"Women account for less than 30% of the STEM workforce, but that will change"

Lídia Merino, a research assistant at the eHealth Center's BDLab and mentor in the Technovation Girls project

Lídia Merino: "Girls need to know about ICT so they can choose whether they want to focus on this field"

Teresa Bau
Lídia Merino, a research assistant at the eHealth Center's BDLab and mentor in the Technovation Girls project


Lídia Merino is a research assistant at the eHealth Center's Behavioural Design Lab (BDLab), where she works on projects in areas such as health promotion, digital health and adolescent mental health. She is also a mentor in the Technovation Girls project, which aims to inspire girls and young women to pursue careers in technology. Merino has a background in healthcare, having worked as a nurse in Catalonia and Ireland. In this interview, she talks about her work with Technovation Girls and her research at the eHealth Center.

 You're a Technovation Girls mentor. Could you tell us a bit about this project?

The aim is to give girls and young women between the ages of 8 and 18 the chance to experiment and work with tools for developing mobile applications, which is one of the areas of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) knowledge, so that they can see this as a field in which to pursue a career. It's an international programme that runs in cities around the world. In Barcelona, it's promoted through the Provincial Council's network of libraries.

What is your role as a mentor?

The girls have to develop an app to address a global challenge related to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), be it health, climate change, education, etc. My role is to guide them throughout the process, both in proposing and developing the idea, and in managing and organizing the group's time and effort. Another mentor with a professional background in STEM supports them in the technical programming part of the app.  

What are the girls in your group working on?

They're developing a project to improve mental health in the transition period between childhood and adolescence – which is where they are –, between the ages of 10 and 14. This is also the research focus of eHealthLit4Teen, a project I'm working on at the eHealth Center. The judges will short-list the best projects, which will go on to participate in an event in Silicon Valley, where the creators will have to present them in a final pitch.

Tell us about the girls involved. Were they already interested in ICT?

The group of girls I'm mentoring is very strong. They are between 10 and 12 years old and highly motivated. One of them has a role model close to her and has some programming skills. It's also an opportunity for her to improve. For the other girls, it's a chance to discover this world. They are eager to contribute to and learn from this project, while developing skills such as leadership and creativity.

Do you think the programmes that have been set up to encourage girls to work in technology are having an impact?

I think it's too early to see the results of these programmes. It's an objective fact that in Spain today women account for less than 30% of the STEM workforce. I think that will change, although it will be a challenge. It's important that girls have role models and that they can work on something that interests them. What counts is that they are introduced to this world at a young age and can choose whether or not they want to explore it further. They at least need to know about it. Another example of how things are changing is that primary schools are teaching all students to program with Scratch.

Before turning to research, you worked in healthcare as an oncology nurse in Catalonia and Ireland. How does this background inform your current work?

I started out as an oncology nurse, where I learned the importance of holistic patient care and treatment. But what really dawned on me was the importance of preventing or delaying the disease as much as possible. In other words, health promotion and disease prevention. In mental health, it's harder to get that message across. Information and education are essential to enable people to recognize when something is wrong with them, to seek help, and to have the knowledge and tools to stay healthy and prevent these illnesses.

You are part of the eHealthLit4Teen project, led by eHealth Center researcher Eulàlia Hernández, whose aim is to use social media as a tool to improve adolescents' mental and emotional health. Why do you think mental health problems have become more prevalent in this age group?

It's difficult to answer this question with certainty, as I believe there are several factors at play. Health determinants are all the modifiable and non-modifiable elements that influence our health, such as genetics, lifestyle, socioeconomic status, place of residence, etc. In the specific case of adolescents' mental health, factors such as family and peer relationships, unwanted loneliness and negative body image were identified by the Barcelona Public Health Agency between 2021 and 2022. Changes in these factors can affect health. One of the most prominent recent changes has been the COVID-19 pandemic, which began four years ago at this point. For adolescents, who are in a process of change, exploration and self-discovery, where friendships and socialization are central, lockdown can have a negative impact on these health determinants. However, there are also health determinants that have a positive impact on health. One of these is health literacy. The eHealthLit4Teen project aims to promote this aspect among secondary school students in Barcelona through a tool that they use every day: social media.

What are your findings so far?

We've seen that young people look for information about mental health using search engines, talking to people close to them and, to a lesser extent, social media. The main barriers they face in seeking help are confidentiality and a belief in autonomy, and they have a clear preference for face-to-face contact over digital platforms.

As part of the project, we've created an online repository of digital resources on mental health and other specific topics for young people, teachers and families.

What sparked your interest in research?

I did the UOC's Master's Degree in E-Health, of which research is an integral part, and I learned a lot from it. Not only did I acquire knowledge, but it also helped me to develop critical thinking and creativity. This motivated me to pursue a career in this field and I have since worked on several research projects.

Finally, what would you highlight about the research conducted by the BDLab?

This group works to describe, understand and apply the principles and techniques that promote changes in people's health behaviour through digital technologies. In fact, taking care of one's health is all about behaviours, so it's important to know how to encourage and facilitate these behaviours to ensure they are effective. When it comes to the well-being of children and young people, this means encouraging them to look after their health and quality of life.