Elisabetta Dejana was born in Bologna, Italy, where she obtained her undergraduate and professional training in biological sciences. From 1978 to 1980, she worked in Canada, at McMaster University in Hamilton. She then moved back to Italy to direct the Vascular Biology laboratory at the Mario Negri Institute in Milan. From 1980 to 1993, she visited as a researcher at Brigham and Women's Hospital, part of Harvard Medical School, in Boston; Hôpital Bicetre in Paris; Hadassah Medical School in Jerusalem; and the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, Israel. From 1993 to 1996, she directed an INSERM Unit at the Centre of Nuclear Energy (CENG) in Grenoble, France. She then returned to Milan to take part in the creation of a new research institute supported by the Italian Foundation for Cancer Research (IFOM, FIRC Institute of Molecular Oncology). She currently directs a research laboratory there and is Professor of General Pathology at the University of Milan.

Elisabetta has made major contributions to characterising the architecture of endothelial cell-cell junctions and is currently studying the development of the vascular system in the embryo and in tumours. She and her group discovered two endothelial adhesive proteins that differ in function: VE (vascular endothelial) cadherin and JAM-A (junctional adhesion molecule). VE cadherin not only maintains junctional integrity but also modulates cell growth and apoptosis. Elisabetta has recently identified several novel VE-cadherin intracellular partners that mediate its effects on growth and apoptosis. These proteins constitute potential targets for anti-angiogenic drugs.

In the interview that follows, Fiona Watt, Editor-in-Chief of JCS, asks Elisabetta about her experiences as a woman in science.

FMW:What changes for women in science have you observed during the course of your career?

ED: I haven't seen all that many changes since my postgraduate days. In fact, the changes that have occurred have been far fewer than I would have expected. When I started my scientific career in the late 1970s, feminism was very strong and one of its major goals was to obtain equal opportunities in both the professional and personal lives of women. In those days, I was sure that things would change for women and that it was only a matter of time. Nowadays, I am much more pessimistic, or at least I believe that the scenario is much more complex than anyone anticipated.

Surprisingly, a definite trend exists in my country. The number of women in parliament and trade unions is constantly decreasing, compared to the period at the end of World War II. Female professors in universities are still very few and frequently represent less than 10% of the faculty. In the research institutions where I have worked, few women become group leaders.

Outside of Italy, the situation does not differ dramatically. The percentage of women on the editorial boards of major scientific journals is relatively small and has failed to increase significantly in the last twenty years. Very few women are invited to speak at major scientific meetings; the proportion of female speakers is frequently less than 20%. Almost no women direct research institutions.

These statistics are quite odd if we consider that the number of women undertaking a scientific career is far greater than the number of men. So what are the causes? I believe that the answer is complex and the reasons are multiple.

To begin with, family, but more importantly children, constitutes the major constraint on a woman's career. This is not only because of the time and dedication required for a research career, but also for psychological reasons. For many women, family and children have always been considered as the major achievement in life; many of us have been trained with this idea. Men who do not succeed in their professional careers are frequently looked down on by society and classified as `failures'. For a woman, society dictates that professional success is not essential, provided that she is a good wife and mother. I have frequently seen young and highly capable women give up competitive jobs because they do not feel the need to strive for success. Just a few weeks ago, a young and very intelligent woman in my lab decided to quit science in order to look after her children. She told me that, since her husband was making much more money than she was, it was unfair to ask him to contribute his time to childcare.

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Elisabetta as a girl in Bologna

On the same note, while it is natural that a wife would follow her husband when he moves to improve his career, the opposite is certainly not the case. Very, very rarely, at least in my country, would a man follow his wife under the same circumstances. This constitutes a major problem in the scientific field, where time spent in different labs and countries has now become a crucial requirement.

I still notice that women themselves often consider their jobs as a `second class' activity, ready to be abandoned as soon as external conditions become unfavorable. Therefore, I believe that little has changed since I first started my career.

I also notice that even if a woman does pursue a research career she often is unwilling to take part in committees and boards where decisions are made. Our society is founded on the precepts of power, competition and aggression; these are traits not commonly associated with women. It is therefore understandable that a woman would most probably find it difficult to adapt, learn and apply these social rules. Men have always been brought up and imprinted with the `stand and fight' notion, urged to speak out and dialectically overpower opponents. Women, on the other hand, have been educated to stay at home, take care of day-to-day problems, and to be protected by somebody else. In public, we have been taught to remain quiet and to elegantly retire from the arena.

