Woman Scientist of the Month: Ilva Nakurte (04/2019)

Every month EPWS interviews a distinguished woman scientist in 10 questions.

In this section, we are interviewing European women of various ages and disciplines, recognized by the scientific community for their achievements, who are also concerned by the gender-equality goals of EPWS. They are true role models and a source of inspiration for the future for other women scientists.

Read all the Interviews here

This month EPWS gives the floor to Dr. Ilva Nakurte. Dr. Nakurte is an outstanding Latvian chemist who was awarded a L’Oréal Baltic Fellowship in 2018.

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.)?

In my family I am the first who chose the direction of natural sciences. I was born in the last century in a post-Soviet Union territory. Although at that time the chemist profession was one of the most prestigious ones in the Soviet Union, neither my childhood nor my school years were inclined to the direction of natural sciences. I wanted to do work “related with people” – I dreamed to be an actress or TV narrator, etc. During elementary school I was actively dancing, singing, playing piano, playing theater, did sport activities.

I’ve always done school work well, I’ve easily captured everything, but when chemistry started I found it very complicated. I knew there was something more serious about it, not only the periodic table of chemical compounds. I was completely blown away by the fact that chemistry was in each of us and all around us and I was slowly beginning to catch up with this discipline. My teachers at school and later my university lecturers played a big role in my professional development, they saw this chemist spirit in me. My basic education has been obtained in chemistry, but for the last 15 years I have called myself a chromatographer, because I developed my career in the field of chromatography, that is the most popular and versatile method that enables the separation, identification, and purification of components of a mixture for qualitative and quantitative analysis.

I started in the largest pharmaceutical company of the Baltic States, Joint Stock Company Grindeks, with five interesting and experience-rich years of work in the field of quality control. Thanks to this experience, I realized that the key to success was not always innate, the motivation and passion for my work must be the key. Although the work in the pharma industry is never monotonous I realize that chromatography is not only a leading analytical method, but has applications in every branch of the chemical, physical, medical and biological sciences. The academic and scientific environment called me back and in 2007 I returned to University of Latvia, Department of Chemistry.

Giving a Speech at the 50-years anniversary event of the University of Latvia, Faculty of Chemistry, 2014.

What do you work on? How important is your research topic for science development or society?

I have started to work at University of Latvia in 2007. My work responsibilities was divided into two important positions. First there was an academic responsibility – work with students, reading lectures, leading seminars, supervising theses. My work second part was the science of chemistry. Since March 2018 I joined a fantastic team of the Institute for Environmental Sciences (IES) and moved to Cesis, which is located about 100 km from the Latvia capital, Riga. Right now I am employed as Leading Researcher in the Laboratory of Chemistry on Medicinal and Aromatic Plants. Our research activities are focused on testing medicinal and aromatic plants, essential oils, floral waters, natural flavors, etc. Our facilities are modern, well-equipped and versatile, based on the latest requirements of modern analytical methods such as UV/visible spectroscopy, gas chromatography, liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry.

Right now I am working on the project “Growing Genetic Diversity of Medicinal and Aromatic Plants (MAPs)”, which is financed by the European Regional Development Fund ERDF. The research project intends to develop an innovative methodology for selection and organic cultivation of high value MAPs, such as valerian (Valeriana officinalis L.), chamomile (Matricaria recutita), blacksamson echinacea (Echinacea angustifolia), common dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), and siler (Saposhnikovia divaricata) for further use in the fields of medicine, condiments, food and cosmetics.

This research topic is very important for both science development and society. We are obtaining and collecting the knowledge on the most appropriate genotypes as well as the organic production of MAPs in Latvian climatic conditions. My aim is to determine the quality of the raw material, the stability of the experimental garden yield and the composition of active substances in the researched MAPs. At the end of project we will announce the most appropriate genotypes and organic production of MAPs that are also the most suitable for biological agriculture farmers, biological animal farmers, pharma, food and cosmetics companies and households use.

Award Ceremony of the L’Oréal Baltic for Women in Science Fellowship 2018. From the right side – Dr. Ilva Nakurte; Mg. sc. Ing. Anna Fridrihsone; Mg. sc. chem. Margarita Baitimirova; Honorary Patroness of the Award Dr. Vaira Vike-Freiberga; Dr. Karin Kodermann; Dr. Ģiedre Motuzaite-Matuzevičūte; general manager L’Oréal Poland and Baltic HUB Wioletta Rosołovska. Photo: L'Oréal Baltic for Women in Science. Nils. Vilnis.

