Science - March 8, 2007

‘We need more women scientists for better research’

At a glamorous event in the UNESCO headquarters in Paris, Gisella Cruz received her UNESCO - l’Oréal fellowship. There were speeches and performances at the official ceremony, accompanied by workshops and a sumptuous dinner with ambassadors, tells Cruz, who will use her fellowship for her PhD research at Wageningen University.

It is the first time that someone from the Netherlands has received a fellowship from the For Women in Science program, in which the UN organisation for education, science and culture, UNESCO, cooperates with cosmetics giant L’Oréal. Apart from Cruz, Wageningen University also hosts another program fellow, Sarrah Ben M’Barek from Tunisia. The aim of the program is to advance the position of women in science.
Gisella Cruz trained as a biologist in Peru, after which she did the MAKS master’s programme at Wageningen University. After writing her research proposal for a PhD, she applied for the prestigious UNESCO - l’Oréal fellowship. Although from Peru, Cruz has been living in the Netherlands for some years and is married to a Dutchman. She applied as a representative from the Netherlands with roots in Latin America to do fieldwork for her study in Asia.
Her interest lies in the relation between biology and the conservation of biodiversity. Cruz will explore how rice production in the paddy fields of northeast Thailand might be improved while protecting the wild plants used for food and medicine by the local population. It is the first time that the seasonal abundance of wild plants in paddy fields in Thailand will be quantified. She will interview local people about their use of each plant species for food or medicine and the quantities that they harvest, and gather data on their management of the paddy fields. Cruz will also work with the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines. Her aim is to contribute to a better understanding of biodiversity and its sustainable management.
Her research also deals with the position of women. It is women who are the knowledge holders when it comes to wild plants and their traditional uses, says Cruz. The women also sell wild plants, contributing to income in poor families. In India, where Cruz did research for her master’s thesis, this women’s work was not valued, as gathering wild plants was associated with poverty and lower castes.
According to Cruz the scientific community does not devote enough attention to the role women play in the use of wild plants. ‘Most agronomists in Peru, where I studied, focus on plants, not on people. And when agricultural scientists look at people, as I have seen in India, they often focus on men.’ Being interested in plant science and social science, Cruz will have supervisors at both the Crop and Weed Ecology Group and the Sociology of Households and Consumers Group. Male researchers are more likely than female researchers to overlook the role of women in gathering, using and marketing traditional plants and herbs, Cruz believes. The gender of the researcher has an influence on the outcomes of research, an important reason for Cruz to argue for improving the position of women in science.
‘I would like to encourage female master students to study hard. When I started studying, I thought like many others that it is networking that gets you a job. But now I feel it is my hard work that has been rewarded.’ The position of women in science needs to improve, Cruz feels, also at Wageningen University. While female professors make up 15 percent of the total number of professors at European universities, this figure was 11.6 percent at Wageningen University in 2006, slightly above the Dutch average of 10 percent. / Joris Tielens