Science needs fewer barriers between fields, more time and less aggressiveness, says Maria Macias

Group Leader and ICREA researcher Maria Macias organised the Barcelona BioMed Conference “From genomes to structures: looking at big data with an atomic perspective”. Photo: Jaume Cosialls/Diario Médico
Group Leader and ICREA researcher Maria Macias organised the Barcelona BioMed Conference “From genomes to structures: looking at big data with an atomic perspective”. Photo: Jaume Cosialls/Diario Médico

It was the first time that Group Leader and ICREA researcher Maria Macias organised a Barcelona BioMed Conference, in collaboration with the BBVA Foundation, held on 28-30 November 2016. When asked about the experience, she highlights that having been able to draw together experts from very diverse research fields and backgrounds was “extremely fulfilling” for her. The conference programme covered areas spanning genomics to systems biology, cellular structural biology, big data, and patients-focussed approaches.

“As scientists, we often go to conferences focussed on a very narrow field of research,” she explains, “and the challenge that co-organiser Hartmut Oschkinat and I gave to ourselves was to put together a group of experts that could help us open our minds.” Macias and Oschkinat did not want to talk of a specific structural biology approach, or about single techniques. As Macias puts it: “We need to have an integrated approach to problems. Big Data is an overarching area that not only affects our scientific work in the lab every day, but has a wider reach in society. For example, we had  eye-opening talks about the clinical impact of global genomic studies in lymphoid neoplasms, and one about hospital-based cohorts, genomic discovery and personalised medicine: in other words how big data affects patients, and the ethical issues that are raised with that.”

She emphasises that it is rather uncommon in a structural and computational biology conference to listen to researchers talking about sequencing and mutations in direct connection with patients. “We had experts in specific techniques and doctors sitting together with computational and structural biologists: something certainly unusual in my field.”

The fact is that we are at a point, adds Macias, where we are not only able to sequence very rapidly, but also to identify “which role mutations play in protein structure, and recognize phenotypes in a way that a few years ago was just not imaginable.” The debate was very lively, and young researchers, as is customary in these conference, were given ample opportunities to present their work and discuss it with top level scientists, including Nobel Prize Laureate Ada Yonath.

According to Macias, Yonath had powerful messages for the audience, in two directions. On the methodological side, she insisted on putting all of your effort to tackle one issue that you feel is worth understanding, and that potentially could be useful for many other fields, as was the case of the ribosome when she began to study it. But she also presented her current work, which Macias said was “truly stimulating.” Together with her team, she is working on the characterisation of the ribosome of pathogens that could potentially affect humans, with the goal to create very specific antibiotics that can overcome the ever-increasing problem of antibacterial resistance. “She emphasised an issue I was not fully aware of,” says Macias: “Current antibiotics do not degrade, so they stay in the environment forever. She works on antibiotics that can be degraded.”

Yonath and Macias also chaired a special round table discussion on women and science, a novelty within the programme of a Barcelona BioMed Conference. In this sense, Macias – who is member of the IRB Barcelona Equality and Diversity Committee– recalls a few aspects raised during the discussion. She encouraged women, as she would anyone else, to stop feeling guilty about choosing to do one thing or another, be it family, work or any other activity. “We invest our time all the time, we decide what is best for us in every given moment, and there is no need to feel guilt for whatever else it is that we are not doing,” she says. Another point she made is that men sometimes can be naïve in their approach to this issue. “To start, several male scientists left the room for the discussion, as if this were only a women’s issue and they had nothing to do with it,” she notes. But she also points out that one researcher intervened claiming that being a scientist is a very nice profession, and women need to be more enthusiastic about it. “It is surprising that people still think that just by ‘wishing for something’ very strongly, you can obtain it. People need to understand that we need to do practical things to change a situation where half of the scientists at the PhD and Postdoctoral levels (and the majority when we talk about technicians) are women, and only just a few become PIs,” she says.

She recalls what her co-organiser told the audience: that in Germany they had this problem, and they started tackling it with strong policies and strict follow-up to make sure policies were implemented. “They made sure more women applied for positions, that the application process took into account a different way of doing science, that time management could be flexible, and in some cases that economic support was given to women scientists,” lists Macias. She concludes: “It’s not just a question that affects women. It affects good scientists whose personalities are competitive but not aggressive. If we wish to reach high levels of excellence we can’t exclude talent, we all need to work for a less aggressive approach in science, that allows for the time necessary to do good research and allows for more reflection. If we make it, science and society will benefit.”