Career Panel: Women in Academic Biology

Career Panel: Women in Academic Biology

By Natalie Losada and Samantha Avina

April 28th 2020 iJobs Women in Academic biology Virtual Panelists (from left to right Janet Alder, Lauren Aleksunes, Maribel Vazquez, Cheryl Dreyfus, Trancy Anthony, Sam Yadavalli) and reporting iJobs student bloggers (top and bottom of middle column Samantha Avina and Natalie Losada).
April 28th 2020 iJobs Women in Academic biology Virtual Panelists (from left to right Janet Alder, Lauren Aleksunes, Maribel Vazquez, Cheryl Bouncy Castle Dreyfus, Trancy Anthony, Sam Yadavalli) and reporting iJobs student bloggers (top and bottom of middle column Samantha Avina and Natalie Losada).

Thanks to the efforts of many strong and dedicated advocates, tremendous progress has been made for women’s rights since the late 1800’s.  However, even in the 21st century with the freedom and resources available to reach their full potential, women in science still feel they need to choose between the excitement of research and the fulfilling experience of having a family.  On April 28th, 2020, the Rutgers iJOBS program hosted the Women in Academic Biology Virtual Panel, where women at different stages in their academic careers shared their career progressions and experiences in academia. This piece provides some assurance and advice from five strong women in academic biology who reject the false choice between family and career and demonstrate that you can have it all!

One of the topics discussed focused on how panelists decided to go into academia vs other career options. Dr. Tracy Anthony, a Professor of Nutritional Sciences at Rutgers University, described how her joy of learning aided in her decision to pursue a career in academia. “I loved learning and continued to invest in myself by finishing my higher education and pursuing post-doctoral work. Also participating in different internship opportunities gives you the chance to decide what you are comfortable with in academic vs industry settings”, said Dr. Anthony. Other panelists discussed how they appreciated being treated as equals in their field with respect to being responsible for their own successes and tribulations, regardless of gender. Although in academia, the professors advised that you have to have tough skin to play ball as your success is dependent on being able to take tough criticism and move on. “You have to be able to deal with your failures. Every failure is a stepping-stone toward your success, and you have to learn how to build yourself up or you will not succeed. Many have left because they couldn’t take the heat”, said Dr. Maribel Vazquez, a current Rutgers Associate Professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering.  An advantage of academia discussed was the straightforward path towards professorship when compared to a career in industry. While your role and position may be changing in industry constantly as company demands fluctuate, the path for career advancement in academia is clear; starting out as an associate professor working through the ranks to eventually attain full tenured professorship. Although, that’s not to say career elevation in academia is easy. Working towards tenured professorship does not only revolve around a professor’s research accolades, but their involvement in the academic community including  committee appointments, joint grant projects, and mentoring responsibilities.  Another advantage of academia, especially for women interested in having children, is overseeing your own schedule and being your own boss while managing family and career life. A common theme amongst the panelists that proved to be most important in pursuing an academic career was having a strong support system and mentorship. Academia and industry are completely different career paths with different advantages and steps needed to successfully propel forward. However, as the field transforms to be more inclusive and promote equal gender opportunities, women have begun to make a strong foothold for themselves in the field of academia that continues to grow.

In virtual breakout sessions via Zoom, each panelist was able to participate in discussions with attendees in smaller groups and answer more specific questions. One question posed by students was how the importance of a support system and mentorship helped them decide to pursue a career in academia. “You can find support in all aspects of your life including mentors in your field and people who believe in you…It’s important you listen not only to the criticism but also to the positive comments on things that you are good at”, said Dr. Anthony during the breakout sessions.  There will be a time in your scientific career when you doubt yourself and experience imposter syndrome. Even when you are fully trained and capable, you’ll need colleagues, mentors, friends, and partners to offer support and remind you of your abilities.  Dr. Samhita Yadavalli, who is currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of Genetics at the Waksman Institute of Microbiology, explained that it is also important to have a good support system amongst your peers, in an effort to “Exchange ideas and learn from each other”.  As an academic, you should surround yourself with peers and colleagues that will support you intellectually and encourage you to solve problems in new ways.  You should also have the support of your friends and partners. Dr. Cheryl Dreyfus, the current chair of Neuroscience and Cell Biology at the Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, emphasized that having a supportive partner was a major part of her success. While a Ph.D. student, she was one of 10 women in a class of 100 biomedical science students.  She felt lost because she had “no female role model” pursuing both a science career and a family.  But she was able to confidently pursue her career with a supportive husband who believed in her.

