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Panelists were Drs Magaly Blas, Carla Fabiana Crespo and Gabriela Montenegro — winners of the OWSD-Elsevier Foundation Award for Early-Career Women Scientists in the Developing World — and Luisa Massarani, Regional Coordinator for SciDev.Net.

Journalists learn from women scientists at global conference in Colombia

April 21, 2023

By Rebecca Clear

Researchers from Latin America talk about their challenges as women in science and how to work with the media despite limited resources.

The media plays a powerful role when it comes to the representation of science. For many people outside the research ecosystem, the way media channels showcase research will define the way they see researchers. If the scope of that representation is narrow in terms of diversity, then people’s perceptions of who leads and conducts research will also be narrow. That has implications for a new generation deciding whether they belong in the world of research, and it has implications for how people trust and engage with research.

These issues — with a focus on gender — were discussed recently on a panel titled “Growing research equity and representation: a dialogue with Latin American women researchers” at the bi-annual World Conference of Science Journalists(opens in new tab/window), held in the botanical gardens of Medellin, Colombia.

The panelists looked at gender in research with a focus on building equity and representation among Latin American women scientists and how they relate to the media. Brought together by the Elsevier Foundation(opens in new tab/window) and SciDev.Net(opens in new tab/window), the panel featured three changemakers from Peru, Bolivia and Guatemala who have received the OWSD-Elsevier Foundation Award for Early-Career Women Scientists in the Developing World.

Magaly Blas, MD, PhD (left) focuses on maternal and neonatal health in rural and remote areas of the Peruvian and Colombian Amazon. (Photo © Magaly Blas/Mamás del Río)

Magaly Blas, MD, PhD (left) focuses on maternal and neonatal health in rural and remote areas of the Peruvian and Colombian Amazon. (Photo © Magaly Blas/Mamás del Río)

“Pregnant, I was able to see all the huge inequities that exist for women in the Amazon …”

Dr Magaly Blas(opens in new tab/window) of Peru is an epidemiologist who has conducted research studies about HIV, HPV, HTLV, and other sexually transmitted infections in different populations. She has also researched the use of ICT (information and communication technology) for HIV prevention and to improve maternal and child health. In her fourth year of studying medicine at Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia (UPCH), she had an experience that changed her career trajectory:

I fell in love with research when I was in the fourth year of medical school. We were sent to the Amazon to do a project to decrease anaemia in children under 5 years old, and then I also fell in love with the Amazon. I started to do research on infectious diseases in those areas.

I became pregnant with my two daughters while working in the field in Amazon areas that didn't have access to water, electricity, or sanitation. At that point, pregnant, I was able to see more clearly all the huge inequities that exist for women in the Amazon to access any type of healthcare and any basic services. That’s when I decided to switch my career path to work on improving maternal and newborn health in remote rural and indigenous areas of the Peruvian Amazon.

Dr Blas went on to found and lead the Mamás del Río (Mothers of the River) Programme(opens in new tab/window) in the Peruvian Amazon, which trains community health workers in the use of technology to improve maternal and newborn health. She is also an Associate Professor at UPCH School of Public Health and Administration and an Affiliate Associate Professor at the Department of Global Health at the University of Washington.

Carla Crespo Melgar, PhD

Carla Crespo Melgar, PhD, of the Universidad Mayor de San Andres, Bolivia, focuses on improving sustainable agriculture to alleviate hunger.

“Being a young woman at the university puts me in a privileged position as a role model”

Alongside Dr Blas was Dr Carla Crespo Melgar of the Universidad Mayor de San Andres, Bolivia, a biochemist focused on improving sustainable agriculture as a crucial step to alleviating hunger in the region. She is investigating the potential of using beneficial microorganisms that live in the soil, and application protocols as biocontrollers, biofertilizers, bioinoculants and growth promoters for crop production, with the aim of finding ways they can be produced locally by communities or small companies once the technology and application protocols are validated:

We look for microorganisms and strategies to improve crop productivity basically by adding microorganisms to the soil to improve resistance against drought [and] frost, which are very bad conditions that are the product of climate change.

It's a challenge because we are exploring a way to do this locally so we are not dependent on importing products. We want to do it with indigenous communities and small companies. We are in the process of validating this technology and the application protocols so that in the medium term, we can assure future food security and stability in my country.

Being a woman in science has positives and negatives, Dr Crespo Melgar explained:

Being a young woman at the university puts me in a privileged position as a role model for my students. I see myself representing them, and I've tried to motivate them. Now, I'm in the position to give them opportunities to follow a scientific career, especially while directing international collaboration programs, and it's an opportunity to include bright people, bright women, young women. I see a very positive impact in trying to be a role model and being a woman.

Gabriela Montenegro, PhD

As a nutritionist and food scientist with the Maya Health Alliance, Gabriela Montenegro, PhD, works in the most impoverished communities of Guatemala.

“Interestingly, my best mentors were men …”

Some of the challenges described by the panelists came from the communities they work in. When the notion of a woman leader or a woman doctor is unusual, they have had to work hard to be accepted.

