“Science is all about synergy” - Francesca Vinchi, woman in hematology/EHA volunteer
This Women’s History Month, we are putting the spotlight on women in hematology. One of them is Francesca Vinchi, also an EHA Volunteer. Francesca is a molecular biotechnologist by training with a PhD in Biomedical Sciences and Human Oncology (Molecular Biotechnology Center-MBC, University of Turin, Italy). She has a PostDoc in Iron Biology (Molecular Medicine Partnership Unit-MMPU, University of Heidelberg & European Molecular Biology Laboratory-EMBL, Germany) and is currently Assistant Professor at the Lindsley Kimball Research Institute, the research branch of the New York Blood Center (NYBC, New York, USA). She joined the NYBC a year ago and started her own Research Program focused on Iron Homeostasis and Hematology as junior principal investigator.
“My laboratory focuses on the role of heme and iron in health and disease and the pathologic impact of heme/iron overload and deficiency. My research investigates the molecular mechanisms of heme/iron-driven inflammation, oxidative stress and cardiovascular dysfunction, and the importance of detoxification systems that counteract their toxicity. The main scientific interest of the lab is to define the consequences of these toxic effects and their pathophysiologic relevance for inherited (hemochromatosis, sickle cell anemia, thalassemia) and acquired overload conditions (transfusion-dependentanemias)”, she explained during an interview with EHA. The ultimate goal of her research is to understand whether enhanced heme/iron detoxification and anti-oxidant strategies as well as modulators of iron homeostasis improve the condition of iron-overloaded individuals with different pathologies.
Her connection with EHA started during her PostDoc when she progressively became more involved in the hematology field. “I am currently a member of the EHA since the last four years, during which I attended the annual meetings, had the pleasure and honor to receive a Young EHA Best Abstract Award and several travel grants, and be invited for a Presidential Symposium talk on my research topic and press briefing. I also serve as scientific editor for the official open access journal of EHA, HemaSphere”, she added
Challenges in the field
Francesca recognized that being a woman in the scientific field brought with it some challenges but she used the experience to push even further. Along with working hard and networking hard, she emphasized the importance of mentors in one’s career.
She considers Professors Emanuela Tolosano, Martina Muckenthaler and Karina Yazdanbakhsh as her role models and mentors. “They were crucial to build the scientist I am today. These women, all for different reasons, have been my models, and taught me everything I needed to know not only as a scientist but also as a ‘woman in science’. They showed me how to fight but with discretion, to speak aloud without shouting, to pursue my goals without giving up, to elaborate my controversies with a smile, to face problems always with an optimistic outlook, to be strong and persevering but always with humility, to learn a lesson from each single positive or negative experience, to acknowledge failures and to enjoy achievements. To them I owe a lot and will always be grateful”.
Advantages of being a woman
While there are challenges, there are also advantages being a woman in science. Francesca believes that women’s collaborative nature helps them advance in the scientific field. “In my experience, when I had women as students, they were always better organized and are in fact highly collaborative, which is less common among men. As a woman in science with three female mentors, I really learned and appreciate the value of collaborations and I am an enthusiastic supporter of all kinds of interactions and collaborative projects that can arise from common interests and brainstorming with colleagues. I strongly believe that science is all about synergy and constant interactions – what we can achieve bringing different expertise and strengths together is way more valuable than what can be pursued solo!” she mused.
Opportunities for women
There have also been great strides made in the scientific field. Some of these big steps include relevant leading positions now covered by women in organizations such as the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) (Professor Edith Heard), and the American Society of Hematology (ASH) (past President Alexis Thompson). However, she remarked that bias, however implicit, still happens and encouraged women to be more daring. “Women themselves could firstly contribute to such a change. I still have the feeling that women scientists are not daring enough and sometimes feel that they should take a ‘step back’. They do not apply for big grants as men, and if they do, they often write in a smoother and less ‘aggressive’ way than men, which ends up with more grants awarded to them. Women are in general more cautious and less prone to a potential failure than men. They have a ‘safe’ attitude that often prevents them from achieving what they fully deserve. I wish women can start from themselves, daring more, showing what they are capable of, and ultimately taking what they deserve” she said.
She noticed a big cultural difference when moving from Europe to the US after her PostDoc where she realized women being more daring and outspoken. However, she is convinced that it is time for the system to change and shared some of her ideas: “Besides cultural and attitude changes, there is space for several changes within science as a system. We can start from further increasing the number of women in relevant and leading positions to tackling implicit bias with a proper gender training at Universities and Research Institutes. This will improve gender equality in science. Having balanced committees making scientific decisions inclusive of both men and women and eventually members monitoring potential bias aspects during the discussion is also a step forward. Finally, organizing events that promote women excellence in science to show how broad women’s achievements are might encourage the new generation of young women to pursue such a career.”
Message to the younger generation
For the new generation of women in science, Francesca has this to say:
“Dare enough, be strong and outspoken, let no one intimidate you, be ‘softly’ aggressive, face the work with an optimistic approach even when it seems there’s no way out because science is tough.”
She also advised them to take all the chances they can take – big and small – be persevering and believe in themselves. And to those who are not yet sure if they want to pursue a scientific career, she suggested that they visit a lab and see for themselves, “I remember my early experience in the lab, during my biotechnology studies. It was the key for me to learn that that was my true way. If you are attracted by science but you do not know how it looks like, how it feels, just be brave enough, explore and give it a try.”