María Villarroya: "It is crucial to recognise that there are biases in the promotion of women in scientific careers"

Coming across the biography of Marie Curie was inspiring for María Villarroya, who despite always having women scientists as references in her family, is aware of the scarcity of female representation in these disciplines. In her career at the I3A, she has combined her work in the Computer Architecture Group of Zaragoza (GAZ) with her commitment to the promotion of gender equality in the STEM field by promoting the project "An engineer in every school".
Por Alejandra Catalán
María Villarroya

Why he decided to go into research

I made the decision when I did an Erasmus exchange programme during my fourth year of my degree. During my stay in Germany at the University of Paderborn, the laboratory internship consisted of open research topics, where you had to actively work on their development. It was then that I discovered the scientific process, where results are revealed as you carry out experiments and observe what happens, allowing you to understand why things happen. This experience was decisive in my decision to go into research.

Did you have any female role models who inspired you as a child?

I had the opportunity to read Marie Curie's biography when I was at school and it was an inspiration for me, in fact, I decided to study physics. But also, I have had many close references. I always highlight the role of my grandmothers, both women who went to university, something that was rare at the time. Seeing that one had a degree in Philosophy and Letters and the other in Chemistry showed me that I could pursue both scientific and humanistic careers. In addition, many of my aunts are mathematicians, pharmacists... The environment in which I grew up was full of women from all disciplines.

I often tell anecdotes about my grandmother, the chemist. We studied a lot of things together, all the chemistry I know, I always went over it with her, and she was delighted to do it. She remembered absolutely everything, she never doubted any value. However, in her professional path she faced difficulties, like when she was told that "not even a Madame Curie will teach in this faculty", she had been a volunteer lecturer for two years and left the university as a teacher. She did not tell me about it for a long time because she did not want to worry me with those difficulties that we could encounter.

Tell us about the project "An engineer in every school". What has been your contribution to this project?

You could say that I am the "alma mater" of the project, I had the idea more than ten years ago. The driving force behind this initiative was the concern of a group of female professors at the University of Zaragoza, all members of AMIT-Aragon (Association of Women Researchers and Technologists in Aragon), about the low presence of women in the fields of engineering and science. Going to kindergartens and schools to talk about our work, we observed that the gender gap in the choice of STEM careers was being created in primary school, and that this was the stage where we had to act. In pre-school there was no bias, but in secondary school girls no longer wanted to know anything about this discipline.

We got together a group of 70 volunteers to carry out an activity in schools in Aragon that would talk about engineering, in which we would talk about our work, in which we would be close references. We had to go to schools that were close to us for some reason, because it was the one in our neighbourhood, the one where our daughters live, the one where we studied, and hold a workshop. Over time, we have grown, we have had projects funded, we offer training to volunteers, who are passionate about their work and want to talk about what they do, and we see that we are successful, I think we are doing a good job.

Female representation in science is crucial because there is still a lack of role models for young women.

Why do you think this representation of women in science is important?

Female representation in science is crucial because there is still a lack of role models for young women. Although I have been fortunate to have close role models in my family and environment, they are scarce in society in general. Women scientists are rarely seen in TV series or included in textbooks, and their achievements are often not publicised by professionals.

There are many professions with which we have more direct contact, such as those linked to education or healthcare, but there are others, such as engineering, which, although we use them on a daily basis, we do not highlight the value of how these technological developments are produced. This visibility is important, it is essential to carry out school activities to promote interest and understanding of basic concepts. These practices allow students to explore, create, think and work in teams.

In 2020, the project "An engineer in every school" published the publication "10001 women engineers". What were the objectives of this publication and what impact do you think it has had on the visibility of women in engineering and science?

The project "An engineer in every school" had to adapt to the circumstances of 2020, when schools were closed due to the pandemic. We had money from two outreach projects, one from the Spanish Foundation for Science and Technology, and another from the Women's Institute, which we had to invest, and they allowed us to reformulate what we wanted to do, which was to go to the schools, which were closed. Thus was born the publication "10001 female engineers", a book that was sent to all the schools in Aragon and exceeded all initial expectations.

