Insights and wisdom from the women of TREC

On International Women’s Day 2024, we hear from some of the women who have been working tirelessly in the field and behind the scenes as part of the Traversing European Coastlines (TREC) expedition

Collage of six images showing scientists and science professionals during the TREC expedition, with a banner saying “International Women’s Day 2024” and the TREC expedition logo.
Some of the women participating in TREC at work in the field as well as behind the scenes. Credit: EMBL

From Mary Agnes Chase, the botanist who expanded our understanding of Latin American flora, to Jane Goodall, the primatologist who spent five decades studying chimpanzees in Tanzania, to Eugenie Clark, the “Shark Lady” who has been a steadfast voice in marine conservation – women scientists have been blazing a new trail in life sciences field research in the last century, despite the many challenges they have faced historically. 

It inspired us to reach out to a few of the women who have played critical roles in making TREC – the EMBL-led expedition that aims to map life along European coasts – possible. Here are some of their voices on their responsibilities within TREC, their advice for young women in science, and how the situation for women in science has changed over the years. 

What inspired you to work in science and take part in the TREC expedition? 

“I started studying biology with the wish to understand how life works. I am fascinated by the small organisms, like bacteria, that have a huge impact, so helping to understand the microbiome across Europe’s coasts feels like the right spot for me right now.” – Tina Enders, Postdoctoral Fellow

“I am not a scientist by any means; I come from a different background and bring different skills, experience, and mindset to the table. As a layperson, I was very curious and am still amazed by the ambition of this expedition and its potential long-term impact on how we see, understand, and address the most important environmental questions and challenges of today and tomorrow.” – Marta Major, Sampling Permits Project Officer

“I come from a family of doctors, engineers, and scientists, so I grew up with science all around me! My first job was at a large advertising agency, and working there made me realise that I felt the need to be a part of something that could make a change for the better in this world. Now working on TREC with a focus on the health of our planet is very inspiring.” – Sara Verstraeten, Outreach & Public Engagement Manager

“I am inspired by the many biological questions that are not answered yet and especially the quickly evolving electron microscopy field in which I work.” – Paulina Cherek, Imaging Specialist

“I was not a child with an innate passion for science; I had many interests and science was one of them. When I started university, the more I studied science, the more my passion grew. I was particularly fascinated by the scientific method, the deconstructive process that leads to knowledge through sequential and verifiable steps.”  – Rossana De Lorenzi, Communications Officer, Rome

“I’ve always been driven by curiosity, and my curiosity was always linked to my deep-seated concern for the well-being of our planet and its inhabitants. Now, as we navigate through unprecedented environmental and societal challenges, I find myself at a crossroads, eager to use my scientific background, concerns about our planet, and firm determination, to contribute meaningfully to the greater good and inspire positive change.” – Paola Bertucci, Head of EMBL Scientific Expeditions

What has been your proudest moment in your career, or during the TREC expedition, thus far?

“For me, it was to name my first archaea Phylum. I have always loved learning about archaea and I always dreamed of discovering new ones and getting to name them, so being able to achieve that was a great moment for me. Also, completing the first leg of TREC. I have been part of the planning from the first pilot expedition so I have seen how it has grown and evolved over time.” – Kiley Seitz, Soil Microbiologist

“I could not pick one particular moment – I am proud every day! It has always been an amazing feeling being surrounded by all the sparkling minds at EMBL and being able to support them with administrative tasks so that they can focus on science. TREC speaks to my adventurous heart.” – Alena Fröhlichova, Administrative Officer for Expeditions and Mobile Services

“I am very proud to see how successful the TREC Public Engagement programme has turned out to be! If I have to pick one specific moment though, it would be meeting the President of Estonia, Alar Karis, and seeing how important engaging with young learners is to him.” – Sara Verstraeten, Outreach & Public Engagement Manager

What advice do you have for young women who want to pursue scientific careers, especially involving fieldwork?

