Women in science: A perspective from Peru

Dionicia Gamboa is a winner of the 2013 Elsevier Foundation Awards for Early Career Women Scientists in the Developing World. For International Women's Day, we asked her to tell us about what inspired her to become a scientist, and her perspective on what life is now like for women in science.

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When I try to think about what exactly drove me to become a professional woman, I just think about the strong female role models I have in my family, as well as the support I’ve had from my mother and father. My mother, was part of the first group of people to finish school and have the opportunity to become a teacher, in a town where the main livelihood was agriculture and most of the women devoted to their children and the housework.

My grandmother was also an example to me, even though I didn’t have the chance to get to know her. She did not go to school, but she was able to build up an important family business and support her four children by herself. This went against the tradition at that time, that business was only for men.

My father meanwhile, due to family circumstances, had to drop out of school when he was eight years old to help his mother look after the family. He always encouraged me and my sister to be better than him, and he knew that giving us the support to choose any career we wanted was his best investment in life.

Developing a love of science

I don’t recall exactly what inspired me to be a scientist, I only remember that during my years at the school my favorite courses were mathematics, chemistry and biology.

I finished school in the 90’s, which was a difficult time for my country where most of the public universities were closed most of the time

I finished school in the 90’s, which was a difficult time for my country where most of the public universities were closed most of the time, and there weren’t any private universities nearby. I had two options, wait for a better time to study (which could take some months or years) or look for an opportunity far from home.

Thanks to my father I had the option to move to Lima, the largest and most populous city in Peru to study medicine (my first choice at the time). Under the circumstances, a private university was the only way to do this.

I had all the ingredients to succeed, I was the best student back home, with the best grades, and with economic and family support; but coming from ‘the provinces’ I did not realize that my level (for me the best) was not really at the same level as the best students from schools in Lima. So, my first disappointment was when I did not succeed in the exam to enter the university.

But I did not surrender. Being conscious of my disadvantage, I spent a year in a pre-university school to achieve the level needed to enter this very competitive university. I realized during this year that medicine was not really ‘my thing’ – memorizing long lists of bone names was not my best skill. I preferred to read, interpret, analyze, give my own point of view, and draw my own conclusions. So, after this year, I decided to apply for the Faculty of Sciences, specifically biology, a decision that I don’t regret.

Enjoying university both at home and abroad

My time at the university was one of the best times for me. I had the opportunity to spend most of my free time in a laboratory helping master students with their theses and then doing my own theses (undergraduate and postgraduate).

My first supervisor was a woman, and from her I learned to be organized and patient. In her lab I took my first steps towards becoming a scientist. In many ways, I miss this time when I was only worried about the experiments I had to do, without all the pressure I feel now as a ‘junior scientist’ doing reports, coordinating field and lab work, and spending time in endless meetings (not really related to science). I hardly remember the last time I did an experiment on my own!

After I finished my undergraduate course in Biology, I did a Masters in Biochemistry and I also worked as teaching assistant. During this time I had another supervisor, this time a man, from whom I learned to be very analytical and how to work under very difficult conditions.

Later on, I had the opportunity to get a scholarship to do a PhD in Belgium, in a ’sandwich system’, and I really felt the difference of working in there as opposed to Peru. In one place, you were fully devoted to your experiments, with all the facilities available, all the material/reagents arriving on time and no other ‘extra duties’. In the other, you had to a multitask, doing several things, besides your experiments, wasting a lot of time just waiting for your materials or equipment to arrive, being ‘diluted’ in logistics/administrative issues.

Pursuing a career in Peru

Even though I had this opportunity, most of my colleagues had to continue their careers abroad due to the lack of opportunities and funds to start their research groups back home.

I managed to finish the PhD and was able to apply for a external re-entry grant to come back to my country and start my own research group. Here I faced the challenge of becoming a scientist in a country where it is difficult and sometimes frustrating to do research; but with the satisfaction of seeing your students finalize their theses or of having your papers published.

Even though I had this opportunity, most of my colleagues had to continue their careers abroad due to the lack of opportunities and funds to start their research groups back home. Fortunately, nowadays in Peru there are more local funds for research and to attract Peruvian researchers to do science in our country.

Women in science – a changing landscape

We are now in the 21st century and people’s attitudes have changed a lot  to  roles ‘only for men’ or ‘only for women’, not only at professional level, but also at family level. However in science, I still feel the difference of being a woman scientist.

It’s true that nowadays there are more women working in science; but there are still not so many women in key positions playing the role of decision maker. I think we are still facing a bit of imbalance in that sense. Currently, I am at a meeting to discuss the new National Malaria Plan, and in my working group I was the only woman at a table of ten men. Hopefully this imbalance is something that will continue to change.

Some days ago I attended a workshop about the role of women in science. I was happy to hear from some of my colleagues that they don’t feel we need to do these kind of events only to complain about all the difficulties we face in this career. We don’t want to continue playing the role of a victim for being a woman, and being appointed with tasks ‘reserved for women’. We need to find ways to promote our work, demonstrating that we can do it as well as a man can do it and making sure everyone takes notice.

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Margarita Velásquez Oyola

Felicitaciones, Dra. Dionicia Gamboa; por ese reconocimiento bien merecido. Mujeres como Ud. hacen mucha falta en nuestro país. Continúe en esa gran tarea de la investigación científica de rigor; enalteciendo a la mujer peruana. Felicidades y adelante que continúen los éxitos profesionales.
Atentamente,
Margarita Velásquez Oyola.

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