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 have been awarded several times during my scientific activities, but one award is the most important for me: I am very proud to be awarded with L’Oréal for Women in Science fellowship 2018. Receiving L’Oréal for Women in Science fellowship means invaluable degree of confidence: for my work, choices and life. This fellowship is a great support and privilege to tell the society about my research and work and hopefully inspire young boys and girls to join the field of science. I am so grateful for the recognition I have received for my work, because I am very sure that there are lot of women in science in Latvia as capable of receiving it. After the award, I received congratulations from my colleagues, relatives, friends, and from my former and current students. It gave me new strength and confidence that I had to keep going in the same way. These emotions will be hard to beat.

In which country/countries have you been doing research?

Mostly in Latvia, but I also had some research periods abroad. My first serious introduction to research and science was in 2003. I joined the big family of Erasmus student exchange program and spent 6 months in Belgium, Ghent University, Faculty of Agricultural and Applied Biological Sciences. I did studies in the field of food and nutrition and worked on my bachelor thesis “Determination of phenolic compounds in extra virgin olive oils using high-performance liquid chromatography”, supervised by em. Prof. Dr. ir. Roland Verhé. The time spent in Belgium gave me a first great experience of science and life in general.

Six years laterin 2009 I went to U.S., Pennsylvania State University within post-doctoral studies. But instead of two years I did my research in only 6 months, because my oldest daughter was born. I am very grateful to the team of Galleon Company (Dr. Scott L. Dax, Dr. Stephanie Pasas Farmer and other colleagues), who took care not only on me, but on my family (husband and one-year old daughter) as well.

Every day I went to laboratory and worked on the creation of new potentially active pharmaceutical ingredients. We did pharmacodynamics and pharmacokinetic studies. We developed methods for determination of active compounds for in vitro and in vivo studies (blood, plasma, brain, urine, lung, kidney) using chromatography and mass spectrometry methods. During this period, in cooperation with other specialists in field of biology and medicine I realized that there are no boundaries between chemistry and other sciences: in fact, we complement each other by strengthening our research areas. I realized that chromatography is my lifestyle and my hobby. At that time, I also understood I will link my future to research, I began to see myself more as a scientist who can contribute to important projects and research activities.

With a laboratory coat in a field of chamomile, June 2018
With the family all together in a casual situation, 2015

EPWS: What is your agenda for the coming months?

In parallel to my work in the Institute, I participate in a different activity on educational competence-based activities related to the field of chromatography.
I am giving lectures on chromatography for experts in the State Agency of Medicines of Latvia.
In cooperation with the National Centre for Education of the Republic of Latvia I have been working with various schools for several years, advising pupils and teachers on the performance of research work, as well as supporting the use of research equipment and methods to perform research. For the last few years I have performed the duties of Chair of the National Conference on Pupils Scientific Research, Chemistry section, in Latvia. This conference has taken place every year during spring already for more than 40 years. This year I will continue to carry out these Chair duties in reviewing pupils scientific works. I have a scheduled trip to the U.S., Phoenix in May, as the accompanying person to the international school conference at Intel ISEF 2019 with three very talented pupils from Latvia.
In the near future, we plan to move to a new laboratory, which will have more space and will be more adapted to our scientifically needs.
On 11 June, as a previous year awardee I am invited to the L’Oréal for Women in Science ceremony during which the 2019 Women in Science awards will be delivered.
And, of course, I will have a lot of meetings with representatives from different sectors in the pursuit of new projects for the future.


Did you meet any barriers (personal/social/structural) during your career as a scientific researcher? Did you benefit from mentoring?

I won’t deny, I met some barriers during my scientific research. Thank to God my family has always supported me as a scientist, especially my husband. It hasn’t been easy for me to share my time between work in science and personal life. I have taken away a lot from my family during my scientific activities, attending conferences, writing articles and carrying out projects. I’m a mom for two kids. There have been slightly longer stages when I was forced to step back from the involved processes. There have been situations where you have to choose between a training trip or participation in a Mother’s Day event in kindergarten… How to give lectures for students in the late evening without anyone who took care about your little child? In the field of work, overall I have had good leaders, but I have also suffered mobbing, because of my appearance or my competence. There are some people who do not want around them knowledgeable and intelligent people: I have always been a nuisance to them, I have felt an unwillingness to share knowledge and experience. Mostly, it’s a matter of unhealthy competition. I’ve always wanted smart people around me. I love to share my knowledge. I believe that only in this way can I ensure the growth of my laboratory and team.