“Go for it! For me, the two key elements to pursuing a career in science are: 1) Find a topic for which you have a burning passion, and 2) Work with people whom you appreciate. In my case, this enables persistence, which is key in science. If you are curious, love adventure, and are truly ready to get out of your comfort zone both physically and mentally, then scientific fieldwork is for you.” – Flora Vincent, Group Leader, Developmental Biology Unit

“Focus on getting a solid education, but also build your social skills and remain open to opportunities. There is only so much you can plan your career, and for me, the interesting things happened when I took opportunities that arose. I am a cell/molecular biologist by training and being on an expedition was not on my horizon a few years ago, but confidence and a sense of adventure can definitely be learned. Do not be afraid to challenge yourself.” – Valerie Maier, Field Operations Coordinator

“Be brave and follow what drives you! Science is so diverse and there is so much still to be discovered. Ask questions, connect to people, and use your network to find your place.” – Tina Enders, Postdoctoral Fellow

“Like any other career, achieving success requires hard work, waivers, and sacrifices. Especially at the beginning of a career, I think it’s very important to push hard and learn as much as possible. A good mentor is fundamental to growing and finding the right path. A scientific background can open up many job opportunities beyond the research career, and a solid scientific base and mindset help in different contexts.”– Rossana De Lorenzi, Communications Officer, Rome

“I would like to remind all women that they should not underestimate themselves. I need to admit I have seen many amazing, smart, and proactive women ‘underselling’ themselves enormously – feeling thankful to get a position, not fighting for their contract conditions, almost feeling ‘guilty for participating’. Never feel bad for being good at what you do.”  – Paola Bertucci, Head of EMBL Scientific Expeditions

What is your role within the TREC expedition?

“I am the Field Operations Coordinator. One aspect of my role is to work in close contact with our partners to have everything ready for the arrival of the team at a given place, make sure that we have everything to be able to sample, and ensure that things go as smoothly as possible.” – Valerie Maier, Field Operations Coordinator

“I am one of the TREC Scientific Coordinators. My role was to design and implement the sampling of shallow waters in a manner that will be as comparable as possible to what is done on the Tara vessel, building on my previous expertise as a Tara scientist. On top of that and as part of TREC, my research group focuses on applying state of art molecular and cellular approaches to study phytoplankton symbioses in the Advanced Mobile Laboratory (AML).” – Flora Vincent, Group Leader, Developmental Biology Unit

“I lead the transformation of the TREC concept into a comprehensive program, together with  a diverse team of scientists and managers. My primary responsibility has been to do the strategic planning of TREC and to foster stakeholder and scientific engagement, while working to achieve synergy among the three pillars of TREC: science, services, and public engagement.” – Paola Bertucci, Head of EMBL Scientific Expeditions

“I am responsible for obtaining sampling authorisations for all our sampling activities throughout the whole TREC route. I study the requirements of each country and each place we visit, and I make sure we meet all those requirements and have all the required documents before we arrive in the field.” – Marta Major, Sampling Permits Project Officer

“I am an expedition lead, the lead soil sampler, and in charge of doing the data analysis for one of the three TREC scientific projects.” – Kiley Seitz, Soil Microbiologist

“My main mission is to take care of travel-related bookings to ensure rotation and accommodation on site for TREC. I also take care of some tasks related to invoicing and reimbursements, in addition to co-organising meetings with TREC coordinators and helping plan further pilots.” – Alena Fröhlichova, Administrative Officer for Expeditions and Mobile Services

“I am co-lead of the sediment sample collections. This includes preparation of equipment before going to field, collecting the samples on site, and assuring proper storage of the samples finally at EMBL.” – Tina Enders, Postdoctoral Fellow

“As the Public Engagement lead for the TREC expedition, my role is to develop a strategic and ambitious programme that connects the scientific community and the public in the context of the TREC expedition, thereby enabling dialogue and interaction between the public and TREC science.” – Sara Verstraeten, Outreach & Public Engagement Manager

“I am a field scientist with a background in developmental and cell biology. I work primarily in the model species team, taking care of both logistics and sampling.” – Antonella Ruggiero, Postdoctoral Fellow

“I work in the Advanced Mobile Lab (AML) as an imaging specialist responsible for on-site cryo-preservation of collected samples.” – Paulina Cherek, Imaging Specialist

“I oversee the communication activities for the second phase of the TREC expedition. My role is to liaise with local partners to coordinate press and media activities at each stop of the expedition.” – Rossana De Lorenzi, Communications Officer, Rome

“I am the shallow water lead and one of the TREC core samplers, which means that I oversee and carry out the sampling of the shallow waters, make sure that the samples are taken according to protocols and if not adapt them in agreement with the scientific coordinators.” – Elisa Merz, Expedition Field Scientist

“I am a member of the TREC steering committee, where I use my experience with previous expedition consortia to set up the governance structure. I also coordinate the TREC-related activities at EMBL for communications, public engagement, international relations, and legal matters.” – Stefanie Kandels, Head of EMBL HD Director’s Office

How has the situation for women changed since the time you first started working in science? What are your hopes for how it will evolve in the future?

