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Margarita Salas, the scientist who turned a sector led by men ‘upside down’

Margarita Salas (1938-2019) is a reference of research in Spainbeing one of the most prominent and influential scientists.

He was born in Canero on the Asturian coast, but when he was one year old he moved with his family to Gijón where he would live on the first floor of the psychiatric sanatorium run by his father.

Despite getting good grades in both the humanities and sciences, and liking both, he opted for science in the pre-university course. He also had doubts later between Chemistry and Medicine, and finally, he opted for Chemistry, which was a good choice since he realized the enthusiasm that spending hours in the laboratory generated in him.

Margarita met Severo Ochoa during a lunch with paella. His father, a roommate of the scientist’s student residence, had invited him to eat. During lunch he proposed that they accompany him to a conference he was giving the next day in Oviedo. And there Margarita was captivated by research and biochemistry. This friendship with Severo Ochoa was very important for the researcher and it continued over the years.

College career

At the beginning of Fourth year of college, he met the love of his life, Eladio Viñuela. He came from Biology and switched to Chemistry because of his interest in genetics. They both shared classes and immediately became lovers.

The scientist Margarita Salas Falgueras.

Severo Ochoa advised him to carry out his doctoral thesis in Madrid under the direction of Alberto Sols, a biochemist, and then did a postdoctoral fellowship with him in the biochemistry department of the New York School of Medicine.

Sols could not refuse the request of the Nobel Prize, but years later he admitted that when Margarita went to apply for the position he thought: “A girl, I’ll give her a work topic without much interest…”, which highlights the prevailing machismo, which Salas had to suffer throughout his life.

Eladio, for his part, also completed his doctoral thesis with Sols in molecular genetics, and shortly after, in 1963, they married and A year later they moved to New York to work in Severo Ochoa’s different working groups.

Return to Madrid

Three years later, they returned to Spain, financed by Memorial Fund for Medical Research to develop molecular biology in a laboratory that they themselves had to set up little by little.

However, In Spain she once again felt discriminated against since she was once again the wife of Eladio Viñuela. So they decided to separate their studies and while Eladio opted for ‘African swine fever’, Margarita continued directing Phi29 with relevant discoveries and patents such as DNA polymerase, which was one of those that has given the most royalties to the CSIC.

For Margarita Salas it was always a great satisfaction to train future scientists, and to witness their achievements. She spent 23 years at the head of Molecular Genetics at the Faculty of Chemistry at the Complutense University of Madrid.

Appointment as Doctor Honoris Causa at UNED.

Youth trainer

The researcher did not welcome occupying administrative positions in Science. She did not want to waste time on topics that would take her away from the investigation. Finally, she accepted the presidency of the Spanish Society of Biochemistrythe address of Severo Ochoa Molecular Biology Center and president of the Severo Ochoa Foundation.

He was also part of the CSIC Governing Board and later its Governing Council. She has been an academic at the RAE since 2003, and in 2007 she became the first Spanish woman to join the United States National Academy of Sciences. She also belonged to various international organizations.

The scientist always believed in the need to disseminate science to society so that they understand the advantages of research and the discoveries that are made. She obtained important recognitions, awards and distinctions. Thus, the King Jaime I Research Award (1994), the Research and Technological Innovation Award of the Community of Madrid (1998) and the Santiago Ramón y Cajal National Research Award (1999), among many others.

A humble person

In one of his last interviewsand definewent herself as a simple and hard-working person, whatsand He is moved by Bach’s cello suite and remembers the effect that reading of it had on him. The second sex by Simone de Beauvoir.

A lover of painting and modern sculpture, he had kept an engraving by Chillida as a treasure, which he bought when he returned from New York. The virtue he most admired was honesty and his favorite landscape, after the Asturian countryside, was his laboratory.

In 2008 was grantedwent the title of Marchioness of Canero, ydeposited in the Caja de las Letras of the Cervantes Institute, a legacy that remained stored until January 27, 2018. These were two notebooks with notes from his research in Severo Ochoa’s laboratory at New York University.

He received the European Inventor 2019 award from the European Patent Office a few months before his death in Madrid, on November 7, 2019.

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