Plants & People

Argentina, more than football: outstanding and passionate Women in Plant Science

A movement to improve opportunities for women in Argentina may be growing to cover more of Latin America.

December gave us an exciting Football World Cup, with Argentina winning the final after almost three hours of the breathtaking match against France. Nevertheless, there is also a lot of Argentinian talent far from the soccer fields, precisely in the laboratories of universities and institutions around the world dedicated to plant research … and the face of this talent is female. Before Christmas, Botany One spoke with the multifaceted Dr Gabriela Auge: researcher at the National Council for Scientific and Technical Research (CONICET), editor at the Annals of Botany (AoB), and promoter of the Argentinian Women in Plant Science initiative.

Hello Gabriela, when did you start to “fall in love” with plants?

“I was the first in my family to study at the university, although I did not have very clear ideas of what science really means when I started my master’s degree in Biotechnology. It was only when I met a very good Plant Physiology professor (Guillermo Santamaria) that I got the inspiration to explore the plant world. Since then, Guillermo became my mentor and strong supporter, and that hasn’t changed over time. After the degree, I did a doctorate and a first post-doc in Buenos Aires, then a second post-doc in the United States”.

Gabriela defines herself as a plant physiologist with expertise in molecular biology and genetics. Her research topic is seed biology, and throughout her scientific career she has worked with many plant species: plants of agronomic interest (e.g., tomato, sorghum, wheat), model plants (e.g., Arabidopsis thaliana, Arabis alpina), and weeds such as Datura ferox (a species that invades summer crops in Argentina) or weedy rice (Oryza species that contaminates cultivated rice fields). “There aren’t many people who want to work with seeds because it’s a bit complicated, but also super fascinating,” says Gabriela.

She went back to Argentina as a CONICET researcher in 2017, and since 2018 she has been leading her own group at the Faculty of Exact and Natural Sciences of the University of Buenos Aires. Her research focuses on the molecular mechanisms that determine the “environmental memory” in plants, combining different fields of specialization – from physiology to evolutionary ecology. After years of teaching, she is currently engaged with scientific publishing as senior editor for social media of AoB and associate editor of AoB PLANTS. She enjoys reading original works to learn new things and discover other fields of research that are not her topic.

Gabriela also loves traveling, and being a scientist allows her to explore faraway countries; she is currently on a research stay in Japan thanks to a grant from the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, where she is working with Dr Toshiyuki Imaizumi (Institute for Plant Protection, Tsukuba), a former colleague from the USA, to apply the discoveries they made in the model plant Arabidopsis to the crop species rice (Figure 1).

Left, a woman looks with admiration at a tall cress plant. Right, she is poised for action in a rice field.
Figure 1. Plant biologist in action. Dr Gabriela Auge working with the model species Arabidopsis thaliana in a growth chamber (left) and with the crop species Oryza sativa (rice) in a paddy field in Japan (right).

Let’s talk about the initiative “Argentinian Women in Plant Science” … how did it start?

Gabriela told us that when she was working in the US, a country characterized by a very different demographic base compared to Argentina, she was amazed by the intention to create inclusive workspaces. But when she came back to her country of origin, she was somewhat perplexed by the lack of representation and visualization of population diversity in certain spaces of the academic world in Argentina.

She explained that, for example, most of the speakers at plant science congresses were men (2020-2021 data), although women represent almost 60% of researchers in biological areas. “It was very noisy not seeing women in plenary sessions,” said Gabriela, and added “perhaps female researchers reject invitations because there are no childcare services at the venue or they don’t have support networks when travelling, or simply because they don’t feel safe in some places.” She then thought that it was necessary to give more visibility to the girls and women working in plant research … but how? She began to establish a network, first with the help of close friends. Surprisingly, the pandemic was an opportunity to build connections and to push virtual events.

The promoters of the initiative have always had the personal support of enthusiastic female researchers, advanced in their careers … and also count on the support of male researchers. Nowadays, 6 people make up the coordinating team (Figure 2) and the list of professionals includes more than 300 researchers working on different aspects of plant biology – from genetics to ecology.

Tasteful black and white images of femal academics on the left and a stylish logo of a woman's face in profile on the right. What would be her hair is either a leaf or intertwined strands of DNA.
Figure 2. Faces of Argentinian Women in Plant Science. Left, pictures of the six members of the coordinating team: Dr Gabriela Auge (@gabyplantbio), Dr María José de Leone (@Maria_de_Leone), Dr Rocío Deanna (@RocioDeanna), Dr Alicia Lopez Mendez (@alilopezmendez), Dr Pamela Ribone (@pamela_ribone), Dr Elina Welchen (@ewelchen). Right, logo of the initiative representing the harmony of Women-Plant-Science, created by Pamela Ribone.

Can you give us an overview of the initiative?

Argentinian Women in Plant Science has a dedicated web page, where you can find news about the initiative and a registration form to sign up, as well as a Twitter account that is very active in promoting the work of Argentinian plantologists and disseminating information about the events.  Among the most outstanding activities, the coordinating team organizes scientific seminars in Spanish open to the public, the recording of which is available on the Biólogas Plantas Argentina Youtube channel. Also, professional development webinars, from effective communication in science to mental health (Figure 3), are offered on a regular basis. Donations from individuals of the scientific community, as well as contributions from professional societies, serve to finance the activities and update the different tools. For example, in 2021 the Botanical Society of America awarded a grant to Rocío Deanna to develop a diversity and inclusion project (BSA bulletin).

The virtual workshops are designed to develop/improve soft skills in science communication (poster/slide design), to increase the resilience of research staff or to deepen knowledge of the science and technology funding schemes.

Which are the main activities that you are proposing in 2023?

“This year we plan to go on with the webinars and organize a symposium every six months (June-July and November-December 2023); moreover, we will participate in a workshop on diversity that will take place during the International Conference on Arabidopsis Research (ICAR23) in Japan and will propose workshops on mentoring in regional Congresses in Argentina”.

Actually, the coordinators of the network are producing tools to facilitate diverse mentoring networks and their inclusiveness in the scientific and university system, as reflected in an article recently published in the prestigious journal Nature Communications (see suggested reading).

Last: in 2023, ARG Plant Women will have the possibility to award a travel grant to PhD and postdoc students to attend conferences!

Which are the main objectives of this initiative?

“In the short term, our goals are to raise awareness about the issue and to promote the change – although it will take time. In any case, it is satisfying to see that female researchers of the network have already begun to support each other and to establish new collaborations” declares Gabriela. For example, members of the network can share job posting (PhD and postdoctoral fellowships) or exchange advice to apply for permanent positions in academia.

Gabriela hopes that young researchers will get involved in the continuity of the network, that new people with new ideas will join the team and that they will all work together to consolidate the initiative. In the future, Gabriela dreams of something bigger: contacts have already been established with female researchers from Brazil…hopefully soon the Women in Plant Science will be extended all over Latin America.

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