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Medicine and science career for women – challenges and looking for a role model.

Although she is only at the beginning of her career, Aleksandra Gładyś has already been recognized in the prestigious Forbes 25 under 25 competition. Her doctoral research focuses on oncology and molecular biology. She is also involved in advocating for women’s equality in science.

Answering her own questions

Already in her second year, Ola Gładyś became involved in activities promoting science. She joined the histology science club and stayed in the association until the end of her studies. She graduated with a degree in medicine, from the Silesian Medical University, in Katowice. She is currently a doctoral student, focused on oncology and radiation therapy, at the same university. From the very beginning, she was interested in oncology and conducting research.

I had a lot of fun posing a question and to some extent being able, in some time, to answer it. I also wanted to make my contribution to science

She laughs that it may sound pompous, but she believes that it’s often not about big groundbreaking research. She says that each study can be like a small brick – “which someone reads at some point and gets inspired and that then adds on.”

Women in Medicine Foundation and the Award

During her studies, Ola also became interested in advocating for the equality of women in medicine. It was Ola’s involvement in this area that caught the attention of the Forbes competition jury. In the 25u25 competition, she received a prize for action for women in medicine. On a daily basis, Ola is a member of the Board of Directors of the Women in Medicine

Foundation. This organization is dedicated to support the development of women in the world of medicine.

The doctoral student says how important this award was for her. She adds that for her it was an honor not only to herself, but also to the entire Foundation and its purpose.

“It was confirmation that the climate is changing a little bit. That women are and will be more appreciated and visible,” she says.

Ola stresses that she sees changes in the field she herself is involved in –medicine:

“It’s such a paradox that in medicine and life sciences, most of the people who work in these areas are women. And yet in the highest positions and the highest achievements are men. Now this is going to change” – she says.

Small manifestations of discrimination eventually accumulate

The doctoral student says she saw a lot of manifestations of discrimination in her studies. These were never big issues, but rather everyday small situations.

“Comments from a patient here, some professor said something there… Seemingly nothing serious, nothing to make a big scandal out of it, but it accumulates” – she admits.

Ola sometimes caught herself thinking that maybe she had chosen her path wrong. She wondered if medicine was for her, or if it might be better to choose something else after all. She even sometimes thought that maybe women were not suited to medicine. 

It was then that she learned about the Women in Medicine initiative. She started following their online profiles. In an interview with Coopernicus, she recounts how surprised she was when she browsed through the content of Poles in Medicine and agreed with much of it.  

When Poles in Medicine announced a recruitment drive, Ola knew she wanted to apply. She has been thriving with them ever since, and in 2022 the initiative became a Foundation. That’s when Ola became a member of its board.

Mentoring mornings and support for individual choices

The Foundation’s flagship project is mentoring mornings. Women from various health professions and students come to the meetings, which provides an opportunity to integrate and learn about different perspectives.  In addition to the networking opportunity, participants attend lectures on the theme of the meeting. 

The next such mentoring morning will be held on May 11 at the Copernicus Science Center in Warsaw, and will feature topics related to new technologies and business. There will also be an opportunity to talk about giving speeches on medicine conferences and similar.

Ola notes that the meetings also serve as a support for women in medicine:

“The idea is that they should not be afraid to start. It seems to me that once they start it will go on… But in the beginning there is often fear.”

The doctoral student also tells what women who come to the meetings most often talk about:

“They often hear that something is not for women –for example, surgery or other procedures. Or that they should focus on their families.”

She adds that comments about having offspring can also be heard at job interviews or even in conversations among themselves. 

“It seems to me that it’s a private matter. These are equivalent choices, whether someone wants a family or not. This is also what we would like to show as a Foundation.”

Challenges of women in science

It is the decision to have a child that is one of the biggest challenges for women in science.

“Careers often slow down a lot when a child is born. Being on leave, sometimes it’s not possible to get grants or for those grants to get extended. Doing research can be difficult or sometimes even impossible”

– Ola notes.

