“I want young women to not stop fighting.” An interview with Adriana Albini
As part of the CALIPER project, we are conducting a series of interviews with inspirational women who work in STEM research and innovation. We explore what motivated them to choose their career, their experiences and the barriers that they faced.
About Adriana Albini
Adriana Albini is Professor of General Pathology at Milano Bicocca University and Scientific Director of the Fondazione MultiMedica Onlus in Milan. Professor Albini is President of the ‘Top Italian Women Scientists’ club at the National Observatory Foundation on Women’s Health which promotes female researchers. She featured as one of ‘the BBC’s 100 Women of 2020’ highlighting those who were “leading change and making a difference during turbulent times”. She was the first Italian elected to the American Association for Cancer Research’s (AACR) board of directors and is among the most cited Italian women scientists.
Away from her career, she is also a fencing champion, winning bronze at the 2018 Veterans World Cup and silver at the 2015 European Veterans Fencing competition.
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Your research sounds fascinating. Can you give us an overview of it?
My research actually started with chemistry because I graduated in organic chemistry with a biological course, and I’ve always liked studying molecules, both of the human body and those which can be used for drugs. So, my journey kind of involved studying potential natural sources of new drugs, particularly in the area of oncology and cancer prevention, building on the fact that organic chemistry is itself carcinogenic and so, my “call”, let’s say my call to arms, came from the fact that I saw both sides of our matter.
Let’s talk about your background. Where did you grow up and study?
I’m kind of a citizen of the world and most of all, of Italy, because I was born in Venice and my mother was Venetian, while my father was Ligurian. I grew up in Florence because my father worked at the National Central Library. He was a Greek scholar and he got tenure in Genoa, so we moved to Genoa when I was 14.
From then, after high school, having studied chemistry, I won a scholarship to go to Germany and work in a biochemistry lab in Munich. I was there for three and a half years, then I was called to the United States to work at the National Institutes of Health in America in the capital, and then I came back to Italy. So certainly quite nomadic. I also got married in Italy.
What factors brought you to take on your career? Who are the people who had the greatest impact on your work and career?
I’ve always loved nature, and in summers gone by at the Venice Lido, a very varied sandy environment with dunes and the sea, I was intrigued by the dynamics between the organisms, the plants, the marine life and their health, and also with cleaning up the beaches. I decided, almost from the start, that I wanted to be a scientist even though I liked writing and I always had a temptation to be an academic like my father. But my mother graduated in mathematics, and she was a point of reference with regard to my interest in science.
You were chosen by the BBC as one of the 100 most influential women in 2020. What did that recognition mean to you? And what impact did it have on your career?
2020 was the year of COVID, and this is what happened: when I was in the United States working on cancer research, AIDS started spreading. Back then, the causative agent wasn’t even known. Many of us were put to work on AIDS and there was, therefore, a great contribution to the science community. So, as Covid began to spread, we were the first to be affected and I kind of threw myself into a fight for funding.
To be heard and to communicate with the science community, I wrote to my friends who had worked on AIDS to see if we could draw something from our expertise that would be useful in the fight against COVID. My [Top] Women Scientists were also involved in this. These appeals were sent out at national and international levels and we succeeded in doing a lot of research worldwide, certainly with a female input, even if women weren’t on TV as much, but they made important contributions. So in a way, the BBC list led to this hectic activity of petitions for COVID research on the web.
You’re a strong supporter of promoting research conducted by women. Why is that work important to you?
Often, women in scientific research and in STEM professions become invisible, or maybe they’re invisible and they aren’t used. This is a phenomenon which has various explanations, but to combat it we need to work on it. The idea came a few years ago, a decade I’d say, when a kind of hit metric for scientists came out, based on the number of citations per article: articles which were cited a certain number of times, what is called H Index. In Italy, there was a group of courageous researchers who started this site, “Top Italian Scientists” where they made, more or less, a catalogue of citations. I was interested straight away and I said, “Let’s look at the women.” Because for a whole load of reasons it’s easier to have your own lab and be cited if you’re a man.
So, I did this survey, I wrote to these women asking if they wanted to be part of an association, a club. There were 40 of us initially and we were presented at the Region of Lombardy by the president of the Fondazione Onda, Francesca Merzagora, to whom I will always be grateful. Gradually, a network was established, and I chose women in biomedical research, because clearly, if I went to other areas, like physics, we would have had a whole host of women who are also quite good, in my opinion, at asserting themselves. We have lots of them. So we started with Fabiola Gianotti and some others. Biomedical research had, I think, needed this encouragement.
What do you hope to achieve as president of the Top Italian Women Scientists association?
We do lots of things, even fun things. For example, together with a group of female entrepreneurs, called European Women’s Development and Management, we organise every year in Reggio Emilia, or actually this year, in 2022, it will be in Modena, a biomedical conference where all the speakers are women. We fought against the “all-male panel” and we did it, ironically, with the “all-women panel”, so moderators, speakers, panels are all made up of excellent women who have reached important roles thanks to their h-index and also their ability to assert themselves because for us women, nothing is given.
What advice would you give to young women starting their careers who might have difficulties due to gender discrimination? And what would you say to yourself if you could go back in time?
Interesting question. Well, it’s certainly very important to have a set of instructions, I think. Every now and then I send instructions for use. I think you need to choose mentors, because it’s important to speak with someone and to understand from those who came before us what the right moves might be. You need to have strategies. Often in research, it goes like this, that is, it’s based on creativity, but a career path must be organised, a résumé must be built and a résumé should contain many things.
The Americans are much better because they include if they can play baseball or if they have, I don’t know, brought their neighbours the newspaper when they were kids. So they have a much fuller idea of a résumé than we do. You have to set priorities and objectives, in the sense that, I, recently, at a certain point wanted to be the director of a laboratory and so I worked towards that, but I’m not saying that that has to be everyone’s ambition. It could be that someone wants to have a better balance between work and life, or that they want to work on aspects, for example, of medicine, or more on psychology than molecules. So, I think, to get somewhere you need to know what you want, and this gives us the tools to achieve it.
If I could go back in time, I would change a lot. First of all, my character because I was always very determined and not very inclined to compromise and looking back, it’s more than likely that if I had counted to 10 more often, things would have been simpler. So, build a network, have a bit of diplomacy, that would be a good path.
What are your hopes for the next generation of young women in the world of medicine?
I want young women to not stop fighting. I have to say there are historic changes in society, girls of my generation fought for civil rights, for individual rights, and we are losing them. I want to see more young women working hard and also taking risks to get things that we’re losing. When we look back on history, or through cinema, what was done to simply win the vote for women, or the right to divorce, or in a way, to be able to choose, I don’t know, to be gender fluid. Or the right to life, or to be able to choose, for example, euthanasia.
We have so many things that in some ways, have remained the battles of us older women and should be taken on more by the young. I see, for example, that where I really had to stamp my foot to achieve things in my work and my career, often my colleagues, who are brilliant and intelligent, wait for me to help them out. “Professor, this happened”, “Professor, they want to do this for me, I don’t know what to do, I don’t know”, and they tend to experience what could be injustices. So, I want girls, young women, students and scientists to be determined, to unite and win back things which unfortunately, we are losing.
To find out more, please visit the CALIPER Project website.
This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation programme under Grant Agreement No 873134
14th March 2023. For further information please contact AECardiffHub@cardiff.ac.uk