How to Succeed in Science, According to Some of the World's Brightest Female Scientists


Somewhere out there, a little girl is in total awe of the beauty and power of science. She loves her GoldieBlox, is testing out Girls Who Code and along the way internalized the message that girls belong in science. Unfortunately, there’s a good chance she won’t make her passion into a career. 

Although we’ve done a better job encouraging girls to take up the road to a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) career, we’ve failed to fix the potholes that derail them once they are there. Women are still leaving the STEM fields in droves, despite being equally intellectually capable. A recent study on the status of women in science highlights this phenomenon; despite an influx of women in science careers, many leave within 10 years. The study shows they still love science, but they leave because of the masculine culture, feelings of isolation and a lack of support.

However, some women do stay and rise to the top of their fields: Ruzena Bajcsy, an award-winning computer scientist who specializes in robotics and artificial intelligence at the University of California Berkeley; Nina Tandon, a biomedical engineer at Columbia University; Jocelyn Bell Burnell, a famous astrophysicist who discovered pulsars; Jackie Barton, an MIT chemist and winner of the National Medal of Science; and Yukiko Yamashita, a developmental biologist and MacArthur “Genius Grant” fellow. These incredible women in STEM are hopeful about the future and in an interview with Mic, offered some words of wisdom for younger women coming up from their own rise to the top.

Be inspired to choose science

Image credit: MacArthur Foundation

Nina Tandon: I had a really cool mom who for a few years took time off from Wall Street to spend time with us four kids to home school. My mom was a psych major and I remember measuring pots and pans to find the value of pi. You just don’t forget experiences like that. I call my brother and sisters my first research team. We all ended up in science careers.

Ruzena Bajcsy: My inspiration was my father, who was a civil engineer, although my mother was a pediatrician and instilled in me to be a professional.... She also encouraged me, “Don’t get married for support.”

Yukiko Yamashita: My father did a fundamental job in this. He didn't grow me as a girl (or a boy). So, I always believed (no matter how other people told me otherwise) that I should be able to pursue science.

Embrace how you’re different

Image credit: Flickr

Jocelyn Bell Burnell: Back then, the only way a woman could get into science was to imply that there was no difference between the sexes and to play it the same way as men played it. Admitting differences would have meant I was immediately back in the kitchen. Now we appreciate diversity and see strength in it, and women don't have to behave as wee-men or she-males.

NT: I think the subconscious effects of gender are the things that affect your career but they are difficult to pin down. In college, I was the only woman in my electrical engineering class, and I found it hard to get a lab partner. It was an interesting experience because on one hand, I felt rejected, but on the other hand, it was kind of sweet that these guys were too shy to ask me.

Jackie Barton: As to my feminine identity, I have to be who I am. I like high heels (I‘m short!). But when I was a grad student in the lab, I’d take care of my own gas tanks and heavy equipment.

Overcome detractors and moments of doubt

Image credit: Wikimedia. Jackie Barton, center, receiving the National Medal of Science in 2011.

JB: I always have moments of self-doubt! You just power on.

JBB: I knew from my teenage years that I wanted to be an astronomer. It’s a huge help when you meet an obstacle if you know where you are trying to get to.

YY: I always have self-doubt, even now (to some extent). And I don't "power through," actually. I just let myself feel whatever the doubt it is. I can always recover.

The future of women in STEM

Image credit: Nina Tandon

RB: The positive changes I see are that the generation of my children and grandchildren feel free to pursue their dreams, whatever they are. There is much less pressure to get married for women and/or having children. This is all good, but we still have some ways to go. Some prejudices are very deep. 

JBB: There has been huge change in my lifetime, and the pace is accelerating! People recognize the strengths in diversity, ethnic as well as gender. Senior academics are being trained in unconscious bias (and acting upon that training!). We also now have, in the senior positions, men whose wives also have careers; it is acceptable for a man to go home early to collect children from school -- it is no longer just a woman's job. 

YY: For sure, we see more and more female scientists in leadership roles. You can witness how they are handling their lives, which is always a great example to the next generation.

JB: There has been a lot more acceptance and a lot more interest in getting more women involved. Women can be outstanding scientists, so it’s a segment of the population that needs to be tapped!

NT: It’s cool to see techy and feminine toys for girls that boys want to play with it too. When I was a kid toys were less gendered. But toys are a powerful message of socialization. They have embedded roles in them. But I love seeing my niece play with her power drill while wearing a tutu. Maybe there is a new balance coming around.

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