31 Jul 2023

Women in Science: Breaking Barriers and Shaping the Future

Winner of the UNESCO-L’Oreal scholarship for the best young scientists in 2012, Polina Blagojević, as a chemist, has a mission to discover new bioactive substances.  The results of her research apply in the pharmaceutical, cosmetic, and food industries.  Polina worked at the Faculty of Natural Sciences and Mathematics in Niš as part of Serbia’s youngest scientific research team and later at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.  She is currently part of the development team at Acuitas Therapeutics, whose lipid nanotechnology, among other things, enabled the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine.  Polina joined our Women in Science: Breaking Barriers and Shaping the Future series and answered questions about her work, career path, and views on women’s challenges in science.

How difficult was it for you to achieve success in science?  What were the biggest challenges you have faced in your work?

When I started my master’s studies at the Department of Chemistry at the Faculty of Natural Sciences and Mathematics in Niš, our laboratory lacked even the most essential resources for work.  Almost every experiment required improvisation, and the lack of equipment, funds, and space limited the scientific questions I was trying to answer.  The results I achieved at the beginning of my career may seem trivial to someone unfamiliar with the context, but they required immense creativity and innovation.  It was not just working with limited resources; we sometimes lack them.  Imagine running a race where your starting line is a kilometer behind that of other competitors, and you must also carry a huge stone.  It takes enormous energy to catch up with the other runners.  This was undoubtedly one of the significant obstacles I had to overcome.

In what ways do you believe there is a difference in the contribution of women in science in a traditionally male-dominated culture?

I believe there is a difference in the treatment women receive, the opportunities presented to them, the level and type of support they receive, and what is allowed for them, in a way.  Because of this, at first glance, it may appear to some that they contribute less and are less successful.  However, I genuinely believe that women contribute just as much as their male counterparts.  The only difference is that they often must put in much more effort and prove they are equally capable.  Even with all the results they achieve, they are not always taken seriously.  It seems that it all starts with how girls are raised, often making them think that specific fields, such as science, are not for them, causing them to doubt themselves.  Look at traditionally considered “girls’ toys” and “boys’ toys.”  Even when they have support and encouragement from their families, the environment often tries to fit them into a mold that says science is not for them.  This was, to some extent, the situation with me.  I grew up in a small community and often stood out and looked like a weirdo because of my interests.  This had a very negative impact on my self-confidence.  Despite all the help and support from my parents, it took me a long time to stop feeling like an outsider and as if someone was doing me a huge favor and honor by allowing me to play scientist.

Would you encourage young female scientists to follow in your footsteps?

I would encourage them to choose their career path based on their affinities and interests, to pursue their ambitions, instincts, and passions, and by no means allow others to impose limitations on what they can be and do.  I would tell them it’s perfectly okay to change direction and adjust their pace as much as they like.  For example, I decided to exchange my position as an associate professor at a state university in Serbia for a position as a research associate at the fantastic University of British Columbia in Canada and then wholly leave academia.  Some might have found my move somewhat unusual.  However, my research has never had such a significant impact and practical application as it does now.  For instance, without the biotech technology developed by the company I work for as one of only four chemists, Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine would not have been possible.  My job is to design and synthesize molecules to create specially tailored lipid nanoparticles used in medicine.  Although I always enjoyed solving the problems I worked on before, I have never had such a sense of purpose until now.

In the broader context of scientific development, where do you see the place of Serbian female scientists in the world?

Wherever they want to be, whatever position they aspire to, I believe that is their place.  I mentioned that the starting point for female scientists (and scientists) from Serbia, especially those from smaller communities, is often less favorable than that of some of our colleagues from other countries.  But that’s just the starting point.  I think that success in science has nothing to do with gender, nationality, or religious beliefs.  Belonging to any group is not what makes you a good researcher.  The circumstances in which you live the environment in which you develop, may speed up or slow down your progress and career, but once you start, the sky is the limit.  Diversity is essential for scientific progress, and our female scientists can push the boundaries with their intellect, dedication, and diversity.  I am not surprised when I hear that one of our fellow countrywomen achieved something significant, and I am eagerly looking forward to hearing about many more new achievements.

Who are your greatest inspirations?

There are many people in the world of science (both women and men) whom I sincerely admire, but I’m not sure I’ve ever had role models in the traditional sense.  In elementary school, I accidentally came across a book about famous mathematicians.  That’s when I first heard about Sofia Kovalevskaya.  I am still fascinated by her and what she achieved, especially considering the time she lived in.  She is the closest thing to a role model I’ve ever had.  I would also like to mention that I recently had the pleasure of attending a lecture by Carolyn Bertozzi (last year’s Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry).  She left a huge impression on me.