Promoting Women’s Research in Computational Biology: A Conversation with Eva Alloza

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The UNESCO reports that only 30% of the world’s researchers are women. The Bioinfo4Women initiative is working to promote women’s research in computational biology through training and mentorships. We spoke to Eva Alloza about her career path in computational biology and involvement in the initiative.

What is your current role and how did you get here? 

I am part of the coordination node of the Spanish National Bioinformatics Institute (INB), hosted by the Barcelona Supercomputing Center (BSC), which is also leading the Spanish node of ELIXIR (ELIXIR-ES). As part of BSC, I am also involved in other projects, for instance, BioExcel, EuCanImage, VEIS and bioinfo4women. My background is as an agricultural engineer by UPC and UdL, where I was interested in livestock breeding. Then I had the chance to pursue an MSc in Bioinformatics at Cranfield University and a master thesis in the microarray facility at the VUmc. Bioinformatics was flourishing in the early 2000s, and I decided to learn more by doing a PhD in functional genomics at Dopazo’s lab about cancer genome functional organisation. A plot twist happened when I did a Master’s degree in Scientific, Medical and Environmental Communication. However, I never left bioinformatics because I managed the Bioinformatics Barcelona Association’s operations for five years, which helped me access my actual position.

 As a Training and Support Officer, what does your typical day look like? 

A typical day is very diverse and never monotonous. The coordination node has a lightweight structure to manage the INB/ELIXIR-ES, so I give full support to the Node Coordinator duties. Tasks involve support and coordination to the INB nodes and TransBioNet units, connecting with my peers in ELIXIR and other projects like BioExcel regarding training and communication activities mainly, and industry and impact. My activities also deal with promoting knowledge exchange and networking; we do so by planning and delivering events, for instance, training, workshops and conferences. Another aspect linked with communication is the content curation and editing, and managing the Twitter and Linkedin accounts of INB/ELIXIR-ES (@INB_Official) and Bioinfo4Women (@bioinfo4women), which helps me interact with the community and stay up to date.

Did you have any role models that inspired you to enter this field? 

I was very naïve as a kid, I loved science, but I never thought that I could be a scientist. However, nobody stopped me from following my natural interests. I had supportive male mentors in the university, and I was fortunate to join Dopazo’s lab. A gender-balanced research group where every single person had the same rights and opportunities, regardless of gender, origin, sexual orientation. Now that I look back, my role model was Fatima Al-Shahrour, and she still is. She was my PhD co-supervisor, and I closely worked with her during my first years. Fatima developed at that time ground-breaking bioinformatics methods and tools for functional interpretation of high-throughput experiments. She is hard-working, inspirational, easy-going and always up to solve doubts. I feel fortunate that our paths have crossed again as leader of the CNIO Bioinformatics Unit and INB/ELIXIR-ES node.

Based on your own experience, what advice would you give to women considering pursuing a career in your field? 

Be curious, rigorous and creative, do what you enjoy, be loyal to yourself, your views and your values. Never put yourself down and look for allies; you can learn from others and concentrate on what you are good at and contribute to the team. Yes, these could be applied to any field, but it is essential to bear in mind. I consider multidisciplinary and communication as key assets, mainly in bioinformatics, a discipline at the edge where you need to interact with people with very different backgrounds and interests.

Finally, be open-minded. The so-called alternative careers are no more considered alternative but part of the scientific ecosystem. You can lead your research lines, develop tools and software to help others, manage or analyse data for others, communicate science, manage research projects. Everything is about science and there is room for everyone.

You are part of the Bioinfo4Women initiative. Tell us more about that. 

In 2018 the BSC Life Sciences department launched the Bioinfo4Women initiative to promote women’s research in computational biology, with a special focus on their transition from postdoc to junior independent positions. Bioinfo4Women supports researchers by fostering the exchange of knowledge and experience of outstanding women researchers through activities such as seminars, conferences, training, and mentorships. Besides, a research line is conducted on sex and gender bias in computational biology and AI research applied to personalised medicine and scientific practice.

Bioinfo4Women seeks to provide further visibility to the contribution of women scientists. We aim to build a more collaborative, supportive, and equal scientific community that benefits society as a whole. For instance, Bioinfo4Women fellows receive funding and mentorship, Bioinfo Women’s day highlights women bioinformaticians in our department through informal talks with students, and the open debates about “Sex and Gender Bias in Health and AI” in cooperation with La Caixa Foundation.

Bioinfo4Women organised their first Advances in Computational Biology conference in 2019, where all presenters were women. What inspired the team to create this conference? 

Scientific evidence shows that women are disadvantaged in publishing, funding, hiring, promotions, recognition and visibility of their work compared to men. The United Nations reports that less than 30% of all the world’s researchers are women. We have seen many conferences with only-men line-ups and organising committees, making women’s research invisible and their voice silent. We realised a need for an international scientific conference to break with this trend in our domain and promote women’s research.

AdvCompBio gathered 197 scientists in person from 24 countries, of which 86% were women. The central topics were systems biology, omics technologies, AI and HPC applied to biology. We succeeded at making women’s voices at the central point, creating a secure space to share experiences, and fostering knowledge exchange and collaboration. AdvCompBio was inspiring and necessary for 91% of the participants who provided feedback, and that it helped them expand their network and make useful contacts.

To learn more about Eva’s work, follow her on Twitter and LinkedIn.