Rising stars

Hutch Magazine

Rising Stars

Six up-and-coming female scientists are redefining what it takes to have a successful research career

Story by Rachel Tompa & Mary Engel
Photos by Robert Hood

Dr. Jennifer Adair

Dr. Jennifer Adair
View profile

AT 2 A.M. ON A RECENT THURSDAY, Dr. Jennifer Adair donned a cleanroom suit and stepped into Fred Hutch’s cell processing laboratory. She had been working almost around the clock for three days to insert engineered genes into a patient’s blood stem cells. At 5 a.m., Adair took advantage of a lull to dash home and have breakfast with her husband and four kids. Later that day — after more time in the lab and a call to the school nurse to check on a son who had hit his head playing football (he was fine) — she walked the modified cells to the clinic where they were infused back into the patient with the aggressive brain cancer glioblastoma.

She was home and in bed at midnight.

It’s all par for the course in Adair’s role coordinating clinical trials of new gene therapies to improve cancer treatment — and juggling the rest of her life.

“You just make it go,” said Adair, 38. “This is what you do: Make it go.”

Women in science, such as Adair, used to be a rarity. In 1973, women comprised only 9 percent of academic life sciences faculty in the U.S. By 2013, that number had climbed to 38 percent, according to surveys conducted by the National Science Foundation.

Science hasn’t solved its sexism problem — not by a long shot. Just in the last year, for example, a pair of studies showed that new female faculty members received less start-up funding than male junior faculty and that women are less likely to be promoted to the position of full professor at U.S. medical schools than their male counterparts.

But Dr. Garnet Anderson, director of Fred Hutch’s Public Health Sciences Division, said she’s seen a major demographic shift over the decades of her career.

“Early in my training in math and science I felt the lack of female role models,” she said. “I think that has changed dramatically in many but not all fields. Having leadership, or at least the camaraderie of others like you, provides a very powerful support mechanism.”

Thanks in part to pioneering women who broke new ground in the decades before them, Adair and other early-career researchers are finding more inspiration in the clinics and laboratories around them.

In this story, we’re featuring six rising-star female researchers at Fred Hutch: a gene therapist, a health economist, an immunotherapy researcher, a basic scientist redefining old ideas of how cells work, a biologist investigating cancer-causing bacteria and a biostatistician.

These six women don’t just fit into modern science. They stand out.

Carving their own paths

“What really gets me excited to wake up in the morning and come to the Hutch and be here for a 22-hour day, if that’s what it takes, is that we’re really tackling some big hurdles in the field of gene and cell therapy that have global applications,” said Adair, who is working to develop a simplified, affordable version of gene therapy that could be used in low-income parts of the world.

“I don’t like to tread the paths that have already been trod. I just want to figure out how to get where we need to go and the most efficient and creative solution we can use to get there.”

She’s not alone. 

Dr. Veena Shankaran

Dr. Veena Shankaran
View profile

Health economist Dr. Veena Shankaran studies large data sets to understand patterns and economic consequences of cancer treatment, an increasingly prominent research topic she was drawn to after hearing “poignant stories all the time” of financial devastation experienced by the patients she treats as a medical oncologist specializing in gastro-intestinal cancers.

Like Shankaran, Dr. Sylvia Lee, a medical oncologist who leads immunotherapy clinical trials for patients with melanoma, lung cancer and mesothelioma, is inspired in her research by her patients. “Often they come to you on a clinical trial, and it’s their last hope,” she said. “They’re terrified out of their minds and they’ve placed a lot of trust and hope in you. You just want to be able to live up to that and be worthy of that.”

Fascination with the undiscovered drives Dr. Emily Hatch in her work studying the flexible membrane that surrounds the cell’s DNA-storage compartment — and how it changes in cancerous cells. Colleagues in her research field have recently uncovered evidence that the nuclear membrane is far more dynamic than was previously thought. “To be in front of this new field,” Hatch said, “is really exciting.”

Fred Hutch postdoctoral research fellow and biologist Dr. Desiree Yang fell in love with science in college when she took a genetics class for non-science majors — and promptly decided to major in biology. 

“I thought it was awesome that you could be paid to learn,” said Yang, who studies the bacterium Helicobacter pylori, which causes stomach ulcers and gastric cancer. “You’re in class learning about things that people have already discovered, but when you do research you’re actually generating those discoveries that go into textbooks, which is really cool.”

Biostatistician Dr. Holly Janes, a self-described “math type my whole life,” helps design and analyze clinical trials ranging from preventive HIV vaccines to cancer treatments.

“In some sense I’m serving as a philosopher: Helping to frame questions, getting at the heart of what a scientific question is and making it a quantitative question,” she said.

Dr. Holly Janes

Dr. Holly Janes
View profile

What makes a successful scientist is “so multi-factored and interdisciplinary and requires so many different skills that women fit into that role quite well,” said Janes. “It’s an exciting time to be a female scientist.”

But that hasn’t always been the case.

'So you want to be a woman scientist'

Hatch, 34, can’t remember a time when she didn’t want to be a scientist. It just suited the way she thought about the world. But as she took the first steps toward that goal as a biology major, she was repeatedly confronted with a narrow view of what being a scientist meant.

