Developing diversity

It is a Friday afternoon in a rather special laboratory. One where female researchers are not playing supporting roles.

Far from the banks of the Gironde, a few kilometres from the city centre, there are two hospitals, and between them stands the University of Bordeaux 2. It is here that students come to study the life sciences, human sciences and health. It is also here that fundamental research is carried out in cooperation with the largest of the two hospitals, the Pellegrin University Hospital. The appearance is that of an urban campus – low, rational buildings, huge car parks, scattered trees. On the first floor of building 1 lies the Cirid. (1)

There are a lot of women here. The two research fields, one devoted to immune systems and the other to stem cells, are both headed by women. Many of these women researchers also hold positions of responsibility in the various sub-groups. Gender mix and equality seem to be the key words of a unit whose special spirit is said to owe much to the personality of its ‘boss’, Jean-François Moreau.

Capacities beyond gender

Julie Déchanet-Merville, aged 42 and with three children, leads the teams working on one of the principal research themes, immunology. “I followed the very typical path of the biologist. I have never found any difficulty working with men and I cannot say being a woman has been an obstacle to my progress. Men and women researchers do comparable work and the differences are more to do with individual personality than gender.” Vincent Pitard, biological engineer, who has worked with Julie for about 12 years and seen her be promoted, believes that: “Having a woman boss doesn’t change anything. She is just as present and accessible as a man and her private or home life does not spill over into her professional life at all.”

Julie’s group is working on a herpes virus. “We are studying the immune system cells by trying to understand how they act to combat this virus and the recognition mechanisms at work. So we work a lot in tandem with the hospital.” Pierre Merville, a university professor andhospital doctor – and Julie’s husband – is also a member of the team. At the Cirid the mix is one of profession as well as of gender.

Most of the men who work at this unit are practitioners as well as researchers. Doctors and biologists have a different vision of research. For the former, it is a matter of targeting a precise question – a given problem in the patient requires research with a view to providing a response. For the latter, the vision aims more fundamentally to contribute new knowledge, illustrate mechanisms and possibly come up with results that will cause them to adopt new lines of approach. These differences prove mutually complementary.

A balancing act

Charlotte Behr, team leader within the immunological branch, believes that “doctors are in a situation that is in some ways similar to that of women with children, torn between the hospital and research, engaged in a balancing act. Having a patient to see on one hand and tests to complete on the other gives them the feeling that they are failing to do justice to either one.” Charlotte, 46, with two children aged nine and seven, is working on cells that could play an important role in eliminating the parasite plasmodium, a malaria agent. She spent several years at the Pasteur Institute in Paris before coming to Bordeaux, and has had to face the typical difficulties of female researchers when engaged on extended missions in Africa. “My private life has been a brake on my professional life, not so much for practical reasons – which I have been able to resolve – as for psychological reasons. You sometimes have the feeling that you are ‘doing everything badly’ and there is a constant tension. The other day my son said to me ‘you are the only mother who did not go on the school trip.’” But this sense of ‘doing everything badly’ does not only apply to children. “Researchers could work night and day. Nothing is ever finished, there are always reports to read, papers to write, experiments to do… You therefore have a constant feeling of guilt about your job.”

Differences and complementarities

At the Pasteur Institute, Charlotte Behr worked in a much more male-dominated environment. This caused her to form a certain idea of the differences in behaviour between male and female researchers – although she is anxious to point out that these are very much personal impressions. She believes men have a more pioneering and adventurous spirit, “ready to plough ahead without too many second thoughts,” while women take more account of elements that are ‘external’ to the work, such as the personal difficulties somebody may encounter at a given moment. “Mixed teams have the advantage of achieving a balance between these two sensibilities,” she believes. “You need the go-getters as otherwise you do not progress, but also others who say ‘be careful, let’s just pause a moment to reflect.’”

At this point Giulia came into the office, slightly embarrassed at having pushed open the door without knocking when a visitor was present. “Come in… Giulia’s point of view could also interest you. She is on a Marie Curie fellowship and starting her third, thesis year.” Giulia Costa feels perfectly at home at the Cirid. “I am really lucky to be part of a team where there is such freedom of thought and of speech. Everybody’s voice is heard at the meetings: men and women, project leaders and students. I don’t know whether I would make a good researcher but I see many women here doing the job and combining it with a family life and children. Their example is an encouragement to me.”

The common interest

Vincent Pitard was busy meanwhile in the testing area. Before coming to Bordeaux, he worked in the R&D department of a Scottish SME and at Oxford University. He believes that as a rule “men show more ambition in terms of external visibility and recognition. Women feel less need to be members of representation bodies, lobbies, or committees where they could influence things to their advantage. At Oxford I had a boss who was very concerned with finding himself in the right place to advance his projects and his career. With Jean-François that is much less evident, even if a part of his work is to raise funds and highlight our scientific credibility.” Jean-François Moreau’s office is on the same corridor. The head of the Cirid, his office is no bigger or more sumptuous than those of the researchers. He does have a place to park his rusty black bicycle though, testimony to his sustainable mobility. A hospital practitioner and university lecturer with 31 years of research experience, this boss is regarded as relatively atypical, with a rare ability to listen and to delegate and initiate at the same time. “The very opposite to the wielder of power,” says Charlotte.

Jean-François Moreau divides his time between the hospital, where ‘military-type organisation’ is needed, and the Cirid laboratories where it is very different. “It is not by imposing constraints and generating stress that you produce inventive researchers. What matters is their personal commitment. They must have the freedom to choose their own paths in realising their ideas.” Engaged on their individual quests, these men and women researchers nevertheless work as team members. “I believe that a group of men does not necessarily have the same beha viour as a group that includes women. Scientific gender mix is a positive thing. Generally speaking, women seem to me to be more concerned about the common interest. They are also quicker to discover this common interest, whereas the men often persist with their own reasoning.”

Christine Rugemer

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Immunity and pluripotency

The CNRS (National Centre for Scientific Research) and the Bordeaux University Hospitals contribute to the work of the Cirid (Innate Components of Immune Response and Differentiation). It is focused on some very fundamental investigations in two fields at the leading edge of molecular biology.

One avenue of research is studying the defence mechanisms – or deregulation – of the immune system based on the ‘responses’ of T lymphocytes to microbiological aggression.

The researchers are looking in particular at immune defences against the herpes viruses and against plasmid and malaria, responses to carcinomas (skin cancer) and to lymphomas, as well as the auto-immune disease known as lupus. The second field of research is concerned with pluripotency and the first stages in stem cell differentiation.