"Women scientists that we are recognized have to give a message to girls"

"Women scientists that we are recognized have to give a message to girls"

The PhD in Biochemistry, Valentina Parra, received the award for Best Scientist of the Year, which is given by the Chilean Academy of Sciences and distinguished by young researchers.

From her child to her fifteen, the dream of Chilean scientist Valentina Parra was to become a marine biologist. The programs I watched on television, it counts, about the ocean and the mysteries that exist in it—in particular,The underwater world of Jacques Cousteau"She was obsessed with studying the bottom of the sea. But one morning, in her second-half biology class, the teacher allowed her to bring her eyes closer to a microscope for the first time. At that moment, he says, another obsession was born: discovering the cellular world.

"I fell in love with the cells, understanding them as units of life," says the 37-year-old Biochemistry Doctor. I was fascinated that little was known about them, that some of their structures and functions were not known. I always liked to watch, and when I could see through a microscope, there was no turning back. That's where I decided I'd study the smallest.

Biochemist Valentina Parra, Best Scientist of the Year 2019.

Today, Parra divides its research between theDepartment of Biochemistry and Molecular BiologyUniversity of Chile; TheAdvanced Center for chronic diseases(Fondap ACCDIS); TheResearch Center on Exercise, Metabolism and Cancer; and the Autophagy Research Center. In 2003, as an undergraduate, she was a scholarship to spend a season at the University of Liverpool—where she learned to use cutting-edge technologies, such as confocal and biphetonic microscopy—and in 2014 moved to the University of Texas to do a postdoctoral fellowship. At both sites, he counts, he investigated one of the essential components of every cell: the mitochondria, that small engine that allows to generate the energy necessary for its operation.

After returning to Chile, a project was awardedRegular Fondecyt, with which he today investigates the variability in the energy production of mitochondria, their quality control mechanisms, and the relationship of both to the cardiac pathologies suffered by people with Down syndrome from an early age. Managing these two processes, biochemistry says, could be the key to combating one of the leading causes of death in patients with this condition, as they could perhaps be prevented with changes in their mothers' diets during pregnancy.

"You have to be encouraged to encourage girls to go through this and enjoy it, because it's exciting. It's everyone's responsibility and we're taking important steps there."

These researches were the ones that meant, in June of this year, to receive the award for Best Scientist of the Year, presented by the Chilean Academy of Sciences. An award that seeks to stimulate Chilean scientists under the age of 40 and promote their work, in order to help reduce the gap that has historically harmed this genre, both in access and recognition within the scientific world. That's why, says the winner, it is very important that society and academia continue to open spaces where women who do science in Chile are recognized. And these same examples to those who will come.

"This award recognizes your career when it's still short and tells you you're on the right track," says Valentina Parra. That's critical, especially since science isn't something you're usually encouraged by when you're a child. It's not the case with engineering or technological careers either. That is a responsibility that scientists must also assume.

"Do you have to face that task yourself?

"It is a very big task, because you have to know how to encourage girls to go through this and enjoy it, because it is exciting. It's everyone's responsibility and we're taking important steps there. But above all the scientists who are recognized we have the task of marking the girls, of giving a message to those who come after.

"In what way?

"For example, I was proposed to work with the Par Explora of the Northern Metropolitan Region, and I accepted because I believe that responsibility goes around: to encourage and engage girls with scientific areas. But there is a global problem: investment in science remains low and we cannot encourage only more and more girls to enter and train, we also need to create spaces for future scientists to have a field of work.

Photograph of a mouse's cells, with their mitochondria green. (Credit: D. Burnette, J. Lippincott-Schwartz/NICHD).

"Do you think scientists should get out of the labs?

"That is another responsibility we have in the scientific world: only ten or five years ago we began to realize that we are not an elite. Above all, in countries like ours, where the contribution of the State is fundamental to the development of science and private investment is a minority. We have a duty to make known what we do to all people, who are not from the scientific field, and to explain why our work is important.

"That's something a lot of them are already doing.

"There is good disposition, and our view of the need to disclose has changed a lot. If society does not know the contributions we make, why should it understand that part of its taxes are allocated to our work? We have to worry about generating important research, yes, but also communicating them to everyone.