 “A mark of success is that you surround yourself with people who support you and that you have the partners who truly believe in you”.  – Dr. Cheryl Dreyfus

Finally, on a broader scale, your support system should include a network of people in your current or desired career field who advocate for you.  Dr. Lauren Aleksunes, a Rutgers Professor of Pharmacology & Toxicology, explained that the small interactions you have with professionals and people you admire make a huge difference.  Going to conferences and speaking to them even briefly can create the valuable connections you will need to join new labs, companies, research projects, or collaborations.  A small interaction combined with a follow up message on LinkedIn can make quite an impactful impression!

For introverts, Dr. Samhita Yadavalli advises to “have a friend or colleague introduce you to someone you want to connect with so it breaks the ice.”

However, even if you have a support system, how do you maintain a good work and home life balance? Dr. Cheryl Dreyfus chimed in, “I need to be as flexible as I can, be open to new ideas, and not say no automatically and have an open mind. That has helped me in my scientific and personal mindset of going forward”. Dr. Samhita Yadavalli also emphasized how support at home can help you manage your home and work life balance. She currently has a 15-month-old daughter and described how having a partner supportive of your aspirations is critical in maintaining a great dynamic for life/work balance. Dr. Maribel Vazquez explained how she blocks out time specifically for her family. She says once she is home from work, her students know she is not answering her emails or phone because that time is reserved for her family. Dr. Vazquez also conveyed it is important for partners to understand that work/life balance as well. Collectively, the panelists agreed that having a partner on the same page about your career path is absolutely necessary to make both the academic and home aspects of your life coexist peacefully.

The final issue all the panelists addressed was whether they see or have seen any gender biases in their careers.  Dr. Maribel Vazquez in particular experienced biases at multiple stages in her career as a biomedical engineer.  As an undergraduate she experienced gender bias from her peers who would tell her, “You’ll get a job because you’re a girl, companies all want to hire girls”.  She experienced a gender bias in graduate school when teaching assistants would give female students points on incorrect answers because they’re girls and “they tried hard”.  Interestingly, her experience in industry was more regulated through legal obligations, so Dr. Vazquez’s male counterparts treated her equally during their communication and did not receive credit for “trying”.  After transitioning back into academia, she encountered gender bias again at the faculty level.  In each department, research professors are assigned to positions in a variety of committees.  Dr. Vazquez noticed women were given stereotypical “mom” positions in committees for event planning, while the men were given research relevant positions, for example, in the health and safety committee. As you might guess, this doesn’t boost the women’s CVs and Dr. Vazquez urged people to “call it out when we see it” so gender biases do not perpetuate.

Dr. Tracy Anthony summed up the gender bias topic very well by adding “We need more togetherness” and “We need to look out for each other”.  She explained that the current feminist movement seems to promote the idea “as women we have to behave like men”, but she argues that this is the opposite of what needs to be done.  She advises women to “make sure that when we feel bad about how we are treated, we don’t repeat that with other women”. When dealing with gender bias, it is just as important for women to support each other as it is to establish the support system of colleagues, mentors, and partners as the panelists addressed earlier.  The professors fantastically balanced their advice with empowering messages and brought ease to the attendees who aspired to have their family and academic careers.

The iJOBS Women in Academia Career Panel assured female students that academic professions are worth working toward and attainable with grit, hard work and stellar time management.  It’s incredulous to think there was once a time when women were banned from learning science or when they made monumental discoveries, their achievements did not receive credit until years later, or not at all. There is still a lot of progress to be made promoting women in STEM fields, but nevertheless, this iJOBS event revealed to all aspiring female scientists that a career in academia is attainable, rewarding and worth the work if you are a passionate discoverer.

