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Interview with Dr Cristina Alonso, Corporate Director of HSE with the Bayer Group

13 May 2021

“I am a scientist at heart, that science is very important, and that it only translates into a benefit for society when it is conducted with ethical values such as rigour, transparency, and integrity. These values were instilled in me during my education at IQS”

Dr Alonso holds a PhD in Chemistry from IQS (1995) and is the Corporate Director of HSE (Health, Safety, and Environment) with the Bayer Group and the sponsor within Bayer of the Business Groups for Equity, Women, and Minorities.

You have an impressive career path. How did you become the Corporate Director of HSE with a large multinational company (Bayer), in Germany, and end up as one of the company's top 75 leaders?

First of all, by believing that I could do it and by doing work I like and what I set out to do. It also took a lot of effort to continue growing every day, without fearing change and continuously learning from experiences, both good ones and failures.

I've have been at Bayer – a company where over 100,000 people work – for 23 years now. I started in the research area, and I kept taking on positions of responsibility, gaining experience in the regulatory area, then the pharmaceutical and plant protection areas, up to becoming the global corporate director of HSE for the entire company. It is a position with great responsibility, and I should add that without a lot of effort and support from my family I would never have made it this far.

How did your education at IQS influence your career?

I believe that having a scientific career with ethical and personal values is absolutely essential. Studying at IQS taught me that I could go as far I wanted – starting with passing the first physics exam I took in my first year against all odds!

At IQS I discovered that I am a scientist at heart, that science is very important, and that it only translates into a benefit for society when it is conducted with ethical values such as rigour, transparency, and integrity. These values were instilled in me during my education at IQS, without a doubt, although in my days we didn't have a specific ethics course.

I think these are essential issues, especially now, at a time when we can do much more than what is ethically appropriate. We need schools and educational centres to teach what risk means and what its relation to profit is. There's a clear example of this in all the discussions currently revolving around vaccines: the mere fact of living involves risk, and all of this must be adequately explained to keep people from living in fear.

I should also add that, even though I have moved around a lot in my life, I have maintained the friendships I made at IQS, especially with other women who have all had incredible professional careers. They are my guiding lights and the people I rely on when I need to, like a "big family."

You've been something of a restless spirit and you've lived in many countries and been able to discover a wide variety of cultures. What has this meant to you both personally and professionally?

I've always been interested in learning about other cultures, delving into them and learning about other realities, even in times when this was not typical or trendy. I've always kept in mind that my reality is just one out of many and that I must consider other points of view. I sought it out from very early on. I started by studying abroad in the Netherlands during the third year of my undergraduate degree. Later, I earned a grant to work in Argentina. After my doctorate at IQS, I went to Colorado in the US to do a post doc. Then I started working in Germany, and I have lived in Mexico, New York, and now back in Germany again.

Two points stand out. If you work for an international company, your clients are all over the world. Experiencing other realities helps us understand how other people live and what they need and how we can always find different solutions for the same problem or situation. The best solution will depend on the situation and the needs and, without a doubt, diversity – and integration and work with other cultures – helps us understand and manage it.

You are a sponsor within Bayer of groups for equity, women, and minorities in general. What do you seek to accomplish? Or, to put in another way, what's the goal you aspire to achieve?

These resource groups (Business Resource Groups) came primarily out of American business culture and arise when the workers themselves form a group to support themselves, promote their careers, or defend and protect minorities, as is our case. Regarding Bayer, many of these initiatives were reinforced through the acquisition of Monsanto.

In our case, we have three equity groups that I would like to highlight: the women in science and in business group, the sexual diversity group, and a third group for handicapped individuals. These groups are all self-organized from within the company, and they spend time looking for internal sponsors to help them gain visibility: they hold discussions, training sessions, engage in mentoring (getting the leaders who have been with the company for the longest time to dedicate part of their time to these issues), do networking events, and advising new recruits to help them in onboarding and learning are just a few examples of group actions.

The ultimate goal is to bring these issues to the forefront and to make them visible, to make diversity a natural issue in our business environment and, at the same time, learn what we should change and how to do it.

As a company, our goal is to have equality between men and women across all levels of the organization by 2030, and starting now, our goal is to have a significant increase in women and other minority groups at the decision-making tables. How will we get there? Through education and by getting leaders to open the door to diversity and equity. The groups provide the entire structure with essential tools to achieve this, but we still have a long way to go overall!

Do you think we're truly managing to change the role of women in the workplace? Or is it just a bunch of hot air?

Yes, we’re all clearly changing our roles together. Situations that were "normal" a few years ago are unacceptable today. But we're not quite there yet. It takes generations to achieve overall change, which is why we have to continue working in this direction, both men and women themselves, with our ways of speaking in general and the expressions and language that we use. We must be able to mutually correct our behaviours and dare to say "not like that" or "this isn't the way." Even today, I think that men are hired with a faith in what they will be able to do, whereas women are hired with value placed on what they have already shown they can do.

We're changing, but we need everyone's effort to give each other support in learning that differences make us stronger. And if we manage to change a situation, it shouldn't be an exception, but the new reality.

As a woman who has achieved a great milestone in her scientific and professional career, what message would you like to share with girls to support their passion and calling in science and technology

The first message I would give them is to have confidence in themselves and that they can find out what they like and are passionate about, to pursue their dreams and seek alliances and support among themselves and in their surroundings, and for their groups to strengthen, help, and give confidence. It's our responsibility to do what we like.

The world needs the best minds and diversity to solve current and future problems. We can't afford to work without 50% of the population in STEM areas! There aren't careers for just men or just women. We all have the same opportunities.

In your position as the direction of HSE, how has managing the ongoing pandemic been for you? What will we learn from all this?

The pandemic takes up my entire day now. I'm in charge of the global crisis at Bayer, and our main goal is to protect our workers' health while continuing to provide our customers with much-needed medicines and products. Right now, we have a significant challenge in India and Brazil: how can we help and protect people, support our workers and their families, and fully respect the government decisions in these countries and our ethical values as company at the same time?

Regarding vaccines, we are following the instructions given by each government. Furthermore, Bayer is involved in manufacturing one of the vaccines with mRNA technology that is pending approval in Europe. And we're trying to contribute to the vaccination process wherever possible, both among workers and in trying to reach their families as well.

What have we learned? That we're stronger as a team. We've had to learn to work in a more flexible and dynamic manner, understanding that risk exists and we can't live without it. We have to learn to live with it and manage it.

In terms of dissemination and communication, a lot of damage has been done. I hope the Covid-19 crisis helps us, finally and in the end, to recognize the roles of science and innovation in our society and the need for diversity.

Everyone talks about PCRs as a natural and everyday thing now. And nobody knows that it was a scientific invention by Kary Mullis, an American biochemist who received the Nobel Prize in 1993 for the development of this technique. Or there is widespread talk now about mRNA technology, developed by the Hungarian biochemist Katalin Kariko, not to mention that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine exists thanks to research by two Turkish immigrants in Germany who were two of the founders of the biotechnology company. This is the best example of the contribution of diversity to science and how both need each other.

I hope and wish that we learn to take better care of this planet and our health. And I hope we can use the opportunities that new technologies have brought us to be able to balance work and family life in working towards equity.