Margarita Salas: "Sometimes we women have backed off"

Always has been the great reference of the Spanish scientific woman and even of the homeland research in general, but at least for today it is also a protagonist in Vienna. There, he has collected, at 80 years, the European Inventor Award 2019 in the category 'Achievement of a lifetime', becoming the first Spanish woman who achieves it. As if that were not enough, he has also won the 'Popular Prize' thanks to the vote of the public.

The Asturian Margarita Salas (Valdés, Asturias, 1938), who continues to research in her laboratory at the Severo Ochoa Molecular Biology Center (CBMSO, mixed center between the CSIC and the Autonomous University of Madrid), re-marks a scientific milestone. The patent of his method to amplify the DNA and be able to study it more easily – he uses the enzyme phi29 DNA polymerase – remains the most profitable in the history of the CSIC and now receives more recognition. Shortly after collecting his new awards he attends Teknautas by telephone from the Austrian capital.

(Radiography of the most profitable patent in the history of Spain)

QUESTION: The prize for his career seems logical, but genetics is not an easy discipline for the general public to understand. Are you surprised that they voted for you?

ANSWER: I did not expect it at all, it was a surprise because, besides, I have not done anything to ask people to vote for me.

Q: We talk about prizes to inventors. If science has been very masculine throughout history, the world of invention is even more so.

A: Among the 15 finalists there were 12 men and 3 women, so it actually remains …

Q: Are you tired of being asked about the woman's role in the investigation?

A: It is already being claimed, now we have many women who are beginning research, doing doctoral theses, and I believe that they will continue their research career and will eventually occupy the positions that correspond to them according to their capacity and their work. The role of women in science is going to increase, perhaps without hurry, but without pause.

Q: Everything is changing, but you have assured that you suffered discrimination at the beginning.

A: When I started it was thought that women were not trained to do research. Obviously, I was discriminated against because they thought I was not worth it, but I went ahead.

Q: And have you encountered many more cases throughout your career?

A: At first the women who did research were very few, but with the passage of time we have gradually increased. Now there are even more women starting. In the future, even if it is far away, I hope that there are as many as men at the top of science.

Q: And why did not they just arrive and break the famous 'glass ceiling'?

A: Women have started late and getting up is hard work. Also on some occasions we have backed down in certain aspects, such as when they offered us some higher position, of direction. I think that now we think that we have to move forward.

Q: In that aspect we have improved a little. And in the financing of Spanish science?

A: When I returned from the United States in 1967, after spending three years in New York with Severo Ochoa, in Spain there was no funding to do research. My husband and I were able to start thanks to the help we got from there. Afterwards, the budget was increasing little by little, but now we have been low for a few years.

We must increase funding considerably so that we can all move forward and above all so that young people have the possibility of finding a job. In Spain we train doctors very well, here it is very good research, but the problem is that they can not find work. If they want to continue, they have to go abroad and can not go back.

The Spanish biochemist Margarita Salas (Asturias, 1938) (4d) with the rest of the winners of the contest. (Photo: EFE)

Q: If you were to start over in these times, would you leave again or would you stay in Spain?

A: I would go to the United States. I believe that the stage of postdoctoral training abroad is important for everyone, although now in Spain it is very good research and it is not absolutely necessary to go out, although it is always convenient.

Q: What does it mean for a country to have inventors?

R: It's important. In Spain, patents are still scarce, there is little culture in this field and it is important to promote it and that we are aware that applications arise from basic research. In the case of my work, these applications were not predictable when we started, but one that has been totally useful and fantastic for DNA amplification emerged.

P: DNA sequencing can be applied to many fields, including medicine. Do you think that in some way your contribution has helped save lives?

A: It is one more tool than we have to do genetic analysis. When there is a small amount of DNA sample, we can amplify it and produce millions of copies in order to analyze, sequence and study it. This technique is also used in forensic, criminological and paleontological studies. Actually, it helps a lot to be able to study DNA.

Q: Will the prizes that you have granted today also amplify your status as a reference in Spanish research?

A: This award is important not only for me, but for the science of our country. The recognition of a Spanish woman as winner of the invention prize of the European Patent Office is a reward and encourages Spain to continue on the path of investment, innovation and patents.

Q: Do you think we will see a Spanish Nobel soon?

A: Hopefully, what happens is that in order to have the Nobel Prize it is necessary to have a critical mass and really still in Spain we are very few for lack of investment in research. So few Nobel prizes can arise, but we have a possible case, because of CRISPR / Cas technology, Francisco Mojica. If they give the Nobel Prize for this technique, they may give it to him, too.

Q: Since we are talking about investment, do you have any hope that something will change in scientific policy now that a science ministry has even been created?

A: Hope is the last thing that is lost and I, in general, am an optimist. The fact that a ministry has been created is important, because someone sits in the Council of Ministers to support science.

Q: And you are still working. Do not scientists retire?

A: I believe that if scientists do not want to retire, they should not. I mean, I do not want a forced retirement. Anyone who wants to continue investigating, if they are in good physical and mental condition, should not retire, should be optional. Now they force us to retire at 70 years old and to be able to continue working they have to give us a special permit. Fortunately, I have it, the presidency of the CSIC appointed me Ad honorem professor and I can continue investigating.

Q: And can you still surprise us with new advances and inventions?

A: In science you never know, you work to get the best and most interesting results possible and you can not predict when or how the novelty will arrive or what it will be, but you work for it.