Why I am glad to have received the Jesenko Award

Every year, the Biotechnical Faculty presents the Jesenko Award to an individual for his or her life’s work in education and research in in the biotechnical sciences. This year, I too was one of the recipients of this award. I have been teaching and researching plant genetics and biotechnology at the Biotechnical Faculty for many years now and the results of my work have thus been rewarded. The ceremony for the Jesenko Awards and the Biotechnical Faculty’s Recognition Awards took place in the Assembly Hall at the University of Ljubljana on 13 March 2015 and it prompted me to write this article describing how glad I am to have received this award. There are many reasons for this.

The first is because Fran Jesenko was one of the first notable Slovene geneticists of the early twentieth century, who also worked for the famous scientist Erich von Tschermak in Vienna, one of the three botanists to have repeated Mendel’s experiments and confirmed his arguments, thus starting the era of genetics, my favourite science field.

Jesenko’s research was the most fruitful during that period as he carried out a great deal of experimentation (crossbreeding) and publicity work, and was successful with the interspecific breeding of wheat and rye, which produced fertile offspring and with it the new hybrid wheat cultivar Triticale. At that time, this discovery was similar to what genetically modified organisms are today, taking into consideration that GMOs are far less genetically transformed. Jesenko’s work in this area was hampered by the First World War, but restarted in the post-war period at the University of Ljubljana, where he lectured on botany for almost ten years and played an active role in initiating, establishing and maintaining the Triglav National Park.

The second reason why I am so glad to have received this award is because a younger colleague once told me I deserve it, not only because I am one of the “nice guys”, but also because I have something to show for my research and educational work.

I started doing research work at the Biotechnical Faculty by chance, as a result of different unrelated events. I was never an outstanding secondary school or university student, and I did not dream about Mendel or Darwin in my youth – I actually did not even know of them – but it all sort of came together at my first job, where I worked as an assistant researcher for genetics and plant breeding with professor Ivan Kreft at the Department of Agronomy at the Biotechnical Faculty in Ljubljana. Before starting this first, poorly paid and precarious post, I had the opportunity to travel to the Far East (in the Seventies we travelled quite a bit) but for unknown reasons, I ended up in Ljubljana, securing a job right after graduating. Today, almost forty years later, I do not regret making that decision, as I have lived and am still living an extremely vibrant and exciting life of studying, researching, learning, discovering, accepting and giving, full of ups and downs, laughter, joy, disappointments and surprises. During all this time, my colleagues and I have written projects, set up laboratories, implemented new technologies, created new studies, lectured and taught, written articles, fumed at reviewers, raised youngsters, self-managed and directed, organised meetings and events, socialised and cooperated with colleagues from all over the world, compared ourselves to others and assessed each other’s work and have sometimes even been satisfied with the results.

However, I do not often feel satisfaction, because it depends on how high you set the bar for yourself and I set it really high!

I have, however, had the pleasure and honour of working with numerous colleagues who, each in their own way, have created impressions and distinctive memories that will stay with me in the future. All of my colleagues have of course contributed to this award and I would like to take this opportunity to thank them from the bottom of my heart. I have worked the longest with Professor Borut Bohanec, with whom I continue working in a certain consensual dualism (possibly from where Jesenko left off), developing genetics and plant breeding at the Department of Agronomy at the Biotechnical Faculty, and with the help of our colleagues, false modesty aside, we have managed to take this field to a higher level that past generations can be proud of and future generations can look up to. And we can certainly be proud of that!

But personal satisfaction does not solely depend on being recognised in a professional environment, it also depends on having a genuine and strong relationship with your family. And I have had more than my fair share of that. So, thanks family!

The third reason for being glad about the award is that, based on the list of its recipients, I am the eleventh woman from the Biotechnical Faculty to be awarded such an honour.

The Jesenko Award has been presented since 1973 and to this day, it has been presented to seventy-nine male and eleven female recipients, myself included.

You read that correctly, but let me repeat it for you: in terms of gender, the Jesenko Award has been given to seventy-nine men and eleven women, which is quite shocking! If I may make a little joke: the majority of these men must have been “nice guys”. However, I do think that a more impartial professional judgement in the future is needed to avoid awarding individuals based on their loyalty and the individual preferences of seemingly important figures at the faculty. Are we able to do that? Off the top of my head, I can already list a few suitable candidates.

