Women In Science profiles: Isabel Varela Nieto

This is the first post in a series of 'WISe words for the next generation of researchers' – the aim is to raise the visibility of women in molecular life sciences and to help others by sharing experiences, thoughts and tips as careers progress.
Women In Science profiles: Isabel Varela Nieto

Isabel Varela Nieto is Research Professor at the
Institute for Biomedical Research in Madrid 
(CSIC-UAM) and Principal Investigator at the
CIBERER-ISCIII. She is a member of the FEBS
Science and Society Committee and FEBS Network
Working Group, and is the President elect of the
Spanish Society for Biochemistry and Molecular
Biology Society (SEBBM).

What have been your major scientific achievements?

My work focuses on the study of the genetic and molecular bases of hearing and hearing loss. I have spent more than 20 years in this fascinating field of research. My group has described the functions of insulin-like growth factor type 1 (IGF-1) in the development of the inner ear and its importance in maintaining hearing, thus helping to understand why its deficiency causes a rare type of human deafness. The signaling initiated by IGF-1 contributes to neuronal survival, modulating apoptosis, autophagy and cellular senescence. We have contributed to defining the intracellular signaling involved in the regulation of these responses from development to ageing.

What do you see as the most important impact of your work?

After so many years what I am excited about at this moment is to contribute to the development of drugs that can contribute to the cure or improvement of hearing loss. The aim is to move from basic work that contributes to understanding of the bases of the disease to identifying pharmacological targets to development of preclinical studies in the indispensable animal models – and the dream of arriving at the clinic.

What have been the main challenges that you have faced so far and how have you overcome those?

It has been difficult to become a principal investigator of a group working on a minority issue in my biomedical environment. In this context, it has been very complicated to stabilize a group of adequate size to be able to make relevant contributions to the field. Having sufficient funding is a challenge in Spain, and European programs incrementally abandon basic science or restrict it in hyper-concrete subjects in such a way that it is difficult to find spaces. The solutions: enthusiasm, work, more work and more enthusiasm. I like my work; otherwise it would have been impossible. Combining having three children with a profession that demands a lot has not been easy either. My family, my parents, my sister, my husband and then my own children have been essential to maintain the enthusiasm and pace of work.

What would be your advice to young women researchers who are aiming at a career in academia?

That they follow their vocation, enjoy their work, and maintain curiosity and enthusiasm so that things come though even when they seem sometimes impossible to achieve. Difficulties help you grow, obligations help you organize better, and enthusiasm helps you to sleep fewer hours.

How do you make the best out of failures?

Analyzing the causes, contextualizing and prioritizing: the scientific method is very useful to advance in life and it is for me just a routine, the way I know best. Identify the causes and give the problems their true dimension, try to fragment them when possible and be as positive as possible – all these are attitudes that depend on oneself and help to solve the problems. 

What is the most important issue that needs to be addressed to achieve gender equality in academia?

In my opinion, in academia, more slowly than we would like, a balance is being achieved, because, at least in Spain, it is women who have entered with the best grades in universities for many years, and this generates a flow that I trust is unstoppable.

We must act very early, when girls and boys are very young, educating in equality, respect and, above all, giving value to education and knowledge over fashions or traditions, reducing the impact of new and old sociocultural limits on girls’ decisions.

This is the future. Today we have to continue working for visibility, so that there is a balance in, for example, the speakers at conferences, in executive committees, and so on, but always maintaining scientific quality as the main criterion because  above anything else we are scientists.

Image (left, and inverted right): Arthimedes/Shutterstock.com

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