This week on #MeetAScientist get to know Dr. Diana de la Iglesia is a bioinformatician working at the intersection of artificial intelligence and cancer research. She’s also one of the Pod coordinators of 500 Women Scientists Madrid. Along with three fellow women scientists—Ana Isabel Gozález, María de la Fuente, and Carmen Agustín—she co-organized the #oCientificaoMadre ( #ScientistorMother) campaign to raise visibility around the challenges that come with being a scientist and a mother. Here, she talks about her work, the success of the campaign, and her ideas for the Madrid Pod.
When did you first identify as a scientist? What does your research center on today?
I was a very curious girl, always eager to observe how things work and to learn new things. My parents gave me a microscope for kids and nature and biology caught my eye. So it was mostly the love of discovering and wanting to know why life happened that got me hooked on science.
I originally wanted to study biology, but during my last years at school I heard about informatics, which was a new subject combining computers and technology. I was interested in engineering and computing, fields where there was little representation for women. Some people told me that it would be a difficult field for me. Nevertheless, I felt the need to enter and persist in a non-traditional field for women, specifically Computer Science. While doing my PhD in Artificial Intelligence, I decided to focus my research on its applications in the biomedical field, and specifically in cancer. The large number of scientists working in this field generate huge amounts of data and information that need to be managed and harnessed for their potential, so this is a challenging area for computer scientists. I currently work at the Bioinformatics Unit of the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre (CNIO), where I develop Artificial Intelligence and machine learning tools to tackle research questions in cancer biology.
You've engaged in quite a bit of international collaboration for your research. What do you think is the benefit of such collaborations and what advice do you have for making the most out of them?
Every international project was a unique training experience for me. To be part of an international collaboration means sharing knowledge and learning from others who have very different experiences, environments, and resources. The opportunity to work side-by-side with people from different backgrounds—and from different cultures and countries—was very enriching and highlighted the different approaches available to further my research. It is an outstanding exercise to experience the integration of your role, as well as your “soft skills,” in a diverse group. You just need to be open-minded and collaborative.
You recently helped launch the campaign #oCientificaoMadre to increase visibility of the discrimination scientists who are also mothers face. How did that campaign come about and what have been some outcomes you've seen?
The campaign started with a petition in change.org. This petition was launched by Dr. María de la Fuente Freire, a scientist who suffered discrimination during her scientific evaluation due to her periods of maternity leave. Then, three women scientists (including me) joined the campaign in order to build awareness and support for the cause. We explained our individual cases in a video that was distributed by change.org, and also invited women in science to join us in the campaign using the hashtag #oCientíficaoMadre to share their stories of maternal wall bias. We had a high impact in the media—receiving local and national press, as well as being featuring on TV and social networks—and we started to gain more signatures.
After a couple of months, we got an official response and we received a meeting invitation from the Ministry of Science, Innovation and Universities. In September, we met with the Secretary of State of Universities, Research, Development and Innovation. We gave her almost 300,000 signatures gathered during the campaign and talked about the discrimination that women scientists face once they become pregnant. We discussed our policy solutions to these challenges, focusing on three main points: (1) to reduce the impact of maternity leave in scientific evaluations, making a more equitable evaluation system; (2) to conduct studies on how and why women leave academia in Spain; and (3) to give support to lactancy and childcare in public institutions.
The government supported our campaign in the media and they agreed to include our policy proposals in the political agenda. There will soon be a debate in Parliament that we hope will result in concrete measures to avoid the maternal wall bias in science. So far, they have announced the creation of an observatory for women in science, which seems very promising.
You're one of the pod coordinators for 500 Women Scientists Madrid. How did you get involved with 500WS and what initiatives are you most excited to take on?
I was a girl who was told I could be anything I wanted when I grew up. But, throughout my scientific career, I have faced discrimination many times in many different ways. Evidence, and my personal experience, shows me that bias against women, especially in traditionally male-dominated domains, such as science and engineering, is widespread.
Eventually, I felt the need to work to eliminate those negative stereotypes of women as scientists and also to take action to change institutions that were never meant for women in the first place. So I started to look for some initiatives moving towards a model of women cooperation and, in that context, I decided to join 500 Women Scientists. Within the Madrid pod, I really enjoy organizing initiatives such as Wikipedia edit-a-thons for editing women scientist profiles in Wikipedia, as well as other activities to increase the visibility of women in science, such as giving talks and hosting scientific competitions for girls and young women in STEM.
When you're not doing science or promoting women in STEM, how do you relax and unwind?
In my free time, I love to read (non-science) books and I also love cooking. I am also involved in other activities related to science, such as #CienciaenelParlamento (Science in Parliament), an open initiative that brings science to politics through debates, roundtables, and public discussions between scientists and politicians in areas of public interest. But the thing I enjoy most is spending time with my family. I have a two-year-old boy and two cats, so we never get bored!
Diana de la Iglesia is a senior technical researcher at the Bioinformatics Unit of the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre in Madrid (Spain), where her research activity is focused on the development of novel Artificial Intelligence methods for the integration of cancer genomic data with clinical and pathological information. She earned her PhD in Computer Engineering in 2014 from the Technical University of Madrid (UPM), where she worked as researcher and project manager in the Biomedical Informatics Group, collaborating with researchers and groups from Europe, the United States, Latin America and Africa. Additionally to her research background, she has experience as consultant and R&D advisor in data science for biomedicine and nanomedicine. Diana is co-founder and one of the coordinators of the Madrid pod.