Sciences in Switzerland: these women who lead change

Switzerland is one of the most innovative countries in the world, with two of its polytechnics at the top of the world rankings. Despite this, there are still few women in science. However, successful models and concrete initiatives can reverse this trend.

This content was published on March 31, 2022 – 12:29 PM

Physics, robotics, mathematics: historically male-dominated disciplines are no longer taboo for women. Many women around the world are making valuable contributions. But the gender gap in scientific research remains large.

In Switzerland, in particular, there are few women in prestigious positions at universities (for example, there are few female professors) and they tend to work under more precarious contracts than their European counterparts. If we consider only STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), then the number of female professors is reduced even more. But the wind is slowly turning.

The stories of successful women scientists remind us that change is not only possible, it is already happening. Margarita Chli is one of them. She remembers that when she came to Switzerland for her robotics internship, there were only two girls in a class of fifty students. During her studies, Margarita Chli was fascinated by the idea of ​​combining robotics and computer vision to create intelligent machines that can “see”, perceive and interact with the space around them. His nature-inspired work contributed to the first autonomous flight of a small helicopter. Today she is an assistant professor at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH), where she leads the Vision for Robotics laboratory. “Someone once made me think that my career was not open to women 20 years ago. It’s a big responsibility, but also a very exciting opportunity.”

Components of academic success

Purpose, talent and ambition are just some of the ingredients that have enabled women to excel in their field, be it robotics, epidemiology or cosmology. The desire to answer the fundamental questions of humanity and pave the way for future generations has done the rest.

The biggest difficulty for Sonja Seneviratne at the beginning of her career was the lack of role models in Switzerland. These female models, she met them in the United States, during a university exchange at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “They opened new horizons for me.” This experience motivated Sonya Seneviratne not to give up her professional ambitions until she was offered a teaching position at ETHZ at the age of 32.

Sonya Seneviratne is now considered one of the most influential climate scientists in the world. She is also the author of the report.External reference Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which made headlines in 2021 by demonstrating that heavy rains and heat waves are the result of greenhouse gas emissions from climate change. “To be human. Sonia Seneviratne’s discovery of a direct link between extreme weather events and global temperature rise gave rise to a field of climate science known as attribution science.

Although women occupy few leadership positions in academia, they make a significant contribution to scientific progress. Scientists such as Emma Hodcroft, Lavinia Heisenberg and Maria Colombo are living proof of this changing landscape.

Emma Hodcroft is known as the “virus hunter”. The epidemiologist became a co-founder of the Nextstrain platform.External reference, which analyzes and publishes genetic data on pathogens worldwide. His work proved to be fundamental for tracking the evolution of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in real time through the analysis of new variants. Emma Hodcroft, who works at the University of Bern, has also been praised for her scientific communication, especially on Twitter, where she has nearly 80,000 followers.

Lavinia Heisenberg is an internationally renowned physicist and professor of cosmology at ETHZ. She is looking for answers to the question of the origin of the universe, studying the force of gravity. His list of publications is impressive, and his discoveries have influenced the study of gravity, opening up new possibilities for understanding the workings of the laws that govern the universe. Lavina Heisenberg is convinced that the study of physics will have unimaginable societal implications, facilitating, for example, the discovery of new sources of energy and intellectual mobility.

More teachers in sight

In addition to attracting top talent to Switzerland, research institutes and foundations are seeking to increase the representation of women in science. There are now a number of grants for women aimed at encouraging fair working conditions, mentorship and teamwork. An example is the PRIMA scholarship.External reference The Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF), which offers funding of up to 1.5 million francs to promising female researchers.

Other scholarships, open to men and women, aim to help female researchers advance their careers. Geochemist Denise Mitrano received another SNSF fellowship in 2020, the Excellence Scholarship.External reference academic. Thanks to her, she was able to set up her own research group at ETH as an assistant professor.

Since then, Denise Mitrano has developed an innovative, fast and accurate method for determining the amount of plastic present in the water we drink or the food we eat. To do this, she came up with the idea of ​​chemically adding metals to plastic nanoparticles and using them as markers. His new tracking method could indirectly help reduce plastic pollution by helping agriculture and industry identify the most problematic materials and encouraging those sectors to find biodegradable alternatives. Denise Mitrano gives the same advice to all his ETH students: “Don’t let criticism or failure discourage you. Be confident in your ideas. It takes courage, but it’s worth it.”

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