Interview to María Mayán

Interview to María Mayán
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María D. Mayán Santos is one of the most recognizable figures in the field of Science in Galicia. She currently works as a Research Group Leader at the Institute of Biomedical Research of A Coruña (INIBIC).
At ingenyus*, we had the pleasure of talking to her about science, research, and the future.

Congratulations, María! The research group you lead has just received the Francisco Guitián Ojea Award from the Real Academia Galega de Ciencias. Could you tell us more about #CellCOM and, in particular, the work you carry out at the Institute of Biomedical Research of Coruña (#INIBIC)?

Thank you very much. This award has been especially exciting for us because it’s related to a project that can help improve the quality of life for cancer patients. Hopefully, it will serve as a boost to achieve the goals we’ve set, which now depend on maintaining the interest of the company. We are in the “valley of death,” and it is a difficult valley to cross. Administrations should work more on this part. We should replicate what other countries, such as the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, are doing. Technology transfer is the key to making science profitable, but it needs to be professionalized to work effectively.

In our group, we conduct several lines of research with the goal of identifying new therapeutic targets to prevent the progression of age-related diseases and designing new strategies to increase the effectiveness of targeted therapies and prevent treatment resistance in cancer.

Did you ever dream of doing research? Was it a vocation?

I discovered my vocation during my studies. By my fourth year of Pharmacy, I was sure about it, and I ended up doing my thesis at the CIB Margarita Salas in Madrid.

Starting from a scientific background, how do you handle management responsibilities? Is management training a missing piece in scientific careers?

No one teaches you how to lead a research group, and it’s more challenging than it seems. Every day is a challenge. We should pay more attention to this aspect of management and leadership. Group leaders often feel isolated because all the work and pressure of the group falls on our shoulders. Training, mentoring, and networking don’t exist in most research organizations in Spain.

As part of your career, you included a postdoctoral stay abroad; what aspects would you highlight from that experience? Are there notable differences with our system?

In my case, since I started my doctoral thesis, I was clear that my scientific training should include a stay at a research institution outside of Spain. It’s been an experience that has influenced both my personal and professional life. Highly recommended. In Spain, there are excellent institutions and research groups, and you don’t necessarily need to go abroad for training. However, there are still few Spanish groups that reach the level of those in other countries. Going abroad is highly advisable: you learn and overcome your fears.

What is the actual state of research in Galicia?

In Galicia, high-quality science is conducted, but there are very few research groups with international recognition. The average age of the personnel leading research groups in Galicia is 55 years. We need to support young-led groups and attract new talent to ensure continuity. In the last 10 years, few new infrastructures have been created, and existing scientific infrastructure in various research centers and universities has been poorly updated. In the healthcare sector, for example, there are Biomedical Foundations that haven’t kept their facilities up to date, resulting in a loss of competitiveness. We are at a turning point right now. If we continue like this, there won’t be much of a future for science in Galicia, especially in A Coruña. The administration needs to step up, and we can’t continue with such low investment in R&D, which requires professionalized research management and clear objectives for evaluation.

Your career is marked by successes; however, in the scientific field, there are many obstacles. Have you encountered difficulties? Do you learn from them? And in your case, what drove you to keep going?

In my case, I’ve had to be persistent, and my career is marked by hard work. All the successes you see have required a lot of time and effort, but I’m very pleased with the results. A calm sea never made a skilled sailor. You always learn. I love my work, and giving up is not an option. The scientific profession is a marathon, and every difficulty is a new incentive. There’s nothing that can’t be resolved.

How do you view the role of a woman researcher? Do women face more difficulties?

It’s clear that there’s a problem, even if many don’t want to see it. The data speaks for itself. Studies published in prestigious international scientific journals like Nature and Science show that there’s a gender bias, where female scientists, with equal qualifications, have a 20% lower chance of obtaining a research project or position. Girls as young as six years old believe they are less intelligent despite having better grades. We continue to pass on the education of our grandmothers to our daughters and sons, making it difficult to combat the biases that perpetuate the gender gap. Furthermore, motherhood represents a hindrance in scientific careers, and very little is being done to address it. We can’t afford to lose talent because of gender. In my case, I have certainly faced difficulties due to gender bias and motherhood, but like most women, I have accepted them. However, that doesn’t mean it’s fair. The glass ceiling is an objective fact, and it still exists, showing that women have a harder time reaching the top positions. When it comes to leadership and management roles, women are often underrepresented, even though there are highly competent women out there.

