Tuesday, April 10th saw the start of the STEM Marathon in Milan, as part of the #STEMintheCity project, now in its second edition. The initiative is promoted by the City of Milan and addresses the gender gap in the field of science subjects: Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). The aim of #STEMintheCity is to spread the culture of STEMs, remove the cultural stereotypes that distance girls from study paths in technical-scientific subjects and reduce the gender gap in STEM careers and professions.

From 10 to 13 April, with the STEM Marathon, Milan hosts public events, moments dedicated to training, workshops, opportunities for debate and reflection on the strategies and policies needed to bring about real social and cultural change.

The opening day was also attended by Professor Michela Matteoli, Director of the Institute of Neuroscience of the CNR, Director of the Neurology Center of Humanitas and Professor at Humanitas University. The teacher, through the story of her studies and history, has represented a significant testimony of what it means today to be a woman and a scientist. After an introduction on the studies carried out in Pisa and the research doctorate carried out in Milan, Prof. Matteoli stressed the importance of the experience abroad.


Experience abroad

“One of the most important steps of my career has been the work period of almost three years at Yale University as a post-doc. Going abroad is important, it is fundamental for young people to move around, to gain experience in new scientific fields, to get used to being citizens of the world. At the School of Medicine at Yale University, I began working on the synapse and devised a method that allowed synaptic vesicles to be marked while they were undergoing fusion,” a method that has since been used in many laboratories around the world.

“I then returned to Italy and this is what I wish the young scientists: that the conditions be in place so that, after an experience abroad, they can return to our country, because it is here that we need them”, Professor Matteoli hoped.


Reconciling work and family life

After speaking of the birth of her own workshop in Milan, Professor Matteoli spoke of the problem that many young women face, that of reconciling work and family.

“At first, my workshop was small and made up mainly of young women, and for all of them the time has come for motherhood. At one point the workshop was full of children! The birth of children is a beautiful moment but it is also a difficult one: the woman feels pulled by two sides, the work, which calls you and fascinates you, and the family with the desire to be with the children. Women often feel inadequate at this stage of their lives, both at work and at home. This must not happen. Motherhood is an important moment of strong growth, you should not feel guilty if you are working and expecting a child.


SNAP-25 protein and synapse pathologies

Prof. Matteoli then described the subsequent studies of her laboratory on SNAP-25 protein and synaptopathies.

“In the synapse study we focused on a particular presynaptic protein, SNAP-25. The gene encoding this protein is involved in many brain diseases, especially ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), schizophrenia and bipolar syndrome. In the following ten years with my laboratory, which had meanwhile expanded, we investigated the role of the protein SNAP-25 in detail, discovering that it actually mediates different processes at the synapse. We have changed the paradigms a bit, demonstrating that SNAP-25 not only mediates the fusion of synaptic vesicles with the plasma membrane, but, by regulating the influence of calcium ions, also plays a role as a controller of the exocytosis process. We have also shown that SNAP-25 is even located in the postsynaptic compartment and this has allowed us to explain some processes whereby alterations in the levels of this protein are involved in some psychiatric diseases or neurodevelopment.

These studies were carried out thanks to the inclusion of the laboratory in European research networks, such as EUSynapse and EUROSPIN, within the European FP6 and FP7 programmes. “We have contributed to the generation of a concept that is now accepted in neuroscience and psychiatry: the concept of synaptopathy, which is that many diseases of the brain, psychiatry or neurodevelopment result from a malfunction of the synapse.


The influence of the environment, the role of inflammation and the arrival in Humanitas

“However, genes alone are not enough, the environment plays a central role and the disease derives in most cases from an interaction between a susceptible genetic substrate and an environmental stimulus. One of the most important aspects that can contribute to a pathological state is inflammation: low level inflammatory states that last for a long time damage the function of the brain and neurons and can generate a pathological situation. But what exactly happens at the synapse level in an inflammation condition? To address this question we decided to work with researchers who knew the immune system well. So my laboratory moved to Humanitas where Alberto Mantovani’s group works, the spearhead for the study of the immune system. We have thus begun to combine our experience with that of immunologists. This is what we do today: to put together these two disciplines to understand how the immune system regulates the nervous system by directly investigating the synaptic mechanisms involved. In the last year we have published some works on this important topic that make us particularly proud and that show how to be a team is really valuable,” emphasized the professor.


Women in science

“In addition to being the head of the Neurology Center in Humanitas, a structure that unites three components, the world of research, clinics and training, I direct the Institute of Neuroscience of the CNR, a national institute consisting of 5 sections (Milan, Pisa, Padua, Cagliari and Parma). I was the first woman to direct this Institute, after Prof. Lamberto Maffei and Prof. Tullio Pozzan. Unfortunately, few women in Europe have such scientific roles. An analysis by the European Community, She Figures, assessing the level of progress towards gender equality in research and innovation in the European Union, shows that, on average, women run only 20% of scientific institutions in Europe. While there are more women than men among the students, as you climb the pyramid of your career you generate a reversal, a kind of scissor, whereby men far outnumber women in positions of greater responsibility. The latest surveys seem to indicate that European countries are closing this gap little by little, but the change in this direction is very slow. It is important that everyone is aware of this problem and gives their contribution so that this trend is finally changed,” concluded Professor Matteoli.


Watch the full speech of Professor Matteoli, click here.