Women in science
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Why are there fewer women than men in science? Women are under-represented in scientific research, being only a third of researchers globally. Despite the progress in gender equality during the last decades, advances have been slow and there are still disparities around the world. SMARTelectron is initiating a series of interviews with female researchers to find out more about their experiences. 

Interview with
Luisa Fiandra
Milano Bicocca University

What is your specific area of research?
My specific research area is now the development of advanced 3D cells models of tumors to study their biological complexity and exploit this complexity to validate innovative nanoformulated therapies 

How would you explain your research field to young children?
Like the worst of enemies, tumors protect themselves with physical barriers and developing defense strategies to survive. My research activity is aimed to study these defense systems, in order to find the way to overcome them. In particular, I will test the efficacy of new discovered drugs combined with nano-objects, to fight tumors more efficiently.

What traits might a child possess that may indicate an interest or aptitude for your research field?
Curiosity about the things of nature, wondering what everything they see is made of and how they work, and a great passion for discovery 

What did you know about your field when you were a child?
Actually, I did not know so much about biomedical research, but I was very curious about everything living in nature, of all sizes and complexities.

Why did you choose your research field? Were you inspired by someone?
I initially chose to study life sciences for a real passion for animal biology with a focus on insect physiology. Then, after the PhD, almost 12 years ago, I got a great offer from two great scientists and men: the first is an expert of nanobiotechnology, the other an important breast cancer surgeon. They decided to face a big challenge together: to prevent and fight cancer using nanoparticles. This project was the beginning of a long and charming story in the field of nano-oncology.

What are some really cool things that people in your profession work on?
In my opinion, a really cool thing in my area of expertise is now represented by the use of nanoparticle-based vaccines for the modulation of pathways involved in pathologies, included cancer. Different nanoformulations have been recently developed for the delivery of mRNA for cancer immunotherapy.

Do you have an analogy to help our readers to understand your work?
As I told before, the best analogy of my work is a fight against the great enemy, the cancer, able of developing strategies to be more aggressive and defending itself from the attack of anti-tumor drugs, the weapons used to defeat him.

Is there a story/anecdote about your work that you would like to share with us?
How does your life as a top scientist compare with your expectations when you entered college?
When I started studying Life Sciences, I had no idea of what could be the life of a scientist and the impact that this work could have on issues related to human health. If, on the one hand, I found exciting the possibility of discovering new and more effective therapies, on the other hand, I was faced with the difficulty to translate these discoveries in clinically effective drugs. In this sense, I am now aware of the enormous power of cooperation between academia and biopharma companies. 

What are you currently working on and what is your long-term research goal?
I am studying the complexity of interactions between tumor cells and the microenvironment, with a focus on the crass-talk between cancer cells and Cancer-Associated Fibroblasts (CAFs) in highly aggressive desmoplastic tumors (i.e. pancreatic adenocarcinoma, small cells lung tumors, some breast cancer types etc.). The different pathways activated by the soluble factors released by tumor cells and CAFs, and responsible for the high aggressiveness, metastasizing power and drug resistance of these tumors, can be exploited as targets of new therapies, included nanoformulated vaccines.

Are there still gender differences in your research environment and what are current opportunities and challenges for women in science?
I no longer appreciate gender differences in my institution. In my department (dep. of Biotechnology and Biosciences of University of Milano Bicocca) there are many women, and many of them hold high-profile academic roles. 

Why is your research important?
The importance of my research is related to the high difficulty that still today we have in defeating some tumors that have a disastrous prognosis, like the pancreatic adenocarcinoma or some aggressive breast cancer subtypes. These tumors, which are very aggressive and defend themselves from chemotherapy by accurate resistance strategies must be the object of innovative anti-tumor therapies aimed to target the complex biological interactions between the tumor cells and the microenvironment components. 

Is there enough support/funding for science in Europe today? What could be improved in this respect, at a national and European level?
Today, the possibility of funding from Europe exists and concerns various scientific fields, including the biomedical one. Of course the European calls (H2020) are designed for very huge projects, often including the initiation of clinical trials, and therefore directed towards large networks. Beyond a few exceptions, such as for example SMART-electron project, where young brilliant scientists were able to implement innovative ideas thanks to the institution of large international groups, most of projects funded by EU include big research groups headed by eminent full professors that already receive support at the national level. In my opinion, today more opportunities of funding for small research groups with innovative scientific ideas are possible in Italy, even if they could be further improved: more value should be attributed to ideas, so that any scientist with a sufficient expertise to carry out his/her idea, can have space and opportunities.

What inspirational message would you give young girls to inspire them to pursue a career in science?
I can say to all young girls to pursue this goal with commitment and passion. The women of science have characteristics that are real strengths. We never should doubt about this high potentiality, in particular in a male working context. The integration of male and female approaches to scientific problems are certainly a wealth, such as those given by each unique and personal characteristic.