In a recent interview, Cristina Garmendia stated, “It’s clear that not investing in science is a threat.” Do we only remember this in situations like the current one?

It’s a shame that our politicians still see science as a luxury. Science is a necessity, and we can’t afford to ignore it as we have in the past. The economy of the future is based on generating knowledge for the development of new technologies. The one who invents first gains wealth and jobs. We are seeing this with diagnostic kits, vaccines, and treatments for COVID-19. It seems like we haven’t learned. We can’t continue to depend so much on tourism, construction, and sports; these are very fragile systems. We need a strong economy that can respond to emergencies like the one we’re currently facing. We need politicians to wake up from their slumber and take action rather than just sitting in office. They need to promote science and invest in R&D; otherwise, young and talented individuals in Spain, especially in Galicia, will have to emigrate.

The one who invents first gains wealth and jobs

#WithoutScienceThereIsNoFuture. What does science need?

Science, especially in Spain and Galicia, needs investment and effective management. Currently, most European countries invest nearly 3% of their GDP in R&D, while Spain invests a paltry 1.24% of its GDP, and Galicia only invests 0.94% of its GDP. We can’t continue with such low levels of funding because science is a global endeavor, and we are losing competitiveness.

Europe can afford to temporarily reduce the budget of the European H2020 funding program because most European countries have a strong focus on R&D and are less reliant on joint programs like H2020. In Spain, the situation is the opposite. If H2020 reduces its budget, as it seems it will, science in Spain will regress to levels from 50 years ago. Most competitive research groups in Spain achieve international recognition because they receive European funding. We have no choice but to increase national investment; otherwise, we will be relegated to a country that can only offer services to modern Europe once we emerge from this crisis. We need to act now, or we won’t have the capacity to respond to the next global crisis. The future of the next generation is in our hands. Let’s hope that the funds we receive from the European Recovery Plan will be invested in 21st-century policies, not short-term policies from the last century. What we need is more “bricks” in science and technology.

At ingenyus*, we advocate for the beauty of science and the importance of communication, but we understand that making it attractive and understandable is not easy. Is it society moving away from science, or is it science not connecting with society?

Science is very attractive, and communicating it is essential. In general, society values science highly and enjoys learning and staying informed about the latest scientific advances. Scientific outreach was not common in Spain until a few years ago, but now it’s happening, and it’s being done very well. It has even professionalized. Communication and scientific outreach are essential for society to appreciate science, stay informed, and be educated. In the UK, they have posters in the streets and on the subway, and science has been a regular feature in the media for over 50 years. Here in Spain, we are still somewhat behind, but we are making progress.

What advice would you give to students who haven’t started university or are in their early years and dream of a research career?

Don’t hesitate. You learn something new every day, and nothing can replace the joy of discovering something new, no matter how small. A discovery is something that you and your team have seen for the first time in the world, and it will eventually contribute to advancements in health or improving the quality of life for this and future generations. I hope that research becomes the dream of many girls and boys, and together we can contribute to leaving a better world.
Sometimes, children ask if science is difficult. Science is straightforward; you just need to enjoy it because it requires willpower and effort. If you don’t enjoy it, it’s best to pursue something else, but if you love it, every day is different and engaging.

Finally, could you give us some recommendations for future interviews? 😉

I can provide you with many recommendations. Some names that come to mind include María de la Fuente Freire (IDIS), Marisol Soengas (CNIO), África González (CNVIO, Vigo), María José Alonso (CIMUS), Carlos Spuch (IIS Galicia Sur, Vigo), Margarita Poza (INIBIC), and many others in Galicia and beyond.


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