VIB alumni - Vanessa Morais knows how to make an entrance as a new group leader

22 April 2016

Vanessa Morais worked in Bart DeStrooper’s lab (VIB/KU Leuven) for nearly 10 years. In August 2015 she returned to her home country, Portugal, to become group leader at the Instituto de Medicina Molecular in Lisbon. Only weeks later she received an ERC starting grant and an EMBO installation grant. Double bingo, what an entrance!

Congratulations, Vanessa. How important are these grants for you and your research group?
Vanessa: “They mean everything: recognition, flexibility and security in terms of budgeting, independence, scientific freedom ... Now I can buy the necessary equipment and reagents to pursue the research questions that really matter to me. At the same time, the grants come with a certain pressure because they give you every reason to obtain results in the years to come.”

Was it an obvious choice to return to Lisbon? How well is research funded in Portugal these days?
Vanessa: “It has always been my intention to return to my home country. Although, I must agree, the financial situation for researchers in Portugal is not ideal. But one can do excellent science anywhere. Much depends on the facilities and resources at the host institute. The Instituto de Medicine Molecular (iMM) is part of the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Lisbon and is absolutely capable of providing the support I need. It is a unique institute, with many young group leaders, a pleasant meeting of brilliant scientific minds, I would say. The institute can compete with any other top-notch research institute in Europe. To give one example: nine researchers from iMM have already obtained ERC grants in the past; many others are EMBO grantees. That says it all.”

Which research themes will you pursue in the coming years?
Vanessa: “I will further build on my VIB work. The focus will be on the pivotal role of mitochondria at the synapse. Synaptic mitochondria have acquired specific mechanisms to manage local stress.  Disruption of these mechanisms contributes to neuronal degeneration. Only very little is known about mitochondria at the synapse and their role in neurotransmitter release. There are plenty of questions to investigate.”

What has been the contribution of VIB to your career?
Vanessa: “Being part of VIB and KU Leuven for ten years has exposed me to a unique and challenging line of thinking. It has made me much more critical towards my own research. With Bart De Strooper as a lifelong mentor and Patrik Verstreeken as a great collaborator and coach, I have become a much better scientist. We tackled questions of fundamental scientific importance but also generated results with may have a significant impact on the lives of patients with Parkinson’s disease or other neurodegenerative disorders.”

You decided to become a group leader. Not an obvious choice for many women.
Vanessa: “I find it very odd that women are a minority in leadership positions. Females have the same potential as males. No doubt about that. Combining a scientific career with family life? Why should it be more difficult for women? It is a matter of good planning, focus, finding a balance in what you do and sharing responsibilities between partners. I do not find it difficult to be a good mother and a good scientist at the same time. Even if neither of these is a ‘9 to 5’ job. It is possible to juggle with more than one ball at a time, you know.

Additionally, the VIB training programs ‘Women in Science’ and ‘Leadership’ were very helpful to prepare me for my new job. The leadership course teaches you how to deal with issues in your team. ‘Women in Science’ helps you find smart solutions to difficult situations.”

Women make up over 50% of all PhD students and postdocs at VIB. But when it comes to group leaders, female representation drops to 13%. Time for action! We spoke to Marijke Lein, the Director of Human Resources.

How does VIB try to rectify the gender imbalance in leadership positions? By setting gender quotas?
Marijke: “We do not think quota are the way to go. In particular, current female group leaders reject them because quota signify a devaluation of their own position and a disavowal of their achievements. Therefore scientific excellence will remain the criterion in recruitment processes, regardless of gender, nationality, religion, age, etc. However, VIB looks into ways to shatter the glass ceiling by enabling the internal promotion of women and by putting less emphasis on mobility requirements."

So what is the VIB recipe for tackling this problem?
Marijke: “First of all, we do our best to improve the career prospects for female researchers by taking away obstacles that prevent women from taking positions as group leaders: helping to find a job for their partner, for example, or expanding childcare facilities. But obviously that is not enough. Recent studies show other reasons for women to hold back on going all the way in their careers. Although men and women recognize the advantages of a promotion equally, females anticipate more of the negative consequences that go with a higher position. And then there is their dislike of the ‘political game-playing’ at the top. In the perception of most women, it is still a male game. They feel reluctant to claim their space in this world. “

How can you prepare female scientists for this ‘game at the top’?
Marijke: “We have set up a coaching program for female postdocs, staff scientists and PIs. Participants learn how to deal with this political gameplaying without renouncing their own personality, character and choices. Participants empower themselves by learning how to recognize types of behavior, develop a clear view of their own strengths, potential and little demons, and generate appropriate behavioral strategies. Participants are really excited about the program, especially if they have combined this training with the Leadership Program (see interview Vanessa

Gender imbalance at leadership positions is not a unique VIB issue, is it?
Marijke: “No, not at all. Recently, VIB joined forces with 12 leading European research institutes, all of them partners in the EU-LIFE alliance, to launch the LIBRA project. Supported by the gender expert organization ASDO, this project will evaluate the current status of gender equality in the different institutes. In a second phase, the institutes will implement innovative and efficient actions to increase representation and participation of women in leadership positions.
Soon, a survey on gender will be carried out in all EUlife institutes. We hope that everyone at VIB will take part in this survey!“


Interested in this coaching program for female researchers? Take a look at the ‘Women in Science’ trainings.
More info here

Vanessa Morais

Marijke Lein