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‘We need more women supporting women’

Interview with María del Carmen Cazorla, director of the Institute for Atmospheric Research at Universidad San Francisco de Quito, on the occasion of the 2019 International Day of Women and Girls in Science.

What drew you to science rather than more traditionally accepted societal roles for women?

Dr. Cazorla deploying a sun photometer at USFQ Campus in Galapagos, Ecuador

Growing up in Ecuador, I fantasized about becoming a pilot or an astronaut. My mother was a mathematics high school teacher and my father an expert in the Spanish language. I grew up among my mother’s algebra materials and my father’s books. I believe the environment that I grew up in and the freedom I had to explore among my parents’ bookshelves shaped my mind from the beginning. During my childhood, I learned about some women scientists whose work awakened my curiosity and inspired me. I remember watching a television documentary on the invention of Kevlar fiber by chemist Stephanie Kwolek. The Challenger space shuttle disaster also captured my attention as a kid, and the two women astronauts who lost their lives in the mission: Judith Resnik, an engineer, and Christa McAuliffe, a school teacher. As a teenager, I remember thinking a lot about Madam Curie’s life and work. After high school, I chose to major in engineering. Societal conventions were never a factor to consider. Then, after college, I applied to graduate school in the United States, where I found my true vocation for atmospheric physics and chemistry. I completed my PhD in Meteorology and did postdoctoral work at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. Now, as a university professor in my home country, I know that science is not only a career, it is a lifetime commitment. Embracing my vocation has been possible for me because I was fortunate to grow up with stimulating role models and with no mental barriers to the extent of what I can achieve.

Name two main obstacles you encountered in your career as a woman and how did you overcome them? 

Dr. Cazorla launching an ozonesonde from USFQ in Quito, Ecuador

One example turned into a professional challenge that I had to conquer. In graduate school, there was a technician in our group whose job was to help put together electronics, but he had a hostile attitude and he seemed to be prejudiced against women. I reported the situation to my advisor and I was directed not to interact with him. This meant, however, that I had to resolve on my own all the problems related to hardware electronics. It was challenging, but in the long term I gained solid instrumental skills as an experimentalist.

My second example relates to the persistence I needed as a scientist to create an opportunity for myself to do research in the way I envisioned. When I decided to return to Ecuador, I knew that my field was scarcely developed in my country. I returned with high-end training but there was no specialized laboratory to conduct experimental research. Shortly after joining Universidad San Francisco de Quito (USFQ) as a professor, I proposed to my university to build an atmospheric measurement station and to create an institute for atmospheric research. I received full support from my institution and, with the help of the connections I had worked hard to maintain over the years, I was able to build from scratch a facility where we now conduct advanced atmospheric research of an experimental nature. What could have been an obstacle turned into a great opportunity to contribute to the development of experimental atmospheric science in my country, at my own university, with our students.

What sacrifices have you had to make to get where you are today, and do you have any regrets? 

A career in science demands time, effort and energy. Graduate school was a true endurance test, in particular being an international student away from family for many years. Doing experimental work, gathering data, and writing up papers and proposals as a researcher, while keeping myself motivated, is also a challenge. But the sense of purpose I feel when my work finally becomes a published research article is incredibly rewarding. Science is not easy and does demand concentration, which frequently requires putting aside other activities. However, I don’t feel all the effort I have put forth to achieve my career goals has involved extreme sacrifice. Following my path has helped me obtain fulfillment in my personal life as well: I met my husband in graduate school and we had our child when I was in the second year of my postdoctoral fellowship. I now have a new and very strong motivation to continue to embrace my scientific career: I am teaching my daughter that doing what you love to do is the only way to be truly happy. Thus, I have no regrets.

What advice would you give to young girls and women who are considering a career in the sciences? 

Be true to yourself and pursue your own happiness. Do not deny who you are. If you feel the drive and curiosity for science, the only way you will be happy is pursuing a science career with all your heart. It is your place, your mission, and your duty to fulfill that passion. Work hard with the highest work ethics without worrying too much about the future. Build your life one day at a time and do not overwhelm yourself with what your life will be like in the future. In doing so, you will be able to create your next opportunity and build a path for yourself in science.

Given the theme of this year’s international day, what do you think should be done to increase the participation of women and girls in science for inclusive green growth?

It is in the best interest of humanity to gather as many brilliant minds as possible for curbing the major perils that currently threaten our planet. More than ever, it is necessary to create tangible opportunities for women around the world not only to access science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) programmes, but to be able to contribute with their scientific findings from their sides of the world. We need more science grants and scholarships awarded to brilliant committed women, such as the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) initiative at Universidad San Francisco de Quito. We also need more free access to scientific publications, for what is the purpose of great discoveries if they only can be accessed by wealthy institutions? Finally, we need more women supporting women at all tiers of our careers, and we need a stronger and deeper sense of community to mentor female students at their schools and colleges, as not every young girl is fortunate enough to have a supportive environment at home.