Portrait photo of Petra Marhava in front of green plantsPhoto: Peter Marhavy

Empowering female scientists to achieve gender equality – this is the purpose of the International Day for Women and Girls in Science which is celebrated tomorrow on the 11th of February. We have asked our most recent female group leader, Petra Marhava, about her career, how she balances work and family life and what she thinks is important to improve gender balance in science.

What made you become interested in science?

Petra Marhava: Science is all about asking questions and seeking answers; my curiosity about the unknown motivates my passion in science. My PhD with Prof. Friml in Belgium sparked my interest in plant cell biology, and when I continued as a postdoc with Prof. Hardtke in Switzerland, it confirmed that this is what I want to pursue in the future. Few things are more rewarding than working in a career that is both enjoyable and beneficial to others.

Do you remember a key moment that influenced your decision to become a scientist?

Petra Marhava: After completing my MSc in Molecular Biology, I began working as a cytogeneticist at the Department of Oncology Genetics at the National Cancer Institute in Slovak Republic, which was a good experience but more of a normal job, and I missed doing research. The opportunity to begin my PhD in Prof. Friml's lab was very appealing to me because it was a completely new field for me. This step was a key moment for me but also my long interest in science and the impact of my mentors were very important.

What has helped you to move on with your academic career?

Petra Marhava: It was definitely my mentors (Christian and Jiri) and the locations where I studied my PhD or conducted postdoctoral research. I started my PhD in Plant Systems Biology at VIB in Ghent, where I was surrounded by approximately 300 excellent plant researchers, finished my PhD at the Institute of Science and Technology in Austria, which provides scientific diversity, and continued a postdoc at University of Lausanne, one of the best places to undertake plant research in Switzerland. These were definitely the key factors that influenced my career. Last but not least, our department gave a trust in me and supported my applications to establish my own research group here at UPSC.

You are a mother of three kids and just start to set up your independent research group at UPSC. How does it work to balance work and family live?

Petra Marhava: Being a mother of three little children while establishing my own research career is challenging and demands many sacrifices. But I am fortunate to have an amazing husband, who helps and supports me much, making things simpler. Moreover, I have a great support from our department and fantastic colleagues around me.

What do you think can we do to inspire girls and young women in science and motivate them to start a career in science?

Petra Marhava: I don’t think that we need to motivate/inspire girls or young women to start a career in science. They are inspired! In my opinion, we should think about how to motivate them to stay in science. Childcare and dual career support are only few examples how we can support them.

Do you have any tips for young (female) researchers who want to start a career in science?

Petra Marhava: It's difficult for me to give advice, but one thing that has helped me in the past is to never give up (and I wanted many times 😊).

About Petra Marhava

Petra Marhava started her independent research group at UPSC in summer 2022 focussing on plant acclimation to heat and cold stress. After her master’s degree in Molecular Biology, Petra Marhava worked as cytogeneticist at the National Cancer Institute of Slovak Republic. She did her PhD in Jiří Friml’s group that moved from the VIB U-Ghent in Belgium to the Institute of Science and Technology Austria in Vienna and finished her PhD there in 2015. Then, she moved on to a postdoc in Christian Hardtke’s group at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland before she joined UPSC in 2020.

In 2022, Petra Marhava received one of the highly competitive ERC Starting Grants from the European Research Council (ERC) and was awarded with a prize for young researchers from Kungliga Skytteanska Samfundet. Petra Marhava was finalist of the 2020 New Phytologist Tansley Medal for excellence in plant science and received in November 2021 a starting grant from the Swedish Research Council.

More information about Petra Marhava’s research

More information about Petra Marhava’s ERC Starting Grant project "Hot-and-Cold"

The purpose of the International Day for Women and Girls in Science is to empower women and girls in science and strengthen their participation in science and technology communities. The day was established in 2005 by the United Nations General Assembly and implemented by UNESCO and UN-Women. According to UN-Women, 33.3 percent of researchers world-wide are women but only 12% are members of national science academies and they are still disadvantaged in their career.