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The Winding Road of a Woman in Science

Young woman walking winding road to through small village, mountains in backgroundI wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to do when I graduated from Binghamton University. But having majored in cellular and molecular biology, I knew I was interested in pursuing something within the biomedical field. I eagerly applied for positions in various institutions and organizations, ranging from healthcare policy and public health to biomedical research.

One position that caught my eye was an ad for a research trainee in Dr. Jacqueline Achkar’s lab at Einstein. I submitted my cover letter and resume and crossed my fingers. When I finally met Dr. Achkar, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I was interviewing to join an all-female lab, something I had not expected in a male-dominated field. Every woman I met that day was excited and confident about her work; if nothing else, I left feeling empowered. I saw a chance to learn about working in a lab while deciding where I would attend graduate school. I was happy to accept Dr. Achkar’s offer.

From day one in her lab, the women I worked with taught me how to persevere and push past difficulties that arose both inside and outside the laboratory. Dr. Achkar constantly challenged me to think critically through a problem; associate Tingting Chen helped me recognize my mistakes and learn from them; fourth-year Ph.D. candidate Elise Ishida pushed me to figure out the answers to my own questions; and second-year Ph.D. candidate Yanyan Liu taught me the importance of asking for help when I needed it.

Working with these strong female role models in an environment that was accepting and supportive, yet demanding, allowed me to better determine what I wanted from my career. I learned that what matters most is not necessarily the topic or subject I am working on, but the people around me. Of course I want to be fascinated by the research I’m engaged in, but my time in the Achkar lab has shown me that working with talented, compassionate people who push me to be the best scientist I can be is incredibly important.

My lab experiences were recently validated by the opportunity to help with and attend Einstein’s inaugural Women in Science Day. The event, held in honor of the fifth annual International Day of Women and Girls in Science, featured dual themes: “Speaking Up!” and “Sparking, Supporting, and Soaring in Science.” It provided a chance for me to build my personal and professional skills along with an opportunity to develop a close support network within Einstein and beyond. I found yet another collaborative, encouraging community to interact with.

Sparking an Inspiration

During the panel portion of the event, I heard from four inspirational scientists who represented administration and faculty in academia, along with those involved in industry and scientific policy. They showcased the diversity of careers open to graduate students by discussing where they started out in their careers and how they got to where they are now. All of them reinforced the idea that no matter what they had started out doing, there was no predicting where their career paths would lead.

Panelist Nerys Benfield, M.D., M.P.H., Einstein’s senior associate dean for diversity and inclusion, said this: “Whatever brings that spark is what I’m going to be looking for.” That’s something I needed to hear, especially when that spark leads me to a supportive workplace. As these four women told their career stories and shared the twists and turns that they had experienced along the way, I began to recognize that I have the power to control my own path. At the same time, I cannot predict where it will lead. Recognizing these simultaneous yet opposing truths was both empowering and freeing.

Dr. Sandra Masur, a professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, continued with this theme during her keynote address. She rejected the idea of a career ladder. Instead, she referred to the paths Ph.D.s take as a career lattice, capable of stretching in many directions. Dr. Masur started out as an artist doing medical illustrations and ended up becoming a scientist. I felt inspired by the strength it took for her to change career paths so drastically while also acknowledging the challenges involved in that change.

Dr. Masur drew on the visual arts as an example, showing a map that illustrated what a career lattice could do to help with career exploration. Looking like a combination road map and board game, the map—created by the Motivating INformed Decisions (MIND) program at the University of California at San Francisco—seeks to create, deliver, and test the effectiveness of comprehensive career-development interventions for Ph.D. students and postdocs and their mentors. I loved this map and felt it brought together many of the potential winding roads I might experience as I delve into the Ph.D. program at Einstein this summer.

Next Stop on the Road

In the months leading up to Women in Science Day, I had been witness to and inspired by the passion of the Women’s Networking Group (WNG), which was responsible for much of the event’s planning, along with Einstein faculty and administrators. WNG grew from a small club that met over cookies and coffee to discuss career success strategies for women in science into a large group with monthly events ranging from workshops and journal clubs to networking meetups. From its members, I’ve learned what it takes to successfully bring large groups together and share knowledge and support.

Ultimately, Women in Science Day helped inform my decision to attend Einstein for graduate school. It solidified my knowledge that Einstein’s values align with mine and that this community would help me further myself and my career in exciting and unknown ways, just as it has since I first set foot on campus. I am not quite sure what future turns my career will take, but I know they will all be illuminated by the people around me and the spark of inspiration they provide.

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