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[Woman in the spotlight] Interview with Sophie Lucas, researcher and professor in cancer immunology

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[Woman in the spotlight] In the context of World Cancer Day, Fedactio had the opportunity to speak with Sophie Lucas, researcher and professor in cancer immunology, about her daily life as a woman of science.
Interview by Alexandre Thiry
Could you tell us more about your background and motivations as a researcher?

My name is Sophie Lucas and I am a researcher in cancer immunology at the Duve Institute, which is a biomedical research institute hosting several laboratories of the faculty of medicine of UCL (Université Catholique de Louvain), where I am also professor. I studied medicine and then decided to devote myself to research. What motivates me is working in the biomedical branch to understand how organisms work, and especially the human being’s, but also how they dysfunction in the presence of very specific diseases such as cancer. As a team, we try to understand how the immune system can detect tumour cells and reject them in patients with cancer. Above all, we try to determine how to manipulate it to be able to correct these dysfunctions and develop new forms of cancer therapy.

What is immunology?

Immunology is a branch of biology that covers the study of immune system’s responses, the way our body defends itself against external aggressions, mainly of the microbial infection type (by viruses, parasites, bacteria…) but also against other forms of aggression which can come from within such as the development of cancer. We now know that our immune system is able to recognize tumour cells and reject them. This is the specific field of tumour immunology.

What does an immunologist’s daily life look like?

The daily life of an immunologist is very similar to that of any biomedical researcher, which means laboratory work and team meetings.  My job consists in managing a team of around ten people working in the laboratory on a joint research project. This team includes doctoral and post-doctoral students, as well as laboratory technicians. We handle reagents of different types, either cells that are grown in vitro or molecules whose modifications are examined following certain treatments, but also animal experiments. The closer we get to a potential clinical application, the more necessary it becomes to conduct animal experiments to test new forms of treatment that could eventually be applied to humans. My daily routine is to interact with all those people who are conducting cellular, molecular, or in vivo experiments, and to discuss with them the interpretation of the results, the direction of the project, hoping that from time to time an original idea will emerge and eventually lead to the development of a new drug.

As a woman, have you ever experienced any difficulties in your work?

Direct difficulties, specifically related to my gender, honestly not really, but I have experienced organizational difficulties. It is always difficult for a woman to find her place in a work environment, knowing that a lot of time and importance is given to her family life, to carry children when she wants them. All this has an impact on our working life. That said, I personally found answers to these questions, quickly realizing that my work was a very important thing and that I wanted to devote a lot of energy and passion to it. All this required some accommodation. In my case, I had the chance to have children with a person who left a lot of space for this passion. So, I would say that as a woman, and as a scientist, I have had more support than real disabilities in my career.


We often hear that science is mainly a male environment, is it true?
What do you think would be the cause of this imbalance?

Yes, it is true. I cannot even remember the number of meetings I attend, with people in higher hierarchical positions, where I am the only woman. Still today in 2019, the percentage of women in decision-making positions in the field of science is abnormally low. It would be very difficult for me to identify the root causes and origins of this disproportion, because I am not a sociologist, but I am somehow obliged to acknowledge the facts. Maybe women still have a bit of trouble giving their work the place it needs when they progress in their functions, in their careers? It is even more surprising since in the field of biomedical, pharmaceutical or medical sciences, there is a majority of young women students or doctoral candidates. In my laboratory too, women are in the majority. Beyond that, the proportion of women who persist (postdoctoral training) gradually decreases. We - women - must be very careful to ensure that we persist and progress in our careers without considering our gender as a disability. It must no longer be so today.

Isn't the fact that you have more female students in your field due to the "female" image that our society attributes to health care?

When we have chosen the path of basic research in the biomedical sciences, we are moving relatively far away from direct patient care. In my career, even though I am a physician by training, I have never had to interact with patients after my medical internships. My job is different, it is still a rigorous fundamental science, explicable at the molecular level. I do not know if it is the possibility of care, of therapy that justifies having more female students in biomedical programs. It remains an enigma to me.

What advice would you give to young people who wish to resume studies in this field?

At 50, when I look back, I have absolutely no regrets. I tell myself that I had the chance to have a great activity, so I would encourage these young people to get started. Now, do I have any specific advice for young women who want to go down this path? Maybe to think about them when they organize their family life. Because one day, when children grow up and leave, it is important to have something that motivates us incredibly. Research careers, in the field of biomedical sciences, but also in any scientific field as well as in the human sciences, can take you to the very long term. After the formation of a family, having raised children, and having brought them to independence, there is still a lifetime left. When you have the chance to do an exciting job, it is this whole life after that remains exciting.

What do you think about the place devoted to research in Belgium?

I think we have nothing to complain about because we are fortunate to live in a developed country where a significant proportion of GDP is devoted to basic academic research. I believe that the funding of basic research must be supported by the State if we want our societies to progress. If I am lucky enough to work in a country where research is relatively well funded, I think more support would benefit everyone.

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