Regina Palkovits on equality in science: “It’s about giving young people a chance”

10 years AcademiaNet

9.11.2020 | AcademiaNet was created ten years ago as a way to address the gender imbalance among senior academics. Looking back over the past decade, what’s changed? We spoke to Prof. Regina Palkovits, one of our first members, to find out.
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Young scientist performing a polio environmental surveillance technique.

For AcademiaNet’s ten-year jubilee, we’re reaching out to one of our very first members, Professor Regina Palkovits, to talk about what has changed over the past decade. Professor, could you give our readers a brief introduction to your line of work?

Prof. Dr. Regina Palkovits
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Prof. Dr. Regina Palkovits
I’m researching the catalytic transformation of renewable resources. We take renewable resources, like biomass and CO2 and these days also plastic waste, and develop catalytic processes to transform them into high value products. For example, the monomers needed for the production of polymers and potentially CO2 neutral fuels.

A major motivation for me is that the field is so interdisciplinary. I studied chemical engineering, and then I moved into heterogeneous catalysis which is somewhat between material science, chemistry and chemical engineering. Now, for the applications of the research, I am also very much in contact with biotechnology and chemical and process engineering. It’s right between the disciplines and that fuels my curiosity.

The other part of my motivation comes from the specific scientific targets we have, like to transform our current linear chemical economy into a circular economy approach. In this way, we can make use of things which are considered to be at the end of their life, and which are easily and sustainably available. This is contrast to what happens today in our linear economy, where we take fossil fuels and eventually everything is either burned or ends up in landfill.

Fantastic. So this month we’re looking back over the past ten years to see what’s changed in terms of women’s position in academia. Eight years ago you gave an interview to us where you mentioned that perhaps there’s an outdated idea of what an engineer or scientist’s life looks like. Is that still the case, do you think?

I think that’s still the view, yes. In the meantime, I’ve talked to lots of female students telling me “I’m thinking about academia because I saw so-and-so working in that field”. It’s a major point that you need diversity in the people who fill certain positions.

For example, two years ago now, I took my young daughter for a doctor’s appointment and afterwards she asked me if there are also female doctors. Because the life experience is more typically of a man being the physician. When you get away from the stereotypes, of course it’s easier to decide for yourself which path to choose. It’s even easier if you have examples that you associate yourself with.

So do you think that having more women in senior positions in academia will have a reinforcing effect on the more junior research members because they’re exposed to role models?

Yes, I think role models are essential, but it’s only one part of it. The next part is the acceptance of different working life models. The idea you have to fit in twenty hours of work each day to be efficient is out-dated, and there are certain phases where you are more or less dependent on other things going on in your life. So another major issue is flexibility with regards to time and place.

And finally, it’s about giving a chance to young people, even if they don’t fit perfectly into a scheme which has been established for fifty years. It’s about trust, and it’s about the candidates’ motivation and general capability. You need basic qualifications, of course, but people who learn fast can integrate into different fields. If they’ve been excellent on two or three other research projects, I have no doubt that they will be successful on a research project that is not as close to their experience.

That’s a very interesting point about trust that is perhaps often overlooked in these conversations. Do you think there’s a responsibility for institutions here to increase trust in younger scientists, or is it down to the individual PI?

In recent years, many different ways of giving a chance to young people have been established. Like start-up funds, where you get your own funding for a short project to show that you can bring new research to life. Early career independent grants have also been established at various universities. I think that’s a great approach.

You always have to see a candidate as a package

What would you say has been the biggest change over the last decade in terms of diversity and inclusion then?

Thinking about diversity and inclusion has become much more natural. Now you have to consider it. Ten years ago, you really had to remind everyone about this point and nowadays it’s just an integral part of every decision when hiring someone. I really appreciate that.

That being said, it is still very slow. It is not because people are not willing to have diversity and inclusion when you need to fill positions, but it’s more that the way of assessing quality and qualification is very traditional. That sometimes turns into selection bias.

In the evaluation, when we select from different candidates, still in many cases a traditional kind of accounting takes place. Different “scientific ages” and career paths are not easy to compare. You always have to see a candidate as a package and you need to see the trajectory. From the trajectory you can assess what might happen. Again, it is about trust to maybe hire someone with fewer publications but a steeper trajectory.

It’s similar with impact and citations. The funny thing is that when you start off a novel field, it doesn’t yet have a huge peer group. Your research may be highly relevant but have little “impact” because there is no peer group.

There’s also an increasing move towards making the language of job descriptions more inclusive to women in an effort to boost applications from women. For example, choosing different adjectives which might have fewer masculine connotations. Do you think these kinds of efforts will have any effect?

I appreciate the direction but I can tell you that in German, even to write in a gender neutral way is a pain. In German, you have the ending of the word distinguishing between genders and many things are male in general. So you have to decide if you always put both, [the standard male and the explicitly female]… It gets very long and I’m sometimes not sure if the advantages outweigh the complexity you create. Nevertheless, using fair gender language is certainly important to include everyone. Maybe going to English is easier.

AcademiaNet is the reference when we look at filling a position

That’s a fair point! From that perspective, English is much easier. My final question is about AcademiaNet and the importance of these kinds of networks and databases. What are your thoughts on that?

AcademiaNet is the reference when we look at filling a position, the place where we can cross-check. You cannot know everyone and usually you’re commissioning outside your own field, so you need such a reference point.

And do you think it’s helped with your own exposure?

I hope so!

We hope so, too. Thanks very much for speaking to us, Professor Palkovits.   (© Emilie Steinmark / AcademiaNet /
Questions were asked by Emilie Steinmark for AcademiaNet and

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