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Diverse Perspectives in Stem Cell Science: A Q&A with Malin Parmar

Photo of Malin and a student in the lab.
Malin Parmar (right) is a Professor of Cellular Neuroscience at Lund University who is advancing new cell therapies for Parkinson's Disease. As a catalyst for inclusion, she initiated the DEI committee at Lund Stem Cell Center. Photo by: Kenneth Ruona.

Malin Parmar, Professor at Lund University, and group leader at Lund Stem Cell Center, shares her journey through science, spanning from her childhood fascination with microscopes to her current role as a leader in neural developmental neuroscience and Parkinson's disease research.

In this interview, Malin Parmar shares her insights and perspective on challenges women and other underrepresented groups face in academia and strategies to cultivate a more inclusive stem cell science community.

Q: Can you tell us a bit about yourself and what inspired you to pursue a career in research?

A: I come from a small town in the southeast part of Skåne, Sweden called Tomelilla. I have always been fascinated by science, and my parents have been very supportive of my curiosity from an early age. I recall receiving a toy microscope as a Christmas gift one year, but I wanted a real one, so I saved up and purchased one myself. However, it was not only my initial interest in science that has been the driving force in my career, but also my desire to explore the world, encounter diverse perspectives, and meet individuals from different backgrounds.

Motivated by this desire to travel and experience different cultures, I went to Vancouver, Canada, where I completed my undergraduate and graduate studies. It was there that I first became involved in research, working on a project that focused on gastrulation using sea urchins as a model system. Afterward, I worked on a one-year project on hematopoietic stem cells at the Terry Fox Laboratory before deciding to continue in research.

My supervisor in Canada knew Professor Stefan Karlsson here at Lund University who introduced me to a newly arrived scientist at the time, Kenny Campbell, who was working in brain development. I joined his lab as a PhD student and that is how I got into the field I am in today. After completing my PhD, I did my first postdoc with Anders Björklund at Lund University, where I studied midbrain development. I then went to Edinburgh for a second postdoc, where I learned how to work with 

human stem cells, which was a novel technique at the time. I later returned to Lund after receiving a grant from the Swedish Research Council and decided to take a brief hiatus from science before establishing my research group.

Since then, my focus has been on neural developmental neuroscience and stem cells in the context of repairing the brain, particularly in Parkinson's disease.

Q: What is your current research focus?

A: Our goal is to repair the brain with a focus on Parkinson's disease. We do this either by transplanting stem cells and reprogrammed cells or doing reprogramming inside the brain. Each of these methods aims to create new cells – dopamine-producing neurons - to replace those that have been lost due to the disease. Our biggest interest is control of cell fate specification and identity, whether you create them from stem cells or via reprogramming, understanding how they mature, and how they function when they are placed in the brain. 

Q: As a scientist, have you encountered any specific challenges within academia?

A: In the 70s, during my childhood, I had the same opportunities as my brother. However, as I progressed to high school and university, I found myself in environments where I was often one of the few or even the only female. I recall certain moments, especially after becoming a mother, that stand out as particularly challenging. For instance, when I had to leave for a meeting and my kids would cry, I felt guilty. In meetings, someone would inevitably inquire about my childcare arrangements, which made me feel even more guilty and question my choices as a mother. Although I am certain that my male colleagues with children also experienced emotional turmoil, they were never asked about their childcare arrangements while at the meeting. Earlier in my career, I did not think much of it. However, seeing it happen to younger female scientists today, I recognize that these challenges are more prevalent than I realized. 

When I worked with Anders Björklund, I noticed he highly valued his personal life and hobbies. During meetings, he sometimes mentioned that he needed to leave early to play tennis for example, and always allowed others to prioritize their time accordingly. This made it easier for me to mention my need to leave early to pick up my children or run private errands. However, it is important to remember that prioritizing oneself does not have to be associated with having children or being female. Anders' actions conveyed that it was acceptable to prioritize oneself, and he led by example.

Then after I became more successful as a scientist, I noticed a change in how others referred to me. Before my success, I was simply a scientist. However, once I achieved success, I became known as a female scientist. Initially, I disliked this differentiation, but I have since come to accept it and sometimes even embrace it.

Q: What inspired you to start the DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) committee here at the Center? 

A: The Stem Cell Center has always felt welcoming and open to me, more so than the neuroscience environment. Despite this, there are more females in leading positions, such as professors and researchers in neuroscience. I was always curious about why that is. 

In 2018, there was a PI retreat where some male PI's made comments that I found to be uninviting. With some of the younger PI's, we began a discussion and applied for funding to start the DEI group. This group was initiated to support female scientists but later expanded into a strive for broader inclusion at a more general level.

Q: As a PI, how do you integrate DEI principles into your research group? 

A: When I recruit and assemble my team, I prioritize diversity in terms of gender, nationality, skill sets, and interests. I try to ensure that our team is gender-balanced across all positions. In terms of equality between men and women, we make it easier for those on parental leave by ensuring that the rest of the team is equipped to handle the project's workload during their absence, and have discussions with focus on collaboration and inclusion etc.

Additionally, on International Women's Day, we discuss diversity, equity, and inclusion. I have also learned from leadership courses, tools, and strategies, to be inclusive of different personality types, such as introverts and extroverts. I try to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to share their opinions during our team meetings, which are held in a group setting to foster a sense of belonging. If someone needs more time to reflect on a point before, they raise it in the group, they can bring that to the next meeting. This way, everyone is equally informed and has the chance to contribute to the decision-making process.

Q: How can we make our stem cell science community more diverse and inclusive of people from other places and backgrounds?

A: As an active member of ISSCR, I have had the privilege of working alongside other female scientists to empower and guide younger female scientists into leadership roles. This informal coaching has been incredibly fulfilling and has highlighted the importance of sponsorship in our field.

In my view, a significant change has already taken place at our Center. Since the inception of the DEI working group in 2018, we have been able to openly discuss diversity, equity, and inclusion. This has been a major step in the right direction. We now consider DEI in all aspects of our work, including seminars, retreats, and formation of leadership boards, etc. However, we must continue to integrate these principles into all conversations as they occur, rather than as an afterthought. This requires everyone to shift their mindset, as equality and diversity are everyone's responsibility.

It is important to remember that DEI issues are present in all countries, but they may manifest differently. Diversity encompasses more than just gender equality; it includes a range of perspectives, skill sets, and interests. A diverse workplace is essential for successful scientific research, as it introduces innovative ideas and approaches. My goal is not solely to support women in science, but to create an environment that fosters better science. The most successful research centers and leaders have well-designed diversity programs that embrace all forms of diversity. By adopting this wider perspective, we can achieve success in science and beyond.

About Malin Parmar

Portrait of Malin Parmar. Photo.

Malin Parmar is a Professor of Cellular Neuroscience at Lund University and is a New York Stem Cell Foundation Robertson Investigator alumni.

Together with her research group, Malin Parmar has conducted several groundbreaking studies on stem cells that have led to the development of new treatments for patients with Parkinson’s disease. Using knowledge of how dopamine cells are normally formed as a starting point, they have been able to replicate this process in stem cells, creating new cells that can replace those that have been lost. Malin Parmar leads the STEM-PD team, which aims to bring stem cell-derived dopamine neurons to clinical trials for Parkinson’s disease. In addition, she collaborates with various European and international networks, as well as industry partners, to develop new cell-based therapies for brain repair.

Professional background: PhD, Postdoc at Lund University, Postdoc at Institute of Stem Cell Research at Edinburgh University, Project Lead of STEM-PD, Board of Directors of the International Society for Stem Cell Research, Member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

Malin Parmar´s profile in the Research Portal