Luisa Fiandra is Researcher and Assistant Professor in Clinical Biochemistry at the Department of Biotechnology and Biosciences of University of Milano Bicocca (Unimib). Since 2010, LF has coordinated pre-clinical studies mainly devoted to the use of nanotechnology for cancer therapy and diagnosis, and for biological barriers overcoming. These in vitro and in vivo studies were aimed to assess nanoparticles interaction, internalization and trafficking in cells and animal tissues, the biological activity on target and non-target cells, and the ability in crossing biological barriers, such as the biodistribution, pharmacokinetic properties, therapeutic effect, and acute and sub-acute toxicity of nanoformulations in murine models. From 2018, LF has participated to EU projects aimed to determine the toxicity of different types of nanoproducts by in vitro assays and on alternative vertebrate models (Zebrafish), in line with the Safe-by-Design concept for the development of new nanoformulated nanotools. Currently, LF is mainly devoted to the use of advanced cellular models for the validation of conventional or latest generation therapies directed towards tumor pathologies. In particular, the research activity is now mainly focused on the study of innovative strategies involving tumor microenvironment cells to eradicate desmoplastic tumors. LF is also member of Centro 3R (Inter-University Center for the Promotion of the 3Rs Principles in Teaching & Research), and of the BioNanoMedicine Center “NANOMIB” and POLARIS research Centre (study of the impact of nanomaterials and pollution on environment and health) of Unimib. 

Interview with
Veronica Leccese
EPFL, Switzerland

What is your specific area of research?
I’m working in two different areas: the first one is condensed matter physics, the second one is nano/microtechnology. 

How would you explain your research field to young children?
I’m studying the magnetic properties of some materials which in the future could be useful for storing enormous quantities of data in very small dimensions. In addition to that, I’m developing a beam profiler to characterize proton beams, for experiments of fundamental physics but also for medical purposes since protons are used in proton therapy to treat some kinds of tumors.

What traits might a child possess that may indicate an interest or aptitude for your research field?
In my opinion the traits that a researcher should have are curiosity, the desire to always learn something new, perseverance and stubbornness. Everyday in our job, we need to face and solve problems, so if you’re not persistent and headstrong enough.

What did you know about your field when you were a child?
Almost nothing. I was attracted to scientific subjects, I loved math, but I’ve never considered becoming a physicist before I was 19. When I was in middle school, one of my teachers started to express her admiration towards mathematicians, at that moment I decided to become a mathematician. However, when I started university, I realized that I was much more attracted by the experimental work, so after a few weeks, I decided to enroll in physics. I have to say that it was a good choice!

Why did you choose your research field? Were you inspired by someone?
I was challenged. Everybody around me kept saying that physics was one of the most difficult subjects, so I decided to try and accept the challenge. Why condensed matter/microtechnology? Condensed Matter is a fascinating world for me. I love discovering new things that can be used in the future to improve the quality of life of people. As a physicist, this field keeps my curiosity alive.  Microtechnology for my engineering side (yes, I have one!). I love fabricating stuff by myself and use them afterwards. 

What are some really cool things that people in your profession work on?
I’m surrounded by people who are working on amazing things such as electron diffraction, spectrometry, optics, but also MEMs and devices with many purposes.

How does your life as a top scientist compare with your expectations of it when you enrolled in Physics?
When I enrolled in Physics I wasn’t really aware of which could have been my path. I was looking at the researchers with a huge admiration. At that time I didn’t know how much work and effort was hidden behind this job. When I started I realize that you have to be very motivated and willing to make a lot of sacrifices. So I have to say that from outside it seems a normal job, but it is not. If you’re not passionate, you cannot do it.

What are you currently working on and what is your long-term research goal?
I’m working on the generation of vortex beams, mainly electrons for now, that can be used to study the magnetic properties of some materials. The other project I’m working on is the realization of a beam profiler for protons with the aim of controlling the proton beam during the proton therapy, which is used to treat some tumors. 

Are there still gender differences in your research environment and what are current opportunities and challenges for women in science?
Unfortunately yes. More than one time it happened to me to not be considered by other scientists because I’m a woman. That’s sad, but sometimes it still happens. 

Why is your research important?
The project related to the vortex beams I think is important because they might allow us to discover new properties of materials that in future could be used for the storage of a huge amount of data. The project of the detector for protons is important because, as you can imagine, during the therapy with the protons, it is crucial to control the parameters of the beam, since a wrong parameter could kill the patients.

Is there enough support/funding for science in Europe today? What could be improved in this respect, at a national and European level?
In my opinion no, there isn’t enough support. I think that the number of researchers has increased in the last years, but the funding/support has not. I have to say that at EPFL we have a lot of support, but it is not the case in Italy, where I studied. I would try to give the same opportunity to all the European countries. 

What inspirational message would you give young girls to inspire them to pursue a career in science?If you’re passionate and you’d like to work in the most stimulating environment, a career in science is your way!


Graduated in Physics at the University of Pisa in 2018. In 2019 I joined the group of Prof. Fabrizio Carbone at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), where I started my PhD.