By Deborah Apgaua
Illustrated by Caia Colla
In 2016 this year I received an international award that changed my life and perspectives about many aspects on science. This award was granted by the Schlumberger Foundation under their Faculty of the Future program, and is intended for women from developing countries to conduct research in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). The program aims to form a transformative network where men and women have similar opportunities in the job market.
To be a woman in science is still a challenge, especially in a developing country like Brazil, where the biggest portion of professors in STEM are men, and where gender imbalance is evident in leading positions. According to a post already published in this blog (o sexo realmente importa?), it may help to reverse this scenario by accepting that this gender imbalance exists, but this has still not happened. Even more importantly, an increase in self-confidence in women could help to break this barrier towards a greater female participation in STEM.
The possibility of pursuing post-doctoral research overseas is of course an important component of the satisfaction that I feel after winning the award. To be part of the Faculty for the Future community that searches for new directions for science enhanced my self-confidence to develop research and to become a role model to inspire other women to follow a similar path. Therefore, way before I started my research, I already felt a big change in the way I expressed my ideas and guide students in their work.
When I decided to try this program, I had to remember and mentally organize my entire academic carrier from my undergrad to my doctorate. I had to search for value in each experience and think about how these experiences can help me inspire other women. Thus, I discovered a new force that was inside me, something that I did not know. Before submitting the proposal for my research, I reread it and felt fulfilled, regardless of the application results. I asked myself how many women could feel this contentment if they remembered each step of their journey and add value to their work.
For example, I realized that I have more teaching experience than I was aware. During my undergrad, I developed research in traditional communities where I participated in giving short courses and presenting user-end research outcomes. Besides this, during my postgrad I had acquired experience through teaching placements, and this counts as teaching experience even if it was with the assistance of my supervisor. While doing part of my doctorate studies overseas, I kept in touch with my work mates back in Brazil, and helped in reviewing academic texts. Therefore, I could see the relevance of all those moments when I had to convince the Schlumberger Foundation that I am a candidate that deserves the award.
To believe in this reality without diminishing myself, but on the contrary, finding merit in my academic choices, I did not worry about what I could have done but I didn’t. When I was interviewed in English with the intention to confirm what I wrote, I did not present myself as a “serious and baddie” person trying to show a masculine stereotype to express power. On the contrary, I was friendly and feminine finding confidence being myself.
When I received the positive results on my proposal, the “insecure girl that could not express her scientific ideas because she did not believe it was relevant” disappeared. As I resonate with the philosophy of the Faculty for the Future program, I decided to accept the mission to engage and encourage more women in science. I have chosen to embrace the strong woman that was sleeping inside me and see myself as a scientist that searches for even more experiences knowing that I still have a lot to learn.
Since that moment, with my self-confidence renewed, I have talked to women in my university and from other institutions and I see their countenance changing as I point to the possibility of a simple path to achieve their goals. The change is inside us, because many times we boycott ourselves, with insecurity and low self-esteem. Focus and self-confidence are the key ingredients for our transformation.
Talking with female post-grad students in my department, I noticed that some of them are afraid to become a “shadow” of their male counterparts. Perhaps this is a result of a predominantly male work environment where only three out of 31 professors are women. However, this is a fear that freezes, and it is only by acting on our academic goals that we can be free from this self-perceived subordination. So when we overcome the insecurity and fear of being overshadowed by men in science, we are on our paths of knowledge that will bring us to academic success.
Overcoming our insecurities and fears is also facilitated when we understand that we do not do science alone and that working together with others is essential. This way, we can transform competition to collaboration, and not have to feel that we are alone in our academic endeavors at every step of our work. Scientific knowledge is an ever-expanding thing. Men or women alike, trusting that science moves forward by our combined efforts reduces our ego and dispels the perceived ideal that we have to know everything to be able to do good science.
I am a doctor in forest ecology, and I have a deep love for the world’s tropical forests. I have graduated in biology during which I studied ethnobiology. During my masters and PhD I worked with forest ecology to be in contact with Brazilian forests. During my Ph.D however, I ended up going to Australia where I developed a project with plant functional traits in rainforest plants. More recently, I am preparing to go back to Australia again to pursue a post-doc, supported by an award that I received for women in science. I aim to understand how plants cope with drought through their traits and bring this knowledge to Brazil. I hope to inspire other women to pursue the academic career.