“As a young woman starting to work in the late 1980s, I do remember having been in uncomfortable situations with superiors, sometimes feeling intimidated and having to listen to inappropriate comments. Today, this would not happen so easily anymore as there would be serious consequences for such behaviours. Also, a large proportion of female scientists I met had to make choices in order to be competitive: family or career. Today, there are many programmes for young scientists supporting them to have a family while having a science career at the same time.” – Stefanie Kandels, Head of EMBL HD Director’s Office

“It has definitely evolved and in a good direction. I was appointed as chief scientist on a major expedition involving chasing algae blooms in Patagonia when I was only a postdoc back in 2021; I’m not sure this would have been so smooth 10 years ago. My hope is that we see more women in positions of scientific leadership. I am confident this will positively impact scientific culture, and that increasing diversity in science will be a source of new ideas and innovations.” – Flora Vincent, Group Leader, Developmental Biology Unit

“The situation for women in science has changed in the past ten years for the better; however, a lot still has to change. Female scientists face disadvantages on countless levels, including being frequently excluded from field or lab work during and after pregnancy, even though there are potential solutions and workarounds. I have met fierce, incredible, brilliant female scientists who have shown that it is possible to have both a family and an exceptional career, but things need to improve further at a systemic level.” –  Elisa Merz, Expedition Field Scientist

“In my working environment, I’ve always been surrounded and inspired by women. Compared to when I started, women now occupy more leadership positions, and EMBL is a very good example of this. Nowadays, there is generally more attention paid to gender equality, especially in science. This is not only the effect of measures taken to promote women’s careers, but fortunately also the consequence of a cultural change.” – Rossana De Lorenzi, Communications Officer, Rome

“Over the years, what I have noticed changing is the visibility of women in science, with more and more children having access to female STEM role models, which in turn promotes the proportion of women interested in studying STEM. My hope is that in the future,  we will have better working environments and support for women, specifically in academia. As it stands, I see too many of my female colleagues leaving academia for industry because it provides more support and better opportunities. My hope is that in the future, we won’t just see more women in PI positions but we will see more women happy in the positions.” – Kiley Seitz, Soil Microbiologist

Any other thoughts you would like to share for International Women’s Day?

“I am glad to see so many women on TREC. Fun fact: on International Women’s Day, the land team will have all female team leads for soil (Kiley Seitz), sediment (Tina Enders), and water (Elisa Merz) sampling.” –Tina Enders, Postdoctoral Fellow

“The world is changing and there are more and more opportunities for women in science. Don’t give up!” – Paulina Cherek, Imaging Specialist

“My daughter was born on 8 March and she is a very special, intelligent, wonderful, and confident person, also a scientist. I hope this is the generation of women (and, of course, men) who are going to transform academia in the coming years.” – Valerie Maier, Field Operations Coordinator

“To those of you who have a small internal voice saying ‘I would really like to do science but I’m not good enough’, I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that it will be hard to stop thinking that. The good news is that it’s not true and you just need to learn how to ignore it. So roll up your sleeves and choose science!” – Flora Vincent, Group Leader, Developmental Biology Unit

“Women’s contribution to science has been critical, even in the absence of due credit historically. Personally, I think that we are on the right track and I would encourage young girls to take up a scientific career – science is for everyone!” – Antonella Ruggiero, Postdoctoral Fellow

“I would like to celebrate all those amazing women that have shaped our past under immense shadows of unfairness, those who still need to overcome very difficult situations to work in science, and those who still believe in themselves and dare to follow their dreams. In the meantime, I would also like to remind us all that our planet is in a real and urgent crisis, one that will be irreversible anytime soon, if not already. Then, the consequences will be the same for all of us, regardless of gender. We all need to respect each other, work hard and together.” – Paola Bertucci, Head of EMBL Scientific Expeditions

From its inception, TREC relied on the collaborative efforts and energy of several women working in a variety of roles, at EMBL as well as in our partnering organisations. For example, EMBL Director General Edith Heard participated in conceiving the idea for a European land-water mobile exploration. Together with Head of Strategy Jessica Vamathevan and Head of International Relations Plamena Markova, she secured historic member state support and funding for the project, as part of the ‘Molecules to Ecosystems’ EMBL programme. As TREC heads deeper into its second phase, it will continue to rely on the cooperation between and the diversity of its team members to achieve success in its mission of understanding the effect of changing environments on living organisms and ecosystems along the European coast.

Tags: diversity, equality, gender balance, inclusion, planetary biology, TREC, women in science, women in stem


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