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Diverse Perspectives in Stem Cell Science: A Q&A with Isabel Hidalgo

Written by Abigail Altman

Photo of Isabel Hildago

Isabel Hidalgo is a postdoctoral researcher at Lund University with a focus on blood and immune research. Her academic path has been marked by both hurdles and victories, mirroring the complex nature of scientific inquiry. In this interview, Isabel opens up about her experiences with imposter syndrome and advocates for a nurturing academic space that embraces diversity and fosters a sense of belonging for all.

 Q: Can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you got started in stem cell research? 

A: I am originally from Southern Spain. I studied at the University in Granada, where I received my degrees in nutrition and food science and technology. So, as you can see, I have made a big loop in research.  

When I finished these two degrees, I tried to find a job in industry related to food technology and safety and quality controls and all this, but it was during a very big crisis in Spain. I could not find a job, so I studied my master’s degree in Cordoba, where I am originally from, in Agrifood, about common economic politics of agriculture and primary food sector in Europe. So even if it was not in my [original] plans to do a master's, I started seeing more of academia and [understood] that one could enter there. 

Then I started thinking about the PhD and I was going to do it in Cordoba, but it was like working for free because there was no funding, that is how it works there, or at least at that time. One started there and got money when/if one got a grant, and it is very competitive. But then I knew someone that was doing their PhD in Madrid, at CNIC, (Spanish National Center of Cardiovascular Research). So, I met with [the PI], we started discussing, I visited the center, and they suddenly opened a position, so I applied. I got the PhD position after a couple of trial-months, but it was hard because I did not have the background and it increased insecurities and this [feeling of] imposter syndrome. It was tough, but I made it.  

My PhD was about epigenetic regulation of hematopoietic stem cells and their niche. I studied mostly the gene EZH1, which was quite unknown at that time. So, most of the thesis was based on that work. Then I had another project, but it never came out and I will tell you this part of the story later. 

Q: What is your current research focus? 

Apart from my work as a postdoctoral researcher in the Hematopoietic and Immune Development Research Group at the Center, I am also working part time in the FACS core facility. I really enjoy that because I like my group very much, we are a small one but work well together. Then, the 30% that I am in the FACS facility allows me more interaction with other people. I am really happy with that combination. Also, in the FACS facility it is cool because the technique is advancing a lot, and we have many new machines, users and I am also involved in the teaching courses. I thought I did not like to teach, but I like it at that user level. 

Q: How did you make your way to Lund? 

It was quite casual, first I did not know if I wanted to continue [in academia] with everything that happened, and I was still struggling with imposter syndrome, but I decided to give it a try. I wanted to come to Scandinavia because I had visited parts of Norway and Sweden and met people that lived here and knew I liked the lifestyle. I knew I did not want to move to the U.S. because I wanted to be close to my family, so I started applying to certain positions here [in Lund] and Stockholm and Copenhagen.  

At the same time, I was also looking for labs that did not have open positions and found a lab here from the description on the website where I was interested in the topic. I contacted [the PI] but he was planning to move to Linköping. He shared my CV with his colleague, and they invited me here to interview, give a seminar, meet everyone, and then they offered me the position. When I came, the environment was nice. It had a good feeling and I felt very welcome. I also liked the fact that there was a big connection between groups working on hematopoiesis. That interaction I was missing during my PhD.  

So, I finished my PhD and I moved [to Lund]. The story I was referring to before is that after being here for less than one month, I got a call and, long story short, they were investigating my PI [in Madrid] for fraud. They stopped her activities and were tracking all her past publications. They found she was lying or duplicating or things in all her papers since she was a postdoc in 2003. All the papers had a fake something, except for mine as first author, so it was the only one that was not retracted. 

I was worried this would follow me, but my first postdoc supervisor at the Center, David Bryder, was really understanding and really nice with everything. After I got the call from the center [in Spain], I went to David, and he had already heard the news and had made his own investigation. He understood that I was very junior at that time and was very understanding. Because of that, I am still working here, and [Lund] is like my safe place. 

Q: You have mentioned experiencing imposter syndrome. Studies suggest that around 70% of academic professionals will face imposter syndrome during their careers. What aspects of academia do you think lead to these feelings of imposter syndrome? 

A: Imposter syndrome is quite common and is starting to be spoken about. I can assume that many people have felt it, but often follow the saying: “fake it ‘till you make it.” It can be seen many times as showing a weakness so many people do not talk about it. I see it is usually more common in women than in men. I do not know why, but I observed this trend that women tend to be more insecure and if you are at the lab, two colleagues are doing an experiment and if something goes wrong [generally speaking]: a man tends to think that the machines are broken or the reagents are wrong, while a woman thinks she's the one who made a mistake. I do not know how these variants are generated but I can see more bias to one side than the other. 

Q: You also noted that Lund feels like your safe space. What is it about the University/Center that gives you that feeling?

A: I think because I know most of the people, and I feel I belong here. In future academic career terms, I do not have many first author publications and I have not had many grants, but I know my job and I do it well. I am not currently interested in going higher in the hierarchy (to be a group leader). I can see that the higher you go, the farther from research you are. It is more about politics, economics, and administration. Since I never had that idea of going that way, I never thought of [Lund] as a transition place. I feel comfortable and very confident here. 

Q: How can we make our stem cell science community more diverse and inclusive?

A: This is not an issue within the Center, but all the bureaucracy and visa problems – these do not affect me because I am European -but I see many people who struggle with this. Here I do not think the Center can do much, but maybe the university could offer support. At the Center though, one thing I would like to mention is the ratio of man and woman that that are research group leaders. It would be interesting to track this over the years. I would not think it would be so bad [if] it changes. 

Q: Working in an international setting, what is your approach to fostering a diverse and inclusive research environment and working colleagues with diverse backgrounds?  

A: I do not know if I have a definite approach for that, but in general I try to be a good listener. One should try to understand why people say what they are saying and do what they do. You may have a first opinion, but anyway be open to modifying it. 

Also, to me, it is important to treat people well, it usually comes back. Right now, my group leader is very human, and this is something that I appreciate. One will always have many things to do, and the pressure will always be there, but it is necessary to take care of the people - remember they are not pipettes. There are humans behind the projects. If you treat someone well, they will deliver better than if they are overstressed and underappreciated. 

Q: What advice would you give to aspiring scientists from underrepresented backgrounds who are interested in pursuing a career in stem cell research or academia? 

A: My advice is more related to everyday work: listen to advice, listen to others, and listen to the critiques that are well given. If someone gives [you] advice, take care of the constructive part, and if someone is harsh, listen to that harsh critique, but do not let it put you down and ask someone else what they think about that. Do not take it personally but do not ignore it, go to another person that can explain without being hurtful. With fights or arguments, breathe and try to keep control. Once you have cooled down, try to address them in a reasonable way to drive the conversation like in a more constructive way. 

About Isabel Hidalgo

Isabel Hidalgo is a postdoctoral researcher in the Hematopoietic and Immune Development Research Group led by Dr. Kees Jan Pronk at the Faculty of Medicine at Lund University, which is affiliated with the Lund Stem Cell Center and Lund University Cancer Centre. 

Professional Background: PhD at theSpanish National Center of Cardiovascular Research, Postdoctoral position at Lund University, Second Postdoctoral Position at Lund University, Research Engineer at the Lund Stem Cell Center FACS Core Facility 

Isabel Hildago's Profile in the Lund University Research Portal