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How to show that science is interesting? | Interview with Prof. A. Daszkowska-Golec

22.04.2024 - 12:20 update 07.05.2024 - 15:06
Editors: wc-a
Tags: biological sciences, science communication, ŚFN KATOWICE

‘You don’t need decorations to convince someone that science is interesting’

| Weronika Cygan-Adamczyk |

In January 2024, Agata Daszkowska-Golec, PhD, Dsc, Associate Professor, Deputy Dean for Research Promotion and Internationalisation at the Faculty of Natural Sciences of the University of Silesia returned from a research stay in the United States. She will go back there again in a few months on the Fulbright scholarship granted at the end of last year. In the interview, the researcher talked about science communication as well as the challenges and satisfaction associated with developing a scientific career.

WERONIKA CYGAN-ADAMCZYK: At the moment we are talking, the Dean is shortly after returning from a research trip to the United States. How was your stay?

PROF. AGATA DASZKOWSKA-GOLEC: It was very intense, but from the very beginning I knew it was supposed to be like that. I participated in two scientific conferences. One of them is the biennial Barley Improvement Conference in San Diego, where barley researchers meet. It was organised by the American Malting Barley Association, which brings together farmers and other breeding companies in the USA and scientists associated with this research object. For some time, in the conference is also participated by scientists from Europe. A great convenience is the local and temporal proximity of this event to the largest international genomic congress, the Plant and Animal Genome Conference (PAG) in San Diego. This allows you to actually attend two conferences, and that’s usually what many researchers do. I also seized this opportunity – in both cases I was invited as a lecturer. This trip, however, involved another lovely challenge. Well, due to previously established cooperation, I was invited to deliver a lecture at the University of California. Some time ago we started planning a meeting with prof. Julian Schroeder, who works there. He was the first to identify a mutant in Arabidopsis in a gene whose function in barley is being reaserched by my team. We decided that my trip to the conferences was a great opportunity for a research visit to the University of California. It was all accompanied by great emotions, because it was like meeting your scientific idol. His team’s publications were the first ones I read when I started my PhD.

WERONIKA CYGAN-ADAMCZYK: Last year you became a Fulbright scholarship holder, you are listed in rankings of recognised scientists and invited to participate in international projects. How much effort did it take to gain this recognition?

PROF. AGATA DASZKOWSKA-GOLEC: I think that every committed scientist knows this effort, commitment and sacrifice very well. From the outside, you can’t see any failures, rejected publications or grants, no errors in the laboratory or plants that have been eaten by pests, such as aphids. All this takes a lot of work. Our research based on barley genetics has been going on for many years, and we need to wait for the results for a very long time. What’s more, we need to add the entire publication process, which, of course, may end in unfavorable opinions. However, each failure has its purpose. Thanks to our failures, we become stronger, bolder in our dreams, more creative. I’m still inexhaustibly curious, and still have lots of new ideas. When I received the information that I had become a Fulbright recipient, of course I felt great joy, but then I thought: what next? Therefore, I don’t think that there ever comes a moment when we reach the peak of achievement. Behind every peak there are other mountains worth conquering. I also never thought about it in the context of recognition and the fact that I work for it. I do what I love and I try to do it the best I can. Currently, with our team, we are working on subsequent manuscripts and conducting research as part of scientific projects. I have great PhD students, I am developing the team and international cooperation, and I think this is my greatest success – that I am surrounded by people who want to work with me. Thanks to this, I can develop my passion. With all this, we cannot forget that there are people who perceive scientists in completely different categories than the scientific community itself. It tempers my ego, because when I come back home, I am a wife and mother who takes care of the house and races against time (laughter). However, I never completely leave work because it is something I love and live by. I talk about what I do at work, also with family and friends who are not plant geneticists, and this is also extremely important – talking about science in a completely different way than in a hermetically closed environment of specialists.

WERONIKA CYGAN-ADAMCZYK: Is it a challenge to reconcile the role of a scientist with your private life? The stories of many famous women in science show that even when they became respected researchers, they often had to face criticism whether their professional work did not prevent them from fulfilling their household duties. Maria Skłodowska-Curie and Maria Goeppert-Mayer, both Nobel Prize winners, faced this challenge.

