SS: Why did you choose a scientific career?
JPV: My brother in law, a high school history teacher, who had known me since I was a child, suggested I choose something from science, more ad hoc to my skills, more challenging, he said. I always respected his opinion as he always had a positive input in my family. At that time, I wanted to study informatics (at a technical level) so I listened to him and I enrolled myself in a University course in Computer Science. This subject was taught at the faculty of science (together with other subject such as physics and mathematics) with shared courses of the fundamentals of mathematics for all of us. I ended up falling in love with maths and I changed my study subject, graduating as a mathematician. The best decision of my life. Something that makes me happy every single day. I count myself lucky for finding my true vocation.
SS: How did you get your current position?
JPV: While working in the UK, I got engaged to my partner (German citizen) and we decided to move to Germany, I directly contacted several research institutions where my subject was done, explaining that I was looking for a position in Germany. I obtained several interviews and got a couple of offers, I ended up taking the most convenient. Think about taking the initiative.
SS: What do you do in your everyday work life?
JPV: I am a researcher, I work in the field of applied mathematics to biology. Therefore, I read papers, I write papers, I teach, I supervise students, I meet with colleagues regarding research projects, I write research proposals, I review papers, I give talks in conferences or in seminars. I love my job.
SS: What is the most exciting aspect of your research?
JPV: To find out new things, to discover things, to know that I was part of a contribution to new knowledge.
SS: What challenges do you encounter in science?
JPV: Lack of long term job perspective and competitiveness. Unfortunately, Germany still has a long way to go to ensure permanent positions for scientists. Also, there are several ways in which scientists are rated/evaluated. Some of them do not make much sense. We have to comply anyway.
SS: What are your most promising findings in the field?
JPV: I believe that mathematics will be part of the solution to key challenges in developing more successful therapies, from preventing antibiotic resistance to personalized cancer treatments.
SS: What motivates you to give a talk in Soapbox science?
JPV: I am passionate about improving the participating of women in STEM, apart from that, I am a mother of two girls, as a woman in STEM I know how underrepresented we are and I know that part of the solution is role models. If you see someone who you can identify with, it is likely you want to consider doing something she does. On another level, I believe that bringing science to the public is a pivotal task for every scientist.
SS: Do you have a few words to inspire other female scientists? What can we do to attract more women to STEM fields?
JPV: I did not notice about any kind of gender imbalance or directly suffer discrimination because of my gender while I was a math student, including my PhD time. It was only after I completed my studies that I realized how unusual that was, I discovered that, unfortunately, discrimination and gender imbalance is very wide spread in STEM. I just happened to be lucky or perhaps too naïve and distracted regarding that. Therefore, I decided to do something active to help, it is likely that girls would face challenges during the STEM studies because of their gender, it is not very likely that girls would consider STEM as a career choice. I started participating in initiatives to improve this, for example I became part of the program “1000 girls 1000 futures” to help promoting STEM among high school female students. Do the same if you can, find ways to help. Supervise female students, give talks, if you have a success story to tell, make yourself visible, it shows girls out there what is possible. Encourage girls around you to think about STEM. And if you ever face gender discrimination, seek help from a female tutor, a female student advisor, a female professor, chances are they have faced something similar too and can help. Science is for all.
To attract more women to STEM, I believe role models are pivotal, get women in contact with female scientists at all levels, from school girls to last year undergraduates. Teach science to girls, buy STEM-related toys for your daughters, talk to them about famous female scientists. Make STEM accessible.
Finally, I would quote the words of the first black woman in space:
“We look at science as something very elite, which only a few people can learn. That’s just not true. You just have to start early and give kids (girls) a foundation. (Girls) Kids live up, or down, to expectations.” -Mae Jemison