Four women peered into a test tube, watching two clear liquids swirl together. In an instant, the tube’s contents turned cloudy.
“That’s DNA!” said Ericka Pegues, a high school senior at the Technology Access Foundation (TAF) Academy in Federal Way, Washington, and an intern at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, demonstrating her hard-won laboratory skills to an agog Sen. Patty Murray.
The U.S. democratic senator visited Fred Hutch Wednesday to discuss the importance of women in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, with some female scientists and students.
Pegues carefully spooled the white strands of DNA out of the vial with a thin, wooden stick and held it up to her audience. Dr. Mary-Claire King, a University of Washington breast cancer geneticist, peeked over the senator’s shoulder.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” King said.
“It looks kind of like cotton candy,” Murray said. “That’s DNA?”
Murray joined King, Pegues, TAF Academy intern Favour Orji and the interns’ research mentor, Fred Hutch transplant biologist Dr. Bev Torok-Storb, for a roundtable discussion moderated by Fred Hutch President and Director Dr. D. Gary Gilliland during the senator’s visit. They talked about the women’s experience in science — some with decades of research leadership behind them and some just getting their feet wet — and how federal government funding and programs can boost education and career opportunities for women in STEM.
Murray said programs like the Fred Hutch internship (which is open to both young men and women from TAF Academy) that allow students to solve real research problems are especially important to spur women’s interest in science and medicine.
“If you take a science class to actually accomplish something and do something good for humanity, that’s more appealing, right?” she asked Pegues and Orji.
“It’s the same in politics,” Murray said. “Women will go into politics because they want to solve the problem. One of the things you’re doing with this program is it’s not just how to use a pipette, but why do you want to use it, and what are you going to do with it?”
Pegues and Torok-Storb jumped in to describe their project promoting the national bone marrow registry among people of color. Pegues, who was one of the first students to enter the Fred Hutch internship program through the STEM-focused TAF Academy, works to educate her local community on the importance of donating stem cells for transplantation and also hosts donor drives to take samples and help register people to become bone marrow donors.
“I live in a city, Federal Way, where there’s 40 percent minority or mixed race,” Pegues said. “So I wanted to do something that would directly affect my community.”
Murray nodded. “See, you’re proving my theory.”
Gilliland asked King and Torok-Storb how they got where they are today, not having had programs to encourage women in science when they were young students. Torok-Storb has been working on advances in transplantation medicine since the Hutch was founded 40 years ago, and King, who discovered the “breast cancer gene,” BRCA1, has been leading a laboratory team for nearly that long.
King’s father was a major influence in her comfort with math and science, she said. From a young age, she and her father would watch baseball games together and he would craft math problems for her based on the players’ stats. King majored in math in college before switching to study genetics as a graduate student.
“It became a natural language for me,” King said. “You just feel challenged all the time … [knowing] that you have people who love you and support you regardless of what you do, and they’re so proud when you do well.”
Torok-Storb’s early educational experiences were very different. She grew up in a public housing project in Erie, Pennsylvania, and was automatically placed in a remedial kindergarten program in the project that she had to test out of.
“The first time I took the test they didn’t believe my scores, so they sent someone to watch me take the test again, because I scored so well,” Torok-Storb said. “So my motivation and drive always came from proving that I could, proving ‘the guys’ wrong.”
But she also credits the great teachers she had later in life who encouraged her early interest in science. King and Murray wondered how leading women in politics and science can encourage similar interests in more young students like Orji and Pegues.
“Let them know that they’re not alone,” Orji said.
Pegues agreed. “It was really inspirational for me to see Dr. Bev, like there’s where I want to be in my life.”
As inspirational as the TAF Academy students are, King said she fears that too few other girls are following their lead.
“I’m so struck with these young women that they’re not afraid to be smart, and that’s very difficult at their age,” King said. “Many women are afraid to be smart, and they stay afraid to be smart … I don’t know how to fix that, except one girl at a time.”
During the roundtable and her tour of the laboratory, Murray stressed the importance of federal budget support for scientific research and training, especially for programs that encourage young women to go into STEM. The senator visited Fred Hutch two years ago to talk about the effects of the government sequestration on medical research.
Later that year, Murray was instrumental in leading a compromise on the federal budget along with Rep. Paul Ryan that eased some of the pressure of the sequestration. And she was inspired during that process by her visit with Fred Hutch scientists, Murray said.
“I talked to a young woman who was about to take her research to Australia because of the certainty of the funding, and I just kept her in my heart the whole time Paul Ryan and I sat and looked across the table and reached a budget deal,” she said.
But that deal will end this year, and Murray is now looking for new ways to continue fighting for research and education funding.
“We have to make sure that we inspire young women like you to go into this, knowing that our nation is at your back,” she said, gesturing to Pegues and Orji. “We’re losing half our nation’s capacity and critical wealth if we don’t make sure that women go into these careers.”
Pegues credits her internship program — which is supported by a federal grant to Torok-Storb and private support from AT&T — for her current passion about medical research.
“I wouldn’t have the drive that I do now if I hadn’t found this so early,” she said. “It breaks my heart to see students not be able to get what I got.”
After the discussion, in the lab, the students gave Murray a turn with a pipette and taught her how to transfer tiny amounts of liquid into a gel that that allows scientists to visualize DNA of different sizes. The senator was game for a try, but loading the DNA into the nearly transparent hole in the gel proved difficult.
“You can’t leave until you load a perfect one,” Torok-Storb joked.
“Don’t say that!” said King. “She has to go back and work on our budget.”
Rachel Tompa is a former staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. She has a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of California, San Francisco and a certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Follow her on Twitter @Rachel_Tompa.