“We need to advocate for other women”.  – Dr. Tracy Anthony


Junior Editor: Rukia Henry

Senior Editor: Tomas Kasza

Where Are They Now: Maria Qadri

Maria Qadri graduated from Rutgers University in January 2018 with a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering and Quantitative Biomedicine. Prior to that, she received her M.S. in Biomedical Engineering from the University of Connecticut and her B.S. in Biomedical Engineering from the University of Hartford. At Rutgers, she was highly involved in the formation of the Science Policy and Advocacy at Rutgers group and was also one of the founding members of the iJOBS blog. She was also a Rutgers Academy for the Scholarship for Teaching and Learning Fellow and a PreDoctoral Leadership Development Institute Fellow.

Maria 1

1) What have you been up to since graduating?

In the summer before I completed my degree, I moved to Washington, DC. Based on my previous networking, I was keeping an eye out for open positions with Ripple Effect. I initially applied for a part-time, on-call position as a government comment coder; however, during the phone interview, the interviewer reviewed my resume and noticed my strong interest in science policy. The science policy project manager conducted an in-person interview and decided I was a good fit for their Internship Program. During my time in the program, I served as a Program Management and Policy intern working 40 hours a week from August 2017 until my graduation date in January 2018. I worked on the implementation of the NIH’s new clinical trials policy that focused on updating the language related to Funding Opportunity Announcements. Based on Ripple Effect’s project needs, I then moved to their Research and Evaluation team. There, I worked on a few open-comment coding projects and an evaluation of the Centers of Excellence for Influenza Research and Surveillance that involved taking interview notes, qualitative coding of the interviews, and a very extensive literature review. All government laws create rules or modify rules, and each proposed rule goes through a solicitation for public comment. Once gathered, all those comments must be read, categorized, and reported on before the rule can be enacted. In my role as a comment coder, I worked on the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act, the Quality Payment Program, and the International Pricing Index for Medicare Part B Drugs. Since my work with the Research and Evaluation team was also part-time on call work, I also served for a short time as an editorial assistant with the American College of Radiology’s (ACR) press team. This involved work on both their membership magazine, The Bulletin, as well as their peer-reviewed scientific journal, The Journal of the American College of Radiology.  Ripple Effect found the need for my skills on a few more projects, and in June 2018, I transitioned to the Communications and Outreach team where I have worked on projects for the Military Health System Research Symposium scientific journal and the Health Care Payment Learning and Action Network’s annual summit.

2) How did you approach the job search process?

Through networking at conferences and learning about various companies through iJOBS, I had compiled a list of approximately 10 companies that I focused on, routinely checking their openings page. Ripple Effect was one of those 10. Once I got to DC, I leveraged my network for source openings and set up an alert for tweets related to #scipoljobs. I still have them!  In the absence of leads, I used job aggregators like ZipRecruiter and Indeed for low-effort job applications to increase the number of jobs I applied to, which was actually how I found the ACR position.

3) What got you interested in this field?

My first taste ofMaria 2 careers in science policy came from attending the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s (AAAS) Catalyzing Advocacy in Science and Engineering (CASE) workshop while I was at Rutgers. This workshop opened my eyes to the need for scientists who can communicate complex topics to policy makers and influencers. From there, I co-founded and led the National Science Policy Group’s Rutgers’ Chapter, which now is the Science Policy and Advocacy at Rutgers group (Twitter @SciPolRU). This opportunity allowed me to connect and bring speakers to campus whom were working in positions that I was interested in as well as conduct informational interviews. I also attended AAAS’ annual meeting, which opened my eyes to even more career options related to science communication and science policy than I was previously aware of.

4) How did you use skills that you learned during your graduate school career to transition into your current role? Were there any specific activities that you did during graduate school that helped you gain these essential skills?

One remarkable takeaway from my graduate career that enticed both Ripple Effect and the American College of Radiology was my involvement in writing and editing for the iJOBS blog because that highlighted communication skills that are essential in any role in industry. I was able to give very specific examples that highlighted my detail-oriented approach to both formal and informal communication.

5) Do you have any general advice for current PhD students preparing for the next step in their careers?

