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Marianna Rapsomaniki, PhD

“I think the most important step towards closing the gender gap in STEM is supporting young mothers that wish to stay in their full time STEM jobs.”

Research scientist, IBM Research, Switzerland

Introduce yourself in a few words

I am a computer engineer turned computational biologist, currently working as a research scientist at IBM Research Zurich. My research lies on the intersection of cancer systems biology, single-cell analysis, and machine learning/deep learning. I hold a Diploma in Computer Engineering and Informatics and a master’s in Bioinformatics from the University of Patras, Greece. My PhD research, completed jointly in the Medical School of the University of Patras and the Automatic Control Lab of ETH Zurich, focused on understanding biological systems using stochastic hybrid models. I am currently leading different projects where our aim is to understand spatiotemporal tumor heterogeneity hoping to pave the way for new precision medicine approaches.

What is the most exciting thing about your work? 

I love the fact that it’s impossible to get bored. In research you need to always be on top of the latest developments and grow technically and scientifically, whether that means learning new skills or catching up with the latest publications. I also really appreciate the variety of the tasks, as my job entails a combination of programming, paper or grant writing, meetings with collaborators, and – my personal favorite – supervising students.

What is your favourite science fact? 

The full human diploid DNA, if stretched, extends up to 2 meters, but somehow manages to fit inside a ~10μm nucleus!

What inspired you to follow this career path?

Since I was a kid, I remember myself being very curious about nature and in particular how the human body works. During high school I equally loved Math and Biology, but I chose to study computer engineering, where I would have better career prospects. However, in my early University years, I was in fact quite lost: although I enjoyed Math and Computer Science classes, I lacked motivation and drive. Luckily, when it was time to select a Diploma thesis, I discovered Bioinformatics and Computational Biology, and I immediately knew that’s what I want to do in my life!

What is the biggest challenge that you faced in your career so far?

Definitely returning to work after my maternity leave – which coincided with the start of a global pandemic!

What motivates your work? 

My biggest motivation is helping understand the complexity and heterogeneity of cancer. We’ve done big steps in the last decade towards this goal, but there is still so much to figure out. Then, another area where I want to have impact is developing methods and tools that other researchers find helpful for their own work and can apply to their own data.

Do you have any role models?

I’ve been so lucky to have had a number of great mentors so far. My high school math teacher, for his unique ability to explain even the most complex mathematical concepts in imaginative ways and his unbeatable sense of humor. My PhD advisors, for their solid academic integrity and highly contagious love for science. And my parents, for instilling in me a strong work ethic and always encouraging my love for knowledge.

What kind of advice would you give to your younger self just starting out?

It’s fine not to have everything figured out in your 20s. Trust your instincts and don’t settle until you find what you love. Once you do, work hard, be persistent and don’t be afraid to fail.

What do you enjoy doing in your free time? 

I spent all my free time with my family and try to devote as much time as possible to my son. He is now almost 3 years old, and I love introducing him to all the things that I love – from walks exploring nature and the city, to books, arts, and crafts. Seeing him discover the world and be creative in his own unique way is the most rewarding experience.

What do you think we can do to close the gender gap and increase female visibility in STEM?

I think the most important step towards closing the gender gap in STEM is supporting young mothers that wish to stay in their full time STEM jobs. Many studies have clearly showed how becoming a parent disproportionately affects women, who either leave the workforce entirely or settle for jobs with lower requirements and don’t take on leadership roles. There are many ways academic and industrial institutions can support mothers who wish to pursue a STEM career, and we do see some steps in the right direction, but it’s not enough.

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