PROF. AGATA DASZKOWSKA-GOLEC: It’s difficult to refer to the perspective of Nobel Prize winners, but in the dimension located many floors below where I work, reconciling these two worlds is possible (laughter). I also came across questions (even from people close to me) whether, for example, my husband is okay with the fact that I am heavily involved in scientific and administrative work as a deputy dean. For me this is a huge shock, because it seems to me that if you develop a healthy relationship and both people respect each other, there is no room for such dilemmas. Much depends on the character of the person. I am lucky that I receive a lot of support from my loved ones. For various reasons, it is certainly more difficult for women to achieve certain things, but it is not impossible. Maybe it’s my optimistic nature, but that’s what I believe in.

WERONIKA CYGAN-ADAMCZYK: In recent years, there has been a lot of talk about the need to provide women with equal opportunities in science. Did you notice that you had to try harder for something because of your gender?

PROF. AGATA DASZKOWSKA-GOLEC: I guess I was lucky that I didn’t experience anything that would make me think that things would be different if I were a man. However, I know that attention is paid to this, also in the environment where I work. When it comes to biology and biotechnology, the fact that most specialists are men is not the case. In my scientific life, I have met many extremely inspiring, competent, charismatic women leaders and outstanding scientists. Based on observations and conversations with them, it seems to me that if someone is able to properly organise various elements of their life, regardless of gender, they are able to reach the next steps in their career or take advantage of favourable circumstances that arise. With a bit of luck, talent, and very hard work, we can achieve a lot, regardless of gender. Personally, even though I am an a feminist, I am against artificially making room for women and marking it with semantics. I believe that we have always had and will continue to have a very important role to play. With our skills, abilities and competences, we can prove the role of women in science or in any other profession.

WERONIKA CYGAN-ADAMCZYK: In addition to your scientific work, you are also active in the field of science communication, and since you mentioned earlier about reconciling scientific and family life, I will ask whether the contact of these two worlds can be helpful in the popularisation of science?

PROF. AGATA DASZKOWSKA-GOLEC: To some extent, definitely yes. Generally, I like talking about what I do, because science is my passion. I talk about it not only with other scientists, but also with my friends and family. I see that many people are really interested in it, which in turn makes me try harder when I talk about something. I want them to really understand what I am doing and for what purpose, and that this science is something they experience on a daily basis in one dimension or another. So far, my small experimental group where I conduct these experiments makes me understand that such activities make sense (laughter). I also cooperate with the Children’s University of Silesia, so talking about genome sequencing to kids aged 7 or 13 changes the perspective a bit when it comes to approaching my field of research. Some issues need to be explained in a simpler way. Let me point out here that you can easily fall into a trap when you popularise a discipline in which you are not an expert. That is why I am against influencers who speak on every possible topic. It’s fine when they invite experts, but many times I have come across popularisers who repeated mistakes and fakes. It is dangerous.

WERONIKA CYGAN-ADAMCZYK: Don’t you have a feeling that new popularisers are emerging from all sides, and science has become ‘tiktokised’? Does this mean that an illusion of science has been created – at it seems simple, effortless and superficial?

PROF. AGATA DASZKOWSKA-GOLEC: This is the key word. Superficial. Of course, we cen’t do anything with the fact that 10 tiktokers will talk about vaccines or GMOs without basic knowledge in this field. However, I still believe that we can react to it and change reality in small steps. If we convince a few people to science, they will convince others, and I believe that the snowball effect will cause an avalanche one day. You need to be very careful not to make attractive something that is already attractive in itself. You don’t need decorations to convince someone that science is interesting It’s impossible to make each person interested in every aspect of science. They will usually become interested in one of them, in an extent that is enough for them. And if this particular aspect is explained by an expert in the field, there is no risk of perpetuating fake information. Popularisation featuring scientists is the basis. It shouldn’t be an influencer. It should be a person with huge knowledge.