Internships are a great way for you to gain transferable skills and explore company culture. If you can’t commit to an internship, the shadowing opportunities through iJOBS are also a great way to gain some real-world experience. Informational interviews are a must-do throughout your degree. I did at least one a month, once I was post my PhD quals. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and feedback from anyone – I sent my resume to CEOs, faculty at other universities, my cohort, my fellowship peers, and pretty much anyone who had a pulse. I also sourced friends in different departments for different perspectives. You don’t have to take everyone’s advice but getting multiple perspectives on submission documents is very useful.

Thank you so much, Maria, for telling us about your journey—so many helpful tips for those considering careers in science policy and communications. Best of luck moving forward!


Paulina Krzyszczyk led this interview with Maria Qadri. This post was also edited by Eileen Oni.

Meet the Blogger: Helena Mello

Hello iJOBS blog readers, my name is Helena Mello! I am a 4th year Ph.D. student at Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences Newark Campus, working with Dr. David Lukac. My research focuses on autophagy and herpesvirus reactivation from latency. In 2014, I received my undergraduate degree in Biological Sciences from the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil, where I am originally from. Prior to my research career at Rutgers, I also spent one year as here as an exchange student.

Even though my undergraduate degree covered a broad range of biology-related topics (from plant systematics to cell signaling networks), I have always been interested in biomedicine. Therefore, during my second year of college, I joined the Embryology and Cell Differentiation laboratory under the supervision of Dr. Ana Helena Paz. There, I was exposed to scientific research for the first time. I learned not only hard skills, such as cell culture, but also many important soft skills. The masters and doctoral students shared their experimental designs and hypotheses and taught me how to critically read a paper. Most importantly, they showed me how rewarding it is to work in a collaborative environment with a supportive mentor.

After that experience, I moved to New Jersey for my exchange program. At Rutgers, I focused my curriculum on courses that are not available back home. I also had a wonderful TA in my Lab in Immunology class, who opened my eyes to the Ph.D. process in the U.S., and also taught me a great deal about immunology. In addition to my experience at Rutgers, I worked as a summer intern at AbbVie, a large scale pharma company outside of Chicago. My time at AbbVie was an invaluable opportunity to learn how research is done outside of academia, and how results are translated into final products. Like my time at Rutgers, I had the opportunity to work with a great mentor who had been in the company for 20+ years, and not only supported me in my research, but also in my desire to learn more about a career in that area.

Fast-forward to 2018, I am starting my 4th year of graduate school and starting to look back on the path I have walked. Of course, scientific research is an essential aspect of my excitement for the future, but the fact that I have worked with inspiring people who challenge me intellectually is a highlight. When I think about my path after completing my Ph.D., I envision careers that include teamwork in a collaborative environment. I have attended several iJOBS events since my 1st year as a Ph.D. student. These events have helped me identify my strengths and weaknesses, identify my interests, and develop a plan towards a career goal. I am considering careers in informal education, science communication, and science policy. You will read a lot about those topics in my blog posts, and I hope they will help you make informed decisions about your professional life as well!

Written by Helena Mello, with contributions and edits from Eileen Oni and Paulina Krzyszczyk.

Where did all the women go? The gender gap in publishing and beyond

It is the dream of every young scientist; after many agonizing years filled with hard work and perseverance, you are at the finish line. Everything falls into place and you receive the most satisfying email you may ever receive: “We are pleased to announce that your manuscript has been accepted for publication in Nature”. This is the ultimate reward for all the long hours spent in the lab and undoubtedly a sign that your work matters. Of course, Nature is one of the most well-known and competitive scientific journals, so the chances of this scenario actually taking place are low. However, there is a large group of scientists for whom this dream comes true less often than expected: women.

In an editorial recently published in Nature1, a summary of recent publication statistics was provided, proving a very salient point: women are very under-represented in the journal’s articles. This includes contributors of commissioned content, referees of scientific papers, reviews, but most importantly, authors of empirical research papers. Specifically, only 16% of corresponding authors in all of Nature’s recent publications are women, which is much lower than the estimated 29% of women in science globally2. A recent study providing the same analysis across multiple high impact-factor journals shows that the higher the impact factor, the lower the percentage of women as first or last authors, with most journals falling below 30%3. Thus, this is far from an isolated problem and it is imperative to figure out why this happens.

