Isabel Varela Nieto - INTERVIEWS WOMEN IN BIOCHEMISTRY

Isabel Varela Nieto holds a PhD in Chemistry from the Complutense University of Madrid, is a CIBERER-ISCIII researcher and CSIC research professor at the Instituto de Investigaciones Biomédicas "Alberto Sols" (CSIC-UAM), where she leads the Neurobiology of Hearing group.

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Isabel Varela Nieto

Instituto de Investigaciones Biomédicas "Alberto Sols" (CSIC-UAM) y CIBERER-ISCIII

Twitter: @IVarelaNieto

Isabel Varela Nieto holds a PhD in Chemistry from the Complutense University of Madrid, is a CIBERER-ISCIII researcher and CSIC research professor at the Instituto de Investigaciones Biomédicas "Alberto Sols" (CSIC-UAM), where she leads the Neurobiology of Hearing group, which focuses its research on understanding the genetic and molecular basis of hearing and hearing loss.

 Dr. Varela Nieto has represented Spain on various international panels, including the ESF (European Science Foundation) and COST (European Cooperation in Science & Technology) Biomedicine Committees. She is currently a member of the Science & Society Commission of the Federation of European Biochemistry Societies (FEBS), is part of the FEBS Network working group and since 2018 she chairs the International Committee of the Association for Research in Otolaryngology (ARO).

 Isabel Varela Nieto has been a member of SEBBM since 1982, in the last fifteen years she has formed and coordinated the Apoptosis Group (2005-2008), has been secretary-elect (2008-2010), scientific secretary (2010-2014) and president-elect (2018-2020). Since July 2020 she has been president of SEBBM. Finally, between 2008 and 2014 she formed and coordinated the Commission "Dissemination: Science for All". 

Q.- Tell us briefly what project you are doing in the laboratory.

A.- In the group of Neurobiology of Hearing we study the genetic and molecular basis of deafness. Our laboratory is in the CSIC, in the campus of medicine of the UAM, and we also belong to CIBERER and IdiPAZ. We have recently contributed to describe 3 genes involved in hearing loss associated with aging, along with their mechanisms of action, basic science that could be important in diagnosis and prevention. In recent years, we have focused on the study of new therapeutic alternatives, giving a more translational aspect to our work.

Q.- Why are you a scientist?

A.- My natural science teachers were excellent. At home, I was always encouraged to study, and my grandmother fed me with books of all kinds; when I read a novel biography of Marie Curie, everything came together. She had an amazing life. Already at the Complutense University I was attracted to the more biological side of chemistry; it was a foregone conclusion: Biochemistry. The thesis at the Fundación Jiménez Díaz, with the three pillars of "the house" -research, teaching and clinical- contributed even more to define my interest: Biomedicine.

 "I see the students, who seem younger and younger to me, progress, learn, get excited and the magic happens again. Now I have a new challenge and a new opportunity, that of contributing to the profession and to society from the presidency of the SEBBM"

 Q.- What do you like most about your work?

A.- How difficult! It's been many years and the satisfactions evolve. Each stage has had a different appeal. In the thesis, the emotion is unique in each result, everything is proportional to how hard you have tried, made mistakes, or failed. It is a vital, dynamic work, full of satisfactions and disappointments, in permanent evolution, in which you have to work hard, you lose things, no doubt, you gain others, but above all, you enjoy it! Years have gone by, tasks change, bureaucracy gains weight (see next question), management and also human relations. I have had the honor of representing Spain in very different committees, which have given me another vision of life, of the world and of the country. It is very enriching. I see the students, who seem younger and younger to me, progress, learn, get excited and the magic happens again. Now I have a new challenge and a new opportunity, that of contributing to the profession and to society from the presidency of the SEBBM.

Q.- What do you like the least?

A.- We have a crushing bureaucratic burden and absurd administrative obstacles within the framework of a short-sighted management model and with funding that is as rickety as it is demanding. In short: we are being asked to win a race, in chains. The problem is that we are already at the limit. We urgently need to have a scientific policy and leaders with a vision of the future.

Q.- Do you think it has been complicated to reach the professional situation you are in now?

