Society 16/10/2021

Nine Catalan women scientists travel to the US simulated Mars

Team Hypatia I has a dual mission in the Utah desert: to do quality research and to inspire other women to follow their scientific vocation

4 min
From left to right: Helena Arias, Laia Ribas, Neus Sabaté, Núria Jar, Carla Conejo, Ariadna Farrés and Anna Bach.

BarcelonaHypatia of Alexandria is known as the first woman scientist in history. For many students of technical careers, this astronomer, mathematician and philosopher ahead of her time is also one of the first references they know in a traditionally male world. It is no coincidence, then, that her name is the name of the first team made up exclusively of Catalan women that will travel between 16 and 29 April 2023 to the Mars Desert Research Station in the Utah desert: the Hypatia I team. The participants, nine in total, will live for two weeks in a space that simulates the extreme conditions of the red planet, confined to a very small space and deprived of the little daily luxuries, such as showering every day, to investigate the alterations of circadian rhythms or explore food productivity in hostile environments. But beyond the success of their research projects, the team is determined to plant a seed: to inspire other women, whether young or with an established career but without sufficient visibility, to exploit their scientific vocation.

"The Mars station is the excuse. For us, the image of a crew full of Catalan women from different professions, with a remarkable academic background and a deep passion for space, is a declaration of intent. The message is clear: "Female scientific talent in Catalonia is abundant and ambitious. We want more and more Hipatias to come to light", says the astrophysicist and team leader, Mariona Badenas. This is not the first time that she has personally embarked on this adventure: she made a stay in Utah in 2019 and promised herself that she would return, in this case accompanied by more Catalan women who are aware of the importance of dissemination and, above all, who want to vindicate the figure of women scientists. Hence the germ of Hypatia I was 11 February this year, the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. "This project is an opportunity to bring well-qualified women scientists to light and reverse the historical disadvantage that has made them invisible", agrees science journalist Núria Jar, one of the nine women who will also be part of the mission to document it.

The women in Hypatia I are between 20 and 50 years old and come from very diverse disciplines: engineering, astrophysics and biology, but also journalism and art. "We want our message to get across in universities, to encourage girls who are starting their careers now and tell them that they can go wherever they want, but also among those who have consolidated and admirable careers but do not have the visibility they deserve and we do not want them to leave", says Badenas, who stresses that neither the academic nor the employment sector makes it easy for them, especially for taking on more responsibilities and reconciling professional and family life. For example, in the pre-doctoral stage women represent 55% of the staff in research centres, but only 27% are group leaders.

The origin of these differences is diverse, but all the participants in the project point out that it is educational. In engineering, for example, women only represent 20% of the student body. Helena Arias, the youngest member at the age of 20, sees it every day in the faculty: she studies three degrees - mechanical engineering, electronics and physics - and says that in her class, out of approximately sixty students, only ten are women. "There are more and more girls, but we are doing something wrong if we continue to be a minority", she says. Carla Conejo, a biologist and member of Hypatia I, says there is a cultural bias that has been reproduced in schools for many years. "In primary schools there is a tendency to unconsciously reinforce the creative areas in girls and the more technical subjects in boys", she says. And she wonders, "What can we contribute to the future vocations of young women?"

More missions

There is a lack of role models for the younger generation, despite the fact that more and more female experts are making their way. "At the beginning I was a bit sceptical about the idea of role models, I thought that if you liked one thing it was enough. But then it became very clear to me: there are fewer women working in technical careers and those who can be considered successful are still in the minority. Science that doesn't have a media echo doesn't reach the public and we only see men winning prizes", says Arias. You don't have to go very far back in time to see examples: last week the ten Nobel Prize winners were announced, and only one of the winners is a woman - Filipina Maria Ressa - and she won in a humanities category - not a scientific one.

"We scientists are and always have been. What we have lacked is visibility. I wish we didn't have to fight twice as hard to make our work and our projects known, but we still have to do it now. We still have a long way to go", explains Badenas. The intention of these nine women is that the Hypatia I mission will not be the last and that there will be at least a second and a third, but to do so they need institutional and financial support. "We are nine women who want to represent Catalan female talent, but we do it with great responsibility and humility because we are aware that there are many more who could be part of this project", says Conejo.