Speaking of International Day of Women and Girls in Science

| Written by Scott LaFee
illustration of women in STEM

Designated by the United Nations, the 9thInternational Day of Women and Girls in Science is Sunday, February 11, preceded by two days of meetings, presentations and outreach among global leaders, with a focus on women scientific leadership in sustainable development.

The real work, of course, is what happens afterward. Women continue to be underrepresented in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) workforce. In 2021, according to the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, 65% of STEM jobs in the United States were held by men, 35% by women. Less than 30% of researchers worldwide are women.

These numbers have long held sway, both in academia and industry. There has been progress, to be sure, but it has been slow and uneven, hindered by stereotypes and biases, a dearth of role models, educational differences and opportunities and sheer inertia. The hurdles to equity and equality are deep and ingrained.

Every female scientist has stories about their own efforts and struggles. We asked scientists at Sanford Burnham Prebys to recount some of theirs, the lessons learned and the challenges yet to be overcome.

A fighting chance

My personal experience can testify to the importance of appreciation of diversity.

As an international scholar, it was not always easy to navigate an entirely new culture. I remember my first few months in America when going to a restaurant felt like a small adventure. Now I look back to those days with fondness and gratitude because my mentor and colleagues showed me what an inclusive community means to a newcomer.

They encouraged my expression, valued my input and always waited with great patience when I needed a second or two to fetch a perfect word for the moment. It was their kindness that helped me through the initial adjustment period.

Shengjie Feng, Ph.D.And then one day, I found the sense of belonging in a roaring ballpark with my lab mates around me, rooting for Giants. I am grateful that I was shown how “diversity” is done because that is exactly how I aspire to build a team in my future lab, a team where uniqueness is not only accepted but even celebrated so everyone can be at ease as themselves and feels free to explore and express no matter where they are from and what they believe.

While it is important to level the playing field for everyone, sometimes it will not suffice for a disadvantaged group until we vigorously advocate for their rights. As a woman scientist, it pains me that I have witnessed over the years so many brilliant young women who had to stop chasing their dreams at one point or another. They let go of their passion and settled for less ambitious career paths for various reasons: lack of mentorship, family responsibilities and even the pressure of conforming to social norms.

I know how hard it is to achieve success in the highly competitive realm of scientific pursuit while managing a functional family because I am too a mother of two young children. Our society asks women to juggle too many balls. It is no wonder that far fewer
women reach the promised land of professorship when roughly equal numbers of students of
both genders started out on this journey.

I consider it rare fortune that I have been blessed with constant guidance from mentors and unwavering support from family. It will be my mission to pass on this blessing to all the women I have the honor to work with in the future. A fighting chance is all they ask, and I will strive to be the helping hand that delivers that chance.

Shengjie Feng, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
Degenerative Diseases Program

Mentors make a difference

Even though gender inequities in STEM are slowly improving, we still have a lot of work to do. Several studies have shown that among early career investigators, women experience a one-to-two delay in getting their first grants funded, publish fewer high-impact papers and get credited and cited less frequently for their work, as compared to men. I believe that creating awareness and building a supportive network of mentors and peers is extremely important to navigate and overcome the challenges we face in science.

Kelly Kersten, Ph.D.I have always been fascinated by the complex mechanisms underlying disease, and specifically cancer. I was the first woman in my family to attend university and to pursue a PhD degree in the biomedical sciences.

With few women in leading academic positions that could serve as a role model, I found it difficult to believe that I could someday be successful as a scientist. Fortunately, over the past years I have had the opportunity to work with some incredible female scientists who helped me along the way.

During my master’s program at Utrecht University, I secured an internship in the laboratory of the late-Professor Zena Werb at University of California San Francisco. She had an incredible track record of mentoring early career researchers and was a big advocate for (young) women in science.

For my graduate training, I joined the lab of Professor Karin de Visser at the Netherlands Cancer Institute in Amsterdam. Karin is an incredibly smart and determined principal investigator who taught me to be resilient and persistent, and the importance of always following the data. The mentorship and support of these remarkable women has been instrumental in the decisions I have made to date in my career, and I am grateful for the opportunity to have trained under them.

We all need some support and encouragement to excel in our scientific journey. It’s never too early to start building your network of mentors, peers and sponsors to support you along the way.

Kelly Kersten, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
Cancer Metabolism and Microenvironment Program

We’re still a minority

Caroline Kumsta, Ph.D.During my Ph.D. and postdoctoral training, I have been lucky to have two amazing female scientists as mentors, who made it seem easy to be successful in science. The reality however is that female scientists get less lab space, have a longer path to their first independent research grant and have a more extended review process for their publications than their male peers.

To achieve equitable treatment and full inclusion of women in science, we have to constantly examine and dismantle the barriers that create these disparities. At Sanford Burnham Prebys, we have started to work toward a more welcoming environment for everyone, including women.

The truth is, however, that we're still a minority here, and we, as women in science, still have to push for fairer policies and to make sure our voices are heard and valued. Personally, I am involved in outreach programs to get young girls excited about science. Seeing their excitement when they learn something new in the lab reminds me why this is so important, and I get excited when I see the next generation of girls who can see themselves as scientists without a second thought.

Caroline Kumsta, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
Development, Aging and Regeneration Program

Note: On February 14, there will be a roundtable discussion on the topic of women and girls in science from 9:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. in Fishman Auditorium. Coffee, pastries and fruit will be served. Click here to RSVP.

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