Bulgaria | Rositsa Tropcheva

“Science has no gender”

Words: Boryana Dzhambazova | Images: Jodi Hilton

Rositsa Tropcheva, 34, is a Bulgarian microbiologist andassistant professor at Sofia University. She’s a former Harvard and Pasteur Institute fellow, and her research focuses on lactic acid bacteria and probiotics.

As a scientist, how did you react to the current Covid-19 pandemic?

It was right up my alley. Viruses are classified as microorganisms. I thought it was an interesting social experience. We all started washing our hands like crazy. What worried me, however, is that no matter how well you protect yourself, you can still get sick. You can’t live in total isolation, you still need to interact with people at home, at work, at the shop. I was concerned that people weren’t prepared to adopt all of the protective measures. 

What was missing from the public debate?

Maybe explaining in a more comprehensive way the consequence of the disease. Giving more practical, everyday examples might have helped. Do you touch the door handle [when entering] the shop? Do you touch your mask once you put it on?

We need to learn to maintain good personal hygiene, but also to act as responsible citizens. Even if it means that for a while, we might have to encroach on some of our individual freedoms and privileges like travelling, eating out, going to or throwing parties, etc. 

It seems that countries ruled by women, like Germany and New Zealand, were handling the pandemic better than others?

Once the pandemic is over and we have all the data, I’d be curious to read whether this theory is correct. Donald Trump has set the bar pretty low, though. But maybe, as women, female leaders tend to focus more on care in society than pursuing economic goals. 

“You can’t live in total isolation, you still need to interact with people at home, at work, at the shop.”

How did you fall in love with science?

I fell in love with the problem-solving aspects of science. Doing science is an art form for me. Besides, I love challenges. When I was a child, my father taught me how to ride a motorcycle. I was too short to climb on it but I didn’t want to give up on this newly-acquired freedom. I would take the motorcycle for a ride and stop for a break, and then I couldn’t get back on it, but I also couldn’t just leave it there. So, I came up with a creative solution: I would step on a bench and hop on the motorcycle. Science required the same kind of creative thinking, outside the box. 

Why did you choose a career in biotechnology? 

Biotechnology is a multidisciplinary field that merges physics, chemistry, microbiology, plant and animal stem cultures, enzymology, cytology, etc. It broadens your horizons in so many different ways. In 9th grade [Year 10]  in high school, I fell upon an article saying that one day’s worth of organic waste could produce the same amount of energy as burning two tonnes of residual oil. That was around the time when the war in Iraq was raging, parts of the world were hit by tsunamis and hurricanes, and freshwater scarcity made headlines. We learned that bacteria is used to produce energy, purify water and make medicine. It was mind-blowing to even consider that something as tiny as bacteria could solve such profound problems like power and fuel shortages, issues which often lead to wars. 

What did it feel like growing up in post-communist Bulgaria, when the country was going through a painful transition to democracy?

I vividly remember going to protests as a little girl, sitting on my father’s shoulders. My father believed in no nonsense rules and loved freedom. This kind of free-spirit thinking would get him into trouble in the communist era, for violating a curfew or breaking a rule that banned people from staying at hotels in their hometowns. Back then, many young people would get married after two or three months of dating just because they weren’t allowed to live together without being married. 

I was lucky because we always had a supply of fresh produce at home, thanks to my grandparents’ farm. I never felt the impact of food shortages that many people experienced when they struggled to make ends meet because of the economic crisis. Later on, as a young girl, I remember queueing up for hours with my mother in front of the grocer’s. Often, by the time it was our turn, there was only one type of sausage left. So if that’s what you were craving, you were in luck. If not, you’d have to wait for the next delivery, which could take several weeks to arrive. 

“I have always felt that it doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman.”

What was the difference between the opportunities your mother had and the opportunities you were afforded?

Today, there are plenty of educational exchanges and training programmes abroad. Travelling allows you to experience another culture, it’s an invaluable opportunity for growth. It opens your mind to new possibilities, even new career paths. 

Back then, you weren’t even allowed to leave the country without permission. Travel for pleasure was out of the question. You couldn’t be out past curfew. Marching for national holidays was a must. In the summer, they would either send you on a brigade or at a canning factory without even consulting with you. At school, it was routine to worship portraits of Stalin and Lenin. I wouldn’t have been able to stand it, but you didn’t really have a choice. You’d graduate from vocational high school and become whatever workers the party needed, a seamstress, a cobbler, maybe a teacher or a doctor. My mother used to tell me that she was extremely happy that I was born in 1985, towards the end of the regime, because with my freedom-loving nature and way of life, I would end up in Belene [a gulag-style camp for political prisoners in Bulgaria]. 

Do you think Eastern countries under the communist regime were more progressive about women’s rights than the West was?