Fifteen volunteers were invited to share their experiences, inspirations and experiments in a format accessible to younger people. Many of us had a first filter, which in my case was my daughters. They read the first drafts and when they did not understand something we rewrote it. At the beginning we did not know how it was going to turn out, we had never written for children before, but the result was very gratifying.

We have had a lot of recognition, the feedback I have received from schools has been wonderful, and having the Ministry of Education buy it for schools in Ceuta and Melilla was another great satisfaction. Also, the project has won several awards, including the Exducere Award from Zaragoza City Council in 2021 and the third prize of the STEM 2022 Alliance for Female Talent through the Society of Women Researchers and Technologists of the Ministry of Education and Vocational Training. All of this highlights the value of the work carried out.

How long have you been associated with the I3A? What would you highlight about the Institute in terms of promoting the participation of women in engineering and science research?

I joined the Institute after finishing my thesis in 2005. The I3A stands out for its emphasis on excellence in engineering research and for fostering collaboration between different fields. It also serves as an essential tool to support research management, a task that is often challenging.

Because we are part of the Institute, many of us women who have been working for a long time to promote equal opportunities have found support in the management teams, who have backed our initiatives. It is crucial to recognise that there are biases in the promotion of women in scientific careers, reflecting biases in society at large. Awareness of these biases and the support provided by the I3A are fundamental to demonstrating that we believe in and want excellence, and that for this we need inclusion.

Finding a balance between performance and energy efficiency is crucial, especially in a context where computing usage is constantly increasing.

In your research group, what are your main lines or areas of work?

I work in the Zaragoza Computer Architecture group (GAZ), where we do research to improve computing systems at the hardware level. Our goal is to propose solutions that optimise performance and reduce energy consumption. Currently, my work focuses on heterogeneous systems, which are computing systems with several types of processors, such as CPUs, GPUs and FPGAs. We seek to use the most suitable device for each application, considering both processing speed and power consumption.

It is crucial to find a balance between performance and energy efficiency, especially in a context where the use of computing is constantly increasing, which increases energy consumption and, consequently, CO2 emissions. As a society, it is important to reduce this energy consumption and to be aware of the environmental impact of our computing activities, always seeking to minimise it.

A project you would like to highlight

I think the first research work we do always marks us, and for me that was my doctoral thesis. I was lucky enough to do it at the Autonomous University of Barcelona under the direction of Professor Núria Barniol, in collaboration with the National Microelectronics Centre. The project focused on the design and fabrication of micronanoelectromechanical systems, specifically on the creation of mass sensors to measure very small weights.

I was involved in all stages of the project, from conceptualisation to manufacturing. This research was done in a European project that gave me the opportunity to collaborate with researchers from various universities in Denmark, Sweden, France, and even with companies. It was a job that opened all the doors there are in research. I learned that this profession is not limited to the local level, that you cannot do it alone and that when you have new proposals, everyone wants to collaborate. Also, when you have new challenges, sometimes things do not work out, but the process is still important.

What do you enjoy most about your profession and what do you enjoy least?

What I enjoy most is being able to learn about other people's work, to advance knowledge, to design experiments to obtain results and to discuss with other people who are also involved in research.

Least of all, the bureaucracy associated with working in public administration. Although I understand the need to justify and control processes, I sometimes feel that we spend too much time on management activities.

What message would you send to young women considering research in engineering and science?

It is a unique opportunity. It is a profession where you work with diverse people at different levels, always learning and generating new initiatives. You can change the focus of your career to very different things. It's dynamic, full of opportunities and, above all, a lot of fun.


What he studied: Bachelor's degree in Physical Science

A dream to fulfil: To learn to ski

What do you do in your spare time: I like to go hiking, snowshoeing, dancing and reading.

A book: Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead

A film: Agora

Favourite singer: Joaquín Sabina

A trip: Nepal

How would you define yourself: A person who, once they set resolutions, looks for strategies to achieve them, who cares about the people around them, to be with them and try to be well at all levels.


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