Barriers for women in science are concrete, not just a lack of motivation, says physics

According to Marcelle Soares-Santos, astrophysicist and professor at the University of Michigan (USA), there is no need to launch initiatives to attract more women and girls to become scientists. “It is not a lack of interest, there are concrete barriers to the advancement of women in their scientific careers,” he said in a video interview.

The astrophysicist, who studies the accelerated expansion of the universe and is one of the researchers involved in the study, who was named Scientific Discovery of the Year by science magazine in 2017, says initiatives to combat unconscious bias have implications for gender inequality that area. scientific.

She is one of those portrayed in the “Interviews Beyond Time” project, a comic that tells the trajectory of black scientists. The magazine was published on Thursday (24) in collaboration with USP researcher Carlos Antônio Teixeira and the US embassy and consulates.


How woman decided to proceed in the field of cosmology?

I was always very curious, I had the “why” phase and I think I never left it. I always wondered why exactly like that? or “Why are the constituent parts of the universe like this?” and going into the field of physics and cosmology was the way I answered that curiosity.

What exactly are you studying at the moment?

Dark matter and dark energy. These are two concepts that are interrelated and represent the next big challenge in our region. Dark matter means invisible matter, and for every atom in the universe there are five other units of dark matter. We don’t know what its physical nature is, and we still can’t reproduce it in the laboratory, but we’re trying to find out how it affects the luminous objects.

Dark energy is an even bigger puzzle. It resides in the empty space between galaxies and is a field of great energy associated with the accelerated expansion of the universe.

Why is that the next big challenge?

The effect of the dark energy in the universe leads to an accelerated expansion so that we understand how our universe will develop. Will it expand forever or will it collapse? We cannot answer at the moment.

On the other hand, I’m always asked about more practical applications. It is difficult to say exactly what it will be as this area is very abstract. But often on the way to discovering one thing, we end up developing other technologies. The development that was necessary to make digital cameras like today was the result of research done for astronomy to examine very faint and distant objects.

This is one of the most fundamental things in basic research: it does not focus on immediate application, but without investing time and energy in it, applied research cannot exist.

What is abstract research like in a time of reduced funding for science?

In Brazil, I have the impression that it is difficult because this development takes a long time and this time is longer than the cycle of political life. This creates turbulence in the research funding process and ultimately creates problems as there is no question that you can reduce resources and then increase and restore them like nothing happened. You’re wasting time, losing the moment [impulso] if you do that.

Compared to developed countries, this turbulence is very great and it is more difficult for you to maintain the development path. At the same time, despite these fluctuations, the scientific community in Brazil is very strong, has learned to deal with difficulties and continues to do so.

However, public research institutions in Brazil would have the potential to be more effective if there were mechanisms in place that would allow these fluctuations to be less aggressive.

The pandemic has shown that part of the population does not believe in scientific evidence. Why is there this discrediting of science?

In the case of Brazil, I think part of it is related to the problem that science classes do not cover the entire population. And another thing that worries me is that when we scientists communicate with the public, we often try to communicate the technical aspect and not connect with people on a personal level.

This is one of the things that attracted me to this project [“Entrevistas Além do Tempo”]because I think using different formats that are closer to what the person is used to can be a way of reaching that audience.

How can one change the perception that personal empirical experience is worth more than the evidence proven by studies?

We need to emphasize that the experience the person has had is real because if you ignore it right away, a barrier will be created. We need to communicate, however, that the individual experience is not necessarily representative of the entire collective and that a particular experience may have worked for you, but not necessarily for all.

And that is not trivial in order to be understood, but we have to insist on it. I find that people are curious and know that a scientist has knowledge that they don’t have about something. But often the message that comes first and strongest is pseudoscience.

I think there is a lack of a stronger insertion of messages that come directly from the scientific world with accessible language and refer to reality.

Mrs. Have you suffered from racism in your region?

One of the things that attracts me to this line of research is the fact that I feel part of a community even though there are challenges due to discrimination.

Of course not everyone had the same experience, but throughout my career I have had support from many people who may not look like me but who were interested in learning from me and helping me learn and become an expert in my field.

This is what I try to say when I am able to counsel or speak to the public. It can accommodate people of all origins, and making this entry easier is something I have made my goal.

In 2022, the quota law in Brazil should be reviewed. How woman do you see this system?

The ideal would be that there are no quotas, that everyone has an equal chance, an equal chance, to participate in university life, enter higher education and choose the career they want. In reality, we’re not at that level yet, so the quota system may be imperfect, but it tries to balance things out a little.

A complete elimination of quotas would abandon the solution to the problem. Checking isn’t bad, but if it’s a binary thing we can go backwards instead of going forward.

Are you still talking about representativeness in science, how can the presence of women in research be increased?

People often assume that women or girls don’t have the same interest in science careers, and the initiatives I see in this area tend to motivate them. In my experience, there is no lack of interest; there are concrete barriers to the advancement of women in academic careers.

And the evidence of this is that if you look at the statistics of women in their academic careers, across all areas, the numbers decrease as you move up a level, whether you are a graduate student for a graduate school and then a teacher are. In part, this can be improved through initiatives that use a more anonymous process to avoid unconscious bias.

For example, in the case of the Hubble telescope, you need to submit a research proposal in order to make certain observations. And proposals with men got more approvals. What they started is a system of keeping the identity of the person who made the proposal secret and they have found that the gender gap has gone.

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