Collage of two portrait photos: on the left side, Laura Bacete Cano is standing in a growth room. She has dark brown, long hair, a blue labcoat on, is holding a small green plant in her hands and is smiling into the camera. Kelly Swarts on the right side has long light brown hair, a black sweator on and is standing in a lab environment. She is also smiling into the camera.  Laura Bacete Cano (left) and Kelly Swarts (right) are the most recent female group leaders at UPSC (photo left: Mattias Petterson, Umeå University, photo right: Johan Gunséus).

How can we empower women and girls to pursue a career in science and achieve gender equality? Laura Bacete Cano and Kelly Swarts think that it is important to encourage curiosity and create a more supportive and inclusive academic environment. On today’s International Day for Women and Girls in Sciences, we have asked the two most recently recruited female group leaders at UPSC about their experiences and motivation to go into science.

Why did you choose to become a scientist?

Laura Bacete Cano: My curiosity drove me to become a scientist. When I was a kid, my favourite words were “¿por qué?” – which means - “why?”. I’ve always been eager to understand how things work and I enjoy mental challenges. Finding answers to my questions is deeply satisfying. As someone from a farming family, I also chose to specialize in plant science, because I know how important plants and agricultural production are.

Kelly Swarts: I have always like understanding systems and how things work and research (whether in a company or in academia) is just pushing beyond what is already known. From a practical perspective, I like that my job is different every day.

Do you remember a key moment that influenced your decision to go into science?

Kelly Swarts: I think I always knew that I wanted to do something in science but my path into research was decided when I was working as a middle manager in a company and felt, intellectually, under stimulated. This has never been a problem in research.

Laura Bacete Cano: As a teenager, I was uncertain about my future and whether university was the right path for me. Despite excellent grades, I disliked high school and doubted my abilities as a student. But I was really interested in science, especially Biology, and I have always had a desire to address societal issues. Then I bought a book entitled “Choose What You Want to Become”. It was a list with all the higher education programs (university degrees and advanced vocational studies) in Spain, my home country, at that time. Each of them came with a description of what it is about and a short interview with two people involved in it (former students, professors, etc.). I fell in love with the Biotechnology degree because it was closely related to biology and, at the same time, I could see a big impact in society. So, I decided I wanted to become a biotechnologist, and since then, I was much more motivated to go to high school and keep a good average so that I could qualify for that degree.

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

Laura Bacete Cano: My passion for science is a significant motivator, though academia can sometimes be challenging, especially for minorities, including women. I have seen many good friends leaving Academia or settling for positions that do not allow progress in their careers, just because they feel that they do not fit in here. And they are very smart and kind people. I felt at some point I did not want to continue in this career. But then I thought that if everybody, who is not a perfect fit, leaves, then this toxic environment will never change. So, I chose to stay, hoping to contribute to a more inclusive environment from within and make decisions that reflect these values.

Kelly Swarts: I have had wonderful mentors and peers at every stage and have really benefitted from excellent academic environments. This, combined with (a lot) of dedication and hard work, has been instrumental in getting me to where I am today. I also have had my feet in a number of fields (archaeology, biology, computer science and statistics) and I think that this has been a real benefit, as a lot of innovation happens at the intersection of fields, or ways of thinking.

What kind of obstacles do you had to overcome during your career (so far)?

Kelly Swarts: During my master’s degree, my primary advisor left for other opportunities as I was going to begin my analysis. In the end, I reached out to others, who were very generous with their time and expertise, and I was able to complete the project. The moral of this story is, do not hesitate to ask for help from any source when you need it. The worst they can say is no.

Laura Bacete Cano: Being the first in my family to attend university and pursue a PhD presented challenges, as did battling depression during and after my PhD. The lack of understanding and support for mental health issues and the pressure to continuously work without breaks were particularly tough. Other obstacles included language barriers, frequent relocations for positions, and adapting to different cultures.

What do you think can we do to inspire the next generation of women in science?

Kelly Swarts: Inspiration is not the problem. All young children are curious about their world, but this needs to be encouraged and nurtured as kids grow up. The trickier questions are political, social and logistic. The opportunities available to women need to, obviously, be equal. However, what this means varies by context.

Laura Bacete Cano: We need to acknowledge the challenges women encounter instead of dismissing them as just the way things are. This includes addressing clear issues like ensuring equal parental leave and enforcing a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment, as well as tackling less obvious concerns. As I said before, the toxic atmosphere in academia often drives people away, which is something we urgently need to change. At the undergraduate level, there's nearly an equal split between men and women, but this balance shifts dramatically at the professor level, as illustrated by the famous “Scissors Diagrams”. I used to think this disparity was due to changes over time, but now, I see it is a widespread issue. The struggle to maintain a healthy balance between personal life and a successful career often leads to burnout, especially for women who face additional expectations in their personal and family lives. This imbalance is a significant reason why many women leave academia before or shortly after completing their PhDs, based on what I have observed and heard from friends. I am convinced that creating a more supportive and inclusive academic environment will encourage more women to pursue and excel in scientific careers at every level.

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

Laura Bacete Cano: Believe in yourself and your ability to be a scientist. There are no specific requirements, just a curious mind. Overcoming stereotypes and not letting them deter you from pursuing science is important. I read the other day an interview with the actress Sofia Vergara where she said she had assumed she will only play some kind of roles because of how she looks (very “explosive”) and how she sounds in English (Colombian accent), and she literally said nobody will ever call her to play a role of a scientist in a movie. That is the mistake. We have an image of what a scientist is, but it is not real, and not seeing ourselves in that image should not discourage us from being scientists. Because the reality is that science is actually (and must be even more in the future!) much more diverse than what the stereotypes suggest.

Kelly Swarts: Focus on the big questions (rather than tools or techniques, which change constantly), work hard and ask lots of questions!

More about the two researchers

Laura Bacete Cano started to establish her research group at UPSC when she became Assistant Professor at Umeå University in 2023. She also leads a project at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, Norway, where she worked before as postdoc. Laura Bacete Cano investigates plant cell walls focussing especially on the dynamic processes that allow the cell wall to adapt to changing environmental conditions.

Kelly Swarts became Associate Senior Lecturer at SLU in 2023 and has now moved part of her research group from the Gregor Mendel Institute/Max Perutz Labs in Vienna to UPSC. Since 2023, she is also fellow of the SciLifeLab & Wallenberg National Program for Data-Driven Life Science (DDLS). In her research, she is combining her background in biology, archaeology, genetics and computer sciences to study how conifers have adapted over time to changing climate conditions.

More about the International Day for Women and Girls in Science

Official homepage of the Women and Girls in Science Day

Information on the homepage from the United Nations