Researcher Spotlight: Meet Head of Scientific Support Zuzanna Lalanne

11th February marks International Women and Girls in Science Day. Established in 2015 by resolution of the General Assembly of the United Nations and realized by UNESCO and UN Women, the day recognizes the critical role women and girls play in science and technology and aims to promote full and equal access.

We must ensure that women’s participation in innovation is not exception, but becomes the norm…” Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations Lakshimi Puri

At the Research Complex at Harwell, we are choosing to honour this important day by asking our incredible Head of Scientific Support, Dr Zuzanna Lalanne to share her story. She reflects on some of the pivotal moments in her career and how the decisions she made have influenced her path.

"We are constantly making small or big decisions without knowing how they will shape our future. Only when looking back can we clearly see where the significant junctions were. After completing 5 years of Biology at the University of Warsaw I enquired about options for further research. I was offered two very different opportunities, both included travelling abroad. A Polish academic group needed a researcher to master plant transformation in collaboration with Paris XI University, or I could join a research group studying thyroid physiology in collaboration with the US. I did not have access to advice or mentoring at my alma mater university. The decision was mine alone; I chose plant transformation and moved to France. At the time I thought I was making a decision about only the next few months, maybe a year. In fact, it has determined my career path and my personal life too. I have never regretted the decision I took, though I suspect thyroid physiology could have opened more research opportunities than plant transformation.

After my first year in a French laboratory I was offered the possibility to do a PhD in plant molecular biology. I met my future husband, we had a son, Stanislas. After we both successfully finished our PhDs we decided to pursue post-doctoral studies in plant biology in England. I worked for 2 years at the University of Leicester as a PDRA and whilst comparing gene expressions I came across what was then an innovative new technology – microarrays. I started using some of the very first cDNA microarrays and quickly understood how transformative this would become. MRC Harwell was opening the first centre of excellence for microarrays in Europe and they were looking for a manager. Setting up and managing a centre of excellence was a very attractive prospect, an opportunity to be at the forefront of technological development.

I decided to transition to a science support role rather than to pursue a pure scientific path. Working in the sciences can have different forms and paths, not all postdoctoral positions will lead to fellowships and becoming a group leader or a Professor.

At MRC Harwell, every research group used our facility and my team and I were given the scientific background of their projects and contributed to regular work in progress meetings. I’m a co-author of almost 20 papers from that time, including two in Nature, and managing a core facility always made me feel an important part of science projects.

A colleague from MRC Harwell was extremely supportive. Christine Wells was a role model and an inspiration. She was very ambitious and passionate, very empathetic and supportive of her staff, all whilst juggling her professional career and raising two small children. She is now a Professor at the University of Melbourne. I value the short time I spent with her.

I spent 9 years at MRC Harwell, then in 2008 I moved to a different level of science support, with no more hands on work in the lab but instead operational and strategic responsibilities - setting up the Research Complex at Harwell. I took the decision about moving to this new role very quickly, I was just so excited about this opportunity after I saw the advert! Because of the multidisciplinary nature of the Research Complex, the role is very variable and encompasses an appreciation of different research areas. Professor Simon Phillips and I were the first two members of the core team. Being part of setting up a new place was exhilarating, and many aspects were completely new to me. I enjoyed learning and preparing for new. I remember when I first went to see Zoe Bowden at ISIS she lent me a pair of boots and a helmet and we went to see their bio lab in construction. I also came into contact with other women, Liz Carpenter, Isabel de Moraes and Marissa Martin Fernandez. Seeing other women in senior positions who are successful and tackle similar challenges is extremely inspirational and encouraging.

When reflecting on some of the decisions I took about my professional life, I can see the importance of ensuring that matters we take into consideration when making such decision are really the “core” matters not just surrounding areas. It’s useful to imagine how life would be if we chose such a path or such a subject. See other woman and men doing similar jobs or who work in similar environments!

There are lots of opportunities, even if you take a ‘wrong’ decision you will later have other exciting options too.

Having served in such a fundamental way in our formation it is not an understatement to say that the Research Complex owes a lot to Dr Zuzanna Lalanne. We achieve some remarkable things here, and this would not have been possible without her. In part thanks to her and the work she did in nurturing the Research Complex through its creation we have seen hundreds of bright, brilliant and talented young women flow through our doors.

Enabling women in STEM should be about giving young scientists confidence, capabilities and connections that will help them throughout their careers.

However, according to UIS data, less than 30% of the world’s researchers are women.

In science, women publish less, are paid less and do not progress as far or as fast as male counter parts in their careers. For all the progress we have made towards gender equality, women are still the hidden figures of science.

There are three real issues surrounding gender equality in STEM. First gender bias and stereotypes have only served to steer young women away from science. Then unfair and inflexible workplaces only hold women back and finally there is little support regarding reintegration following a break.

Gender stereotypes can develop early and can have a profound impact on children’s interests and inspirations. Women currently in STEM can help to subvert this by sharing their own stories and successes helping to inspire girls and young women to be able to tread their own paths. Just as Dr Zuzanna Lalanne did above. By creating visible role-models and providing guidance through experience we can encourage and create the confidence in girls and young women that they can achieve something through STEM. Continued promotion of the importance of science, technology, engineering and mathematics can help to build awareness and therefore inspire dreams.

Once women have been encouraged into a STEM field steps need to be taken to support her in staying there. Considerations need to be made towards adopting inclusive policies such as equality for pay scales, recruitment and promotion as well as supporting working flexibility and family leave and incorporating a zero tolerance policy toward sexual harassment. Diverse workplaces, such as the one Zuzanna Lalanne helped to create here at the Research Complex,  are vital for generating an environment where innovation can blossom. An inclusive atmosphere will ultimately help scientists to be able to unlock their full potential.

We should never lose sight of the fact that it can be hard to be a scientist, particularly now. The global impact of COVID 19 has highlighted the essential nature of scientific research. The only positive is that this is helping to inspire younger generations to consider a future in science. But the pandemic has adversely affected the university sector and shifted the options of research funding bodies and philanthropic funded research opportunities. Due to the types of roles they tend to hold, women have been the ones hit hardest by these changes and we could be at risk of losing part of our scientific workforce.

For those whom COVID-19 has forced an unplanned for halt in their STEM education or career serious considerations need to made regarding their future reintegration. STEM fields shift and change rapidly, and the nature of the pandemic has accelerated this. Up-skilling or re-skilling opportunities could help with reintegration and allow those most affected to keep up with the latest advancements. But we need to work together to counteract the regressive effect COVID-19 has had on gender equality.

At the Research Complex Director Professor David Payne is well aware of the risks the pandemic is causing to early years researchers and has spoken out about the need for resilience in science.

Reintegration post COVID-19 may still seem like a far of dream. But it will happen, it must. And for those young women who have had their ambitions thwarted by the pandemic, remember Zuzanna’s words “there are lots of opportunities…you will have other exciting opportunities too”.