Woman Scientist of the Month: Ioanna Tzoulaki (07/2020)

In regular intervals, 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. Ioanna Tzoulaki. She is a population health scientist with extensive expertise in molecular epidemiology and track record on precision medicine and prediction models. Assistant Professor in Epidemiology at the University of Ioannina (Greece), she was laureate of the Greek L’Oréal-UNESCO Award for Women in Science in 2019.


Contact: itzoulak@uoi.gr


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 was always excited by science, especially biology and physics and that was particularly stimulated by my high school teachers who taught these subjects in an engaging and attractive manner. My father is a mathematician and this has always been an additional stimulus to science for me. I have initially decided to pursue medicine, as a studious pupil I was strongly advised by my teachers to follow this path. However, I failed the exams to enter the medical school and rather studied biomedical sciences. It was an exciting discipline for me, the breadth of subjects covered was particularly attractive. Due to my inherent attraction to mathematics, once I graduated, I decided to pursue postgraduate studies on quantitative genetics and subsequently epidemiology.


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

I am currently working on molecular epidemiology methodologies for chronic diseases. I am investigating how biomarkers and several small molecules and genetic polymorphisms are related to complex diseases, such as cardiovascular diseases, in order to better understand the mechanisms of disease. I am interested in looking deep into the molecular pathways that link genotypes to phenotypes using complex and high-resolution data from population studies across the globe.



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?

It is difficult to isolate one achievement. Our recent publications on genetic risk score and genetic prediction for coronary heart disease published in JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) have been very rewarding. At the same time, the L’Oréal-UNESCO award for Women in Science in 2019 was a great achievement which I could share with my friends and family.


EPWS:In which country/countries have you been doing research?

I have studied in Athens (Greece) and Edinburgh (Scotland) and then have worked in London (UK, Imperial College London) and in Greece (Ioannina, University of Ioannina).


EPWS: What is your agenda for the coming months?

We have now launched new research projects on Covid-19 and understanding the links between cardiovascular disease and Covid-19 severity. We will employ the molecular epidemiology approaches to study the causal pathways that may link these two phenotypes.


L’Oréal-UNESCO Award Ceremony 2019


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

Academia is a challenging environment particularly for females and those with caring responsibilities. I had found it hard at times to keep work and life balance and to progress my career in an academic environment full of male-dominated networks. Mentoring has helped substantially as I realised that other colleagues have been facing similar difficulties. At the same time, professional development courses targeted at female academics have helped me to boost confidence and learn to deal with particular behaviours.


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?

There are many female scientists working in my field but there are few that have leadership positions especially as you look into more prominent roles. The recent Covid-19 epidemic is a good example which shows that, despite the high number of excellent world-leading female epidemiologists, there are very few female voices in the media and very few female scientists promoted as public communicators from different governments. In the UK, the ATHENA SWAN initiative for the advancement of women in science has been instrumental in raising awareness of gender inequalities in universities and in motivating them to implement action plans to tackle such inequalities.


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

I often find it hard to take advantage of networking opportunities as I try not to travel for conferences and meetings where often these opportunities arise. Indeed, some senior women offer opportunities to more junior researchers.


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

Yes, I am still fascinated by my job and would again pursue a scientific career! You can never be bored being a scientist.


Could you leave a message to young European women scientists?

You can do whatever you want, there are no stereotypes!



Favourite Links