Ecuador in 2014, she worked for three and a half years at the University of Aix-Marseille, also in France. “We talk a lot about science, but not about how doing it changes our lives,” she says as she recalls how her professional career has also led her to discover other cultures, cuisines, and customs.

She returned to her country attracted by the Prometeo Project, whose objective was to open positions for Ecuadorian and world scientists to achieve a transfer of knowledge, but she collided head-on with reality when she discovered that the program only lasted one year. The oil price crisis exhausted the resources that had been allocated to science. After her, she spent months offering her research to various universities, until she was linked to one of hers. Castillo is also co-founder of the Ecuadorian Network of Women Scientists, a “safe space” to put situations of inequality on the table. “Talking about how, inside or outside the country, we experience things in common, but realizing that it’s not our problem, but that the system fails,” she says.

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Networks are important for any scientist, but even more useful for women and Latinas in the diaspora. “They are key because they help to share resources, find people who see themselves as one, with the same needs, and do projects together,” says Luisa Echeverría, an expert in science diplomacy and member of the Organization for Women, from Barranquilla, Colombia. in Science for the Developing World (OWSD), which Castillo and Matta are also part of. In an article she published in the magazine frontiers on the scientific diasporas of Latin America and the Caribbean, explains how they can go from being a brain drain to an opportunity for countries: an exchange of knowledge or brains.

They are also, as another study on the Mexican diaspora points out, this time in the magazine Plos One, an opportunity for scientists from the south to make themselves visible. After comparing the production of scientists who remained in Mexico and those who migrated to the global north, they found that the latter had a greater impact both in their production and in collaborations.

But as Echeverría tells it, “Latin America is definitely left [atrasada] in the mapping of its scientific diaspora”. We don’t know how many there are and what they are doing, nor do we know if they have organized themselves. In the investigation led by her, they only found 27 initiatives in the region. “Within the results, we saw that the southern countries of South America are the most active, but also because they have state support, like Argentina, which has the Raíces program,” she says. The problem is that, between gender biases and the lack of organization to overcome them, the most affected is science itself, which loses the opportunity to be more diverse itself.

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