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The women of CF: Valentina Gallo

Date:19 May 2021
Valentina Gallo
Valentina Gallo

What are you doing at CF and how did you end up here?
I joined Campus Fryslân in April 2020 as a Rosalind Franklin fellow and Associate Professor in Epidemiology and Sustainable Health. Upon my arrival, I also started leading the health flagship at Campus Fryslân. I moved to Groningen, and to the Netherlands, and back to Europe for this job as I lived the past 15 years of my life in London, UK. However, both the living environment and the academic environment in the UK has deteriorated a lot after Brexit; the hostile environment became a reality, and the commercialisation of the higher education sector really led me questioning what was my role there, and if I continued sharing the ethos of universities… I found the Rosalind Franklin scheme radical, refreshing, and innovative, and I wanted to be part of a move in the right direction. Campus Fryslân turned out to be just the perfect place where to be, with its focus on sustainability and global challenges, and its intrinsic interdisciplinary nature.

What do you like most about your work at CF?
I love every single part of my job, at the moment. Teaching the Global Responsibility & Leadership students is very rewarding, these are a bunch of future leaders who know very well what they want, and invest very much in their learning! The Global Health track is very well-structured and taught with passion, so I am just honoured to be part of it. With my colleagues in the flagship and the administrative team in the Campus we are also working hard at establishing a new Master Programme in Sustainable Health, which is deeply shaping our vision of an exciting and interdisciplinary programme for future local and global public health leaders! In the meantime, this summer we will host our first online Summer School. I am also exploring opportunities in research and I am actively working on few projects, such as assessing the diagnostic validity of rapid COVID-19 tests for children to go back to school safely. I can’t wait to go back to the building and starting having also more personal encounters with colleagues, not mediated by screen appointments. This will be important to wave a more personal network with amazing colleagues, on the top of professional collaborations.

Who inspires you?
Rosalind Franklin, certainly! I feel we have many things in common, we have been through similar life experiences (although I have never been anywhere near winning a Nobel Prize!!). She had the strength of fleeing a toxic environment, where she was marginalised, starting from scratch. She compromised her career, but she kept enjoying her work and the contribution she could give to science. I feel like the gender barriers she experienced were always entirely in her peers eyes, never in hers. It looks like she behaved as it was the most normal thing in the world for her to be where she was (which was indeed, but against her current costumes…). Another person from whom I have learnt a lot and never ceases to inspire me is Professor Paolo Vineis. He is the one that instilled in me the passion for studying the environment in relation to health, and he has also been a role model for leadership. When I was working with him at Imperial College London, we used to joke that Paolo is the only boss whom you are happier when he is around, rather than not. Finally, I am inspired by all women from ethnic minority who I encounter. I picture in my head the multiple layers of cultural, physical, emotional obstacles they had to overcome to arrive where they are and to obtain what they got.

What advice would you give to your student self?
Don’t worry about planning a trajectory at the early stages of your path, this will inevitably unfold under your feet once you follow your passion, your inspiration and your own values. I studied for 11 years to become a clinical neurologist before I realised that a life in the ward, without research, was not fulfilling enough for my curious and proactive being. And now that clinical knowledge, that awareness is so part of my approach to science and research that I could not think to a different, better path. Also, not to give up any of the interests hobbies I had over time. Being an avid literature reader, a creative knitter, and passionate plant lover, and a family inspired cook are all part of myself and contribute more coherently than I thought to the richness of my academic life.

How do you deal with being a woman in a mans world/industry?
It is a strenuous exercise. Sometimes I am tempted to join meetings with a fake beard in order to prompt the reflection among my interlocutors on how they would have behaved if I was a man, instead. Interestingly, my overall impression is that this unconscious bias permeates men and women alike. I feel very lucky to be part of a community where the gender inequalities are acknowledged, recognised and – at least partially – acted upon. The Aletta Jacobs chair scheme and the Rosalind Franklin fellowship cannot guarantee the solution to every problem, but certainly are a first step in the right direction. What is needed next is a radical change of culture. Sexism (and racism) should become daily topics for reflection and benchmarking of our individual and collective roles, otherwise the deep cultural change cannot happen. I am lucky enough to have a partner who is feminist and sacrificed part of his career and ambitions to our shared effort of raising a family. When kids started homeschooling, we did not need to negotiate who was helping them out, that was a shared task between the two of us. When I interact on social media with women in academia and learn how much their career have been held back by having to home school their kids, I realise how lucky I am and how much deep is the shift which is needed in society before women and men can really sit at the same table as peers.