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Around the world in six years

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2020 - Winter


Growing up in La Rioja, Spain—wine country—Judit Jimenez Sainz, PhD, was surrounded by people involved with the production of its famous red. Her grandfather made wine; both of her uncles own vineyards; and as a little girl, she picked grapes from the vines.

In high school, though, Jimenez Sainz decided on a path a long way from viticulture. Her teachers, glimpsing a talent for science and research, advised her to explore those fields. And although her first thought as a young woman was that science is for men, she trusted her mentors. When it came time for college, they encouraged her to find the best institution to feed her curiosity.

“I’m very grateful to my teachers for helping me challenge myself,” said Jimenez Sainz. “They were instrumental to pushing me to seek out opportunities in research.” Jimenez Sainz decided to study at the University of Valencia, where she took her PhD. She also spent a year in the United Kingdom at University College London, broadening her research capabilities and her professional network. But her journey was just beginning.

“I am a biochemist and molecular biologist who focuses on breast and ovarian cancer in women, and ways to identify, prevent, and (I hope) cure it,” said Jimenez Sainz. “I ended up in New Haven because that’s where I had the best feeling about my PI [principal investigator].”

Jimenez Sainz had heard of Yale—“Of course, everybody knows about the Ivy League in Europe”—but hadn’t realized it is in New Haven, Conn.—a place unfamiliar to her. Originally set on working in a big city “like Boston or New York,” Jimenez Sainz was ultimately drawn to the research possibilities at Yale, the academic culture, and sense of optimism she felt about her lab. Now, she is an associate research scientist with the Jensen Lab in the Department of Therapeutic Radiology.

It didn’t take long for Jimenez Sainz to adapt to New Haven. And while she was adjusting to the United States, she dove headfirst into her research and also into the community, becoming involved with the E-visibility program (of which she is now director) and Españoles Científicos en USA (ECUSA: Spanish Scientists in the United States). She is also a strong advocate of women in science, which is how she came to participate in a program called Homeward Bound that will send her to spend three weeks in Antarctica later this year.

“Homeward Bound is an international leadership, scientific, and visibility initiative that aims to bring 1,000 STEMM [science, technology, engineering, math, and medicine] women across the globe in 10 years,” said Jimenez Sainz. Part of the cohort HB5, Jimenez Sainz discusses the program and fundraising for it on her webpage.

Why leadership? “Just like I had to learn how to do experiments properly, I need to learn more about the craft of leadership,” she said. “I hate to say it, but growing up, it didn’t even occur to me that I could be a scientist, let alone a department head or a dean. I thought, to be honest, that these were jobs for men. I have a lot of catching up to do with leadership training.”

Hence the culminating three-week trip to Antarctica. “Until 1969, women were forbidden from Antarctica. Not because of any laws—there is no government in Antarctica. Just because with a very small number of exceptions, they weren’t brought on scientific expeditions or military operations. The prohibition was, from a certain perspective, self-imposed: women thought that it would be impossible for them to go to Antarctica, that they had nothing to contribute to such an expedition. Homeward Bound helps foster leadership, and self-starting is part of that,” said Jimenez Sainz. “I’m looking forward to what the future holds.”

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