Victoria Gradin is an Adjunct Professor at the Faculty of Psychology of the Universidad de la Republica (UDeLaR) in Uruguay. She was a SINAPSE PhD student who completed her doctoral work at the University of Aberdeen in 2011 and then postdocs at the University of Dundee and at UDeLaR.
Q: What is your area of research and how do you use imaging?
A: I work in trying to understand the neural basis of mental disorders, in particular depression. Throughout my training in Aberdeen and Dundee, I learned how to use fMRI to explore brain functioning in populations with mental disorders. Coming back to my country at the end of 2012 was hard in terms of work, as Uruguay had no tradition in brain imaging research. While there was quite a long tradition in basic neuroscience, the field of cognitive neuroscience was only slowly starting to emerge. There was only a 3T MRI scanner in the whole country (that’s still how it is) that had recently been acquired, and the medical physics career was also new in the country.
With this perspective, there were many moments were I thought that my career as an imaging researcher was over. However, not everything was that bad. There was a small but very enthusiastic community of researchers trying to get started with cognitive sciences, and importantly quite a number of students wanting to do postgraduate projects in this area. As soon as I arrived, several students approached me and asked me if I could supervise their projects. I had thought about taking some time to set up, get my head around on how to do research over here, and only then start taking students. But there was a lot of hunger for doing research in cognitive neuroscience and not that many researchers that the students could approach, and especially in the field of mental health. To be able to start neuroscience projects, I started using electroencephalography, as the Faculty of Psychology had recently acquired EEG equipment. This was quite challenging, as I had to supervise people using a technique in which I had no experience, but with the help of collaborators with experience on EEG it ended up working ok.
With other researchers, we also started working with the goal of setting up MRI research. We generated a collaboration with the center that owned the 3T scanner, highlighted the importance of medical physics and the need for MRI physicists working with the scanner, and built an fMRI set up around the scanner (in this process we received help from SINAPSE members Prof Douglas Steele and Dr Gordon Waiter to who we are very grateful). All this took several years, probably longer than it should, but finally we got there. We are now running the first fMRI project of our country, investigating the neural basis of social interactions in depression.
Q: Can you tell us a bit about your life outside of research?
A: I have a 6 year old son (Santiago but we call him Santi) so most of my free time goes into family time. Santi is a very cheerful, active boy who never gets tired and keeps everyone very busy. With my husband Miguel and Santi, we live by the shoreline in Montevideo, so we do a lot of outdoor activities by the sea, walking and playing football with Santi. We also like to listen to music together with the three of us taking turns to choose a song. I also try to save some time for me to do gym and until the pandemic started, I used to take tango dancing classes and go from time to time to milongas. I also try seeing my friends regularly. Living in Montevideo helps in this regard, as it is a city large enough to have quite a lot of cultural stuff going on, but small enough so that you can get to see everyone relatively easy and gatherings can happen in a very spontaneous way, without planning too much.
Q: Why do you consider it important to raise visibility of diverse imaging researchers?
A: It is our moral duty to contribute to fight inequality and social unfairness, and raising visibility of diversity is a first step in this direction. A particular kind of inequality I am quite sensitive about is gender inequality. This is a kind of inequality that cuts across almost every culture and society in the world. In academia it is very obvious how difficult it is for female researchers to reach the high positions. Women almost always carry the largest burden in terms of house work and childcare (as well as the care of other family members). While there are cases of men who get to do nothing or almost nothing of all the house/family work, women’s best possible scenario is a 50/50. In a system that counts papers and grants, more time to work is likely to lead to better CVs.
I also would like to add something about social class inequality. I think that as academics and university staff, it’s very important that we ask ourselves about the role of education on social inequality. It is common that higher income classes have the greater chances of reaching higher education, which in turn contributes to social prestige and income. Thus, education contributes to a system where richer get richer. It’s very important that we are aware of these feedback loops and try to disrupt them. We have to aim for a world where everyone has real access to education, where education works in an inclusive way. In this sense, I have to say that the institution were I work is very compromised with the democratization of education. This is a public university, that doesn’t charge any fee to students, and that it’s open to everyone who wants to study, with the only requirement of having finished high school. The UDeLaR has a population of about 130,000 undergraduate students. Just in the Faculty of Psychology, we receive over 2000 students every year. This makes our teaching load quite significant. I teach Cognitive Processes in first year and have classes of over 300 students. But it’s nice to see, for example, the case of people who are the first generation in their families in reaching the university. In any case, it’s important to have in mind that while as researchers it’s great to love what we do and feel passionate about our research, we can’t get caught in a bubble. We are part of a society and we play a role in it.
Q: What is one thing SINAPSE members can do to contribute to equity/inclusion in our research community?
A: I have the best of memories of being a SINAPSE PhD student. Not only for the training that SINAPSE provided but also for how much it promoted integration between students and in general across the Scottish imaging community. I remember with special fondness the workshop meetings at “The Burn”.
Going along with what I mentioned earlier, I think it’s crucial to fight gender inequality. In this regard, it is important that we question ourselves in relation to every decision we take as researchers and as part of committees, boards or any entity we can be a part of, how they impact on gender issues. In particular, it would be important to promote/encourage paternity as well as maternity leave; to emphasize the concept that child care has to be an equally distributed task. Connected to this, it’s important that PhD scholarships as well as postdocs and other kinds of research contracts cover for maternity/paternity leave. It’s important that the cost of human reproduction is not passed onto the individuals as if institutions/society have nothing to do with it. In the case of women, the effects of the precariousness of academic contracts are particularly worrying since this pushes women to postpone maternity until they have established jobs, which often happens late enough in life to compromise maternity. It’s not fair that women are forced to choose between their academic careers and maternity. This is an important issue that the academic community and institutions have to address.
On a different note, it would be good to contribute to changing the UK overseas fee policy for foreign PhD students. When I was in UK, foreign PhD students had to pay about three times more fees than local and European students. This makes it very hard for students around the world to do a PhD in the UK. In my case, I managed to afford it because both my husband and I were doing PhDs there and so we could share expenses, plus I used savings at the beginning (during the second half of my PhD my supervisor managed to find some funding for these fees). While the training that you can get at UK universities is fantastic, it’s also important to appreciate that PhD students also bring the value of years of education, that are paid by their respective countries. When I went to the UK I had an undergradute degree in physics, another one in engineering and a masters in biophysics. PhD students contribute significantly to create knowledge, they are not only receiving training. When I was there, I had the feeling that a significant number of UK researchers were against this overseas policy. It would be great if they could raise their voice and hopefully make a change on this.
This profile is part of a SINAPSE monthly feature to raise visibility of imaging researchers belonging to marginalised groups. More volunteers needed!