NEW YORK - February 2014 – Despite the growing need for qualified STEM professionals in our workforce and economic opportunities provided by these careers, women — and particularly women of color — continue to be underrepresented in these fields.
Girls Inc. is committed to showing girls the opportunities available in STEM, giving them access to hands-on activities and diverse role models, and preparing them for the rigorous work, potential barriers, and exciting rewards ahead of them. We held a Q&A with Lori Bryant, M.D., a Girls Inc. alumna, and four scientists from global healthcare leader Merck & Co. Inc. (Colena Johnson DVM, MS, Samina Kanwar, Ph.D., Bach-Yen Nguyen, M.D., Caroline Thompson, MS) to discuss how we can encourage more girls in STEM and how mentors played a key role in their success.
What do you find rewarding about having a STEM career? What has inspired you and motivated you throughout your career?
Samina: What really drives me and keeps me passionate is recognizing how close to the patient I am and understanding how a complex organization like Merck really contributes to human health.
Bach-Yen: It’s been rewarding for me to be able work in the medical field for 30 years, whether it was direct patient care or doing clinical research, with the goal to find treatments to relieve patients’ suffering.
Girls should know that through STEM there are many ways they can contribute and have rewarding careers. But at the same time there is also lot of hard work and sacrifice.
Lori: My parents always told me that work should feel like play. Now, I’m a Pediatric ER doctor. I’m like a kid in the candy store at work. I miss it when I’m not there. No two days are the same, no two patients are the same, and I’m having fun every day.
Caroline: I’m motivated by how technology is a foundational layer to Merck. We are a company that really promotes and supports technology for enabling our science and manufacturing and patient health. I personally have been encouraged routinely throughout my career and that inspiration needs to be applied to our young girls thinking about STEM.
As a woman, have you seen or experienced barriers and biases? How can girls and women overcome them?
Colena: I think being a woman in a science field is sometimes daunting, because in previous years, it has been male-dominated. There are a lot more women now. I have experienced some personal biases and overcome them by knowing what I was talking about-- by being the expert-- and by having support systems behind me.
Samina: Being trained as a scientist, you’re technically trained but you’re not necessarily trained on the importance of mentoring, particularly for women in STEM. At Merck, I learned over the years that it’s very important to have different types of mentors at different stages of your career.
Bach-Yen: I think mentoring is the most important support we need to provide to girls. I first immigrated to America at age 16 without a family, and if I did not have mentors in high school and college and medical school, I would not be where I am now. Then when I joined NIH and finally Merck I had a tremendous amount of support.
Lori: I totally agree. I’d suggest before we have mentors we have early childhood exposure where kids can see STEM is fun-- and we should be creative about the ways we present this. Both of my kids think they can be a doctor because that’s what they see at home.
There are times unfortunately where I experienced barriers; most of them came after I had children. It ended up that there was a group of moms in my medical school who would all breastfeed in the back room together and we formed our own support group. And before we knew it the school had created a room for us because so many of us had gone to them to say that “We deserve to be here.”
Caroline: Exposure to the opportunities is key and having someone else believe in you is vital. When there are at times little gremlins of self-doubt in your head, having someone believe you can do it is usually half the battle.
Who are some of the mentors who nurtured your interest? Who or what made a difference as you were thinking about STEM or at a big milestone in your career?
Colena: My initial interest in STEM originated with my parents who have supported me the entire way through. My father was always in my corner. He bought me my first chemistry set as an eight-year-old girl. After that, it was a veterinarian who allowed me to come to his clinic. He would let me sit and watch and ask questions. It was those types of experiences early on as young female child of color that made a difference. That and having a strong support system.
Lori: I was blessed with having women science and math teachers. I saw women all along the way.
I do feel like girls now can see lots of influences on television or in books, but there needs to be more people in STEM roles that they see on a daily basis. In high school I wanted to attend a cheerleading camp and my mother instead sent me to engineering camp. I spent my summer taking apart a Corvette engine and it was the coolest thing.
Bach-Yen: I was very lucky. I got support from my family. But what made a significant impact in my career was actually when I began working in a laboratory at the University of Minnesota Medical School. I never forgot my mentors who were also my employers, Dr. Phil K. Peterson and Dr. Paul Quie, who said, “You can write this paper and you can be the first author.” Having people who have faith in you really makes a big difference.
What are some ways you believe we can help solve the issue of girls’ and women’s underrepresentation in STEM?
Bach-Yen: Increased exposure: girls need to know as much as they can to make an informed decision about what to pursue and what preparation they need to achieve their goals. Also, success stories of people who have made significant contributions and meeting people informally.
Colena: What we’re doing now: gathering professional women together as inspiration and sharing stories. It doesn’t matter where you come from and what you look like. Also, women supporting other women. I think Girls Inc. is a fabulous organization because you need to have the support of your sisters to elevate you to that next level. And, to provide exposure to all types of different careers jobs within STEM.
Caroline: Do the same with technology. Most people think of it as just your laptop or software but technology is so vast and exciting. We need to promote science and technology that resonates with girls.
Lori: The support I experienced at Girls Inc. was key when I felt different. There was a youth counselor named Joy who recognized that. She used to call me “Doc,” because I was constantly saying, “When I grow up I’m going to be a doctor.” She was always saying, “Tell me more about that.” I’m not sure if she was really interested or if she just recognized that was her role in supporting me.
Now I try as often as I can to go back to Girls Inc. and talk to girls. Not that everyone needs to be a doctor, but the fact that it piques their interest and now they want to talk about science, it’s really exciting. I think we need to promote more of that.