WERONIKA CYGAN-ADAMCZYK: In one of the newest issues of ‘University of Silesia Magazine’, on the occasion of a conversation about the ESOF2024 conference, Vice-Rector Prof. Michał Daszykowski drew attention to the phenomenon of ‘festivalisation of science’. At the same time, an unpleasant conclusion has emerged that large scientific events don’t result in an increase in the number of young people interested in studying exact, technical, natural and other sciences. Why might this be happening?

PROF. AGATA DASZKOWSKA-GOLEC: Popularisation activities alone are not enough. The experimental disciplines we are talking about, such as chemistry, physics or biology, are fields in which we can’t separate teaching from practicing science. The fact that we perform advanced research translates very easily into the didactics we create. I don’t tell students about the latest sequencing technologies that I’ve never tried myself. It only makes sense when I teach something that I understand and do, and this, in turn, translates directly into popularisation of knowledge. If I deeply understand the issue, I am able to explain it in a way that doesn’t distort knowledge or lead to false simplifications. Promotion and marketing alone will never be a remedy for the lack of students, because it needs to be looked at more broadly. We should also look at how quickly the young generation is changing. We need to listen to what they expect. We need to think about how to adapt curriculum in such a way that students acquire competencies that will enable them to work on the market, e.g. in biotechnology, environmental protection or the industrial sector – and we do this all the time at our degree programme. We are constantly adapting many modules and creating new specialties. Popularisation alone will never translate into more students. What Vice-Rector Michał Daszykowski mentioned, which I agree with, is a global problem. We are not the only university struggling with the outflow of students. This issue should be looked at in-depth and analysed, or the way of thinking should be changed – which is, replacing numbers with quality.

The idea of large popularisation events, such as the Biologists’ Night or Geopicnic organised by our fcaulty, is of course very important, because it is a moment when we can invite the public to the university walls and gather many scientists from various fields in one place. This doesn’t happen often and we talk about a science celebration. Preparing such an event requires a lot of energy and effort of many people. The fact that they do not translate into the number of recruited students doesn’t mean that there is no point in organising them. This isn’t the only purpose of such events. We are committed to talking about what we discover. The Silesian Science Festival is a fantastic opportunity not only to integrate the universities organising it, but also to show science in an accessible form, with the participation of many scientists in one place. I highlight these scientists ad nauseum because I think they are the ones who should popularise science. Moreover, science itself is interesting and doesn’t need fireworks to make it interesting. Therefore, it is important to have a balance between festivals and scientific conferences, during which discoveries are talked about in a completely different form.

WERONIKA CYGAN-ADAMCZYK: At the beginning of our conversation we talked about your research stay in the USA. If the beginning of 2024 was so fruitful, what do the next months look like?

PROF. AGATA DASZKOWSKA-GOLEC: Very intense and interesting! I’m looking forward to what I hope will happen this year. In the near future, my team and I will continue research within existing projects, including the SONATA BIS project with the acronym QUEST, financed by the National Science Centre, and the EU project with the acronym RECOBAR, concerning the return to biodiversity and the use of old and local barley varieties. In March, there is also a meeting of the international PlantACT! initiative, which we want to develop together with other researchers. At the faculty, we also undertake scientific and popularisation activities as part of the European City of Science 2024. In June, I’m leaving for the USA to fulfill my American dream and carry out a research project as part of the aforementioned Fulbright scholarship. I’d like to mention that the Fulbright Commission not only enables international scientific cooperation, but also makes it easier for scholarship holders to combine scientific work with their personal lives – this is an important aspect that we discussed earlier. Thanks to this, I can be accompanied by my family during my trip to the United States. The second half of the year doesn’t promise to be calmer in terms of science and research.

WERONIKA CYGAN-ADAMCZYK: A very busy calendar! Therefore, I wish you further fruitful activities. Thank you for the interview.

The article ‘You don’t need decorations to convince someone that science is interesting’ was published in the March issue of the ‘University of Silesia Magazine’ 6(316).

Prof. Agata Daszkowska-Golec

Prof. Agata Daszkowska-Golec | photo: private archive

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