Women in STEM: Vanina

Vanina in the lab

My 35th guest is Vanina, a motivated and passionate Romanian-Italian neuroscientist.

Hi @introvertscientist! First of all would you like to tell us something about you?

I’m Vanina. I am currently working as a microbiology analyst while completing my postgraduate studies in neuroscience at King’s College London. I am the first person in my family to have a higher education degree and struggling with imposter syndrome. I come from a poor family of immigrants from Romania. My family moved to Italy when I was young and at the age of 33 I moved by myself to UK to pursue a career in science. I am the living proof that despite all the odds, perseverance and ambition can lead a person to success.

When did you start your Twitter account? How did you get the idea?

I’ve started Twitter few years ago but I’ve never been active as I am now. I realised that there is a very supportive academic community active on Twitter where every person feels included. It was a surprise for me to discover such an amazing group of people sharing their ideas, work even struggles.

Can you tell us something about how you balance work and private life? 

Work-life balance it was inexistent for me while I was studying for my undergraduate degree. I had a full time job while studying full-time. After years of doing it I suffered a burnout and decided to make my mental health a priority. So I took an year off from studies and took a job in industry. The perks of working in industry are many, including several weeks of annual leave and not a lot of overtime. So now I am trying to find ways to keep this balance while I’ll be going back to studies again. At the moment I am trying my best not to work in the weekends, I set clear boundaries between work and private life. I do not carry work at home, and try not to think about work while I’m enjoying a nice walk out in nature.

During your academic studies how many women were in course? Why in your opinion?

I was lucky to attend a course where most of my colleagues were women. We also had many women as lecturers which supported us throughout our studies. I think we are seeing an increase in numbers of women taking life science related topics which is great.

Have you ever felt harassed or being kept apart as a scholar because you are a woman?

No, I’m lucky to say it never happened to me.

How did you become passionate about science? 

My passion for neuroscience started while I was doing my undergrad project. My supervisor was a woman, doctor in neuroscience, coming from a family of immigrants and we bond quickly. She drove me towards one of the best university to study for a postgraduate degree and she supported me each step of the way.

Would you like to talk briefly about your job?

I currently work as a microbiology analyst in the pharmaceutical industry. We test new medication and medical devices before gets on the market. We are looking for any type of bacterial contamination that could be a risk to the patients using that medication. We also conduct testing to detect the levels of endotoxins that certain medical devices have in order to determine if it is safe for patients to use. We are responsible for putting out on the market safe products. And I am proud I have to play a role in this.

Thank you so much for your time. Lastly, can you give any advice to girls interested in STEM?

Be curious. Ask questions. Never stop following your dreams.

Follow Vanina on LinkedIn and on Twitter!

Vanina and her amazing blue hair

Food cravings during pregnancy

Me, pregnant, eating

The relationship with food during pregnancy is usually of aversion in the first trimester and of cravings during the second and third trimester.

During my pregnancy I suffer from nausea during the first 10 weeks and develop an aversion for broccoli and the odor of raw fish. As far as cravings are concerned, I wanted to eat salty foods (probably because of my low pressure – a constant before, during and after pregnancy -) and fruit (probably because of the freshness and sweetness).

Cravings have always been an interesting subject to study both for food scientists and psychologist. In the last 40 years numerous papers have been published on the topic. Reading through (some of) them I discover that the scientific consensus is that cravings are most a psychological factor then a biological one.

The concept of cravings during pregnancy is a constant among many cultures, but the desired foods differ from culture from culture.

In 1994 a study was conducted on pregnant women: they were given a box with either milk chocolate (which contains cocoa, has a high nutritional content and melts in the mouth) or white chocolate (which does not contain cocoa, has less nutritional value and melts less in the mouth). Pregnant women were more satisfied when the ate white chocolate, suggesting that cravings are not related to a biological and/or nutritional need.

Placket investigated cravings in pregnant women living in Tamil Nadu (one of the 28 States of India). In his study, women were craving mostly for fruit. The necessity of eating fruit was also recorded by Hill. Besides fruit, women in the study of Hill, reported to have cravings for sweet food and dairy. What is interesting is that these cravings did not impact on overall dietary intake, nor were associated with excessive gestational weight gain, maternal glycemia or offspring outcome.

