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“You do really need to believe that you’re equal”

A career in science: Prof Noelia Alonso Gonzalez, a biologist and mother of two, talks about her research into immune cells and inflammation, international mobility and gender equality
© WWU/Doris Niederhoff

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Video in English, subtitles available in English and German.

Although the proportion of women in leadership positions in science has risen steadily in recent decades, statistics show that women are still underrepresented. According to data from the Federal Statistical Office, in Germany only about a quarter of the professorships are held by women. Biologist Dr Noelia Alonso Gonzalez recently took up a newly established professorship in macrophage biology at the Medical Faculty of the University of Münster. The springboard for her career was a programme run by the “Cells in Motion” research network at the University, which explicitly aimed to improve gender equality in science and enabled her to establish her own research group. “It’s easier for women to make a career today than it was 20 years ago,” says the 41-year-old from Spain, “in science too, but equal opportunities are still an issue.”

“During my postdoctoral fellowships, I realized that I can really make an impact with my research.”

Noelia Alonso Gonzalez and her team investigate how inflammation in the body resolves itself before it becomes chronic or life-threatening. She is particularly interested in macrophages. These immune system cells eliminate cells that have died as a result of inflammation and produce molecules that help repair tissue damage. “Inflammation proceeds differently depending on which organ is affected,” she explains, and “we want to find out how different populations of macrophages recognize and adapt to different inflammatory processes in order to fight them properly.”

After completing her doctorate at the Spanish University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, Noelia Alonso Gonzalez went to Yale University in the US as a postdoc. “During that time, I started to build my own scientific network and began to see the results of my work in a broader context,” she says. Realizing that she could really make an impact with her research – both within her scientific field and perhaps even also in society – motivated her to pursue a career in science further. After a research fellowship at the Spanish National Centre for Cardiovascular Research in Madrid, she came to Germany, to the University of Münster, as a postdoctoral researcher on a Humboldt Research Fellowship in 2017. Shortly afterwards, she applied here as a junior research group leader in the “Cells in Motion” research network’s “Gerty Cori Programme”. This programme – named after the Austrian-American biochemist Gerty Cori, who in 1947 was the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine – aimed to promote the scientific careers of outstanding researchers in the field of cell dynamics and imaging, improve gender equality and retain researchers who have proven themselves at the University. Noelia Alonso Gonzalez used the opportunity provided by this programme to build her own research group and network with other research groups in Münster – indeed she is active in several research networks at the University and, among other things, has already acquired third-party funding for projects within two Collaborative Research Centers.

“Society still thinks that women should take care of family life more than men.”

“I personally don’t feel that I’m facing unique challenges in my daily work life because I am a woman – but because I am a parent,” says Noelia Alonso Gonzalez. She considers the University’s childcare options very helpful. Her three-year-old daughter and her one-year-old son go to the University Hospital daycare center. She and her partner have also taken advantage of the emergency childcare options when necessary. However, she says, society is still of the view that women should take care of family life more than men. “Sometimes I find myself almost excusing myself because I went back to work before our kids were one year old, while my partner never has to even explain that because he is supposed to be working already,” she adds.

One challenge that comes with a career in science that also has an impact on family life is mobility, she says. For those who want to get to a leadership position, international research fellowships are almost a must. “For me, it fit with my personal life and with the experiences I wanted to live,” she adds, “but I know some people who don't want to do that and who are fantastic scientists.”

The fact that women are underrepresented in leading positions in science is evident in almost every meeting, says Noelia Alonso Gonzalez. You have to keep in mind that it is possible someone will see you as not capable enough for something because you’re a woman, she adds. Her advice to junior scientists is: “Don’t believe that you can’t do something because you’re a woman. You do really need to believe that you are equal.”

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Author: Doris Niederhoff
English language editing and consulting: Julie Davies