I was born in Gabrovo which, back then, was dubbed as the small Manchester because it was an industrial town. Its industry, however, was mostly concentrated in three areas: leather manufacturing, shoe repair and heavy industry. So women weren’t really offered much of a choice. The only place to work in science was the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. We all know that it was tough to get a position there, unless you had connections within the party.

Science is a male-dominated industry in the U.S. and western Europe, but Bulgaria has the second-highest rate of female scientists and engineers in the EU after Lithuania. Why is that? 

Under the communist regime, a vocational education was the priority. Given the type of industry that exists in Bulgaria, such workers were needed. Maybe there is no discrimination here. I have always felt that it doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman, what matters is the end result of your work. Maybe in the West it’s different. 

You turned down an offer in Boston to return to Bulgaria, a dream job for many scientists. Why did you decide to stay?

I like the freedom I have here. When you’re doing a postdoc abroad, you’re not in control of the research you’re doing. You’re usually working on whatever the lab is tasked to study. I have a network of contacts, including renowned scientists from around the world. I can apply for project funding and I can travel. Besides, why do I need to move countries when I can still collaborate with a team from Harvard, Pasteur, and Nobel Prize winners here? 

What challenges do scientists in Bulgaria face? 

A base salary is hardly enough to make a decent living. You’re forced to be on the constant lookout for project funding, scholarships, etc. In some labs, the equipment is outdated. But the biggest issue that the country faces right now is the lack of skilled people. A generation of 30-something scientists is missing. It’s a brain drain issue. Many [young people] leave right after they graduate high school. They continue their education abroad and never come back. Others go abroad for their Master’s degree or a postdoc specialisation and never return. Big labs in the country have been struggling to find employees, and low pay is the main reason for people leaving. 

Is it harder for a female scientist to succeed?

I still don’t see any difference between male and female scientists, especially when you’re still young, when you’re able to work as much as you want. It’s a matter of personal motivation, desire, rather than gender.

For some, “feminist” is a dirty word. Do you see yourself as a feminist and what do you think about women’s rights?

It’s important to respect the rights of every human. For me, it’s important to have freedom of choice, to live in an environment where you can thrive, and in this regard, I respect human rights in general. I don’t consider myself a feminist. What is important is a person’s merit, their character, and their motivation to move forward. I usually rebel against all sorts of stereotypes, regardless if it’s about clothing (I wear goofy t-shirts at work) or gender issues. I don’t buy the “girl power” slogans if they’re just empty words with no meaning. Does supporting the “girl power” label mean that I need to hire only women in my lab? Would I hire a woman who is more interested in her nails than in science, rather than a man who is talented and devoted to the field? Of course not. I don’t like following the beaten track. I don’t like being pigeon-holed and I don’t like labels or labelling others. 

Do you think attitudes towards women in Bulgaria are conservative?

Maybe it was an issue for older generations, but neither myself nor my close circle of friends have experienced that [conservatism]. Sure, my mother isn’t really thrilled that her daughter is 34 and has no kids, but for scientists like me that’s normal. In this profession, if you don’t have children early on while you’re still a university student, you might have to delay that decision. Especially if you’re committed to your studies, if you do many fellowships or complete a PhD. The two most common options are to have children early on or later on. 

“I don’t buy the “girl power” slogans if they’re just empty words with no meaning. “

Do you think those deadlines might affect women’s decision to choose between family and career?

No one really stops you from having children. I haven’t seen anyone project their career path depending on when they’re going to have children. 

Do you feel pressured to have children?

It’s a personal choice. I’ve been teased with comments like, “Come on, aren’t you going to have kids?” In small towns, the situation might be different. You don’t really have many other options once you graduate school and start working. Few people continue their education. That’s just how life goes. Almost like 30 years ago: you’d finish school, you’d get married and have children. 

Does the science world need its own #MeToo movement?

If you’re a member of a science team, you need to show publications, you need to do a lot of research. To recruit your staff based on looks or anything like that is unthinkable.

What’s the most important change that could improve women’s rights in Europe?

Domestic violence is a big problem. We need to have systems in place that ensure perpetrators are prosecuted. Neighbours, society as a whole, shouldn’t be turning a blind eye to the problem. I’d like to see harsher penalties against domestic violence.

Many women don’t talk about their experience because they find it embarrassing. It’s crucial to offer assistance to survivors so that they feel safe to speak up, and help them overcome the stigma [they face]. If you hear your neighbours fight or you see a neighbour bruised or always wearing sunglasses, say something.

What does Europe mean to you?

Europe is home. I’ve travelled a lot across the continent. I love Greece almost as much as I love biotechnology. I like the idea that a group of very different countries, when it comes to culture, history, languages, and cuisine, are united around a common goal and values in the European Union. Not unlike biotechnology that combines physics, chemistry, bacteria and cell cultures, the bloc combines a group of diverse states to work together. I love the idea of being part of a community.