Women know that they are different from men and, in many cases, they do not wish to adapt and change in order to further their careers. I believe that this is one of the reasons why so many women who were prominent in the feminist movement eventually decided to retire from public life and to curtail their activities. I, however, see things differently. I believe that gender differences must be considered valuable and not simply as a handicap that can easily be solved by introducing an equal opportunity program. Having more women with social power would tremendously improve our society. This fact needs to be acknowledged and sincerely believed if real change is genuinely sought. In my view, it is a matter of not only giving the same rights to everybody but, rather, giving real value to the difference between men and women.

Corporations in which women have participated in the decision making process characteristically detect major improvements in employee morale and consequently in overall productivity. With their attention to organization, dedication of time to family and personal relationships, the presence of women in these situations has forced the men to positively change their attitude. I do believe that this line of reasoning should be appreciated, otherwise little improvement in women's careers will ever be achieved.

FMW:How has your research career impacted on your personal life and vice versa?

ED: I grew up in a very traditional Italian family where the birth of a boy was celebrated, but the birth of a girl was a disappointment. I had to learn day by day that I could make it and that I was good enough to do something valuable in life. I remember that, when I was asked what I wanted to do when I grew up, I used to answer `a secretary'. Nothing could be better than this! I would be completely dependent on my boss, with no opportunity to make decisions on my own.

I married very young and then my husband and I moved to Milan. It was here that my scientific career began, with a fellowship at the Mario Negri Institute for Pharmacological Research. I fell in love with science, but more specifically with cellular biology. This passion cannot be easily explained, but it is something that makes you stay in the lab day and night, forgetting everything and everybody else. Obviously my love of science was difficult to reconcile with a traditional marriage, even though I did not have children.

To advance my scientific career, I decided to spend some time as a postdoc at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. That period of my life was very hard and the solitude was extreme, although I found comfort in the fact that I was finally able to dedicate all my time to my research. On my return to Italy, my personal situation became very difficult and my husband and I took the painful decision to divorce. It was, I must admit, really hard to go against the social attitudes of the time. During this period, friends and relatives were against me and refused to accept that I was destroying my marriage for a job.

After this period of my life, I decided never again to be married, but to focus my attention on my many friends who constitute a sort of alternative family to me. Over the years I have developed a strong sense of independence. I feel that my work is the only safe thing I have. I believe that whatever happens, I can always invest in my work. I would be reluctant to put my life into the hands of a man.

FMW:Do you feel that being a woman is an inherent advantage/disadvantage for a career in science? Why?

ED: In a general sense, I would answer that both advantages and disadvantages exist. Due to their education and culture, women tend to have a better `sense for the organism', are more interested in the details, can usually lend fresh perspectives and see things outside the common dogma. They are more solid than men and demonstrate strong perseverance. On the other hand, however, women frequently tend to isolate and restrict their aspirations. A woman would never apply for a position without being fully convinced that she completely matches all the requirements; a man would be much less rigorous, leaving him open not only to possible failure, but also to more opportunities.

Women have a sort of maternal attitude towards their group, tending to care for everyone and spend their time resolving day-to-day problems. Although this attitude is of great merit, it does prevent them from having large groups and it may also restrict the independence of younger fellows.

All these statements are, of course, generalizations. They do, however, show how particular attributes of women scientists may have both positive and negative implications.

FMW:What are your remaining career ambitions?

ED: I still have an ongoing love affair with science. For this reason, I would like to continue to work in the lab, planning experiments for a few more years. I still see the possibility of doing something valuable.

I also enjoy university teaching. Through this role, my ambition is to enrich my students with enthusiasm for science. This is of great importance to me, because in a country like Italy science is still considered as an ancillary discipline. Most important of all, I would like to create the best possible conditions for young fellows to do their scientific research, without having to waste time in finding their direction in life.

On some occasions young female scientists come and tell me that they see themselves in me and that they are encouraged to continue because of my example. I have never given this much thought before but, if it is true, I am extremely proud of my achievement. This, per se, would be a fine reason to keep going, at least for a while.