"Bah, a girl. I'm going to give him something easy and if he does not, it does not matter "That's what Alberto Sols thought when, in the early sixties, a young graduate in chemistry went to tell him that he wanted to do the doctoral thesis. Sols himself told it in public when that "girl" won the Severo Ochoa Prize for Biomedical Research in 1986. That woman who was Margarita Salas exceeded Sols' low expectations by far and became the most recognized scientist of the 20th century in Spain. . And this pioneer who is celebrating this Friday, 80 years, is still working as a tenacious and enterprising young woman.
A tenacity, that of Margarita Salas, who not only had to face the difficulties that any young man found in the gray Francoist Spain to dedicate himself to science but, in his case and because of his condition as a woman, clearly evidences the memory of Alberto Sols, had to overcome certain chauvinistic obstacles. In this question it is interesting how the researcher herself has evolved over the years. She herself has acknowledged that it took her a long time to realize and name what she had experienced during the beginning of her career, the sexist biases.
That he found barriers there is no doubt but also that he decided to continue in spite of them. Since his return from the United States, after the postdoctoral, he directed his own research group. And in that group there were soon other women. Some of them now occupy very important positions and almost all recognize that seeing Margarita Salas running the laboratory in which they were trained proved in practice that they could try to get where they wanted. She has been a pioneer in a series of biologists and molecular biologists who have set the bar high for biomedical research in our country and a breakthrough of traditions that has opened the way for young people of both sexes.
Margarita Salas had her daughter Lucia at age 37, when she was already Research Professor of the CSIC. She had been married to the researcher Eladio Viñuela since she was 24 so it is easy to imagine the pressures of all kinds, family and social, that she had to suffer during those years. But she decided on her life. At this time when the need for women scientists to serve as a reference for girls and young women is evident, there is that example. An example that Margarita Salas, with total security, did not have any effort to give. She is a discreet and even shy woman. And despite this, she is almost the only Spanish scientist whose name is known by Spaniards who know the name of some researcher.
This visibility has been achieved by Margarita staying true above all to herself and the phage phi29. Both were unusual for their generation and were high risk. The first has to do with carving out a profile of his own, independent of his doctoral thesis director, independently of his boyfriend (as well as his partner during the thesis years) and then husband, Eladio Viñuela, and Severo Ochoa himself, with whom He did his postdoctoral work in New York since 1964. It was very disruptive in those years that a woman showed El Hierro vocation and dedication to the research career that she showed.
At this time when the need for women scientists to serve as a reference for girls and young women is evident, there is that example. An example that Margarita Salas, with total security, did not have any effort to give
As for the small bacteriophage phi29, a virus of barely 20 genes that infects bacteria, has occupied the sleeplessness of researchers from the group led by Salas, first at the Center for Biological Research, on returning from the United States in 1967, and since 1977 at the then recently inaugurated Center. of Severe Ochoa Molecular Biology of the CSIC. Spain was in those years a wasteland for research and Margarita recalled that one of the first lessons that she and Eladio had to do was how to import equipment and buy reagents abroad, essential to be able to make competitive experiments. The research line with phi29 as a model served to establish new principles in molecular biology and allowed to discover that the enzyme that used the phage to replicate its genetic material, DNA polymerase, had special properties to amplify other genes. This discovery served Margarita in 1989 for, in another pioneering decision within the scientific research in Spain that still did not know what was the transfer technology, register a patent that would give almost four million euros later in royalties.
Margarita Salas, the only Spanish scientist who belongs, since 2007, to the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, will have a great tribute on December 1 in the framework of Talent Woman, the event dedicated to women, science and technology. Congratulations, Margarita. Congratulations teacher.
Flora of Pablo She is Professor of Research at the Center for Biological Research of the CSIC, former General Director of the Carlos III Health Institute and founding president of the Association of Women Researchers and Technologists (AMIT)
Victoria Toro She is a journalist, scientific communication consultant and director of Communication at AMIT.