A study from McKerracher revealed that some women of Yasawa Island, despite suffering from nausea and food aversion, tried to eat different food “for the sake of the baby”; suggesting the importance of nutrition education to optimize maternal and fetal health.

What is (or was) your relationship with food during pregnancy?

References:

Bayley et al., “Food cravings and aversions during pregnancy: relationships with nausea and vomiting”, (2002), https://doi.org/10.1006/appe.2002.0470

Hill et al., “Nutritional and clinical associations of food craving in pregancy”, (2015), https://doi.org/10.1111/jhn.12333

McKerracher et al., “Food aversions and cravings during pregancy on Yasawa Island, Fiji”, (2016), https://doi.org/10.1007/s12110-016-9262-y

Michener and Rozin, “Pharnacological versus sensory factors in the satiation of chocolate craving”, (1994)

Orloff and Hormes, “Pickles and ice cream! Food cravings in pregnancy: hypotheses, preliminary evidence, and directions for future research”, (2014), https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01076

Placek, “A test of four evolutionary hypotheses of pregnancy food cravings: evidence for the social bargaining model”, (2017), https://doi.org/10.1098/rsos.170243

Women in STEM: dr. Carmen

dr. Carmen, happy in the lab

My 34th guest is dr. Carmen, an Italian neuroscientist working in California and a passionate advocate for women in STEM.

Hi @CarmenFalcone6! First of all would you like to tell us something about you?

I am Carmen, an Italian postdoc in Neuroscience, currently working at UC Davis (California). I did a Master in Neuroscience and obtained a PhD in Functional and Structural Genomics at SISSA in Italy, studying the development of a type of cell (astrocytes) in the cerebral cortex. During my postdoc, I am currently interested on development and evolution of glial cells in the brain.

When did you start your Twitter account? How did you get the idea?

I started my Twitter one year ago mostly to connect with other scientists all around the world. Some colleagues suggested it to me at a conference. Since I have started using Twitter, I have had the opportunity to meet many different scientists at different career levels, and get to know exciting research from different fields. I have also met potential collaborators. I think it is an extraordinary platform full of resources, especially during this pandemic where we cannot travel as we usually would.

Can you tell us something about how you balance work and private life? 

I value my private life a lot. I do my very best to not work on weekends, and I prefer to work harder during the day, but have the evening work-free. I think also our work can benefit from taking care of our mental health.

dr. Carmen enjoying her free time

During your academic studies how many women were in course? Why in your opinion?

During my years as students and even now as a postdoc, I have had many female colleagues. I cannot tell the same about the professors I have met. In the PIs category, women are much more rare according to my personal experience. My guess is that this has something to do with both still discrimination during hiring processes and to unbalanced parental duties/ lack or insufficient parental support from the universities.

Have you ever felt harassed or being kept apart as a scholar because you are a woman?

I personally have not, but I have known many women peers that have been. I have had friends experiencing diminishing comments in the work environment just because they were women. We need to change this, and educate all different generations to do better and be more inclusive.

How did you become passionate about science? 

I never had doubts about choosing science as a career. I have had the privilege to have parents who stimulated my curiosity since I was a child. For example I still remember how encouraging they were when I was used to bring home tadpoles or caterpillars to watch their metamorphosis. It is not a coincidence that I became an evolutionary developmental biologist.

Would you like to talk briefly about your job?

I am interested in studying how astrocytes (specific types of the brain that look like stars) form during development and how they have evolved in different species (including human). I compare astrocytes in differen brains from anatomical, morphological, and molecular perspectives. I’d like to known what makes them special in comparison to other cells, and why they look different in different species.

Thank you so much for your time. Lastly, can you give any advice to girls interested in STEM?

Follow your dreams. A career in STEM is possible for women, and you are enough. Find mentors that can support you and encourage your path. There is now many female models to look up to, and next one can be you.

Follow Carmen on her website, on ResearchGate, on LinkedIn and Google Scholar!

dr. Carmen at her desk
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