Everyone deserves a role model
“You cannot become what you cannot see.” In order to increase diversity in sectors dominated by white males, the importance of role models cannot be understated. An inspiring person who you can emulate, who makes you think: “If this person can do it, I can do it too!” In the “Role Models” section, these inspiring people talk about their own sources of inspiration, but also about what they can do for others.
what do you think of NWO Athens Award Have you been awarded?
“Of course it is very nice to receive such an award. But I think what is even better than the award itself is that I was nominated for it by former PhD students and former staff; women who I have worked with and mentored over the years. Most of them are now working in other academic hospitals, in the Netherlands and in The outside as well, which I find very special. Because a show like this requires a lot of work. And the committee seems to have agreed with that.
You are the Research Director of the Children's Department at UMC Utrecht and the Scientific Director of the FOCIS Center of Excellence. In addition to your research, the jury report also praises your leadership qualities and your role as a mentor. How do you give substance to it? What benefit have you gained from your female role model?
“I have had many mentors: women whom I greatly admire and who have given me all kinds of useful advice. Like Professor Leonie Tames, who I have known throughout her career and who is a role model for me in the field. But also my current department head, Professor Lindy Myard. She is direct.” Very helpful, but in a very pleasant and respectful way. She gave me good advice about making choices.
But if I had to highlight one person: Elskin van der Waals, professor of oncology. She heads one of the six research leaders within UMC Utrecht. She is not only an internationally recognized authority in breast cancer research, but also a tremendous leader.
She is very sharp about content, critical when necessary, but at the same time she is very good at interpersonal communication. It is not to belittle people, but to ensure that everyone feels seen and heard. She does everything with courage and good humour, without making herself seem too important.
“Within UMCU we definitely have a group of women who are not only strong in terms of content, but also strong, transparent and honest leaders. And also very good presidents, which you certainly can't say about all men who hold this position. Unfortunately, the bar is still higher for women.” .
The latest annual report of the National Network of Women Professors (LNVH) A less than rosy picture still emerges when it comes to the status of female scientists. After several years of increase, the number of female professors also remains stagnant in understaffed medical colleges. What makes it so difficult for women to work in science?
“We now know that the ratio of males to females, including in the life sciences, is now fairly equal. So that barrier has already been removed. But it is still difficult for women to stay in the sciences. There is more to it than that.” So much for that. In addition to objective knowledge, you also have to be very confident. Women often take fewer risks, and make themselves less visible.
“Science is a competitive, challenging and very conservative work environment. Women who are not comfortable with this culture drop out of school. This also applies to men. Fortunately, more and more attention is being paid to inclusivity within UMC Utrecht and the University of Utrecht.
“Immunology covers many different subfields, such as defense against infections and tumors, but also autoimmune diseases, where the immune system targets the body's own cells. My own research focuses on chronic infections in the skin, such as severe eczema, and in the gut, such as Crohn's disease, But also on rheumatism in children.This diversity also makes my field of work interesting.
For me, this interest was also the motivation for my PhD at that time.
“I passed at basically everything, but I was also regularly rejected — literally — as a girl” by some of the older male professors at the time. To learn how to advance in science, I needed other women. That's why female role models are so needed: to show you that you don't have to conform to that macho culture, and that it can be done in a different way too. But what they also taught me is that it's good to say yes more often, to not be too humble, to speak your mind and make yourself visible. More obvious things for men.
What is the ratio of males to females in immunology? Can female researchers contribute?
“In immunology we already have a reasonable male-female ratio. There are even more women than men in the national government. In our immunology department, the proportion of women is about 40 percent. But in other specialties, such as rheumatology, male professors are still They constitute the clear majority.
“Autoimmune diseases affect women more than men: about 2 in 3 patients are women. About 10 percent of people in the Netherlands suffer from some form of chronic autoimmune disease. This usually involves a very unpleasant, lifelong, and sometimes invisible condition.” , which hinders patients in performing their daily functions. In the meantime, we can do some things with medications to suppress complaints, but it would be very nice to be able to treat people. This will have a huge impact on the lives of patients, many of whom are children.
“The difference between men and women has been taken into account in immunology research longer than heart research, for example, because heart disease has been more associated with men. But when it comes to medications, immunology research also mainly focuses on males, while Diseases mainly affect women.So this is actually still a contradiction that needs to be bridged.
“So the research benefits from multiple perspectives. Incidentally, not just from women, but also from people with different ethnic backgrounds, for example.
Professor Elsken van der Wall, Professor of Oncology, is the leader of one of the six research spearheads within UMC Utrecht.
“If I had to mention one colleague as a role model, it would be Professor Emeritus Prof. Dr. Lisbeth de Vries, Professor of Medical Oncology at UMC Groningen. Her great experience and continuous efforts in the field of medical oncology, with her keen interest in the importance of science as a basis for innovation in diagnostics And treatment, you remain a constant source of inspiration for me. Certainly also because of the way you have been able to highlight this importance at various national and international scientific and public stages.
“In the conversations I have as a mentor with my female colleagues, I try to contribute to their self-confidence. To encourage them to show their expertise, not to assume that it will be seen. I also advise them to ask other colleagues, both men and women, for support and feedback.
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