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With a Focus on Gender Equality, Gabriela Reznik Balances STEM Research, a Ph.D. and Motherhood

Gabriela Reznik 2022 Holt winner
Gabriela Reznik.

During an internship selection process, an interviewer asked Ph.D. student Gabriela Reznik about a gap in her resume, prying for the reason she had “stopped” working. Reznik recalls pausing nervously. The months in question, she explained, accounted for the toughest job of her career – welcoming a second child into the world.

“We have to fight against implicit bias,” she says. “It shouldn’t have been something asked about in the interview.”

A student at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Reznik recently won the Helen F. Holt Scholarship for Early Career Women in Science. The award provides funding to a recent graduate or graduate student presenting at the AAAS Annual Meeting. Reznik’s talk focused on equity and inclusion in Brazil’s education system, shedding light on publicly funded programs aimed at encouraging girls' interest in STEM subjects. Through interviews, focus groups and questionnaires with students, Reznik took an intersectional approach – incorporating class, gender, and race – to understand how experiences with these programs fostered a sense of belonging.

“We are looking at how the experience of the young women in STEM projects are related to their school community, their social environment and family context,” she explains. “Having safe spaces to share their ideas with other women is also something that can influence how they feel supported to choose their own career.”

For the most part, she says, the programs showed positive movement, elevating the importance of female role models in STEM and shifting the dynamic in households with more traditional values.

It’s very powerful to look at how STEM education projects focused on gender equity are trying to change the system and transform this [male] dominant culture” she says. “These girls are expanding their future possibilities of being valued and recognized as who they are and who they want to be.”

In Brazil, gender inequalities are still rampant, Reznik says. Women – especially those in lower classes – often get forced into traditional gender roles. Many start working after high school, eventually staying home with children. Funding in Brazil to help women enter STEM careers is sparse and inconsistent—something Reznik hope to augment through her research.

“I felt there were some expectations like this for me,” Reznik says. “I am a woman and I grew up in this kind of society, but I really felt it more when I became a mother.”

The daughter of professors, Reznik grew up in the Tijuca neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro in a home filled with books and student papers. To Reznik, these endless pages represented a world of infinite possibilities, nurturing her desire to pursue ecology in college.

“We had a huge library at our house,” says Reznik. “Reading and writing was something my brother and I were very stimulated to do.”

Since she started studying biology as an undergraduate, Reznik wanted to be a science communication practitioner and researcher. Working at the Museum of Life in Rio de Janeiro, she started to think about the role science plays in society – “how science is produced by culture,” she says.

“We are in a scientific culture and it is important to consider the active and critical participation of society in the debate on issues related to science and technology, understanding science as embedded in society. In this way, we should intentionally consider the centrality and diversity of voices and identities, especially those that have been and remain marginalized in science,” she adds.

Reznik’s master’s work was in the history and philosophy of science. In one project, she analyzed animated movies for portrayals of scientists.

“The main stereotype is a white Western man with the hair – Einstein hair,” she says.

In older movies, this “mad” man might sit alone in a lab, hiding his creations from the world – a stereotype derived from alchemy. In her research, Reznik noticed a pattern of scientists represented in the media and on stages.

“There is still a lack of diversity in media representations and in the arts [when it comes to] the image of a scientist, which distances people from thinking of themselves as belonging to this space. These stereotypes seem to emerge during the early school years.”

Reznik will defend her Ph.D. in management and communication studies in April and is working on a Fulbright grant as a collaborator with the University of Michigan. Academia, however, hasn’t always been the friendliest match for motherhood. Research and grant deadlines don’t account for maternal leave, making it difficult to complete tasks on time. Her university in Brazil, she says, doesn’t even have diaper changing stations.

Reznik started her master’s degree when her first daughter was nine months old. She had her second daughter in the first year of her Ph.D. Since then, she’s paired research with advocacy, teaming up with groups including Parent in Science to bring awareness to issues faced by career scientists with children.

“I have a lot of support from my family, and also I found support between other mothers in academia.” she says. “At least four years after having your child, productivity decreases a lot. It’s important we have more policies to compensate for this time we lose.”

Moving forward, Reznik hopes other women in STEM will face fewer obstacles than she did pursuing a scientific career while being a mother.


Lauren Boyer

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