Maia García Vergniory (Getxo, 1978) did not feel a vocation for science when she was little. Her footsteps were guiding her year after year until she became one of the most recognized researchers in physics. She is currently the principal investigator at the Max Planck Institute for Physicochemistry of Solids in Dresden (Germany) and at the Donostia International Physics Center, and the American Physics Society has elected her a Fellow for their contribution in the identification of new topological materials, an annual recognition given to 0.5% of the nominated physicists.
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This scientist acknowledges that machismo prevails in her discipline, as in the rest of society, but she is optimistic and hopes that the women who come after her do not have to listen to comments like the ones she had to hear. “I want to believe that things have changed and that sexist comments are no longer given in the same way that they were when I went to university, where we did not have the expectation of succeeding in science or there were no women who had won the Prize Nobel. If those comments had not existed when I studied Physics, perhaps more women would have studied the career ”, she assures.
How did you know you wanted to go into science?
It was not something vocational that I knew since I was little, it was something progressive. In high school I really liked physics and I was good at it, so when I got to university I decided to study Physics. When I finished it, I wanted to learn more about it and did a PhD. After doing so, I wanted to go abroad and I went to Berkeley, California, to study as a postdoc. I followed those steps until I decided that I wanted to be a scientist and that was what I liked.
What project are you working on right now?
I work in the study of the electronic and magnetic properties of topological materials. They are materials that were discovered only about 20 years ago and have very interesting electronic transport properties, with many applications and very low energy dissipation, which makes them very interesting for developing microelectronics with them.
On some occasion he has even said that “it is not necessary to encourage women to dedicate themselves to science, it is enough not to discourage them”. Has anyone ever tried to discourage you throughout your career?
Yes. Machismo exists in physics as a reflection of the machismo that exists in society. What happens is that the world of physics is very masculine, so homosociability occurs in a more intense way. ‘Men’s clubs’ in science are more clearly perceived than in other fields where there is more gender diversity. I want to believe that things have changed and that sexist comments are no longer given in the same way that they were when I went to university, where we did not have the expectation of succeeding in science or there were no women who had won the Prize. Nobel. When I said that phrase I meant that. If those comments had not existed when I studied Physics, perhaps more women would have studied the race.
We do not have to base discrimination or the glass ceiling that exists on our personal perceptions, because studies show it
Is discrimination against women in your workplace perceived in any way in your day-to-day work?
I would like to make it clear that regardless of whether I personally perceive it or not, which of course I do, there are gender studies on science carried out by professionals in the social sciences that show that discrimination against women exists. We don’t have to base discrimination or the glass ceiling that exists on our personal perceptions, because studies show it.
What do these studies reflect?
That throughout the scientific career the number of women who dedicate themselves to it drops drastically over the years. There are studies that also reflect how many women sign articles as first author, how many citations have the articles signed by them, how many projects are given to women and men, and in all of this there is a clear gender polarization.
He has recently received the Fellowship, a recognition from the American Physics Society, for his contribution on topological materials. What has it meant to you?
It is a very important recognition worldwide because the American Physics Society today is the most powerful physics society in the world. The recognition is carried out by the members of society themselves, that is, their own colleagues and of all the physicists there are, they only recognize 0.5% per year. I’m very happy.
What has been the most difficult part of getting to where you are today?
I do not know. The scientific career is a marathon, I couldn’t say which part has been more complicated because it has been constant work and each phase has been complex. Now it has been difficult for me, for example, to adapt to managing a large group, because in addition to researching, I have to manage everything.
Is there conciliation in science?
They are trying to implement it now, but it is difficult to reconcile personal and work life in science, because the problem is that the scientific career is long, but divided into packages of 3 and 4 years, and you have to do it between the ages of 30 and 40 years, which is the age at which women become pregnant. They are trying to protect the fact that a woman can create a family during the degree, but I believe that the day has not yet arrived in which women can feel comfortable getting pregnant during the postdoc or thesis.
It is difficult to reconcile personal and work life in science, because the scientific career is carried out between the ages of 30 and 40, which is the age at which women become pregnant.
You currently work in Germany. Is it possible to dedicate yourself to the projects you are carrying out in Spain or is scientific research more developed there?
It is possible to dedicate myself to what I am doing in Spain without any problem, but it is easier to get financing today in Germany. There is more financing, more calls, more projects and even better management of the financing that exists. In Spain we have a funding management problem that I hope will be resolved because right now there are great scientists who need more support and not have to wait until they are over 40 to get a permanent job. Another thing that happens is that in Germany the financing projects are long-term. My research on topological materials has lasted six years and we have obtained funding to carry it out during all that time, thanks to the support of the Donostia International Physics Center and its director, but not thanks to national funding. The problem is that in Spain the projects are short and last only about three years. On the other hand, the German projects are extensible to 12 years, which allows you to risk more, make mistakes, rectify and delve deeper into your project. That’s how good jobs come out, because immediacy in science doesn’t work.
What is that due to? Lack of resources or planning?
Lack of planning and good management. The resources are greater in Germany, but in Spain there are resources that are not well managed.
Is that the reason why many Spanish scientists are forced to go abroad to investigate?
Of course, it is also that abroad they demand us, it is not that we are leaving. They offered me this job, I didn’t ask for it.
What advice would you give to a girl who wants to pursue physics?
That she is willing to work hard, because the scientific career requires many sacrifices, and that she surround herself with good people. It is very important that the people you surround yourself with when you are developing support you and are there through thick and thin.
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