All the genetic material of a cell -which stretched would reach two meters long-, is packed in a very tight three-dimensional structure specific to each cell type. Biola Javierre (Huesca, 1983) is "fascinated" by this packaging, which is called chromatin. "It controls almost all cellular processes, among which it controls which genes, that is, which instructions, the cell will execute and which will not," he explains. Chromatin achieves this by placing the regulatory sequences of DNA with their corresponding genes in close proximity, something that until now was unknown, says Javierre, "because the switches, the regulatory sequences, are usually very far from their gene." If the regulatory sequence fails, cancer may occur.
Javierre studies this delicate process at the Josep Carreras Leukemia Research Institute (IJC), where he leads a team focused on finding new more effective treatments with fewer sequels against childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). She has developed a new method that allows, for the first time, to know what are the regulatory sequences -the switches- that control each gene in each cell type. 20% of children diagnosed with ALL die before five years after diagnosis. There are even more lethal tumors, but Javierre confesses especially "sensitive" to pediatric cancer since recently had two children: "Any cancer is a drama, but I think no one doubts that a pediatric cancer is more."
For his pioneering work, the L'Oréal Foundation has selected Javierre from among 280 researchers from around the world to award him one of the 15 L'Oréal-Unesco awards International Rising Talent of this year. The prize, which is part of the program For Women in Science (for women in science), recognizes the most promising young scientists in the world, and is accompanied by a grant of 15,000 euros for research. EL PAÍS spoke with Javierre before the award ceremony at the Unesco headquarters in Paris.
Question. How do your research help cancer patients?
Within a few years, a doctor could get to sequence all the DNA of his patient to propose more targeted treatments
Answer. To develop new treatments, we need to know what the genes are, the instructions, that the tumor cell misinterprets. 95% of mutations associated with childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia, instead of affecting genes, affect regulatory sequences. If we know what are the regulatory sequences that control each gene, for the first time we can connect to the target gene that is [mal] regulated. The goal is that within a few years, a doctor, for example if he has a patient with pediatric lymphoblastic leukemia, can sequence all his DNA, see what his mutations are, and can use the type of information that we are generating for propose therapies or more targeted treatments.
P. Choose to speak in public about your family, and specifically about your two children. Is it a conscious decision to make motherhood visible in science?
R. I personally was not at all in agreement with it, in fact it was very cryptic. He never talked about my personal life. But, as a result of the last recognitions, especially that of L'Oréal-Unesco For Women in Science, I have been allowed to acquire a role as a mentor, as a model for a scientific woman. Perhaps reflecting on this, I have realized the importance of showing how we women are researchers. We tend to think that, first, an investigator is not a woman, and if she is a woman, obviously she can not be a mother, she can not have a life. We always try to idealize that model as a person solely and exclusively focused on science. And it is not true.
P. Are you breaking a taboo in the academic field?
It seems that when you say "I am a mother" or "I am a woman", it precedes your scientific quality
R. It seems that when you become a mother, you lose your way, that is, you are only a mother. I am a scientist, I am a woman and I am a mother. And, well, I've decided to start expressing it because I think it's very important for the girls who receive this message. If you think that a scientist can not be a mother, it may be one of the reasons why you do not even study a STEM career [ciencia, ingeniería o matemáticas]. We have also had a bit of fear, because it seems that when you say "I am a mother" or "I am a woman", it precedes your scientific quality.
R. In practice, does having children affect scientific quality?
R. Real conciliation does not exist, but it does not exist for either men or women. There are things that do not know about gender. It seems very unfair to me that before we talk about conciliation and women ... Men also want to raise, they want to reconcile. Since the day I became a mother, I've had a thought every day, which is basically "I'm not a good scientist, but I'm not a good mother either." When you are working, you have the head that you would like to be more involved with your children. When you get home, you're tired, you have a lot of things in your head ... and obviously you have not arrived home at the time you wanted to arrive, and you're not 100% either. That duality we have to learn to live with it. This, in any field and in any genre.
P. An important part of his training was in England, but he returned. Why?
Back to Spain means returning to precarious conditions, without any stability
R. I came back for personal issues. I think that is the main factor by which researchers return to Spain. Returning to Spain means going back to precarious conditions, without any kind of stability, with salaries that are generally half of what you had in your previous stage, that is, for a lower position. But I, although I have a great passion for science - really, to be happy I have to be a scientist -, I think life is much more. Personally, I need a balance and that is why I have returned. This is also the reason why, surprisingly, with the little economic support we have in Spain, and the precarious conditions to do research, Spain is one of the leading countries in terms of research. There is an incredible scientific quality of people working in terrible conditions.
P. The Congress approved on February 28 a decree of measures urgent to reduce the bureaucracy in science and improve the conditions of scientific fathers and mothers. What is missing in these measures?
R. Obviously I think it is still a priority to streamline the whole bureaucratic issue, but above all, the greatest urgency today is to invest in science again. You can not work miracles with the current scenario. It is also true that, although public financing is at a minimum, financing from private sectors is increasingly emerging. An example is the L'Oréal Foundation: they have been supporting the research woman in this case for 21 years. I am in Spain thanks to the Josep Carreras Against Leukemia Foundation. That's what it supplies, because I can assure you that with the current public financing nothing can be done.
P. Apart from the prize money of the L'Oréal-Unesco prize International Rising TalentWhat does this recognition bring?
The award will allow me to consolidate myself as a world leader in my discipline
R. The award will allow me to consolidate myself as a world leader in my discipline. To this recognition I identified three positive pillars. The first is visibility: it is giving me a visibility that unfortunately, in general, women do not usually have. The second evident, the economic endowment, which in the end will have an impact, in a few years, in the treatment of acute lymphoblastic leukemia. And finally, something quite specific to the L'Oréal-Unesco prize is the training program, and this is not often said. This recognition is associated with a super-intensive training program. They have done a very strong job in identifying what are the weaknesses as a scientific woman.
P. What weaknesses?
R. Well, they are not weaknesses either. The fact is that today, decision-making is practically carried out by men. Obviously apply their criteria. I do not think they are bad or good, they are simply different. That's great because we're different, and that diversity is synonymous with wealth. But of course, they are the ones who are evaluating, those who are going to evaluate if they are going to give me a prize, if they are going to accept an article, if they are going to give me a financing project. So, let's say that, since there are things that you can not fight against - because this is a reality, they are usually the ones to decide - if you can identify what they value, that usually a woman does not have , [puedes aplicarlo].
P. Learning to behave more like a man is practical, but does not perpetuate discrimination?
I still have more masculine characteristics in the professional field, and maybe that's why I'm here today
R. I really believe that diversity is wealth, as I have told you. If I open my way of thinking and executing, I will also gain wealth. I think there comes a time when we have to stop thinking about the man-woman, the quality of a man or the quality of a woman ... I can see more differences between two women than between a woman and a man. But we try to make stockings, in the end everything is the prototype of woman and prototype of man. Personally, I still have more masculine characteristics in the professional field, and maybe that's one of the factors why I'm here today, do you understand me? That is: good or bad ...? We could have a very long discussion. I do not think it's too bad either, because it's not that it forces me to be different, it makes me more diverse.
P. He sees it as adding another skill.
R. Exact. And as I say, it is not that it is a good thing and the other bad: they are both good. If you can cover both, you're even better.