The passion for science spoke louder when, in 1981, Monica Alonso Cotta chose physics for her undergraduate degree at Unicamp without directly knowing women who worked in the area.
Later, in her master’s and doctoral studies, also at Unicamp, she opted for applied physics topics because she wanted her work to have the greatest possible impact on people’s quality of life. This choice, which earned her criticism from physicists who considered applied science to be inferior to fundamental, put the young scientist on the path of interdisciplinary research.
The path was consolidated in the post-doctorate, held at the Department of Materials Science at AT&T Bell Laboratories, where Monica worked alongside physicists, chemists and engineers in the challenge of developing wireless technology.
Today, at almost 60 years of age, Monica Cotta is part of a small group of women who have reached the top of their careers and hold management positions in academia. Since 2020, she has been President of the Brazilian Materials Research Society (B-MRS), a multi and interdisciplinary entity in essence. Since 2021, she has been the Director of the Gleb Wataghin Institute of Physics (Unicamp), her alma mater, which is one of the main research, teaching and extension centers in Physics in Brazil. In both institutions, Monica holds a historic place: that of the first woman to occupy the highest position. In addition, she is a professor at Unicamp, executive editor of ACS Applied Nano Materials and productivity fellow at the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development, where she coordinates the Advisory Committee in Physics and Astronomy.
Those who work with Monica Cotta know that, in her daily work, the quest to improve people’s lives through science and the concern for ensuring gender equity in the scientific environment are always present.
In the month in which the International Day of Women and Girls in Science is celebrated, we invited Professor Monica to talk a little about being a woman and a scientist. Check it out!
B-MRS Newsletter: What was it like for you to be a girl and later a woman in science? Share with us some memories about the particularities and difficulties of being a woman and a scientist.
Monica Cotta: I usually tell students that I am already very old, and, happily, much of what I lived is no longer so present today. I remember being a ‘nerd’ girl, even though that term didn’t exist back then. I liked science fiction and the technology I could reach (I thought the supermarket cash register was great, because personal computers only appeared when I entered university), I idolized Jacques Costeau (I wanted to do oceanography, but it was very difficult in Brazil)… For all that, I remember not fitting into any female stereotypes of that time, and that had a big emotional impact on me. But my parents always supported me in my studies. I’m from Campinas, and to get as close to technology as possible in my situation, I attended a technical college in data processing and then enrolled at Unicamp in physics and computing. I ended up opting for physics, because science has always been my passion. But I liked applied physics, because I always wanted to do science that could become a tool for social well-being… This made my journey very ‘bumpy’, with a master’s degree in biomedical physics and a PhD in materials science. If this made me a ‘non-physicist’ for many of my colleagues, it also gave me a lot of experience with interdisciplinary work and how to ‘talk’ with different areas. Deep down, what was a ‘disadvantage’ became a great asset, because throughout my career I had the chance to interact and learn with scientists from many different areas. This was fundamental when, in the last decade, I decided to go back to the origins and work at the interface with biology, using knowledge in materials. But overall, I still feel like I live two lives, as part of my family to this day doesn’t have much of an idea of what I really do. I was never able to convey my passion for science to my parents and sister. The scientist husband turned out to be the best option, as he understood when I wanted to stay in the lab on Friday nights, or weekends. My two sons understand that they have a ‘workaholic’ mother because she loves what she does… And my daughter is following a similar path, as she is doing a PhD in neurosciences.
B-MRS Newsletter: In your perception, what has changed for girls and women researchers since the time you were a student and what still needs to change?
Monica Cotta: Fortunately, a lot has changed, in general… starting with the type of environment we live in, provided by technology. Today, young people can learn science with (good) YouTube channels or online courses. And the role of women has been expanded in recent decades, at least for part of our society. Today, a girl wanting to do physics can even generate strangeness, but not the incredulity and discomfort that I faced in my days.
But we know that part of our society still doesn’t think so. Unfortunately, there is still a lot of sexism and misogyny, confirmed by the tragic statistics of sexual violence and femicides. And women still face daily barriers in the fight for equity, including in their professional lives. Therefore, we need to continue fighting for education and equal social conditions, for everyone.
B-MRS Newsletter: According to your experience, which measures can be effective to combat gender inequality in universities, research groups, scientific events?
Monica Cotta: First, we need to talk about inequalities and raise awareness about microaggressions, unconscious bias, etc. so that we are alert and prepared to combat these situations on a daily basis, and prevent them from gradually destroying girls’ self-esteem. Another measure is to always be concerned with maintaining the representation of women in all spaces, whether as plenary speakers in scientific events or in management positions. In addition, equity criteria need to be incorporated into funding notices and productivity assessments, as we know how motherhood impacts women’s careers, who are also generally ‘caregivers’ in case of illness or elderly people in the family. On the other hand, these struggles must belong to the whole community, and not just to women. Men can and should be our allies.
B-MRS Newsletter: Why is it important to have girls and women in science?
Monica Cotta: Talent does not choose gender, and in general it makes no sense for science to go on without the talents of half of humanity!! However, good science needs new ideas, and ideas also come from our personal experiences, not just from knowledge acquired at school or university. I am always reminded of an example given by Beverly Hartline, an American professor who promotes gender issues in science and physics in particular. She uses the example of bathrooms in shopping malls. In general, they are similar in layout, but the wearing time is quite different for men and women. Consequently, there is always a huge queue in the women’s restrooms, which is not the case in the men’s restrooms. So whoever designed these bathrooms – probably a man – didn’t think about this detail… Today we have the family bathroom, which helps a lot mothers with sons and fathers with daughters who are walking around there. I remember hearing complaints from women because I would walk my 4-5 year old son into the girls’ bathroom because he was always tall and they thought he was ‘too old’ to go in with me. That was something uncomfortable and simple to solve, but that took decades to be considered…. That is why the diversity of views, arising from each one’s experiences – and gender is just one of the components in our ‘personal luggage’ – are essential for quality and disruptive science, which also helps to find solutions for the most complex problems of our society.
B-MRS Newsletter: What has the scientific career brought you of good, difficult, new, unexpected in your life story so far?
Monica Cotta: It brought many good things, such as contact with students, which for me is fundamental. Nothing gives more pleasure than seeing the personal growth and professional maturity that scientific research can provide, even outside academia. I always say that the scientific method is useful for everything, even for analyzing situations in people’s lives. But I´ll highlight what struck me the most. Unfortunately, in my family, we had several complicated health problems, and one way to control my anxiety in these situations was to study everything I could about the subject, which even helped me to find solutions in those moments. And for this, interdisciplinary training was again my salvation! A doctor once asked for my sources to pass on to his students, as he said my questions were too difficult to answer.
B-MRS Newsletter: Leave a few words for the researchers in our community, especially the younger ones, who are experiencing difficulties related to gender inequality.
Monica Cotta: We have to be realistic and remember that difficulties will always exist, and gender among them. But together we are stronger. Always look for allies among your colleagues, identify who has the same values and willingness to face these barriers. The same goes for institutions – like here at Unicamp, where we have the Executive Board of Human Rights and within it, the gender and sexuality commission (of which I am a part because I believe in that!). Use all the supports you can, as well as support your colleagues, because everything is always more difficult when we are alone.