Fayna García (Las Palmas, 1979) did her doctoral thesis on the synthesis of peptides of biomedical interest at IRB Barcelona under the supervision of Fernando Albericio. Having finished her PhD in 2007, she is one of the first female doctoral students and alumni of the Institute. In 2008, she applied for an academic position at the Hokkaido University (HU) School of Life Sciences that was offered exclusively to female scientists. She would be later appointed Assistant Professor at the same University, a position that she still holds today. At the same time, she has raised a family in Japan. Fayna explains what it is like being a female researcher, and a mother, outside of Europe and North-America.
What do you remember about your PhD student days at IRB Barcelona?
I have very good memories of my great work colleagues, other PhD students, and postdocs… I think we shared the same mindset and passion for what we were doing. Some of us are still in touch today, and we help each other out. We also try to help clear up doubts that often arise about certain chemical reactions, protocols, etc. Every time I come to Barcelona, which is once a year, I stop by IRB Barcelona for a visit.
What research projects are you currently working on and what are your scientific goals?
When I moved to Hokkaido University, I started to synthesise peptides bearing sugars to study the interaction with immune system proteins as antibodies. Sugar molecules are very important biomolecules with striking and diverse functions in our organism. Our cells use different types of sugars, also called “glycans”, for many different purposes. For example, cells need to communicate with each other, and glycans are one of the ways to establish this communication. The glycans in our cells form a very dynamic system that allows cells to adapt. I am interested in doing comprehensive glycan profiling to identify biomarkers in normal cells versus malignant cells.
My ultimate goal is to obtain glycan derivatives that can be used for diagnostics and potentially in cancer vaccines. I'd be interested in collaborating with scientists who work on the role of sugars in their biological system.
How would you like to reconnect with IRB Barcelona in the future? How do you think the Institute’s Alumni network can contribute to a scientist's career?
Researchers are usually unaware of what people in the next lab are working on, and that is a real pity. I think it would be great to have some practical virtual meeting point – or even a physical one, a sort of symposium – where we could find out about what others are up to, a forum in which we could match up scientists with different expertises working on different aspects of a problem to come up with new approaches. Collaborations are a very good reason to reconnect. We have all had the experience of working in the same institute and this can help ignite the desire do something together or something bigger, or to develop new ideas.
What is it like being a female scientist in Japan? How are gender equality issues addressed?
Years ago, HU was generously funded by a gender equality programme run by the Japanese Ministry of Education and Science to open academic positions for female researchers. At HU’s School of Life Science, women account for only 5% of faculty, and the objective is to reach 20% by 2020. HU’s action plan includes providing technical support in the lab after motherhood, in-house assistance when young children are ill, etc. This way, working mothers can take continue with their careers more easily. Also, women at HU have bimonthly gatherings, attend training courses on strategic skills. I can relate to female researchers who consider giving up science when they become mothers. When I became a mother, I had the feeling that I just couldn’t handle everything, and this kind of support was extremely helpful.
What advice would you give to a scientist planning to continue his or her career outside Europe or the US?
I think that going for an unusual destination gives your curriculum added value. It enriches you and shows you are adaptable and open-minded. While I do recommend it, I think it is important to enter such a situation keenly aware that the mindset and objectives of people in the host country may be different to your own. I wouldn’t recommend trying working exactly like they do, but to find the right balance between your own personality and their customs. Asian countries are usually enthusiastic to recruit foreigners into their teams, particularly if they come from western cultures. It’s an easy way for them to become familiar with the international way of thinking. In Japan in particular, there are postdoctoral fellowships that are offered exclusively to Westerners. In recent years, a number of university professor positions have also been opened for people with international profiles. (Sara Martorell)