I did benefit from mentoring, I have been personally and professionally encouraged from both males and females. I have felt the sharing of knowledge, expertise and experience. I am thankful to everyone who has touched my life in any way since I started my scientific way, each one of you has enabled me to bring the ideas into reality. I have gained strength to challenge myself and I am truly grateful for everything we have done together.


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 2017 the Latvia’s Gender Equality Index assessment was 57.9 points out of 100 points. The progress made was the same as the average in the EU’s 28 countries and with this value Latvia took the 17th place in EU. (https://eige.europa.eu/publications/gender-equality-index-2017-latvia). If I need to describe the situation of gender equality in my working place, I would say it is more or less realised Tendencies are very perspective, because some years ago this balance was only 1:3 (female/male). We have a lot of female scientists doing their research in the field of natural sciences. I never felt negative aspects against working mothers. We have good support from our mentors and I want to believe our Institute will continue in this manner.

In my both trips for foreign experience, I’d cycled too much into the development of my own experience in science. Although both countries, Belgium and the United States, have had a gender equality policy long time ago, I did not experience their effects. I think it was because in these laboratories I worked for a limited time, not permanently. The time spent in these countries was emotionally positive. Talking about observations, I notice that in Belgium in leading scientific positions mainly men were dominant, while in the United States there was a gender balance.

But nothing can be artificially created and implemented at this point, such processes require a series of conditions over a long period of time. The Baltic States were occupied for many years, there was no gender equality at all. Several generations have been raised in this way, in order to change something, a lot of activities focused on different social layers must be taken at the same time. Gender equality should be developed since birth, so at first in the family. It is satisfactory to see a positive development of gender equality trend in the field of science. But I see that still clever people often live in unwarranted stereotypes that are the biggest barrier to healthy development. It is good that we women can talk about these questions and we have been listened and supported. That is a progress as well.

European Central Banking open day for women in technical fields, Germany, Frankfurt, 2017.

Did you experience networking between women scientists? Can you comment your answer and explain why yes or not?

I must have been lucky because I’ve been working with a series of fantastic women in science since the beginning of my career. A rather large network of cooperation has developed over the years. Together with my female colleagues in science, we have carried out a series of projects, published a series of scientific articles. We continue to communicate with each other, support each other with tips and opinions on both science and personal affairs. We are also pursuing this practice with female students. We are trying to involve young women scientists in research studies, supporting and motivating them. In 2017 together with two female students I took part in a very impressive event organized by the European Central Banking -open day for women in technical fields in Frankfurt, Germany. Thanks to this meeting, the girls returned back to University more confident about their choice of studying chemistry, particularly from the point of view that a chemist can work not only in a simple laboratory but even in a laboratory of the European Central Bank. I appreciate events like this one and I am proud to play important role in educating the new female generation in science.

If you could start again your life, would you choose again to be a scientist? What would you change?

Overall, I wouldn’t change anything in my life. Although I often balance between emotional satisfaction and burning syndrome, I am very pleased with my choice. I’ve never had a routine in my job, I’ve never had two identical days at work. You must not stop, this direction drives you forward and makes you constantly grow. The only thing I would do differently would be to use even more chances of learning.

Could you leave a message to young European women scientists?

You should not be afraid of the various challenges of education and careers in your life, they must be accepted and tested. Currently there is a lot of opportunities for young women and they need to be used, while parents should not be afraid to support their offspring: it’s very hard to judge things in which you’re not and that you’re not doing. Education and work are a good basis for everything. Being a woman scientist is a perfect, but very challenging way to break down gender stereotypes. It is a perfect way to show that all brains in science are the same; everyone can do the same tasks, but in a different way. We can bring our specific senses and emotions in scientific processes such as being sympathetic, having sensitivity, care, responsibility and even being a wife and mother. Our strength has always increased in solving challenges and overcoming them. Do not stop doing it. We did this in the past, we are doing it now, and I believe we will be able to do so in the future.