Thinking Outside the Box

This week on #MeetAScientist, get to know Dr. Alicia Pérez-Porro, a marine biologist and explorer. Alicia is a member of the 500 Women Scientists NYC pod, and led the effort to put together a recent op-ed for Scientific American on solutions to stop the leaky pipeline. We're thrilled to count her voice among our membership and excited to share her story with you all!

When did you first identify as a scientist? Could you tell us briefly what your work focuses on?

‘Scientist’ is a big word! For a lot of people it implies you are incredibly smart, an expert in your field, work endless hours, and have no other interest other than science. Like many people in Academia, I saw myself as an impostor for a long time, I didn’t fit the stereotypical description, I was a former professional dancer who happened to love science. If anything, my identity was around being a dancer, not a scientist. Once I finished my PhD and was looking for the missing ingredient that would complete my career, I joined several associations for women in STEM. Here I met as many different types of scientists as there are people in the world. It didn’t happen one day to the next, but little by little I realized that most scientists don’t fit the stereotype, and there are a lot of different career paths. Recently I started identifying as a scientist, more specifically, as a dancer-advocate for women in STEM-makes science fun-mom-unusual marine scientist.

I study how climate change affects marine sponges and their ecosystems. I focus on their genes and their expression—genes contain information that translates into a functional gene product (e.g. proteins). Depending on different conditions (e.g. the environment, stress, reproduction), a specific gene is going to produce more or less gene product copies, and the number of copies are going to determine the type of response. Let’s say that one gene codifying for cellular death in sponges doesn’t activate when the ocean water is at 18C. If the water temperature increases to 22C the gene produces only a couple of ‘cell death’ proteins. If suddenly the ocean warms to 28C, that gene starts producing hundreds of copies of ‘cell death’ proteins resulting in tissue death. My work specifically pinpoints how target genes are affected by climate change, which in turn contributes to a better understanding of the future of our oceans.

 At her lab at Harvard University, Alicia getting some samples for transcriptomic preparation.

At her lab at Harvard University, Alicia getting some samples for transcriptomic preparation.

You're a member of the 2018 Homeward Bound team. Can you talk about what Homeward Bound is, how you got involved, and what we can do to help?

Homeward Bound (HB) is a year-long leadership and empowerment program that trains the next generation of female leaders in the fight against climate change. It is exclusively for women with a background in science, and culminates with an all-women expedition to Antarctica.

Leadership programs are usually designed by men, forcing us, women, to lead like a man. That means not using our more feminine qualities, or even worse, making us think that those qualities don’t make a good leader. HB was designed by and for women, and is based on studies that demonstrate women in leadership positions make decision making processes both more successful and more sustainable. For me, HB is an out of the box way to fight climate change, to fight it by having more women involved in the fight.

A fellow sponge colleague went on the 2016 expedition. From the moment I learned about HB, I thought it was perfect for me and I was perfect for it. Applications for the 2018 team opened while I was on maternity leave, which I spent at home in Barcelona. I remember writing my application while breastfeeding and getting really emotional because of all the hormones still in my system. I got the acceptance email at the Barcelona airport on my way back to my life in the US. I was so happy, I cried.

If you are interested in HB and want to learn more, if you want me to give a talk at your institution, university or kid’s school about the program and its positive impact, please contact me through Twitter or by email, I would love to talk to you about it! I want to spread the message and share the program with as many talented women as possible and encourage them to apply. We’re all responsible for fundraising a portion of the program, and I would be humbled if you could support me by sharing my campaign with your family and friends, or through social media. If I really inspired you, please consider donating! Another way to help is talking to your organization about HB since I am also looking for sponsors. You can find my contact information on my website and Fundraising campaign.

 The yellow tube sponge, Aplysina fistularis, common at Caribbean reefs.

The yellow tube sponge, Aplysina fistularis, common at Caribbean reefs.

You and the NYC pod wrote an op-ed for Scientific American on solutions to stop the leaky pipeline. What were the biggest takeaways from that article that our members can push for?

The op-ed started as a personal account of my recent experience as a mom and a scientist. We were aware that there are a lot of other reasons why women might leave Academia besides maternity, and also that Academia is not the only career path for STEM graduates. I guess that one of the main takeaways was that we need to keep showing these other possible career paths and keep brainstorming solutions to the exodus from STEM. Going back to the stereotypical scientist, telling our stories will help others understand that they have more options.

How did you get involved with 500 Women Scientists? What do you hope to get out of the organization and what do you hope to contribute?

Shortly after the recent US presidential election, a friend sent me an open letter from 500WS encouraging people to speak up for science and women, minorities, immigrants, people with disabilities, and LGBTQIA. I signed it immediately. Since I am not a citizen I couldn’t vote, but I felt the urgency to do something. Joining 500WS was, and has been, my way to contribute to a brighter future in the US and beyond.

 Alicia with her husband and daughter at the Cliffs of Moher, Ireland, this past June where they travelled so she could attend the 10th International Sponge Conference.

Alicia with her husband and daughter at the Cliffs of Moher, Ireland, this past June where they travelled so she could attend the 10th International Sponge Conference.

Belonging to 500WS I am inspired daily by women from all over the world, their stories, and their work. I’ve had the support to work on different aspects of science, like writing an op-ed, and widening my network in NYC—I just moved here from DC less than a year ago. In exchange I want to contribute to making hispanic scientists more visible, to share with whoever might need it that you can define what it means to be a scientist for yourself, to continue saying out loud that work-life balance is not only important, it’s the future, and would love to find a way to open 500WS to men because in the fight for gender equality we need to work together if we want to succeed.

Between being an advocate for women in science, climate action, and a mom, what do you do to relax and unwind?

The last question is always the most difficult one! I don’t have a magic answer, unfortunately. I just try to find a little bit of peace in my daily activities. Today, for instance, I spent an hour reading books with my daughter and then we both briefly fell asleep. Since I became a mom sleeping is this precious thing that I value more than eating. Of course, even trying really hard some days I cannot relax or disconnect. Those days I try to meditate for 15 min before going to bed, which helps me with both sleeping better and feeling more rested the next morning to continue being a mom, an activist and a scientist.

I also have this routine with my husband, we watch an episode of ‘Parks and Recreation’ every day after dinner. I define myself as Sylvia Earle meets Leslie Knope.

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By day, Alicia Perez-Porro is a research associate at the National Museum of Natural History (Smithsonian Institution) working on the effects of climate change on marine sponges. By night, she is a board member of the Association of Spanish Scientists in the USA, where she founded and chairs the Commission for Women in Science. She was selected to be part of the biggest all-women expedition to Antarctica, Homeward Bound 2018, to advocate for women in science and train the world’s next leaders to fight climate change. She recently gave a 24/7 talk on sponges and climate change at the Ig Nobel Awards Ceremony and published an op-ed in Scientific American about why women drop out of academia. In a past (and hopefully future) life she was also a professional dancer. You can follow her on Twitter @aliciaprzporro or learn more at www.aliciaperezporro.com.