Published 27 June 2023 by Hanna Kurlanda-Witek

Room for Improvement: The Importance of Diversity and Mentoring in Science

The panel discussion on diversity marked the start of the #LINO23 scientific programme.

The first session at #LINO23 was a panel discussion on a topic that’s been very popular in the last few years, and still generates plenty of debate: diversity in science. The commitment to diversity is stipulated in Goal 8 of the Lindau Guidelines − support all talent, regardless of its background, in an inclusive, diverse and non-discriminatory manner (

The panel was made up of four Nobel Laureates: Emmanuelle Charpentier, Martin Chalfie, Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard, and Harold Varmus; as well as two Young Scientists: Rasha Shraim and Marwa Shumo, and was moderated by Nkechi Madubuko. The lively discussion was enriched by an audience of several hundred Young Scientists, who were asked to answer questions or vote live via mentimeter.

Nobel Prizes Not Spread Equally Throughout the World

As food for thought, the audience was shown a slide with the number of Nobel Prizes won by scientists and writers from particular countries. The United States takes a strong lead, with 403 Nobel prizes, followed by the United Kingdom (137), Germany (114), and France (72). At the end of the list, India and South Africa have 11 Laureates each. The panel mostly agreed that the simple reason for these numbers is that the US has forged an environment that’s very favourable for research, and not just for Americans. As Martin Chalfie pointed out, many US Nobel prize winners are actually foreign-born. In that case, is winning a Nobel Prize a result of excellent funding and resources, such as equipment? Emmanuelle Charpentier explained that it is an important factor, but “you need to be at the right time, at the right place, with the right people.”

Stepping Stones to Diversity

Most of the audience agreed to the statement that diversity dimensions are important for scientific success, but the Nobel Laureates put forward the opinion that there are many successful scientists who don’t care much about diversity. Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard expressed how diversity has enriched universities in Germany, with half of all students from another country, a great leap forward in just a few decades.

The moderator with the two Young Scientists during the panel discussion
The Young Scientists Rasha Shraim and Marwa Shumo with the moderator of the discussion, Nkechi Madubuko.

But there is much more to be done, and this was emphasised by the Young Scientists. Marwa Shumo, a Sudanese researcher working in Berlin, said there are many facets of diversity and inclusivity that have to be addressed other than nationality, such as race and religion. Rasha Shraim, a PhD student from Ireland, explained how much easier it is to apply for opportunities from Ireland, than from her home country of Lebanon. Visa requirements, money, language, politics: there are many barriers faced by researchers, particularly from low- and middle-income countries.

The Laundry or the Lab: Gender Disparity in Science

To date, only 61 women have won Nobel Prizes, compared to 898 men. While the last generation has seen an increase in the number of women in research (20% at the Max Planck Institutes, up from 0.5%), it is still much harder for women to excel in science, mainly due to childcare responsibilities. As Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard said, “You have to have the education, will and talent to push through this barrier, (…) Women don’t have the same opportunities that men have, but this is nothing compared to what it was in my time.” Nüsslein-Volhard set up a foundation dedicated to helping finance childcare for women researchers (, and these types of practical initiatives are a critical step in ensuring that mothers can also be professionals.

Marwa Shumo added that women without families shouldn’t be excluded, as they often have greater responsibilities at work when researchers who are parents are looking after their children, for example, during the pandemic.

The discussion also focused on changing the reward system (in line with Goal 7 of the Lindau Guidelines) and the structural barriers that limit diversity. As Rasha Shraim concluded, there is a lot of talk about diversity, but change of the underlying structures are necessary to overcome the multiple problems that still exist.

Many Types of Mentors

The Agora talk, “Mentoring and Role Models” featured two Nobel Laureates, Aaron Ciechanover and Tim Hunt, and was moderated by Pernilla Wittung-Stafshede. Both Laureates spoke about their own mentors, who taught them valuable lessons and helped shape their careers, although they had completely different mentoring styles. Mentors can be “hand-holders”, helping students design experiments, but they can also be much more distant, providing their students with only a general idea of how to do their research.

Agora Talk with Tim Hunt and Aaron Ciechanover
Moderator Pernilla Wittung-Stafshede with the Nobel Laureates Tim Hunt (on the left) and Aaron Ciechanover.

Yet regardless of their mentoring style, mentors play a large role in the lives of their mentees. “Mentorship is critically important for your development,” said Ciechanover, “Choose your mentor, don’t leave it to chance.” Both Laureates agreed that finding the right mentor should be an aware process. Finding the right people to work with is fundamental, and changing a PhD supervisor isn’t an impediment to future success. Having several mentors (i.e. from different research areas) may also be a solution. For those new to mentoring, it is necessary to realise the enormous responsibility of mentorship; good mentors can be an inspiration to their students even long after they’re gone.

Hanna Kurlanda-Witek

Hanna Kurlanda-Witek is a science writer and environmental consultant, based in Warsaw, Poland. She has a PhD in geosciences from the University of Edinburgh, where she spent a lot of time in the lab. As someone familiar with both worlds of research and industry, she enjoys simplifying science communication across the divide.