International Day of Women and Girls in Science with Carla Mattos

Calling all Women in STEM! 

February 11th was International Day of Women and Girls in Science, an annual observance adopted by the United Nations General Assembly to promote the full and equal access and participation of women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics fields. 

To celebrate this day, read about Northeastern’s very own third-generation female scientist and professor, Carla Mattos! 

What’s your relationship with science and when did you know that this is what you want to pursue? 

I was born in Brazil, and I come from a line of three generations of women in science. My grandmother was one of Brazil’s first female physicists and my mother was a physicist too. My father and two grandfathers were also scientists.  

I don’t remember not having science around me, it’s part of who I grew up to be. From a very early age, my grandfather, a biologist, used to take us into the backyard to look at the chickens and flowers, in a way that made us ask questions and talk about how life works. I learned about the concept of atoms, with their protos, neutrons and electrons almost as early as I learned to read. It’s hard to separate science from who I am. I went to conferences with my parents, listened to them talk about science at the dinner table and watched them prepare lectures and work on their research problems. As a result, I grew up with a familiarity with what science is, how scientists communicate and how their research is disseminated both formally and in social circles where science is discussed. My relationship with science was from birth and I knew that science would be a big part of my life from a very early age. 

Did having female mentors in your life, including your mother, contribute to your career path? 

Well, absolutely! And it gave me the confidence to do it while building a family from early on, just like they had done, starting at age 23. I have three sons and they were all born when my husband and I were graduate students in Chemistry. A lot of people will say to me, Carla, how did you do it all? How did you become a scientist and have children during graduate school, when the stakes were so high? While it was not a piece of cake, I know that having had my mother and grandmother as role models, and a partner that was all in, were enabling privileges that I will never take for granted.  

Growing up around academics made it easier for me to navigate the academic world and, combined with the constant curiosity of wanting to understand the world by asking questions, really sent me on my career path. I saw how my mom did it, and how her mom did it, and it just became very natural. 

In all my comfort with being a scientist, I also learned not to take the issue of being a woman in science lightly. Over the years I have experienced countless misguided perceptions that come with being a woman and a mother doing science. I know I am not the only one, I see it all the time, and am surrounded by many female scientists with whom to share the good and the challenging aspects of being a woman in science. Many are my colleagues right here at Northeastern, many are my students making progress for the future. We all stand on the shoulders of countless courageous and brilliant women that came before us here in the United States and all over the world. I am proud to count my grandmother and mother among them. I am glad to be able to mentor and support young women who are continuing to forge change for the future and young men that move forward with a mindset of equity and respect for their women colleagues, collaborating and supporting each other.  

What advice do you have for young women thinking about studying science in college? 

Go for it unapologetically and with confidence! It’s important to engage through questions and let curiosity flourish. Given how much information is out there and how we are all pulled in different directions with so much responsibility, it’s tempting for students to approach courses based on the homework to complete, a box to be checked in a list of many tasks. Instead, let the material and homework be a venue of engagement, of asking more questions and taking the time to really enjoy finding the answers. When we do this, curiosity becomes a driving force and science is much more fun.  

Also, it’s important to understand, you don’t have to dedicate 100% of your life to science to be a great scientist. You can have hobbies, go out with friends, take vacation, whatever is important to you. It won’t make your work any less relevant and meaningful if you are also fully engaged with science when you do it. You will diversify your thoughts through different things in your life, which enriches everything you do, including science. 

Do you have any female STEM role models that have guided you? 

Well, of course, my mother and grandmother. But beyond that, as a young structural biologist and chemist, I looked up to a couple of women who were changing the way we looked at and understood proteins. One is Jane Richardson, at Duke University in North Carolina, and the other is Janet Thornton, at the European Bioinformatics Institute in Cambridge, UK. They focused on understanding protein structure, how we represent them, and how the patterns in protein structure are related to their function. I have always admired their impact in our field of research and take what I learned from their work to enrich how I do science to this day. 

I was also fortunate with my PhD and postdoctoral mentors: Gregory Petsko, Martin Karplus, and Dagmar Ringe. They were open and supportive when I was in graduate school and accepting as each of my three children were born. I do need to say that my husband, John Roberts, was absolutely an equal partner in all of this. He took care of our babies as much as I did, and to this day we continue to support each other in our careers. Role models come in many forms, and I have many female role models and friends that inspire and teach me new things all the time. Here at Northeastern I continue to learn from female leaders and colleagues who I greatly admire, our Dean Hazel Sive, the chair of my department Penny Beuning, and our colleagues Oyinda Oyelaran and Mary Jo Ondrechen, among others. I also have friends in the Boston area who I see frequently, among them Karen Allen and Cathy Drennan, structural biologists and colleagues at BU and MIT. There is a vast network of women scientists here in the Boston area and beyond. We learn from and support each other, and we care about mentoring the new generation of women who will contribute to our future understanding of the world. 

Chemistry and Chemical Biology