This month EPWS gives the floor to Dr. Anne Kahru.
Dr. Kahru is an outstanding Estonian biologist with a special competence in ecotoxicology of nanomaterials.
EPWS: What made you want to go to science? How did you decide to choose your discipline and your particular field of research? Did you have an inspiring model (parent, relative, teacher, literature etc.)?
I think that I went into science due to curiosity: to see how things are working in the living world, how chemistry works in living organisms, how the complicated processes in living creatures are regulated. And I was most curious about the invisible world – microorganisms. That provoked my interest in science.
EPWS: What do you work on? How important is your research topic for science development or society?
My current work is connected with safety evaluation of chemicals and/or (nano)materials. It goes without saying that this topic is very important for sustainable development of novel technologies and thus for the benefit of the society. My lab addresses three questions: (i) Safe or toxic? ; (ii) If toxic, why toxic? ; (iii) How to evaluate the toxicity rapidly and cost-efficiently? My lab follows 3R’s principles (Replacement, Reduction and Refinement) and therefore we are not performing bioassays on vertebrate organisms. Our test organisms are bacteria, protozoa, water fleas, algae – mostly organisms relevant for ecotoxicological research.
EPWS: What is your greatest success as a researcher (and as a teacher if you teach), the one you are most proud of? Could you share the memory of a great personal satisfaction during your research career with us?
I think that my greatest success as a researcher is connected with my idea on the reason for toxic effects of metal-based nanomaterials: many of them (CuO, ZnO) were initially claimed insoluble or only slightly soluble. Namely, about 10-15 years ago I was wondering whether they (metal-based nanomaterials) have to be much soluble to show toxic effects to aquatic organisms since Cu ions and Zn ions are toxic to such organisms at very low concentration. The idea was very timely and stemmed into a lot of interesting research: up to now more than 10 doctoral theses from my lab have been defended on (eco)toxicological effects of metal-based nanomaterials.
There are two very important things that happened this year: (i) I and two persons from my team (Angela Ivask and Kaja Kasemets) were included in the top 1% most cited scientists list worldwide by Clarivate Analytics for 2018 and (ii) the most recent event – on Dec 05, 2018, I was elected as a member of the Estonian Academy of Sciences. Importantly, now we are 7 women academicians out of a total number of 78.
EPWS: In which country/countries have you been doing research?
Mostly in Estonia but I also had some short research periods in Finland, in the company BioOrbit OY, to develop a bacterial toxicity test; that occurred more than twenty years ago. I have, though, collaborated with several international teams during FP7 projects OSIRIS, MODERN and NanoValid. And, of course, within various COST actions.
EPWS: What is your agenda for the coming months?
The most important is that next spring I and my lab will have to write scientific proposals to the National Research Agency, to ask for funding for the next 5 years. That is a big challenge and practically involves the whole lab, since our whole salary money is project-based and the proposals success rate is about 20%. Thus there will be a lot of brainstorming but also stress, as always in science.
I assume that additional activities will be related to my role as an academician.
EPWS: Did you meet barriers (personal/social/structural) during your career as a scientific researcher? Did you benefit from mentoring?
I have been the speaker for equal opportunities in Estonian science for already a long time, starting with my participation in EU WIRDEM study (2008) ‘Getting more women to the top in research’ where I was representing Estonia and wrote a text into the book on gender balance in research decision-making positions in Estonia. The meeting with the WIRDEM group then – about ten years ago – was an eye-opening moment for me as for the equal opportunities and gender issues.
EPWS: What is the situation of gender equality in your working field? In the countries where you have been working, were there gender equalities policies and did you experience their effects? What do you suggest for a better implementation of gender equality in science?
In the biology labs most of the people are women; quite often in the chemistry labs too, not to mention the medical ones. That does not necessarily mean that the Head of the lab is a woman.
Thus, being a woman and having a lab consisting of mostly women, I try to be a role model and to support the PhD students and early career researchers (that are mostly women) as much as I can in their career. And I encourage my team not to give up even if things are difficult.
EPWS: Did you experience networking between women scientists? Can you comment your answer and explain why yes or not?
I definitely see the importance of women networks, either on the level of being members of decision-making commissions or boards. Women often support other women.
EPWS: If you could start again your life, would you choose again to be a scientist? What would you change?
Most probably yes. What would I change? Perhaps nothing since without these experiences I would not have achieved so much.
EPWS: Could you give a message to young European women scientists?
Keep going, no need to be such perfectionists, no need to suffer too much if something goes wrong – one has to keep trying. And – most important – value kindness and real friends.