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Laura de Smalen, PhD Student, Group Handschin

Why did you decide to do a PhD?
During my bachelor's in Nutrition and Dietetics, I developed a strong interest in the causes and mechanisms that underlie the human diseases that I studied in a practical setting. I challenged myself to enter the academic system and specifically the field of molecular biology to study these topics further in my master's and now PhD. Currently, I am working on molecular mechanisms in skeletal muscle in the context of exercise and aging in the Handschin lab. 

How can we inspire girls and female high school students to pursue a career in science/STEM *?
I think that it is important to affirm all students that with hard work, they can pursue a career in STEM, regardless of gender. Diverse representation and role models can help to further encourage female students to pursue a career in STEM. At the same time, we need to create an environment where all scientists are treated equally by putting an end to gender biases, stereotypes, discrimination based on gender, and structural barriers. With equal treatment, we help women that started their careers in STEM, to stay in STEM too. This is essential since the largest gender divide in STEM exists in late career stages1

What do you wish for the future?
Gender biases have been around for a very long time. Charles Darwin, a pioneer in the field of biology, argued in the 19th century that women do not have the potential, according to laws of inheritance, to become intellectual equals of men2. To this day, this gender bias is reflected in 67% of women in STEM who report having to provide more evidence of competence than men to be seen as equally competent3. Women have come a long way in proving that when given the opportunity, Darwin’s notion of female inferior intellect does not hold true at all. I hope that in the future we can abolish these biases completely, which will allow us to strive towards the ultimate goal: equal opportunity for all scientists.

1 She Figures 2021, European Commission 2021, Directorate-General for Research and Innovation, Chapter 6: Career advancement and participation in decision-making.
2 Descent of Man II, C. Darwin 1871, Chapter 19: Mental Powers of Man and Woman. 
3 Double Jeopardy? Gender Bias Against Women in Science, J.C. Williams, K.W. Phillips, E.V. Hall 2014, Chapter 1: Prove-It-Again.

* STEM = Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics