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  • Sophie Arthur

Life Sciences Awardee 2020: Professor Gisou van der Goot

“I had zero exposure to science growing up”

Professor Gisou van der Goot is a molecular biologist whose research group studies aspects of cell and membrane biology, including a specific protein modification called palmitoylation, which is added to some proteins after formation. Van der Goot’s group is interested in understanding how the palmitoylation modification affects the function of so-called endoplasmic reticulum in cells, how proteins are transported within the cell, and how bacterial proteins such as the anthrax toxin penetrate target cells.

Van der Goot’s journey into science was not inevitable. “I had zero exposure to science growing up, because I was travelling around with my parents. We were often in third world countries and I would be in very small remote schools. However, at the end of high school I found that I really liked maths, it was my favourite subject. So when choosing what to study in further education, I chose to go to France to study maths, and the best place to study maths was at engineering school.”

Whilst completing her engineering degree at École Centrale Paris, van der Goot decided that she wanted to immerse herself in further academic research before moving into industry. Intrigued by the field of biology, van der Goot started veering off down this avenue of science. “In the last year of my engineering degree, I did a Masters in parallel so that I would be able to do a PhD. I chose to do that PhD in molecular biophysics, even though I had no background in the field whatsoever. I actually thought that it was going to be transient and I would just do a few years of research to know what it was like, and then I would move onto something else. But then I became really fascinated by the complexity of biology and also the scientific approach of trying to understand how things work in the living world. I guess that comes from my engineering background.”

“It has made me addicted to change”

Van der Goot has continued her pursuit of research. From her post-doc at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, in Heidelberg, to her own research group at the University of Geneva, before coming back full circle to join the engineering school, École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), Switzerland, where she is now Dean of the School of Life Sciences and in 2021 will become the first Vice President for Responsible Transformation.

Van der Goot cites her ‘non-typical’ childhood for helping to shape her career path. “I guess that experience [of frequently changing countries] reflects in how I do my research. The travelling is a lot like changing topics, and not being afraid to do so, and trying to connect things that look like they are not connected. I’ve always been at the interface of topics, and I think the life I’ve had predisposed me to that kind of approach. It has made me addicted to change, but it has also made me not afraid of change either, which I think is so useful in science.”

The encouragement of others has played an influential role in van der Goot’s life. “It was the support of others who thought I could do things that led to opportunities which I never planned. My father thought it was great that his daughter liked maths - there were no objections to my choices early on, so I had a lot of freedom and thought I could achieve whatever I wanted to. More recently, a colleague and a friend kind of forced me to be Dean of the School of Life Sciences, which I have subsequently become. I think people like him were very important because they set the bar of where they think you can go”.

“I introduced myself [to another mother] and she said ‘I know who you are. You’re the mother that’s never there.’”

Van der Goot is a leader in her field. Very few lab groups specialise in the palmitoylation modification of proteins. In the past, van der Goot has faced judgement by other parents for her career choice. “When my children were small, I got a lot of comments about the fact that I wasn’t there when they finished school for the day and situations like that. I very vividly remember one time when I did go to an event where my daughter’s class had won a prize. There was a group of parents chatting, and I noticed that I had never met one of them. So I went over and introduced myself and she said ‘I know who you are. You’re the mother that’s never there.’ I found that really tough.”

“A few years later, I was awarded the Swiss Prix Marcel Benoist, a prize that was really important in Switzerland and was advertised in the news and on the radio. Then suddenly, because someone else was acknowledging that what I was doing was worthwhile, I never had those comments again from anyone. That prize changed my life, not in science, but in my life outside of work.”

A question that van der Goot is often asked by younger women is whether they should choose between having a family and having a lab. “You shouldn’t compromise. If you want both, you should go for both of them. My advice would be that you need to set a few rules for yourself first though when it comes to balancing a lab and a family, and then really stick to those rules. A friend of mine always says ‘We are not heart surgeons - there are really very few things that we cannot postpone by a few days,’ and I think it is really important to remember that.”

“We need to be active matchmakers between an opportunity and a person”

In her various roles, van der Goot is trying to find ways to make things easier and more accessible for women in science. She hopes that her positions as a Vice President, Dean, scientist and mother, will show others that it is possible for women to reach these senior positions.

“I believe it is actually very difficult for a woman to promote measures to promote women, because it can be perceived as a conflict of interest. For this reason, I have actually appointed a male in our college to be in charge of gender equality. But being a woman in upper management is also really important to show.”

Last year, van der Goot helped to introduce a ‘dual list’ system in the college employment process. This entailed separate lists of the best male candidates and the best female candidates to then compare side by side. “It became much easier to convince everybody that the equally-positioned woman was at least as good as the man,” van der Goot said. “By introducing this dual list we met our target of giving at least 40% of offers to women.”

“Going forward, I think to help raise the profiles of others in science, we need to keep seeking opportunities where we could propose somebody for that chance – whether they are a woman or any minority. We need to be active matchmakers between an opportunity and a person. Individually, we might only be able to change the life of a limited number of people, albeit very significantly, but by all of us really going out of our way to try and find opportunities for people, then we can enact more change.”

Professor van der Goot was nominated by the 2018 Life Sciences awardee Professor Irene Miguel- Aliaga. You can see the lineage of this and other awards within the Life Sciences branch here, and meet the other 2020 Life Sciences awardees here.

The Suffrage Science award schemes celebrates women in science for their scientific achievements and for their ability to inspire others. Each recipient nominates the next recipient of their award, creating a network of inspiring and supportive women.

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the 2020 Life Sciences awards event will now take place virtually alongside the 2020 Maths and Computing awards event next month.

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