The first question we should ask is, “when does the problem start”? Is there a specific stage in women’s academic careers that hinders their likelihood of publishing in highly esteemed journals? The answer is that it starts later than you might think. At the very early stages of higher education, women are very much present. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are more women college graduates than men4. This trend continues onto doctoral studies, with women earning more doctorates than men across most scientific fields, with STEM fields being the only ones where they are slightly lagging5. However, this equity quickly starts falling apart as soon as we move on to academic faculty jobs. According to a recent study looking at public universities, women are clearly in the minority when it comes to both junior and senior faculty positions6. The only job categories that have a prevalence of women are lecturer and instructor positions7, which are usually part-time postings with a high turnover rate. Academic tenure is not an easy accomplishment for women either, with only 37% of tenured faculty being women and only 10% being full professors8. The data give us a clear indication as to why it is so difficult for women to publish in high impact-factor journals: it is hard to be competitive in research without a stable job environment.

Faculty representation by field, split by assistant and associate/full professors (Source: Li & Koedel, 2017, Educational Researcher Vol. 46, Issue 7, pp. 343-354
Faculty representation by field, split by assistant and associate/full professors (Source: Li & Koedel, 2017, Educational Researcher Vol. 46, Issue 7, pp. 343-354

What is the reason that women are less present in high-ranking academic jobs? This is a very complicated topic and by no means restricted to academia. In fact, statistics from industry positions show very similar trends, with women becoming increasingly rare when moving up the job ranks9. Some researchers believe that women are more likely to move away from male-dominated fields because minorities tend to prefer education or work environments where they are among people who share their characteristics10. Another hypothesis is that women pay what is called the “baby penalty” at a much higher rate than men. That is, women that have babies during the early stages of their academic career are much more likely to turn down a future in academia11. Furthermore, having children has been found to highly affect women’s pay, but not men’s12. These give a glimpse into why women are underrepresented in many science-related fields, both in academia and industry.

Percentages of women and men in various positions, from companies in the Massachusetts Life Sciences cluster (Source:
Percentages of women and men in various positions, from companies in the Massachusetts Life Sciences cluster (Source:

The evidence paints a bleak picture, but what can we say to the young women scientists that want to thrive against these statistics? During a recent iJobs event about women in academic biology, a panel comprised of accomplished female professors at Rutgers University had a few tips for rising women in academia. These tips are not limited to academia alone and can also be applied to industry positions:

– Good time management skills are necessary for juggling career and family life.

– Volunteering and networking can provide great opportunities for career development.

– Avoid changing your personality to adapt to male-dominated environments. Instead, the key is having more confidence to show your unique skills and thus prove your self-worth.

They acknowledged that unconscious bias definitely exists, but they all found a way to surpass obstacles and run successful labs.

Overall, there is plenty of hope. In fact, Nature itself is making important progress by recently announcing the first woman editor-in-chief, Dr. Magdalena Skipper, in its 149 years of history13. Progress is being made, albeit slowly. Recent studies show that the gender gap in science is closing in most fields, but it will take many years to reach equity14. Some schools are taking steps towards increasing their female faculty members, with government funds backing these initiatives15. Most importantly, awareness of the issue seems to be at an all-time high. As Emma Walmsley, the first female CEO of GlaxoSmithKline, said16: “We should be much more proactive about sponsoring and supporting all types of diversity to get to the senior leadership positions”. Hopefully, this spirit is slowly prevailing in science.


1 Nature 558, 344 (2018).

2 UNESCO Institute for Statistics, Fact Sheet No. 43, 2017 (

Shen, Y.A., Webster, J.M., Shoda, Y., and Fine, I., Persistent Underrepresentation of Women’s Science in High Profile Journals bioRxiv 275362; doi:

4 News Release, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, April 26, 2018 (

5 Survey of Earned Doctorates, National Science Foundation, June 2017 (

6 Li, D. & Koedel, C., Representation and Salary Gaps by Race-Ethnicity and Gender at Selective Public Universities, Educational Researcher Vol 46, Issue 7, pp. 343 – 354

7 National Center for Education Statistics (

8 TIAA Institute, Taking the measure of faculty diversity, Research Overview, October 2016 (

9 ”Fortune’s Most Powerful Women list stresses gender gap in pharma”, by Jacob Bell (

