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‘Don’t ever discriminate yourself by any gender-related label’

Iranian molecular plant biologist Salma Balazadeh started her career in Germany. Now she sets up a research group in Leiden to study stress in plants to secure global food supply. Her outlook on women in science in the context of the International Day for Women and Girls in Science, 11 February.

Salma Balazadeh
Salma Balazadeh

The United Nations declared 11 February as the International Day for Women and Girls in Science. Although many efforts have been put in engaging women and girls in science, still many of them steer away from science-related fields. Biases and gender stereotypes are persistent. What are associate professor Salma Balazadeh’s – who was born in Iran, started her career in Germany and now sets up a research team at the Institute of Biology Leiden – experiences in this regard?


‘In my previous position, I worked in an institute with more men than women in leadership positions’, says Balazadeh. Also outside the laboratory, she often sees that in workshops, meetings or conferences, female participants or speakers are underrepresented. However, throughout her career, she never felt any unjust treatment or being neglected compared to others for being a woman.

‘Gender or nationality is not an indicator of knowledge and competence.’  

In her opinion, the Institute of Biology Leiden holds a good balance of gender. ‘Here I experience work to be truly inspiring; people are judged or admired based on their performance.’ Concerning her own research team, she likes to support talented young female scientists, but her selection criteria are not based on gender or nationality.

Counteracting stress

In her lab, Balazadeh researches how plants counteract environmental stresses such as drought, heat and salinity. With the use of modern molecular techniques and genome research, she and her team aim to identify cellular processes involved in plant responses to stresses. This knowledge can be used to generate crops that can grow under harsh environmental conditions and still produce a high yield. This could have a major impact on global food supply in the context of climate change and the increasing world population.

Contributing to society

Social impact and contributing to society is important to Balazadeh, as she also emphasizes when asked what she would advise girls who want to go into science:  ‘If you are really interested in science: go for it! Being in science and contributing to it is a great thing! Your contribution can have a very important impact on our society.’ She sees self-confidence, a positive outlook and motivation as key, and she advises girls to seek guidance and advice from mentors and prominent (female) scientists in the field. ‘You have to set your goal, an ambitious one, and follow your dream. Don’t ever discriminate yourself by any gender-related label.’

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