Career Panel: Women in Academic Biology
By Natalie Losada and Samantha Avina
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