"Lessons From Women Leading Science" Recap
By: Elizabeth Weingartner
Being fearful is not a trait I immediately associate with successful people.
On Dec. 3, however, when Stephanie Lehman and I attended a panel discussion titled “Lessons from Women Leading Science,” every single woman on the panel told stories of at least three times in their careers that they were scared. Most of them used the word “terrified” to describe how they felt when they applied for or accepted the positions that made them leaders in science. When asked to describe a time they experienced failure, the consensus was, it’s all about perception. They tackled topics on mentorship, failure, family, fear, sexism, and pursuing the career you want.
So what do Yazmine Belkaid PhD, Claire Fraser PhD, Redonda Miller MD, MBA, and Cristina Rondinone PhD all have in common? They all “faked it to make it” – faked being fearless and confident, that is. They are also some of Maryland’s most successful female scientists. The four women spoke at “The Evolution of Success”, organized and executed by the mid-Atlantic chapter of the Healthcare Businesswomen’s Association (HBA). The audience was on the edge of their seats while listening to the breathtakingly candid stories told by these inspiring women. While the entire seminar was fascinating, I’ve decided to highlight a few points I felt would be most relevant to graduate students. If you’d like to read more about this seminar, check out my post on BenchtoBmore.com.
On Being Afraid:
The discussion started with each panelist telling a story about a time they were fearful, an exercise that made these rather intimidating women become instantly more relatable. In fact, there were more moments than not when their advice was so relatable that I felt they must have been speaking to me personally.
Belkaid told a story of being afraid to pursue a career as an independent investigator after her post-doc, due to a lack of female role models and the lack of mentorship in her department; she chose to remain a staff scientist. She remembered a chance encounter with an investigator who listened to her research presentation. He was astounded that she wasn’t pursing an academic position as a principal investigator. His demeanor shook her, and she realized she had been afraid to reach for more –to pursue the career she deserved.
Fraiser spoke about being afraid to fight an administration that was discriminating against women achieving tenure. She discussed being her fear of becoming the president and director of The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR). Without experience running a research institution, she was afraid that she would be unprepared and underqualified –yet she was also afraid of someone else being brought in who might take the institute in a different direction. She said she took the position feeling fear that she couldn’t do it, but driven by the fear that someone else wouldn’t do it right. She ended her talk with a quote from The Wizard of Oz, where the good witch says to Dorothy, “You had the power my dear, you just had to learn how to use it.”
On Finding a Mentor:
One of the most relevant themes the four women discussed was that of mentorship, and the “Cinderella Syndrome” a lot of young scientists experience. The main symptom of this syndrome is expecting the perfect mentor to appear at midnight and offer you all the advice and guidance you will ever need. Alternatively, Belkaid said that a mentor-mentee relationship should be just that: a relationship, based on “mutual respect”.
All the panelists agreed that, when looking for a mentor, you shouldn't walk into the office of an esteemed scientist and say, “will you be my mentor?” There is a good chance they don’t know who you are. Instead, develop relationships with the esteemed colleagues you think might make good mentors. Get to know them as people, and don’t seek one all-encompassing mentor.
Of course, this task seems daunting. You might be asking, how do I get to know these super successful - and therefore, very busy - potential mentors? Rondinone suggests that you ask questions, offer feedback, and be active at lab meetings, seminars, etc. She offered a story about someone who she worked with, who she “didn’t even know existed”, until one meeting when he started to ask insightful questions.
Stephanie and I agreed that this event was one of the best career advice workshops we have ever attended, and we would encourage anyone to consider attending in the future. We would like to thank the sponsors, MedImmune, Astra Zeneca and the Graduate Women in Science Omicron Chapter for covering the cost of registration to make this event free to students and trainees.
This article was adapted from a post on Bench to B’more Blog, a blog created by graduate students and a staff member at UMB. Our hope for the blog is to create a space for connecting with our peers and science enthusiasts over the stuff we all find cool, from science in the news to our own research. Check us out at benchtobmore.com. Also, if you are interested in being a guest contributor for our blog, please email us at general@BenchtoBmore.com.