Scientists and Motherhood: The road towards a safer work environment

For the National Liberation Day of Korea, DiscovHER celebrates Prof. Moon A-Ree, a renowned scientist who has dedicated more than 20 years of her life to the fight against breast cancer, and to the achievement of better work conditions for women scientists going through motherhood, in collaboration with the Korean government.

Please tell us more about your research on breast cancer metastasis control agents.

I have been researching control agents for the metastasis of breast cancer since 1997. The incidence of breast cancer has steadily increased nowadays, but it is curable if it is treated at an early stage of development. However, if you miss the ideal treatment period, the cancer spreads to other organs and gets difficult to treat. We have been conducting research with the goal of finding out the molecular mechanism of breast cancer metastasis, in order to seek a strategy to control it.

What do you think of the difficulties that are specific to women scientists, which hinder Korea’s competitiveness in the science field if left untreated?

In the future, ‘Women’ will be a keyword. Women scientists face many difficulties, but not giving up and displaying their abilities will improve the national competitiveness in the science field. A particularly trying period is when marriage, pregnancy, and childbirth overlap with the training courses needed to become a scientist. I think Government assistance is vital to support women scientists at this time, making sure they do not to give up, and continue their careers and research.

What is the main area of progress to ensure the success of the next generation of women scientists?

As a society, we must make a concerted effort to ensure young girls have the freedom and confidence to pursue careers in science. Women researchers in the Life Sciences are often in contact with toxic chemicals, which is especially dangerous in periods of pregnancy and child bearing. Korea can become a producer of world-class women scientists, if a safe research environment for them is guaranteed. I really wish Korean women scientists to continue their research. So I’m working with the “Korea Foundation of Women’s Science & Technology Associations (KOFWST)” to set up a safety system in research labs in order to secure the wellbeing of women scientists in their childbearing years.

Do you have any advice for women who are considering a career in science?

Pursuing a career in science as a woman is fraught with difficulties because of the persisting gender gap. This forces women to fight prejudice and stereotypes in order to succeed in such a highly male-dominated field. Some key qualities that will be helpful along the way are being hardworking, strong-willed, competitive, and having an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. I think women scientists have a sense of balance which can produce a harmonious work environment. I recommend women scientists to participate in joint research by actively being involved in academic associations, since building a close network will be your biggest asset!

What are your future plans?

I plan on continuing my research on the link between cancer and inflammation, which I conduct at Duksung Women’s University, with the BK21 Plus Project Team (Brain Korea 21). I want to turn this research into an opportunity to foster young talents. As a Professor, I would like to put my efforts into the training of young students through lectures. Another thing I will be focusing on is working with my students to set-up anti-metastatic strategies based on my 20 years of research on controlling the metastasis of breast cancer cells.