Noemi Jiménez-Rojo is a postdoctoral fellow at the Biochemistry Department of the University of Geneva (UNIGE), Switzerland, where her work focuses on understanding lipid diversity and uncovering new lipid functions using multidisciplinary approaches. She has also co-founded and chaired the Postdoc Association of UNIGE.
What have been your major scientific achievements?
I am a biochemist working in the field of lipid biology. Combining membrane biophysics with mass spectrometry (lipidomics) and cell biology, I try to understand how cells orchestrate lipid metabolism to maintain membrane function.
During my PhD I applied different biophysical techniques to study the membrane behavior of lipids that belong to a specific lipid class named sphingolipids. For my postdoc I decided to go a step further and apply lipidomic analysis to understand how lipid metabolism is regulated in cells. I like interdisciplinary and collaborative research and I have recently described, in collaboration with other groups from Switzerland and the USA, how some lipid metabolic branches are co-regulated to maintain the homeostasis of the secretory pathway, in particular the secretion of a particular set of proteins called glycosylphosphatidylinositol-anchored proteins (GPI-APs). The lipid field is flourishing and I expect really exciting discoveries within the next years. I am looking forward to contributing to that!
What do you see as the most important impact of your work?
My take home message in almost every presentation I give is: lipid composition matters!
Nature has kept thousands of different lipids (some of them with very elaborate synthetic pathways) probably because they have very specific molecular roles, many of which are still unknown. Moreover, changing the stoichiometry of those lipids has a great impact on membrane properties and, as a consequence, on membrane-dependent processes (i.e. intracellular trafficking). However, scientific models depicted in textbooks, reviews or articles generally do not reflect this lipid diversity but rather seem to present membranes as passive scaffolds that support processes independently of their lipid composition. This is slowly changing and I hope my work is also contributing to that.
What have been the main challenges that you have faced so far and how have you overcome those?
There are a lot of challenges in academic research and I am still trying to figure out how to overcome many of them. I particularly struggle with the uncertainty about my future in academia as I am finishing my postdoc. The scarcity of female role models (PI positions, conferences…) is also hard because it makes me wonder how I will ever make it through this career when women in my field (and in general) are so hardly present.
What would be your advice to young women researchers who are aiming at a career in academia?
Work hard, be resilient and get involved – do not wait for others to change things for you.
Find mentors or mentoring programs in which you can share and listen to experiences from other peers, where you feel supported and where you can be yourself. Avoid people that make you feel uncomfortable and small. Peer-mentoring has been crucial for me, and still is; chatting with colleagues and friends at similar career stages is sometimes more useful than getting advice from a certain PI with whom you may not have so many things in common.
Do not compare yourself to others but to your past self. If you do so, you will be amazed by how much we are able to learn and evolve and that is what matters.
When things get difficult, remember what your final goal is and try to keep it always in mind.
Finally, do not hesitate to complain or to point out wrong or abusive behaviors, but this message applies to everyone. If we let these kinds of things go, we are normalizing them. No matter the difference in seniority, nobody has the right to be disrespectful or to make you feel uncomfortable. It takes time and it is hard to lose the fear to speak out loud especially if you have to face those who are in power. Scientific research is a beautiful and exciting job and it needs to become a safer and more welcoming career choice.
What is the most important issue that needs to be addressed to achieve gender equality in academia?
The first issue is work–family life balance. I believe that is the main reason why so many women give up academia after their postdoc when they are in their mid-30ss. Measures like not scheduling meetings or seminars after 4 pm or like offering childcare within institutions and conferences should be easy to implement, but of course the problem is more profound. As women, we usually have more insecurities than men and I think one of the main reasons is the scarcity of female role models and the intrinsic biases that play against us. Here is where mentoring comes to be crucial. My message for any mentor in a privileged position: support women and other underrepresented groups in science, highlight their work and find ways to motivate them. We are losing talent every day. The more we wait for equity measures to be a reality, the more brilliant minds we will lose; it is urgent to stop the leaky pipeline.
What have you experienced so far as the pros and cons of postdoctoral work abroad?
Leaving my family and friends was definitely the hardest part and it still is; I miss them every day. The pros are many. At the time I left it was very difficult to achieve my scientific goals and ambitions in Spain (and it still is) and it is also important to leave our comfort zone and get to know different scientific systems. I have grown a lot both at the personal and professional level so, my advice is: yes, go abroad but choose wisely the place and the advisor!
You recently received the 2021 Darlene Solomon Award. What does receiving the prize mean to you?
I am very happy about it and I look forward to all the networking opportunities that Agilent and FeMS (Females in Mass Spectrometry) are providing me with. It is also definitely a boost of confidence and motivation, which at this point of my career, and given the uncertainty about the future, really helps. More importantly, receiving the prize has given me the opportunity to share my experiences and opinions in different media and I am grateful for that. I think that researchers at my career stage have a lot to say but most of the times we are not given the opportunity to have a word when important decisions are taken at any level. I believe our viewpoints can be very valuable!
Top image of post: Noemi Jiménez-Rojo's confocal microscopy image of HeLa cells showing the Golgi apparatus in magenta and EGFP-GPI construct in green. Image acquired using a using a ImageXpress® Micro Confocal High-Content Imaging System (Molecular devices) in ACCESS Geneva facility.