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Positive role models are key to gender equality - Prof. Caroline Dean

Prof. Caroline Dean believes that women can hesitate a tiny bit longer than men when asking themselves if they are good enough to run a laboratory.
Prof. Caroline Dean believes that women can hesitate a tiny bit longer than men when asking themselves if they are good enough to run a laboratory.

Female role models are an important way to promote gender equality among senior scientists, according to Professor Caroline Dean, a plant biologist at the John Innes Centre, in Norwich, UK. 

Prof. Dean is the winner of the 2015 European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) and Federation of European Biochemical Societies (FEBS) Women in Science Award for her work in plant biology and working to promote women in science.

Is there still a need to strive for gender equality in the sciences?

‘I think there is. In biology we've got 50-50 student ratios, and lots of women postdocs, but still at the senior level there are very few women. Personally I've never found any bias whatsoever, so I think a lot of it is about having female role models at key points in your life. There's a point when you ask yourself, “am I good enough to run a lab?” and I think women hesitate a tiny bit longer than men, which makes a difference.’

Why didn't you hesitate?

‘I had a very interesting role model in my mother because she was the main breadwinner for our family, so for me it was quite natural. I always knew I wanted to have a family, and I've had two kids who have enriched my life enormously, but it hasn't slowed me down. Actually I think it's helped me keep balance, because you do better science if you've got other things in your life as well. I've had to work extremely hard, and there's a ten-year period when the children are young that is very hard, but there's a lot of life left afterwards. I think a lot of women think it will be too hard, which puts them off at those difficult junctures in life. When I was in California I got infected with the “I-can-do-anything-if-I-put-my-mind-to-it” bug when I saw people's self-belief and tenacity.’

‘I had a very interesting role model in my mother because she was the main breadwinner for our family.’

Professor Caroline Dean, John Innes Centre, Norwich, UK

What are you working on and what led you to choose the topic?

‘We are working on seasonal timing in plants, and how plants know when to flower. I did a postdoc in California and I had come from northern England where I grew up, where the seasons are very strident. It was interesting to me how different the seasons are in California. I remember going to buy some garden bulbs from a nursery and the chap said to me, “now don't forget to put them in the fridge for six weeks before you plant them”. I thought, “wow, that would never have occurred to me coming from England”. So I started to read about it and I decided to look into the timing of developmental transitions, and flowering was a good one to start with. And my focus was on this need for a prolonged cold winter, a process called vernalisation. So looking back, this person's comment really had a big influence on my life.’

Where has your early work on vernalisation led you?

‘We have studied vernalisation in the Arabidopsis system. It's a little plant – I guarantee it will be in your garden. It grows up to the Arctic Circle and pretty much down to the equator, so it has a very general habitat range. It has adapted to flower very differently depending on where it's growing, and many overwinter before flowering in spring.

‘We've found that lots of genetic pathways converge on one target gene, which encodes a protein that blocks flowering. The protein acts like a floral brake. Slowly over the winter the expression of that gene is silenced, turned off by the cold, so that by the spring the brake is released and the plant flowers. When you look at other plant species the principles are really rather similar, so by understanding it in Arabidopsis you can have a good shot at figuring out what the key regulators are in other plants, like crops. For example breeders of brassicas, like cauliflower and broccoli, are very interested in finding varieties where the flowering is slightly less sensitive to exceptionally cold spells in winter.’

What are you most proud of in your career?

‘I've been renowned for my focus – we've been studying vernalisation for 25 years. We've asked different questions but all the different facets have converged on the regulation of this one target gene encoding the floral brake. It's now seen as a fantastic example of how layers of gene regulation are integrated, enabling gene expression to be switched on and off by developmental and environmental signals. I'm most proud of the sophistication of our understanding – it is likely to be the paradigm for many other gene systems.’

How is your European Research Council (ERC) funding supporting your current work?

‘The ERC funding is utterly fantastic and allows us to test some really blue sky thinking, get on with the research for five years with a critical mass of people and make good progress. I can't tell you how much ERC funds have influenced European science. I've been fortunate enough to have won two ERC grants, my first grant six years ago allowed us to make a step change in our understanding of how plants remember they have been exposed to the prolonged cold of winter. Last year we won a second ERC grant to ask how fluctuating temperatures are integrated and the molecular basis of the temperature antennae. We'll be looking at the molecular detail to understand the basis of adaptation to different climates.’

What can policymakers do to support women in science?

‘I worry about imposing a top-down, “everyone must have a mentor” rule, however, having someone to talk to for advice is immensely helpful. We also certainly need to work to encourage girls in schools. We have to make a science career look very exciting and very doable. I think careers in science are to be treasured, because if you're into what you're doing you're being paid to do your hobby.’

What advice would you give a young woman starting out on a career in science?

‘I would recommend getting as much help as possible with grant applications and papers. I also advise people to think hard about how to manage their time – as you go on you get completely bombarded with thousands of things to do. Women need to be a bit selfish and prioritise the important things, grants and papers, before they work on the little things on their to do list. Time management is especially important when you have kids.’

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