This month EPWS gives the floor to Associate Research Professor Cornelia Braicu. She is a distinguished researcher at the Research Center for Functional Genomics, Biomedicine and Translational Medicine, Iuliu Hatieganu University of Medicine and Pharmacy, 23 Marinescu Street, 400337 Cluj-Napoca, Romania. She was a L’Oréal-UNESCO laureate in 2012-2013 and from 2018 has been a Member of the Jury of L’Oréal-UNESCO Romania.
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 strongly believe that my decision to go to science came almost purely through my learning and experiences during the PhD programme, when I found myself to be most interested in the field of cancer research. I met Prof. Dr. Ioana Berindan-Neagoe from Research Center for Functional Genomics, Biomedicine and Translational Medicine, Iuliu Hatieganu University of Medicine and Pharmacy, Cluj-Napoca, and she became an inspiring model, and therefore I looked forward to attend all her workshops and seminars related to the functional genomics field. And in this way the amazing Prof. Dr. Ioana Neagoe-Berindan persuaded me to travel down the cancer scientific path as post-doctoral fellow and then as researcher.
EPWS: What do you work on? How important is your research topic for science development or society?
Currently I am an Associate Research Professor at the Research Center for Functional Genomics, Biomedicine and Translational Medicine, ”Iuliu Hatieganu” University of Medicine and Pharmacy, Cluj-Napoca, and have a PhD in Biotechnology (under the supervision of Prof. Carmen Socaciu, USAMV Cluj-Napoca). During the last years, I gained experience in cellular toxicology, transcriptomics, and also translational research, through activities carried out in the Laboratory of Pharmacology-Toxicology, INRA UR66, Toulouse, France, and at the Oncology Institute “Prof. Dr. I. Chiricuta” Cluj-Napoca, Department of Functional Genomics, Proteomics and Experimental Pathology. An important role in my carrier path was played by Dr. Isabelle Ostwald, head of the INRA Research Center in Food Toxicology, Toxalim in Toulouse, France, who offered me a fellowship (financed by EGIDE-„Reteau Formation Recherche”) during my PhD program that completely changed my vision on research.
My background lies in biotechnology, the major field of interest remaining functional genomics. In the last years, I have been actively involved in the development of novel therapeutics strategies for cancer using natural phytochemicals as well as small molecules, RNA interference or miRNA mimics/mimetics in different combinations, opening new horizons for personalized medicine. Many of these are the consequence of the profiling of coding and non-coding genes of solid tumors done on our patients, looking to the best options for their treatment and quality of life. Among these a major interest in my research focuses on the understanding and reconversion of resistance to therapy. You may ask why this specific topic? Because for women breast cancer still represents a major threat. Even more some subtypes, like triple negative breast cancer, have no curable therapeutic options mainly due to therapy resistance.
The breast cancer incidence unfortunately continues to grow, despite the fact that great progress has been made, and a woman chance of getting breast cancer is 1 in 8. Therefore, open questions remain: how and why does it progress, and how can it ultimately be stopped?
The translational research – focusing on the connection between basic and clinical research – on breast cancer conducted worldwide is of high importance for better understanding of this complex disease, and research results are very useful for both patients and medical society and cannot be limited to an institution or a country. The developement of translational concept will give us the possibility to dissect the complexity of tumor cell biology and to advance new personalized treatment strategies that will permit to increase the life expectation along with a better life quality.
The most important studies carried in the last years were related to translational science. Furthemore, all the efforts were focused on demand for a more effective translation of basic science discoveries into new clinical applications. In order to understand the full spectrum of pre-clinical research, including target identification and validation, compounds screening, in vitro and in vivo models of disease, leading to molecule identification and optimization, performing the studies is required prior to initial clinical testing. This will allow to accelerate the comprehension of the multiple facets of the disease, considering that research is a never ending marathon.
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?
Being awarded as L’Oréal-UNESCO laureate in 2012-2013 has been one of the greatest success for me as a woman scientist, and I am so proud of it! Also from 2018, I have been a jury member for this competition.
I perfectly identify myself within the motto: “The World needs Science, and Science needs Women”, it represents the life motto for myself and I think that it should be the motto of every woman scientist I know: despite the fact that unfortunately our work rarely gains the recognition it deserves, we have to show the world that we are actively and equally involved in solving the great challenges.
EPWS:In which country/countries have you been doing research?
Currently I am doing my research in one of the top research centers in Romania. But due to the present situation, we are facing recurrent problems in performing our research, related of the lack of money for reagents and consumable, in spite of the fact that we have a state of the art infrastucture. I also worked in France, as stated previously, for my PhD.
EPWS: What is your agenda for the coming months?
My agenda for the coming months includes learning more about EU funding opportunities for my research area, and how to get funded through a European innovation project. I am still seeking to better understand the obstacles that keep potential grant applicants from Romania in winning applications, and what are the barriers in seeking external research funding, national ones as well. It is becoming more and more difficult to find partners to apply for EU funding opportunities, to be accepted as a consortium member being from Romania. We need to develop international collaborations, to perform excellent original studies, and publish in top journals. In life sciences Romania is still at the end of Europe, attracting very little money for research, and at national level there are very few competitions.
Did you meet any barriers (personal/social/structural) during your career as a scientific researcher? Did you benefit from mentoring?
When I met Prof. Dr. Ioana Neagoe-Berindan I knew that my future would relate to cancer field; I benefited from her mentoring and decided to further investigate and accumulate knowledge in oncology.Of course, you always meet barriers during your career especially as a woman, but you need to have a true interest and passion for what you are doing: this is a good reason to go forward, making discoveries and creating new generations of young scientists.
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 my translational research field, gender equality is still far away. Since the past decade, despite a positive trend toward equality, a substantial gendered difference is still persisting, at national and international level. As an example, the scientific/academic publications favour male first and last authors, and refering to leadership opportunities, in high-ranking positions there is a low female representation.
I would like to combat the theory according to which women want to spend more time at home, and to promote and ensure gender equality in science, and actually in all fields. Nevertheless, when becoming a stay-at-home mom (maternity leave, medical leave, etc.), the duties performed as a mother may be translated into a job: “working mother as a woman with the ability to combine a career with the added responsibility of raising a child.” A succesful woman scientist is remaining focused on financially independence, and on working for maintaining an effective career. One of my recommandations is to be transparent and to avoid academic sexism first of all.
Did you experience networking between women scientists? Can you comment your answer and explain why yes or not?
In the era of male-dominated networks, it is very true that exchange of advices and key information are crucial for career advancement. However, networking seems to have fewer direct benefits for women’s careers, in this way deriving professional advantages from any such networking group. We were lucky to have the opportunity to work together with many talented and clever women from different research fields, such as engineering, bioinformatics, biophysics, foodtech and so on. We have now been working for many years together and we hope to continue to develop our common interest for science and to attract national and international funding.
If you could start again your life, would you choose again to be a scientist? What would you change?
Yes, I would just repeat the process of growing up and experience life at each age, the same course through life. The decision to become a scientist has been the best approach that all along I have made.
Could you leave a message to young European women scientists?
“The aim of science is to seek the simplest explanations of complex facts. We are apt to fall into the error of thinking that the facts are simple because simplicity is the goal of our quest. The guiding motto in the life of every natural philosopher should be, seek simplicity and distrust it. “— Alfred North Whitehead In The Concept of Nature: Tarner Lectures Delivered in Trinity College, November 1919 (1920), 163.
Fighting for each result , for each idea, for each study is the best way to become a good scientist. If you have the passion to do it, you will never complain , just go on.