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Women in Science: Motivation, Challenges and Advice

Illustration of two female researchers working at a lab bench.
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Over the years, women working within science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM) have made groundbreaking discoveries that have revolutionized our understanding of these fields.

Despite this, a gender gap remains, and women working in these fields are underrepresented, and often underpaid and overlooked.

In recent years, considerable efforts have been made to address the reasons for this disparity and help more women and girls to pursue and progress careers in STEMM.

For Women’s History Month, and with International Women’s Day not long past, it seems fitting to share some insights from professionals interviewed for our Women in Science eBook.

Here, leading female scientists from a range of disciplines discuss why they were drawn to science and what they find most enjoyable about their work, as well as share tips for women looking to embark on a career in STEMM.

Q: What motivated you to pursue a career in science?

May-Britt Moser: During high school, I wanted to be a medical doctor to rescue the world like “Doctors Without Borders”. However, I was too lazy to get better marks so that I could attend medical school. Thus, I started studying mathematics and physics at the university in Oslo. But I couldn’t imagine myself as a professor or researcher in this field. Soon after, I met Edvard in Oslo (who was also from my same class in high school). We discussed our interests and we both decided that the brain would be where we could get answers to our most urgent questions.

Sarah Teichmann: I grew up in an environment that promoted curiosity and creativity. I loved learning about languages (including Latin) and also about science and the natural world. At school in Karlsruhe in Germany, it was my chemistry teacher, a Scottish man called Walter Henderson, who really got me into science. His teaching was inspiring, and he ran an after-school science club. I did a research project on the changes in metabolism of leaves across the seasons, which I really enjoyed, and it got me thinking about cells and how they work.

Khadijah A. Mitchell: I got into cancer research through a brilliant woman in science, Dr. Susanne M. Gollin, who I like to think of as my “science mom.” Although I always wanted to study human genetics, I wasn’t sure which area. I tried cytogenetics, molecular genetics, clinical genetics and even community genetics. When a friend connected me with Dr. Gollin, a world-renowned cancer geneticist, she introduced me to two things: cancer research and health disparities. I worked in her lab for a year after college, and it was such a great experience that afterward I knew cancer research was my calling.

Mary Hannon-Fletcher: I have loved science since I was a little girl, even asking for a chemistry set for Christmas. Then my baby brother was diagnosed with leukemia aged 7, and he thought the people working in the labs were fantastic. They were so kind to him and made such a difference to his treatment experience. I decided I wanted to do that too.

Kanaka Rajan: My interest in neuroscience specifically arose after my undergraduate degree when I took an internship position related to mental health research. It was a new scientific environment for me, but it also felt familiar and personal. My grandmother – who helped raise me – lived a challenging life with a schizophrenia diagnosis and other family members have had struggles with mental health too, so I knew firsthand what a direct difference understanding the brain could make in people’s lives.

Q: What do you enjoy most about your career in science?

May-Britt Moser: What I love most is to understand things that I didn’t understand before. I feel blessed to be challenged and learn new things. It’s so rewarding when I participate in our lab meetings and other discussions and realize that I learned something. I don’t have words to express how important that is for me.

Erin Allmann Updyke: The community that exists around being women in science. I think it’s knowing that there is always somebody that you can talk to, that’s going to have your back and that’s going to understand and support you.

Sarah Teichmann: The things that I love the most about working in science are interacting with people and discussing data, results, interpretations and ideas. When a student, postdoc or staff scientist comes into the office with an exciting new piece of data, it’s just brilliant! I’ve got an incredible team of scientists and it’s hugely rewarding to supervise their work and support their careers – it’s fantastic to follow their trajectories after they leave the lab and achieve success either in academia or industry.

Segenet Kelemu: Careers in science can be taxing and highly demanding, especially when you must raise all the funds you need to do the job. It requires dedicating long hours to work. However, it is exhilarating and rewarding. You use science to solve the most critical problems faced by society. You save lives, you improve the quality of life, you tackle environmental issues and so on. What other profession can be more rewarding than this?

Khadijah A. Mitchell: I know most people would say their discoveries, but my proudest achievement has honestly been my mentorship legacy. The students and the trainees who have come through my lab are the next generation of brilliant scientists in government, academia and industry.

Q: What challenges do women encounter when pursuing a career in STEMM?

Lindsay Hall: Globally, the persisting underrepresentation of women in leadership roles within STEMM remains a significant concern. The scarcity of role models can impact young women’s aspirations and contribute to a lack of diversity in decision-making processes. This underscores the significance of public engagement, increasing visibility of researchers and supporting career-focused initiatives.

Segenet Kelemu: Gender inequality is a global phenomenon, and I am not immune to that. I think in my case, race played more than gender and when the two are combined, they have a compounded effect. However, I worked very hard to make these “two issues” be eclipsed by my skills, strong work ethics, delivery and a strong track record. It is possible to overcome these through hard work and excellence. People can positively respond to skills, experience and knowledge, and anything else can be made irrelevant.

Khadijah A. Mitchell: There are always challenges in life, even if your STEMM career is successful. That’s why I don’t compare myself to others. That is very hard in the age of LinkedIn and Instagram. I don’t use social media a lot, and I’m very mindful when I do use it. I’ve seen brilliant people get lost in invisible competition. I only compare my current self to my past self.

Q: What advice would you give to any young women looking to start their career in science?

Emma Banks: I think that as a woman, it is particularly important to be self-confident, strong-willed and tenacious – don’t let others discourage you and maintain self-belief. Lastly and above all: be curious!

Lindsay Hall: Embrace your journey with resilience, determination and the understanding that your contributions are indispensable to advancing scientific discovery and promoting inclusivity, including inspiring the next generation.

Clara Barker: It’s going to be bumpy at times, and changes are still happening all the time, but I think right now we’re in a very positive time. At the end of the day, the more people that come into STEMM every year means that we’re going to have a better group of scientists and engineers and it means we’re going to have more ideas and more creativity for solving problems.

Mary Hannon-Fletcher: Own your space, you have earned it – accept that. Become a mentor yourself. Always speak up if you are overlooked in meetings etc. – do not accept that. We must take our place and, once there, support others to reach their goals.

Laura Eghobamien: Once you have an idea of the type of career you want to pursue, look for a mentor. I wish I had sought one earlier on in my career because they are invaluable. They will also expose you to their network, helping you to build new relationships with experts in your field.

Read the full interviews in the eBook.