She stresses that scientific grants need to be applied for well in advance. It is often a complicated procedure, and you can wait even up to a year for the money itself to be awarded. When a possible pregnancy or the need to take care of a newborn child is involved, the matter becomes even more complicated.

“There is then a big problem with the fluidity of maintaining scientific work,” says Ola.

She adds that more often this problem affects women than men. This is due to the fact that often when a child is born it is the mother who spends more time with the child at home, not returning to work after the birth of the child.

And while the choice of which parent stays at home when a new baby arrives is an individual matter, institutions can support young parents.

“Often women say it would be easier for them if there were nurseries at institutes or large universities,” Ola says. – “And meetings where you don’t necessarily have to be at the workplace can take place online.”

Having children and frequent comments about “what’s for women” are just some of the challenges facing young women’s career development.

“I think it would be best for us to support ourselves. That women who are active in science and are already high up should set an example and be willing to meet with young women. They would tell stories about how they got to this point,” Ola says. – “I often feel that we lack such a ‘role model’ – a woman we can be inspired by.”


Another important element for any doctoral student is support in the form of subsidies. Ola notes that also just helping to fill out applications, which are often very complicated, is already a huge relief. She herself has supervisors who help her apply for various grants and advise her on how to fill out the intricate documents involved. She knows, however, that this is not the rule for a PhD.

“Then it turns out that there is no money for research, and you don’t know where to get it from. Sometimes the idea is great, but there is no way to implement it” – Ola says.

She recommends two grants to young scientists and scholars –Pearls of Science and Prelude (Perły Nauki and Preludium). These are grants subsidized by the Ministry of Education and Science and the National Science Center, respectively. They can prove to be very helpful during the doctoral program. 

Ola says it’s also possible to apply for more individual funding at universities, for smaller amounts. And in Silesia, where she is doing her PhD, there is the Metropolitan Science Support Fund (Metropolitalny Fundusz Wspierania Nauki).

“It’s not so bad in Poland at all. There are more and more initiatives between universities, or between universities and commercial companies. Sometimes you have to look for it, but it is possible to go in the right direction and without having to leave the country”

–convinces Ola.

Popularization of science

There is another issue important to Ola. It’s the popularization of science. As she says, she gets the impression that more and more people are interested in it.

“The path of a scientist is no longer so rare. A lot has been done by the fact that now doctoral students get paid. Because it used to be that you didn’t get any scholarship unless it was for an outstanding performance”

– Ola says.

She notes that when someone is serious about their research, it is a time-consuming and demanding activity.

“Doing it for free led people to stop doing it or the projects were not of good quality”

– Ola states.

And popularizing science helps spread an interesting image of PhDs and science itself. Ola recently got offers to take part in a hackathon as a mentor. She also visited her old middle school, where she talked about her career.

“I always agree to such proposals. It can be inspiring to others when you show that science is interesting.”

And inspiration is sometimes very much needed. Ola also talks about her experience with her doctorate –sometimes you have to wait longer for research results than you planned at the beginning. However, there is no need to get discouraged. As you can see from Ola’s example, other difficulties, such as those associated with being a woman in science, are worth turning into something good. After all, had she not experienced the problem of discrimination against women in the medical community herself, she would not have joined the Foundation. And from there, as she said earlier, things have already started to go on.

Cover photography: Tatiana z Pixabay

Barbara Niemczyk
I graduated from a bachelor's degree in applied linguistics and a master's degree in journalism. I have done numerous internships and fellowships in the past years, including a translation traineeship at one of the EU Institutions and a journalistic fellowship at Deutsche Welle. I have a big passion for telling stories, talking with people and exchanging ideas. I am proactive and have excellent writing skills and ease at making new connections. I like to spend my free time sailing, hiking and practicing Ashtanga Yoga.
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Barbara Niemczyk

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