A.- I don't think it has been any more or less complicated than getting to another equally qualified and competitive profession. However, in the scientific policy of hiring by waves in the public sector, there is an important added generational factor. This factor may have favored me because in almost all my professional stages there has been a certain abundance of opportunities. I am from a "crest of the wave" generation, with a dash of this luck, and a lot of hard work, I have achieved a stable position, a well-funded group, a great team, international recognition and have enjoyed many opportunities. However, the reality is that my group has far fewer opportunities than I had, and it worries me, so it is a very sweet moment every time one of my former PhD student has a success.

Q.- Do you think your professional career would have been different if you had not been a woman?

A.- To be honest, I don't think so.

Q.- Why?

A.- Being in the right place at the right time? My thesis supervisor came from working outside Spain, an intelligent and liberal man who taught me to work with ethics, effort and imagination, José Mª Mato. In a mostly female laboratory, I had an extraordinary woman boss, Isabel Valverde, and some wonderful colleagues. My generation of women scientists has enjoyed considerable equality and made good use of the path opened up by other women. In particular, at the CSIC, we must recognize the work of Flora de Pablo. The world of hearing, in its scientific side, is full of brilliant women, you think of the leaders in the field, and it fills your head with them. In other fields this is not the case, the data are clear. The SEBBM, for example, has not been exempt of very good examples, such as Margarita Salas, Gabriela Morreale or Mª Teresa Miras but, nevertheless, I am the first president elected* by the members. I am sure I will not be the last.

Q.- What do you think are the main challenges to achieve equality for women in scientific careers?

A.- The main challenge is that the scientific career in fact exists. What do students who finish their doctorate see? Many years of hard work ahead, generally abroad, lack of flexibility in the system, instability, inbreeding, lack of mobility and it could go on. When will the scientific career be available? In my opinion, this situation is particularly detrimental to women, especially those who want to have children or who have them.

"I am especially concerned about girls and girls with high abilities, who perhaps are not supported by a social environment that sometimes seems to go backwards rather than forwards in attitudes and values. I would like to promote SEBBM activities in this direction"

Q.- How do you think equal opportunities for women can be promoted?

A.- First of all, education, education and more education, good role models, professional women in TV shows, science in the media. How about 2-3 min of science for all audiences between weather and sport? The BBC has been offering high quality 5 min science pills in prime time for years. In Spain, you have to wait for the podcast to enjoy some very good programs that are broadcast in the wee hours of the morning. I am especially concerned about girls and girls with high abilities, who perhaps are not supported by a social environment that sometimes seems to go backwards rather than forwards in attitudes and values. I would like to promote SEBBM activities in this direction.

Secondly, a scientific career and the creation of jobs in a sector which returns everything that is invested in it, giving it added value.

Thirdly, some concrete measures, for example, joint tribunals. This has proven to be positive in the CSIC. In general, to ensure that there is a minimum parity in all areas of our work. If you are not selected you are not seen, if you are not seen you are not selected and so on, we fade away and disappear. Finally, having children, which is an asset for an aging country, should have another level of support.

Q.- Suggest a woman leader in the scientific field that you would highlight as a reference.

A.- All those mentioned above, and many others have been references, but if I have to choose one, I will choose Gabriela Morreale. A very intelligent, strong, hard-working woman, a pioneer in all fields, an outstanding scientist in a difficult time and with an international recognition that most of her colleagues did not have. I especially value her social and medical work in the prevention of thyroid diseases, something that is insufficiently known. When will a report or a documentary with Gabriela as the protagonist be made? We have much to thank for the determination and passion for science of this great scientist.

* Note: the first president was Margarita Salas because she was vice-president at the sad moment of the death of the elected president.

This article is the English translation of a Spanish version published by the Spanish Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (SEBBM): https://www.sebbm.es/web/es/divulgacion/mujeres-ciencia/entrevistas-mujeres-y-ciencia/4363-isabel-varela-nieto

The Spanish Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (SEBBM)

The Spanish Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (SEBBM) was founded in 1963, currently has more than 3370 members and is the main scientific society that coordinates activities in Spain related to the extensive field of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. SEBBM protector members: Bio-Rad, Eppendorf, Fisher Scientific, Control Técnica, Waldner, Merck, ASEBIO and Promega.