Professor Catherine Dulac was awarded the prize, along with $3 million (€2.5 million) prize money, on September 10. She has said she will donate some of the prize money to health and education charities.
Six other scientists were also recognised by the Breakthrough Prize as 2021 laureates for discoveries in life sciences, physics and mathematics.
Professor discovered ‘circuit’ for good parenting in males and females
Professor Dulac was awarded for having identified neuron circuits in the brain that determine how mice parent their offspring.
She found that there are two circuits, which generally cause female mice to instinctively take care of their young, and cause male mice to attack them in some circumstances.
However, her work demonstrated that both circuits are present in male and female mice brains.
Instead of there being a "female" neuron circuit and a "male" neuron circuit, the professor found that specific hormones can activate either circuit in any mouse.
The activation of the alternate circuit may, for example, result in a stressed female attacking her offspring, or a new father taking care of them.
Discovery may apply to other species
Professor Dulac told news source Le Monde: “We think that what we have found may apply to other species as well. There is a parental instinct, and the instinct is the neurons functioning. I would bet that they are in the brains of all mammals, telling the animal when newborns are present: ‘You must look after them’.”
Although research was only performed on mice, the study has already suggested wider implications for scientists and social activists interested in questions of gender.
Since the study results have been released, members of the transgender community and their allies have called the professor to thank her for her work.
She said: “I am a scientist and I look at data. I’m neutral. [However] it means a lot to me. It makes me think I’ve been useful.”
Professor left France for opportunities in United States
Originally from Montpellier (Occitanie), Professor Dulac left France for the United States after completing her PhD.
She originally intended to return to France after completing a postdoctoral position at Harvard University. However, she did not find any opportunities were available to her in her homeland.
She told Le Monde: “My postdoc went very well and I had opportunities to have my own laboratory in the United States, [but] there weren’t any opportunities to have my own laboratory in France.
“In France, I was hit with 'patriarchal behaviour', if I can say that. People would say, ‘Oh, you’re much too young to have your own budget. You don’t have enough experience to be independent’.”
The professor puts this down to a lack of gender equality in France.
Even so, she says, she is still regularly underestimated during conferences and looked down on by male colleagues.
“It’s annoying. People never expect that I will have anything interesting to say.”