Making Science Stronger: Valentina Greco Talks Collaboration, Leadership, and PhilanthropyNews
NYSCF – Robertson Stem Cell Investigator Alumna Valentina Greco, PhD (Yale University) is a pillar of the stem cell community whose work to understand the skin has led to seminal discoveries about how it matures and maintains itself, how it shields our bodies from external threats, and how it responds to the accumulation of cancerous mutations and aging. Her scientific acumen, along with her determination to uplift the entire field, has made her a well-respected figure, and she is now president-elect of the International Society for Stem Cell Research, the world’s largest stem cell research society.
Dr. Greco thinks a lot about how we can make science better, faster, and stronger. Her staunch commitment to equity and collaboration in science is what she views as the catalyst of the discoveries her laboratory has made.
Almost a decade after Dr. Greco (the Carolyn Walch Slayman Professor of Genetics and the Inaugural Vice Chair of Diversity for the Department of Genetics at Yale University) received the NYSCF – Robertson Investigator Award, we sat down with her to discuss its impact on her career, as well as how we can get the most out of science by promoting teamwork, fostering inclusivity, and investing in measures that will truly move the needle toward cures.
A Team Approach to Science
It takes several years of intense research for scientists to unravel the mysteries behind complex biological phenomena and to eventually establish new knowledge. For the Greco lab, the publication of four major studies this spring was the culmination of many years of work to try to understand how the skin matures, regenerates, and wards off disease. But what did it take to bring about these impactful discoveries? Her answer lies in the mixture of individual talent, adequate resources, and an inspiring and empowering environment for which she feels both responsible and accountable for.
“I’m most proud of the scientists in my lab and in our collaborators’ labs because of their capacity to leverage their creativity, determination, and competences that complement my deficiencies. Together we tackled ambitious and exciting projects in ways that the single individuals could not. I also feel tremendous joy to see them thriving and publishing their research, as they had to work through a devastating pandemic,” says Dr. Greco when recounting the efforts behind these studies.
“We live in a world where we still claim objectivity is what makes science reliable, but in my opinion it is reliable because it’s a team approach that integrates multiple lenses, all capable of noticing different things, to capture the complexity of nature.”
Enacting Inclusive Leadership
Motivated by generating a lab environment where the creativity of scientists from all backgrounds can be unlocked, Dr. Greco has been a deliberate and committed mentor to young scientists since starting her lab in 2009. She has received accolades for her impactful mentorship and is a passionate advocate for minoritized scientists whose talent is underrecognized, engaging in multiple initiatives to promote and retain underrepresented talent in the STEM workforce. Her stance, she notes, comes from an urgent need in the field to better define mentor responsibilities and create accountability given their leadership roles.
“I think a lot about my privileged position and what my responsibility is in this role that I have,” says Dr. Greco. “In our profession there is more emphasis on products (i.e. publications, discoveries) than people (i.e. scientists; unless they are in leadership roles). Yet it is the scientists in the lab, who are assigned less power, the ones who drive discoveries.”
When asked about daily actions she takes as a leader to foster an inclusive lab environment and empower different points of view, Dr. Greco emphasizes the importance of self-reflection and self-scrutiny.
“As I reflect on the interactions that I have with scientists in my lab or in the whole organization, I keep on asking myself, to what extent am I empowering scientists versus enabling the issues that they bring up to me? To what extent am I being deaf to their issue, because I don’t experience it as a lived experience? And to what extent do I exclude scientists from minoritized backgrounds without even realizing it, because of convenience, or because the business creates pressure to exploit trainees rather than invest in them?”
“If we don’t keep ourselves accountable to aligning our actions to our values, then our values inevitably fade in the face of organizational pressures, personal ambition and our self-centered expectations from others — as opposed to thinking about the really hard problems that our field is facing, like the missed opportunities for discoveries that we cannot make because we only have a few points of view represented.”
Moving the needle on this front, however, requires more than individual reflection and change. Valentina stressed the need for institution-led initiatives to collectively rethink how we evaluate productivity, how we communicate with minoritized scientists (in implicit and explicit ways), how we assign departmental duties, and how burden is distributed.
And to make meaningful change, we need systems of accountability.
“Self-reflection coupled with accountability is key to driving real change. We first must agree that we are responsible for the negative things in the system; then third party evaluation needs to be brought in for us to figure out where we continue to reinforce the same discriminatory processes, and whether our talking is aligned with our actions,” notes Dr. Greco.
“I dream of a grassroots collective pressure that all of us are called to take part in, for us to shift this scientific enterprise from only product-oriented towards a product married to process.”
NYSCF Community Leading the Way
In 2014, Dr. Greco received the NYSCF — Robertson Stem Cell Investigator Award, providing her lab with five years of unrestricted funding to pursue the boldest, most innovative research ideas.
In addition to being able to use funds for research and lab activities that traditional funding sources would not support, Valentina highlighted the unique value that the Innovator community brought to her as a leader and women in science.
“What NYSCF particularly did to me is put me together in an inspiring cohort of women. That’s the thing I’ve cherished the most. I was allowed to enter this club, to participate in an inner group with the capacity not only to directly interact with [NYSCF Founding CEO] Susan Solomon herself, someone who I treasured and admired deeply, but also with phenomenal scientists and people like Paola Arlotta, Valentina Fossati, Claire Wyart, Ya-Chieh Hsu, Jennifer Phillips-Cremins, Shuibing Chen, Kristen Brennand, Raeka Aiyar, Vanessa Ruta – the list goes on, which represents a group of women that is very much undervalued in science,” recounts Dr. Greco.
Valentina describes the annual gatherings with the Innovator Community as liberating and inspiring forums where she felt safe to share ideas with other women on different leadership styles.
“Gathering at the retreat allowed us to reaffirm both the lack of and the need for different leadership styles, and to continue to search for our own way to do it, in a responsible and accountable manner that celebrates womanhood rather than forcing us into a mold that is not for us.”
“[The community interactions] were liberating for me because there was no expectation of me fitting a mold that wasn’t mine. It was asking, what do you want your mold to be? And what can we do to be better?”
Why Philanthropic Funding is Necessary for Scientific Progress
NYSCF’s goal in creating the NYSCF – Robertson Investigator Awards was to offer a source of philanthropic funding to researchers that would give them agility and freedom to quickly allocate resources to wherever they need it most, for example investing in mentoring and organizational psychology training to better lead their groups — something that is very challenging with more traditional funding mechanisms. For Valentina, philanthropic support also holds enormous potential to transform how we define productivity and establish better reward systems in science.
“I can certainly see how conventional funding sources cannot sustain everything we hope to study. Increasingly, scientists have looked to other places like foundations for support. In addition, I think we must all join in remodeling our metric systems,” notes Dr. Greco. “For example, a major challenge is that a scientist’s productivity is traditionally evaluated in a very narrow way, often by simply counting the number of publications, especially in high-impact journals.”
“When we realize that we have created several metrics that do not actually equate to talent, I think foundations and philanthropy have a significant role to play in leading change. They have the capacity to devise new metrics that actually reflect productivity, and to create a just system that allows us to include lenses we do not have.”
New measures for productivity, Valentina notes, should include key contributions to building the scientific community such as time invested in diversity initiatives or in shadow mentoring relationships.
“I think that NYSCF in particular has a unique opportunity to identify, nourish, and retain tremendous talent that is normally excluded or undervalued.”