This month EPWS gives the floor to Associate Professor Denitsa Teofanova. She is researcher in the Department of Biochemistry of St. Kliment Ohridski University, Sofia, Bulgaria and was L’Oréal-UNESCO laureate in 2015
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 can say that my interest in science dates back to the moment when the word “Biology” entered my vocabulary in elementary school. It developed and expanded with each step in my life: at the National High School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics with a profile in Biology; at Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski ”, Faculty of Biology; at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, where I worked on my PhD thesis; and even at the moment when I added teaching to my research activity, through which I try to“ infect ”other young people with a passion for science.
In each of these moments, there were wonderful teachers and colleagues next to me, who further encouraged and provoked interests of different nature and showed and proved to me that it is science that can open a person’s eyes to a completely different worldview, with which it is possible to open every door in life, no matter how tightly locked it may be. And “Biology” … it is everywhere – in the enchanting nature, in the innumerable possibilities for the preservation of human health and quality of life, in unraveling the secrets of the origin and evolution.
Up till now I had the opportunity to practice in different research fields such as Genetics, Biochemistry, Molecular Biology, DNA Recombinant Technologies, Proteomics, Parasitology, Gene-Engineering Technologies, Biolistic Transformation Methods (delivery of DNA into plant cells by high velocity gold particles bombardment). I realized that what I’m most interested in is Molecular Taxonomy (genetic analyses to define the status of different individuals particularly at or below the species level and that enables understanding of the evolutionary processes and phylogenetic relationships in populations of different organisms), Phylogeny, Evolution and Origin. At the moment I’m integrating my abilities in that particular field into Plant Molecular Biology and Biochemistry.
My first inspiring model was my Biology teacher in elementary school. She was such a dedicated person and made the subject a pleasurable experience rather than a boring school class.
EPWS: What do you work on? How important is your research topic for science development or society?
My present research topics cover two pretty distinct areas, on which our team in the Department of Biochemistry is working. The first one is concerning parasitic plants and in particular, dodders, that can grow everywhere – from open-air fields and forests to domestic gardens. From one point of view, there are more investigations about their extermination, but less about the interrelations between them and their host plants (many agricultural crops such as alfalfa, asparagus, carrots, cranberries, onions, and potatoes, as well as many ornamental plants, including chrysanthemum, dahlia, helenium, impatiens, etc.) and about the effect of different stress conditions on them. Therefore our studies will provide detailed fundamental knowledge on topic. On the other hand provided data will elucidate the “blanks” about the parasitic potential of these pretty invasive species and competitive relations regarding their ecological (disruption of ecological balance among plant populations) and agricultural impact (infecting the agriculturally important plant species and minimizing their yield).
The second one, which we are working on with my PhD student and a couple of undergraduates, concerns the recently popular topic of food and pollen allergies caused by various plants of the Cereal family. We study how they affect human health, whether a suitable diet can be selected to meet the health status of people suffering from various pathological and allergic conditions and whether the constantly changing conditions of our environment would have an impact on the allergenic and immunogenic potential of these plants.
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 could not distinguish my specific success. The constant development of my personal and scientific abilities in order to increase the visibility in the scientific community and the competitiveness of my entire team of young scientists and students is among my priorities and I am constantly working in this aspect. On the other hand, the upgrading of my knowledge and abilities as a researcher, with a positive effect, I also consider a success. Last but not least, I consider my L’Oréal-UNESCO award a serious success because it has given impetus to a new direction in my investigatory field, which I am currently working on. Also as a success from the point of view of a teacher, I can determine the fact that the team in our laboratory is constantly joined by young people with a passion for science, which makes me believe that I have managed to ignite the spark of love to knowledge in order to preserve and pass on my knowledge and abilities to future generations.
EPWS:In which country/countries have you been doing research?
For a different time period I was in China, Greece, Russia, Germany and UK.
EPWS: What is your agenda for the coming months?
We currently have several undergoing research projects, covering the topics I mentioned. In addition, the defense of my PhD student’s thesis is forthcoming.
Did you meet any barriers (personal/social/structural) during your career as a scientific researcher? Did you benefit from mentoring?
For a long time, Bulgaria belonged to the group of developing countries in which it was believed that research was not at the required level. This severely limited the possibilities for publishing the obtained research results. From another point of view, and to this day, the institutions that fund research projects in Bulgaria do not provide the necessary opportunities for large-scale research. Fortunately, the EU is opening up new options for this.
I believe that I did benefit from mentoring. Along my scientific way I had supervisors who supported me unconditionally and wholeheartedly.
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 scientific field and institutions where I have been working there are many female scientists, including in leadership positions. According to my own experience, I did not experience any situations of gender inequality. Still I believe that there are such in different scientific fields. I believe that every institution must have a policy in this regard, as well as organizations in the country for the protection of women’s rights and gender equality.
Did you experience networking between women scientists? Can you comment your answer and explain why yes or not?
In all the countries I have visited and worked in, I have been with women who have been heads of research projects and units in the particular institutions.
If you could start again your life, would you choose again to be a scientist? What would you change?
I am completely satisfied with the choices I have made so far in terms of my career development in science. If I had to choose again, I would do the same again, albeit with a slightly more mature view of things.
Could you leave a message to young European women scientists?
I will advise them to always follow their instincts, to fuel their scientific curiosity, not to give up their ambitions and to always believe in the unlimited possibilities for the development of the science they have chosen, as well as their own. My advice also includes not bowing to the obstacles and difficulties that constantly arise before them, and even encouraging them to achieve their goals even more persistently, as well as never betraying the science they have chosen, fought for and sincerely wanted, as long as it is true.