The fourth reason I am glad is because I see it as an opportunity to express some thoughts that might contribute to long overdue enlightenment within academic circles.

Not long ago, on 8th March, we celebrated Women’s Day, which is devoted to discussing the equality of women and their participation in the public sphere, as well as in management and decision-making processes, which still count as traditionally male domains. This can be confirmed by visiting the dean’s office at the Biotechnical Faculty where the walls are covered with the photographs of predecessors. I do not know how many there are, but I know that none of them depicts a woman – it is an entirely male ensemble. It is true, however, that women at this faculty head important commissions and, until recently, often assumed the position of assistant deputy dean, where they actually do important ground work and execute it brilliantly, but do not receive any credit since it usually goes to their bosses. At the university, a supposedly progressive academic institution, the situation is not much different, even though one female candidate did manage to assume the position of rector. All this is very hard to understand.

Without the participation of women in all aspects of life and work – in management, decision-making, development and so on – we lose our female half and become one-sided, unbalanced and incomplete.

From a biological standpoint, the two genders are obviously different as men deal with things differently than women, but a more equal participation of both could help achieve a perfect balance. The full inclusion of women would allow our society to become a lot richer, more accepting and more friendly to everyone, men and women alike. That is why I suggest we seriously consider implementing the mandatory presence of women in all faculty and university bodies, including the positions of dean and rector. Yes, I suggest implementing a female quota for university management bodies. Many colleagues, both male and female, frown upon such quotas, but I support them because practice shows that they actually work.

In addition to female quotas, I would also like to address gender equality. I believe that women at the university and faculty level are not treated equally, and I am not talking about the unequal proportion of women receiving the Jesenko Award or hanging on walls in the dean’s office, but about the fact that there are quite a few examples of discrimination, which is sadly becoming widely accepted as a form of standard pattern of behaviour at the university and its faculties. From my own experience, I could list a number of examples when my respected colleagues literally “gloated” while showing their male dominance and power over the so-called gentle sex and their behaviour was neither professional, nor collegial, nor dignified. Gender differentiation is for example evident when offering promotions to a higher salary grade, which are, without reservation, awarded preferentially to men. There are various rule books and codes that are supposed to guide and oblige people in leading positions to treat both genders equally, but it does not help, as was shown by the example of a victimised university colleague who found herself in distress and, as suggested by the rule book, turned to her employer’s representative (the rector), who responded indirectly, in contrast to the rule book and via another representative (the dean) by saying something like: “what kind of games are you playing at the faculty?” Such an answer, dear readers, is not only unprofessional, but simply lacking compassion! There are many similar examples, which is why I stand by the fact that faculties and the university should show far more concern and attention to gender equality and talk about it more.

Women do not need help, we only need to be treated fairly and equally, and to be recognised for our achievements and values.

Standards should be universal values that apply anywhere, at any time and to everyone. We should try and replace “manly pats on the back and agreements among nice guys” with professional and compassionate decisions that take into consideration a broader context and not only the problems of small egos. Let us endeavour to establish an inclusive environment where there is scope for the equal realisation of professional careers, regardless of gender.

Last but not least, I am glad to have received this award because I am in the company of younger recipients who show tremendous results.

The 9.81 average of Tinkara Pirc Marolt on the Masters programme is outstanding, just as the number of points of the young doctor of philosophy Nejc Thaler and the above 9.5 average of all other student recipients. What can I say to my young colleagues other than this: you are great, you are the best, and we are proud of you, but you must realise you have now entered the premier league where the best players are expected to show similar or even better results, which is not always easy, as shown by the example of the Slovene champion skier Tina Maze.

I certainly wish the young generation a successful continuation of their career and I hope they fully realise that their future is entirely in their own hands. With regard to the present and future situation, an interesting interview was recently published by Peter Klepec (not the boy from the Slovene folk tale, but a new age philosopher), saying: “The supremacy of neoliberalism is proven by our fear of dreaming. We do not even dare to think about or imagine the possibility of the world being different. But it can be. The present world is no longer the best possible one, but is actually slowly becoming one of the worst possible ones.” To sum up, dreams are not only allowed, but encouraged, and you should build your future upon them. This goes even for the non-student recipients: dreams are encouraged and they should be the source of energy and inspiration for your future projects, education and professional achievements and well-deserved satisfaction!


Translated by: Tanja Breznik.


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