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"Sharing scientific discoveries is important"

Prof. Ana-Maria Lennon-Duménil, a team leader at the Institute Curie, has recently held a lecture at the Cells-in-Motion Cluster of Excellence (CiM). She had been invited by the “Women in Science” network, a group of PhD students from CiM labs. The network members have talked to the immunologist about the importance of sharing, the unstable state as a scientist and the question of how to deal with gender bias.

Ana-Maria Lennon-Duménil (centre) with PhD students from the “Women in Science” network at the Cells-in-Motion Cluster of Excellence
© WiS

Prof. Lennon-Duménil, what stage of your career played the most important role in shaping who you are and how you do science?

Things were and continue to constantly change. All stages were somehow important. As a student, I was first drawn to zoology. Then, after an immunologist explained antigen presentation to me, I was inspired and redirected my studies towards immunology and cell biology. For my PhD, I moved to the Pasteur Institute. For a year, I didn’t sleep. I was so excited about everything and would stay up late reading papers. During this time, I realized that discovering the experimental world is important to me. I love designing and carrying out my own experiments.

My postdoc time at Harvard was also amazing. I met interesting people from all over the world. I had scientific freedom and was encouraged to collaborate. During this time, I realized that sharing scientific discoveries is very important to me and makes the work more engaging and fun. I decided that this would be a priority in my own lab in the future.

Being a principal investigator is exhausting because you never reach a stable state. There are constant challenges with funding, publishing good papers and making unexpected outstanding discoveries. Sometimes, papers get published very easily. Other times, it takes a year and there seems to be no objective reason for it. Now, I have reached a certain level of recognition and that contributes some stability. However, it is never secure. You always need to go for it. But, I like this. I like the discovery process.

Were there times in your career when you really struggled to find motivation or you lost the passion for what you were doing. If so, how did you overcome these moments?

I have never lost my motivation. When I was eight, my aunt, who is a biologist, took me to her lab and I thought, “This is so cool! There are so many mysteries and things to discover that we can’t see.” Since I was eight, I knew I wanted to be a biologist. This drive was and remains so strong and has never faltered.

I have certainly faced moments of frustration. My first paper as a PI was a painful process. We submitted the paper and received positive reviews. I had my lab work like crazy to address all the revisions. Then, the paper was rejected. I was devastated. The added difficulty of publishing as a PI is that there are other people involved that you feel responsible for. This was really a challenge. However, as a PI, I think the biggest challenge I faced was when two groups of people in my lab were fighting. During this time, the importance of sharing the discovery process was really reinforced. Science is done by communicating and working together.

What is the best advice that you received during your career?

My postdoc mentor told me something very basic when I was trying to improve my presentation skills: “You have to present from left to right and from top to bottom.” This was amazing advice and it really helped me. For some reason, I was making things too complicated.

What advice would you give to young scientists today?

Follow your intuition and choose freely what kind of science you want to do. Don’t be influenced too much by what other people want you to do and whatever is in fashion. I strongly believe the idea that there is no one way to do research. Everyone has their own way. If you and I are looking at the same movie of a cell, I’m pretty sure we will not see the same thing. People see things differently and there is space for everyone. Maintaining the diversity of science is really important.

How do you balance your professional and your private life?

I never had a problem with this. I grew up with role model parents. My mother and father both worked full-time. My father worked a little less and had more time to take care of me. For me, it was natural to go to work when my baby was three months old. It was natural because my mother did it as well. My husband and I share everything, including taking care of the kids. If you share, it is much less. Our kids are now fifteen and eighteen and have found their ways.

How do you feel about the underrepresentation of women in science, especially at the level of PI? What do you think is the cause of this underrepresentation?

It is a very interesting question; I think I could talk about it for half an hour. In the end however, I think it comes from culture. The gender stereotypes we are born into come from our culture and shape our behavior.

You have worked in different countries, do you see differences?

Yes! Completely. Counterintuitively, in my home country of Chile, the society is very family-oriented, but there is much less pressure on women to be at home taking care of the kids. In contrast, in countries like Germany and the Netherlands, the pressure is greater. In France, I have the impression that over the last ten years the pressure is increasing. The pressure is also born indirectly. The possibility given to women to stay at home with their kids is interpreted rather as advice. We will only change the situation through education. The day that mothers tell their sons that they can care for their kids equally to their wives, the world will change.

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