Dr Gabriela Montenegro has had a different experience. She is a nutritionist and food scientist whose work contributes to strengthening primary healthcare in rural Guatemala. With the Maya Health Alliance, she works in the most impoverished communities in Guatemala to provide healthcare in Mayan languages and contribute to reducing maternal mortality and child malnutrition, overcoming barriers to the treatment of complex medical conditions, providing optimal care to children and adults with chronic conditions, and promoting access to clean water.

“When I came to nutrition, which is traditionally a female career, we had four men and 45 woman on the team,” she recalled. “Before, there were more men than women where I worked, but I still [got] respect. When I was in the female world [of nutrition], I actually had to compete more with females. It was a different approach. Interestingly, my best mentors were men — they wanted to push me to speak out and [they would] say, ‘Gabriella, you can do this.’ It shaped the research areas in my career because they believed in me. I would say for me, it has been very positive to be woman.

“But in my work, nutrition is a very traditional [area of work] for a woman, and I can feel empathy with those I work with. When I go to the communities and I talk to women, I can understand their position and they can talk to me. We ended up being like psychologists for these rural women. But we’re fighting against inequities, so it's very complicated.”

“Usually there are more men scientists being interviewed …”

When it comes to media coverage of women in science and the gender element of scientific work, Luisa Massarani(opens in new tab/window), Regional Coordinator for SciDev.Net, said it’s also incumbent on the media to improve things:

“One of the things that's important for us to remember is that there are different types and kinds of media, and it’s not possible to generalize. There are some media that put a lot of attention [on science and women] and others do not. But we do see that usually, there are more men scientists being interviewed than women. And also, when the interviewee is a woman, usually they have less time and space.”

Massarani noted that at SciDev.Net, they pay a lot of attention to gender when choosing people to interview, aiming to balance men and women and use images of men and women in an interesting way:

We want to ensure we were not solely depicting women in the stereotypical positions that reinforce that men are the scientists. Obviously, there are women who are senior scientists, and it is very important to give a voice to them. It’s important to give a voice to younger women and men scientists and also other sectors of society — with indigenous people, Black people, — to [convey] that science is for everyone, not only for White people.

Dr Crespo Melgar agreed that it’s about more than gender: “I believe that, although we try to keep the gender balance in the teams, we also have to include young people because they are not only the future but also [to encourage] other young people to decide to follow a scientific career.”

Challenges for researchers and journalists

When it comes to working with the media, there are some interesting challenges. The panelists described how hard it is to respond to a media request and have time to prepare, especially with the multiple responsibilities they have. However, journalists are short on time, and sometimes, despite trying to get a woman scientist, they still end up with a male spokesperson who is used to responding to media queries quickly and perhaps has more time. There is also the university factor. Dr Blas explained:

I feel that there is not enough support from the universities for [media work]. So, for example, in my university, they have a lot of research going on, but there are few efforts to put that in the media. So what I have to do is put aside funding to hire a communications person, and I have to write my own press releases. In other universities in North America and Europe, they have a communications person who will translate your paper into a press release. That won’t happen in Peru.

“And it’s our fault,” Dr Crespo Melgar added. “Actually, the fault of the scientists, the fault of the teams that do not challenge themselves to go outside [the university]. We are used to presenting reports for the funders but not presenting reports for society. We don't speak in simple words sometimes, and we end up neglected.

“But also in my country, I believe there is this stereotype of a scientist, which is … an old wise man with white hair. And that is a scientist in my country. Well, at least that is the face of scientists. And this is just historical.”

Another issue, Dr Montegnegro said, is that local sources are not used or are consulted as a last resort:

Journalists go to many, many sources before they reach the ones who are in the country. So this is a challenge, not just for the local journalists but also for us. … And there are so many biased sources that, in the end, sometimes journalists don't believe in what you’re saying. So for me, it is important, to see that there are improvements locally, to show that there are people doing science in our countries and not just the North. So I think it's a challenge to find a way that our own science is given respect.

So what can be done to elevate women as spokespeople and also raise the profile of Global South science? Massarani explained that this is where SciDev.Net is focused: showcasing the issues faced in the Global South and also the research being undertaken in these countries. They’re also supporting dialogue between scientists and media:

We have been doing a lot of training and meetings, trying to put scientists and journalists together, understanding the difference in the convergence of science and media, and preparing both sides to have much more dialogue. I think that a lot of scientists also think that media needs to go to them. And what we think is that it's really important to have a two-way dialogue in this society, between media and scientists.

Dr Blas also talked about universities providing support for scientists to learn how to work with the media — and also providing support to handle the new levels of visibility when they receive awards, like the one they have recently received from the OWSD(opens in new tab/window) and Elsevier Foundation.

It seems there is some way to go to raise women’s profile and confidence as media spokespeople, and also improve the media’s relationships with women scientists. Hearing these first-hand accounts from women researchers in the Global South is an important part of that learning.


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Rebecca Clear

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