“I remember in college going to discussions about, ‘So you want to be a woman scientist,’ and they were like, it’s still a real male-dominated area. You have to stick up for yourself and you have to be this really hard person,” she said. “I had a very ‘male’ idea of what a scientist is like — they’re super confident and they always have an answer.”

Hatch soon got to know several senior female researchers and was relieved to find they didn’t fit that mold.

“There are different models of how to be a scientist now,” said the basic scientist, who joined Fred Hutch in her first faculty research position earlier this year. “It’s not that one is better than the other, but they can all be successful.”

And these days, for the researchers interviewed, gender is not an everyday, top-of-mind issue. None of them feel they have been passed over or treated differently because they are women.

“It’s something that I think of, but from the stories I hear from senior faculty, it was much worse,” said Hatch. “It’s a lot different being a female faculty [member] now than it was when the pioneers were starting out, and it’s a lot easier for us.”

Yang, who works in Dr. Nina Salama’s laboratory group, said she notices the drop-off among women in science at more senior or leadership levels around her (see also “Women in life sciences by the numbers”). At Fred Hutch, as in many other U.S. life sciences institutes, postdoctoral fellows like Yang are nearly evenly split between men and women, but then the numbers dwindle at the faculty level.

Dr. Desiree Yang

Dr. Desiree Yang
View profile

“In my lab, we’re almost all women,” said Yang, 34. “Then when you look around at faculty, it’s very male-dominated still, so it’s interesting to see how female scientists are still weeded out as they go higher up, career-wise.”

One of the differences the female scientists did note was how challenging it remains to manage a deadline-driven research career while starting a family. 

“I do notice it from time to time, as I think probably any woman in highly demanding professions these days does, just in terms of balancing work and family life,” said Janes, 39. “I think about [being a woman in science] in those terms sometimes.” 

Marrying science and family

While individual institutions are striving to be more family-friendly — many of the women cited Hutch Kids, the center’s onsite child care, as a draw — the standard structure of academic science can put women who have children at certain points of their career at a disadvantage.

Academic researchers interested in running their own laboratory teams almost always complete intensive, short-term postdoctoral research fellowships in their late 20s and 30s, a time when many young professionals are starting families. And because most research grants carry inflexible application deadlines, postdocs and junior faculty worry about taking time away from work for parental leave or to care for young children. As Yang put it, “Grants aren’t going to wait for you if you have a kid.”

Deciding when to have children is “almost a clinical decision,” added Hatch. “You’re thinking, ‘Where is my project at? When do I plan to go on the job market?’”

Shankaran, who was just days away from delivering her second child when interviewed for this story, worried about how her patients would fare during her maternity leave. But she knew other oncologists would step in. She worried even more about how being on leave would affect her research.

“Taking several months off, even if people are supportive, is actually a big deal,” she said. “You may have to submit a grant the next cycle from when you were planning. It’s a big sacrifice, and it does impact the trajectory of your career. Things happen just a little bit later.”

Negotiating the challenges of family and academic science extend beyond maternity leave to travel for conferences where scientists share their work, long hours in the lab and experiments that can last days.

What does help, the researchers said, is having mentors and colleagues of either gender talk openly about family issues and spending time with family.

Dr. Sylvia Lee

Dr. Sylvia Lee
View profile

That’s a huge thing: Having people higher up who are actually leading by example, talking about the trips they’ve taken with their families, what they’ve done on the weekend,” said Lee. “It takes an enormous amount of stress and pressure off that we set on ourselves.”

Mentors matter

Early in her career, Shankaran set up a meeting with a senior female faculty member. Expecting to talk about goals and grants, she was at first taken aback when the scientist advised her to take time for exercise and eat healthily.

“What on Earth!” Shankaran said. “I thought it was a waste.”

Six years later, she’s come to see it differently.

“A lot of men in senior positions have had partners who have been able to stay at home and take care of the family and the household, and many women don’t have that,” she said. “So you have to think about things in a slightly different way to be successful.”

Mentors are vital to a scientific career, and the women interviewed credited the excellent mentoring they received — from men and women in their fields — as key to getting where they are today.

But as much as they appreciated their male mentors, they also valued — and often sought out — advice from women, both formally and informally. And many noted a marked difference in the kind of wisdom dispensed.

Dr. Emily Hatch

Dr. Emily Hatch
View profile

After Hatch accepted her position at Fred Hutch but before she arrived for the job, other faculty members sent helpful tips. Male scientists talked about strategies for getting her next grant. Women suggested ways to avoid overcommitting herself and to overcome the too-common “imposter syndrome.”

While Adair’s formal mentors have been men — and excellent, she said — she credits women in her life with such advice as how to succeed in a job interview (mimic your interviewer’s body language, whether formal or relaxed) and how to “balance” work and family (stop thinking you’ll ever reach a perfect harmony and just accept that you’re going to have to flip-flop between the two).

Making great science happen

With grit, persistence, excellent mentoring from female and male colleagues, and the advice and example of a growing cadre of other female scientists, more women are finding their place in the research world. And at the end of the day, science is a numbers game, the researchers said.

Great science requires more great scientists.

“Anytime we are excluding part of the potential workforce from a particular field, whether science or technology or politics or anything, we’re simply losing — in a sheer numbers way — the minds or brain power dedicated to advancing that field,” said Lee. “Science isn’t accomplished by one person; it’s accomplished by tons of people thinking about the same problem in different ways. The more people, the better.”