IASONEVOICE: THEN AND NOW SERIES
(Guatemala) Kristel Paola Ramirez Valdez is a chemical biologist and an IAS Cure Global Research Academy Fellow whose doctoral research project focused on identifying and characterizing neutralizing and non-neutralizing antibodies against HIV. She was born in Guatemala in 1984 and now lives in Turkey, where she is trying to establish a laboratory to continue researching the immune response against HIV.
In the ’90s, I was a little girl but I remember TV shows talking about the “silent killer”, a mysterious disease that was spreading. Since HIV is transmitted through sex and Guatemala was and still is a very conservative society, nobody would talk about it. It was like a taboo topic. This is why it caught my attention the first time.
“If she had cancer, everyone would feel bad for her, but because she had AIDS, everybody judged her.”
Needing some practical experience, we went to the hospital to the ward with HIV patients to take blood samples. There was a young woman, not more than 30. She told me that she had AIDS and that she was dying. She was crying because she was never going to see her two little girls grow up. And she told me that people treated her with disgust. I was thinking that if she had cancer, everyone would feel bad for her, but because she had AIDS, everybody judged her. The social implications of the disease broke my heart.
In Guatemala, there are a lot of women in biological and medical sciences. Many really good female professors and mentors guided me through my undergraduate studies. The more I advanced as a scientist, the more I realized that at some point I would need to choose between my career and having a family.
“Now, as a mid-level professional, one of the biggest obstacles I face as a woman in science is that I will be the one who will be expected to give up my career.”
When I was in Guatemala, my professor, Rebeca Méndez, was my teacher in my undergrad, then my thesis reviewer gave me a lot of good advice on how to be a confident woman in science. She was very hardworking and determined. I think of her as my professional godmother.
Later, I had a big professional crush on Sharon Lewin. I went to the 20th International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2014) in Melbourne, Australia, and she was so passionate, so knowledgeable in her speeches. I was inspired and wanted to be like her.
“One of the biggest obstacles I face as a woman in science is that I will be the one who will be expected to give up my career.”
Whenever I see successful women like that and I hear that they have a family, I think, “Wow, it is possible!” They are true role models for me because they are successful women, passionate, knowledgeable, and it doesn’t seem like they have to sacrifice everything. It gives me hope that it is possible to find this work-life balance.
To attract young women into science, it is important to have role models and mentors to help them realize that it is possible. As a married, working professional, I think we should improve the conditions for young women and girls by putting in place policies and infrastructure to help them to have both a family and career in science.
I would advise girls and women to work hard and be prepared to find difficulties, but also to be optimistic. They will find a lot of people who will help and guide them along the way. When it comes to working in the HIV field, there are still many things to do; there are so many opportunities in many fields of study. If you want to be part of it, just go for it.
The above text is a series of excerpts from a phone interview and has been edited for length