WiSci 2016 Beyond the Microscope: Challenges of Being a Female Scientist in Latin America

Nov. 17, 2016

This past July I traveled to Lima, Peru, to participate in the APEC Women in Science (WiSci) S.T.E.A.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts & Design, Mathematics) Camp as part of the ASM team responsible for conducting the microbiology workshops held at the camp. It was my first time participating in this type of initiative. To be honest, I did not have any idea of what I was going to face. Even though I had some experience in working with children, this time it was bigger - 100 young women from different countries across Latin America gathered together to learn about STEAM.

The environment of the camp was spectacular: the girls were amazing, eager to know and learn everything we could teach them. As workshop leaders, we were not only in charge of teaching, but were also involved in mentoring. It was in this role that I was asked the most unexpected question by one girl: "why did you decide to become a scientist?"

Well, you can imagine that answering this was not an easy task, but I still remember what I told her. I said that I had wanted to become a doctor, but in my country (Uruguay) the road to this career was too long, so I changed to something related: biochemistry. I discovered microbiology during my studies and I fell in love. What came afterwards was my Master's, a Ph.D., and then of course a postdoctorate, and a second one… in fact, if I counted, I studied longer in microbiology than I would have to get a medical degree, but by that point I discovered my passion, and this was most important. I wanted to be a research microbiologist.

This path was not easy, but I would do it all over again!

Latin America is far from the ideal place to be a scientist, and even more so when you are a woman. The economic resources available for science are still meager, despite efforts in recent years to change this. Access to education and the numbers of those graduating with science-related degrees are far lower for women than they are for our male counterparts in Latin America. This gap between the genders only grows larger in postgraduate degree programs. The gender gap is an important issue that is present every day for women in the sciences. We face lower salaries, fewer opportunities to gain senior positions, violence in the workplace, and so on. Being a female scientist in Latin America is not easy, but it is in our hands to change this, and it is mandatory that we do something.

Education is our key to making these changes. As female scientists we have to show that we can change things - that we can improve our lives, have a well-paid job, and develop new technologies. But it's new knowledge that makes these new discoveries, so we need the younger generations to join us. We need young girls to be involved in this change in Latin America. Through inspiring new generations, we are changing the present. In this context, we need more activities like WiSci in Latin America. WiSci was just the beginning of inspiring and empowering more young women to become STEAM professionals. We're giving these girls momentum; let's give them the chance to do something with it.

Initiatives like WiSci give young girls an outlet to learn and explore their STEAM interests, cultivating their interests and endowing them with the confidence and assuredness to embark on the road to becoming a STEAM professional. Watch My First Microscope: ASM Opens Microbial World to Young Latin Americans to learn about ASM’s involvement with promoting the next generation of Female Scientists.


Author: Paola Scavone

Paola Scavone
Paola Scavone is the ASM Young Country Ambassador for Uruguay.