Obstacles aside, these women scientists find ways to do research that matters

Four winners of the Elsevier-Senacyt award in Latin America talk about overcoming challenges and keeping their passion alive

Camila Alves de Rezende in lab
Dr. Camila Alves de Rezende, Associate Professor at the Institute of Chemistry at University of Campinas in São Paulo, Brazil, works in her lab. Her research group works with chemical treatments to convert plant biomass into biofuels and biomaterials, using sources such as eucalyptus pulp, elephant grass, sugarcane bagasse and other biomass residue.

Every scientific breakthrough is the result of thousands of hours of research. Those researchers face challenges like time pressure, limited access to scientific equipment or difficulties finding financial support for their projects. Still, they are determined to overcome all the obstacles to make even a small contribution to advance science and improve humanity.

Recently we spoke to four female researchers who were recognized for the passion that drives their research and the scientific contributions they have made in Latin America. Three of them received the Research Excellence Elsevier-Senayct Award in Panama last November for their research on sustainable cities, new bio-economies and resilient territories, while a fourth prize was awarded to an outstanding researcher from the host country. SENACYT is the National Secretariat of Science, Technology and Innovation in Panama.

Winners pose at the ceremony for the Research Excellence Elsevier-Senacyt Award: Prof. Ana Lea Cukierman of the Universidad de Buenos Aires and Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas in Argentina; Dr. Sandra López Vergés of the Gorgas Memorial Institute of Health Studies in Panama; and Prof. Adriana Inés Rodríguez of the Autonomous University of Hidalgo State in Mexico. Not pictured is Prof. Camila Alves de Rezende of the Institute of Chemistry at University of Campinas in São Paulo, Brazil, who was unable to attend. They are flanked by Francisco Corpi, Regional Sales Manager for Latin America at Elsevier (left) and Dr. Jorge Motta, Panama’s Secretary of Science, Technology and Innovation. (Photocourtesy of SENACYT)

These researchers shared the challenges they face and how they balance conflicting demands.

Becoming a pioneer

Dr. Ana Lea Cukierman is Professor at the Universidad de Buenos Aires and Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas in Argentina.

For the past 30 years, Prof. Ana Lea Cukierman has worked on the conversion of biomass waste into renewable energy and products for environmental remediation. At the University of Buenos Aires, she is also studying advanced materials based on carbon, such as nanotubes used to build patches for transdermal delivery of drugs.

“I’m very happy because all these subjects are now being emphasized in my country, so now I can say that I am a pioneer in this field,” she said.

The next challenge is to attract PhD students and postdoctoral fellows.

Dr. Sandra López Vergés (center) with researchers in her lab at the Instituto Conmemorativo Gorgas in Panama.

Dr. Sandra López Vergés is a virologist and immunologist at the Instituto Conmemorativo Gorgas in Panama. Her research focuses on understanding viral diseases, some of which are responsible for global outbreaks. That work covers two broad areas: molecular epidemiology for the characterization of arboviruses of public health importance for the Panama region, and the field of immune responses activated during arboviral infections. Like Dr. Cukierman, she is working in an area of research that is new to her region:

I faced many obstacles that were very similar to those faced by researchers in Latin America and in other developing countries – the lack of expensive scientific equipment, the time necessary to order and receive reagents and supplies and the higher prices of reagents compared to the developed countries.

Finding balance – and funding

Prof. Adriana Inés Rodríguez Hernández in her lab at the Autonomous University of Hidalgo State in Mexico.

In Mexico, meanwhile, researchers have a hard time balancing the teaching hours with fundraising for their projects and the research itself. Dr. Adriana Inés Rodríguez Hernández, Professor at the Autonomous University of Hidalgo State in Mexico, is currently working with her research group on the use of the peel of Opuntia – commonly known as the “prickly pear” cactus. Although not edible, the peel contains antimicrobial and anticancer components that can be extracted and used in medicine, pharmaceuticals and the food industry.

Her group obtained “pectins,” natural poilymers that can be used as biomaterials and food ingredients. For example, the team developed biodegradable plastic films for food packaging. Dr. Rodríguez-Herenández is also interested in natural antimicrobial substances produced during the fermentation of the ethnic foods. A part of her research is focused on the characterization of biodegradable plastic films formulated with antimicrobial substance to decrease the use of preservatives that have a negative impact on consumer health.

Dr. Rodríguez-Hernández emphasized that it is more difficult for Mexican scientists who work in public universities to evolve in their careers because of lower university prominence in the global research landscape. “For example, in public universities in Mexico, scientists have a lot of teaching hours and administrative activities,” she said. “We need to be good stewards of our time and have excellent collaborators to achieve good performance in teaching and research, in addition to the continuous search for funding for our projects.”

Prof. Camila Alves de Rezende in her chemistry lab at the University of Campinas in in São Paulo, Brazil.

Dr. Camila Alves de Rezende, Professor of Chemistry at University of Campinas in São Paulo, Brazil, talked about the difficulties of trying to reconcile teaching, research and administrative tasks. “There is a lot of pressure to get continuous financial support and scholarships for graduate students and researchers to keep the research activities in progress,” she said.

Dr. Rezende and her research group work with chemical treatments to convert plant biomas into biofuels and biomaterials. From sources such as eucalyptus pulp, elephant grass, sugarcane bagasse and other biomass residue, the researchers obtain nanomaterials. They are motivated to use renewable resources to replace fossil derivatives towards a conscious use of natural resources.

”I believe that it is imperative to the global population to move to a more sustainable and environmentally friendly lifestyle,” she said.

What inspires them?

Each of the winners said she finds her work inspiring, whether it’s because of the people they work with, the research itself, or the sense of purpose they find.

Dr. Rezende reflected on the satisfaction she gains from guiding students in a discipline that is responsible for so many of the benefits of modern life:

Chemistry is a beautiful and inspiring research area on its own, but it still has a negative connotation for most people. As a professor, I try to show the students in chemistry the importance of demystifying this negative vision so they can see how much the modern life benefited from chemistry.

Dr. Rodríguez-Hernández mentioned the motivation she draws from the people around her and noted the inclusive nature of research in her country:

In Mexico, I did not notice discrimination agains women researchers in my subject area, and this is very encouraging. My inspiration is the biological diversity you find in Mexico. The young people are inspiring, and they only need opportunities to develop their talent.

Besides her scientific curiosity, Dr. López Vergés is motivated to make a difference through her work: “I hope to bring something, even small, to make humanity better,” she said. Dr. López Verges is looking to develop a global health strategy for the control, prevention or cure of the diseases caused by the viruses she studies. She sees obstacles as opportunities and says that “the collaborations with international researchers from well-known institutes and universities around the world allowed me to overcome difficulties.”

Like Dr. Rezende, Dr. Cukierman is motivated by the opportunity to share the knowledge she has gained with her PhD students. “I get inspired by educating the young,” she said. “It is always nice, despite the hard work, to see them graduate successfully.”

Dr. López Vergés agreed, adding that while there may be challenges, young researchers around the world should persevere so that they can do the work they believe in:

I encourage you to pursue your research, as most obstacles can be overcome with the right tools and collaborations if you trust yourself and your passion for science.

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