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Committees should put talent ahead of quotas – Prof. Pascale Cossart

Professor Pascale Cossart believes young female researchers should not hold themselves back.
Professor Pascale Cossart believes young female researchers should not hold themselves back.

Women should be compelled to sit on scientific committees if they receive funding for research, according to Professor Pascale Cossart, director of research into bacteria-cell interactions at the Pasteur Institute in Paris.

Prof. Cossart is the 2014 recipient of the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) and Federation of European Biochemical Societies (FEBS) Women in Science Award, in recognition of her work in bacteriology and in mentoring young scientists.

Do you think there is still a need to promote women in science?

‘I think there is a need to tell them that there are many senior women who are happy, they are successful, they are at the highest positions, they look normal. You should tell them: “you should not be disappointed if during your post-doc you are not yet successful because you will be successful later”, things like that. One has to be patient. It’s true that ... at my age, I don’t have to think “am I good; am I not good?”.’

Have you felt conscious of facing challenges because of your gender?

‘Not really, and even sometimes it has facilitated. I have the feeling that when you are good and you are a woman it can be sometimes be easier than for men. What I mean is that if you are good, and if, for example, a committee needs a good woman then the chances that one asks you are high.’

What do you think can be done to promote women at higher levels of their careers?

‘Maybe one should try to force some women to be on some committees. For example if one (woman) receives a grant from one agency then she should be in the next selection committee.

‘In terms of funding, I have never seen any special grant for a woman. They have at the ERC (European Research Council), for example, given extra years to apply for junior grants for a woman who has had children. But I think more effort could be done on that point. Because OK, you have had two children, you have lost two years. But frankly, even after maternity leave it is more work for the woman than the man. So I think that there should be something more done for that.

‘But I am not sure that I would be willing to apply for things which are only for women. I mean, I always care if the women who are selected are good.’

‘I have the feeling that when you are good and you are a woman it can be sometimes be easier than for men.’

Prof. Pascale Cossart, Pasteur Institute, France

You won the 1998 L’Oreal/UNESCO Award for Women in Science. Is there any difference between the last time you won and now?

‘The first woman in science award that I won was the first prize that L’Oreal gave. It was a bit strange at the time because it was a prize from a hair products company. I was at the time of my selection as suspicious as the president of the jury, but the president was a Nobel Prize winner – Christian de Duve. He wanted the prize to be right the first year at a very high level and he took it seriously, he succeeded, and it was a wonderful prize.

‘Here it’s a different situation. It’s a prize given by many of my respected colleagues. I am aware that they really wanted to select someone who is active in the field both in science and also in promoting science. In fact I’m organising a lot of courses, organising meetings, pushing the young people and this is part of the prize too. This prize is also a nice recognition for my lab. It’s true that we are successful at the moment. There is no secret: I can tell you that people in my lab work very hard.’

What attracted you to a career in science?

‘I was a student in chemistry and I always wanted to go on. So when I finished I went into a chemistry lab and by chance after two weeks I went to a course on biochemistry. And I found it so amazing that I went to see the professor and said “I think I’ve made a mistake, I should switch labs”. This was in Lille. I then went to the States and came back, (I was) too attached to France! Then I arrived at the Pasteur in 71 and I thought it was so fantastic that I stayed there.’ 

Your specialist area of research is listeria – what is it that you find so interesting?

‘When I started to work on listeria it was really to understand, how listeria is behaving as a pathogen. I really wanted to understand the whole infectious process by this otherwise environmental bacterium. But now, I take listeria as a starting point to address various questions. For example, if I study the role of clathrin (a protein that helps transport molecules within cells) then I say “OK, listeria is doing that, what happens for other bacteria?” I often say that listeria used to be my model, now it’s my springboard.’

What advice would you have for a young female scientist starting out today?

‘Don’t auto-inhibit yourself. Recognition is something which is very important in our profession and I know that there are many people thinking “I will never be like that, I will never do as much as she has done”. This is not true! There are many fantastic women.’

Professor Pascale Cossart

Prof. Pascale Cossart is director of research into bacteria-cell interactions at the Pasteur Institute, Paris. Her work on listeria, a deadly bacteria that is carried in food, has helped build a comprehensive picture of the genetic and biochemical processes that make this organism so effective and lethal.

She has published more than 300 scientific papers and is also known as a mentor and supporter of younger scientists.

Prof. Cossart is also a European Research Council (ERC) advanced grant awardee and has served as a panel member of the ERC since 2008. 

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