10 ”Examining faculty diversity at America’s top public universities”, by Cory Koedel (

11 ”The Baby Penalty”, by Mary Ann Mason (

12 ”Children hurt women’s earnings, but not men’s (even in Scandinavia)”, by Claire Cain Miller (

13 ”Nature announces new editor-in-chief”, by Holly Else (

14 ”New study says the gender gap in science could take generations to fix”, by Luke Holman (

15 ADVANCE: Increasing the Participation and Advancement of Women in Academic Science and Engineering Careers, National Science Foundation (

16 “The first female big pharma CEO had the perfect response to a question about women in leadership”, by Lydia Ramsey (


This article was edited by Maryam Alapa

Does Innovation And Technology Have A Bias Towards Men While Leaving Women Behind?

By: Yaa Haber

On June 14th, 2017, I attended the 3rd Women’s Healthcare Innovation Leadership Showcase (WHILS) at the Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in Piscataway New Jersey. It was a phenomenal experience to be surrounded by such a diverse group of women, both scientists and clinicians, who have a passion for addressing issues facing women in science and technology. One of the comments that redefined my thinking was shared during a presentation by Dr. Saralyn Mark, the president of iGiant (impact of Gender/Sex on Innovation and Novel Technologies). During her talk she mentioned that most new technologies are created by men and tested by men, and when used by women they are not always adaptable to the unique needs of women. Two examples that she provided, which have stuck with me were the following: a) personal protection equipment for women, b) touchscreen responsiveness of the iPhone.

In her first example, she described that during the Ebola outbreak in Africa, the personal protection equipment worn by the workers were designed primarily for men. Women who dawned the same equipment, experienced some gaps in the head pieces due to the shape and size of the women’s heads and as a result, there was increased risk of the virus being transmitted to the women. More of the women workers became infected than the men. If the equipment was tested for women prior to use, these inadequacies would have become evident sooner.

In her second description concerning the touchscreen responsiveness of the iPhone, Dr. Mark mentioned that touchscreen technology was both designed and tested by men. Women have more tactile receptors on their fingers than men. As a result, when they use the device, in comparison with men, they end up having to press their selections harder and longer leaving them with increased strain on their hands. If the touchscreen technology was beta tested on women just as much as men, this nuance would have become apparent. I own an iPhone myself and have noticed the annoyance of having to repetitively press my selection before the phone responds. Prior to hearing Dr. Mark’s presentation, I didn’t really think about why my phone was unresponsive at times. Now that I know my phone was not designed with my needs in mind, I realize that there is a new opportunity here. This has fueled my passion to pursue R&D that is geared towards providing technology and innovative options suited to the unique needs of women.

In both examples, her message was clear to me. The lack of design accommodations and testing of innovative technology to suit the needs of women may lead to detrimental effects in the future. As a result, there is a need to provide technology options for women just as much as for men. This idea, that the differences between men and women should be accounted for during the design, implementation and application of technology is one of high importance and has reframed my thinking about my own scientific questions.yaaspost

In my current research project, I have mostly collected data on men and have not even begun to acknowledge how my findings apply to women since there were so few women participants. Thus, while I have only identified a partial answer to my research question, I can only answer the question fully when I have sufficient data on women. This new way of thinking about research is one that should be applied to so many other fields. For so long, I have watched other scientists answer their research questions based only on data from males, and insist that they have completely answered the question; ignoring the lack of answers using female data. For example, if a pharmaceutical company used this approach and performed clinical trials assuming that the male response would directly translate to females, there can be increased risks of adverse events in the female population because of the lack of female data. This could potentially cause serious consequences. For this reason, science must pursue a complete answer to any research question by ensuring adequate data from both male and female perspectives.

Within the fields of science and engineering, many strides have been made in recent years. However, when it comes to customizing technology based on the unique needs of women, more work is still needed. Dr. Mark inspired me with her speech to pursue opportunities that encourage customization of technology for women just as much as for men. It is wonderful to create technologies that advance humanity. However, if the innovation advances the needs of men while creating new problems for women, this must be addressed.