World Woman Hour in collaboration with Organon honors Maria Blasco for the leadership qualities that have won her wide recognition in the bioscience community. She is Director of Spain’s National Cancer Research Center, in Madrid. She has led efforts to bring more women into high-level positions in science. And her own research, as a molecular biologist and biochemist, contributes strongly to scientific progress that could lead to healthier lives for all of us.
Maria’s work has focused on an enzyme called telomerase. To explain it in very simple terms, telomerase (te-LOM-erase) is active inside living cells to varying degrees. When this activity runs at high levels, it allows the cells to keep dividing and replicating well beyond their usual lifespan. Such is the case in many cancer cells, producing tumors that grow and spread stubbornly. Finding a way to block the activity could be a big step forward in cancer treatment. Conversely, triggering or boosting telomerase activity in normal human cells could possibly slow down some of the effects of aging.
Global research on telomerase had just started to gain momentum when Maria was finishing her PhD in Spain in the early 1990s. She did postdoctoral work at the renowned Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, in New York, under Dr. Carol Greider—one of the co-discoverers of telomerase, who would later share a Nobel Prize for her work in that area. Maria then returned to Spain and rose rapidly in the field, being named to her present position in 2011.
Her research output is immense. Maria has published over 250 scientific papers and has won numerous international awards. Dedicated science fans may be impressed to know that her “H Index” score—a measure of both the quantity and quality of a scientist’s research—is 81, a world-class figure. Here are edited highlights from her interview with World Woman Hour.
Q: Why are you so passionate about telomerase and molecular biology?
Maria Blasco: When I learned about molecular biology, I realized that it Is the science of understanding life on the molecular level. That you could actually manipulate life; you could cut and paste and alter the DNA, and in this way, learn about the origin of diseases and then about potential treatments for them. So for me it was an opportunity to learn what life is, and to be able to design treatments that someday, maybe, will work for diseases like cancer or many degenerative and age-related diseases that we seem to have been unable to treat.
Q: What does the future of your research field look like?
Maria: We are at a very exciting point. In the past 20 years or so, we have learned a lot about what telomeres are [the DNA strands at the tips of chromosomes], what telomerase is, and their importance in aging and cancer and different diseases. But now we’re at the point of really trying to apply all this knowledge to treat particular diseases. So this is where we will see whether the knowledge that we have generated is going to be useful for solving medical problems.
Q: Other leading scientists that you worked with also were women. Was that intentional, how does it feel, and what can you say about it in general?
Maria: I don’t think it was intentional, but yes, it happens that my PhD supervisor was a woman, Dr. Margarita Salas, who was one of the leading molecular biologists here in Spain. And then I went to work with another woman, Carol Greider. The telomerase field is full of women who have made key discoveries, and I think this has been very good for the progression of my career. I have always had the support of other women, and I had role models of women who actually led their own research.
Q: What are some major issues right now for women in molecular biology? Or in any of the biosciences?
Maria: In these fields the main problem is not the number of young women at the start, who train up to the highest levels within the training system—let’s say up to the postdoctoral level—or who even become staff scientists. The problem is the percentage of women who then decide to move forward and become group leaders. This is still not 50%, so we still don’t have 50% women leaders in general in science, or in molecular biology. I think this is something that has to be corrected. Group leaders are important in research, because when you are a leader, you can decide what to study and how to apply your knowledge. I think it is also very important for having role models that could encourage more women to want to lead.
Q: So, what are the solutions?
Maria: At the Spanish National Cancer Center, we are doing a number of things to try to correct the situation. When we want to hire a new PI [principal investigator] in a new position, we wait until we have an equal number of men and women who are at the same level before we initiate the hiring process. We also have teleworking and all kinds of other measures to give people more flexible working hours. This flexibility is very important for women, so that they can have a balance between personal life and work life. And in research, it is one of the main things that inhibit women from wanting to go to the highest positions. When I became director of the Spanish National Cancer Center I met with all the women, the postdocs and staff scientists. They basically told me that they were not interested in being group leaders because they would have little time to do the things that they were interested in.
I think it is fundamental that you should have no concerns about being able to have your own family life or private life. So, we have implemented these measures to give people more flexibility, and it has been working very well. It does not reduce their productivity or their ability to perform.
Q: Thinking back to your younger self, at the start of your career, is there advice you would give to young women today?
Maria: When I started, I honestly never thought about whether I was going to succeed or not, or how difficult it was going to be. I think the important thing is to feel passionate about what you are working on and the questions you want to answer. In my case, I was lucky to find a space that is still fascinating for me today. So, if you work hard, and you really enjoy what you are studying, I think that is the best guide.
Q: What have you learned about overcoming failures and setbacks?
Maria: I think failures are necessary to learn about the subject that you are studying. But you keep working hard. You try to get advice from your supervisors or colleagues, and you try to solve the problem using different approaches. Scientific discovery is not easy. We are trying to discover things that are not known, so it is normal to fail, and of course I had many, many failures. But I find it fascinating that we’re trying to discover the unknown, and therefore we have to be very creative. I think I’ve been lucky because in the end, there was success. I have never abandoned a project. It has just been a matter of trying a different way and working harder on being creative.
Q: One final question. You are a leader in many ways. In your eyes, what is the essence of leadership?
Maria: Leading, to me, is helping to discover new things.