The five women strode out on stage, one at a time, strains of music thumping behind them.
The speakers — five female scientists from five Seattle research organizations — had each chosen their own theme song for the event (including, of course, Beyoncé’s “Run the World (Girls)”). But from the back of Town Hall’s large theater, you couldn’t hear much more than a soft bassline over the raucous applause as each scientist was introduced.
“When we started talking a couple of months ago about putting this event together, we wondered, number one, would anybody come?” said Lisa Cohen, executive director of the Washington Global Health Alliance, who moderated the “Rock Star Women in Science” event organized by Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and held Wednesday evening for the public.
The nearly 800 audience members — mostly women — laughed and clapped.
One of the next questions the event organizers asked themselves was: “Who should we do this for? And the unanimous decision was, the next generation,” Cohen said.
True to that theme, many of the audience members were students, ranging from girls in elementary school (spotted with their moms, dads, grandmothers) to women immersed in science graduate school. Much of the evening’s discussion touched on advice for students interested in science as a career or for those scientists just starting out on their path.
At one point, Cohen asked the scientists on stage — one each from Fred Hutch, Seattle Children’s, the Allen Institute, the University of Washington and PATH — to raise their hand if they knew when they graduated college that they’d be working on the research they’re doing today. No hands went up.
Tala de los Santos, who leads a team developing new diagnostic tools for use in the developing world, originally started out as a student in basic biological research before a stint in the biotech industry. Finally she landed at PATH, where she combines her business and science skills with her passion for helping the world’s most vulnerable populations. Early on, she said, the zigzags of her career were difficult for de los Santos, a self-professed planner.
“If I look at my career, it’s like, ‘I did not intend to go this way, I was going to go that way,’” she said, pointing in opposite directions. “You feel very vulnerable when that happens but [must] be open about that. It’s OK to sit with the ambiguity of all of it sometimes, even if it makes you uncomfortable.”
The Allen Institute’s Dr. Amy Bernard agreed. Less than two months ago, the neurobiologist started a new role leading the development of tools to handle brain science’s big data — and to share that data and its relevance with the community. If you’d asked Bernard when she was in grad school what her career would look like today, she never would have guessed, she said.
“As you evolve in what you’re doing, you see new doors opening up and you create your new path,” she said. “Maybe that’s not reassuring to people who want to plan their whole career.”
UW Medicine’s Dr. Suman Jayadev, who studies neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer disease and ALS, stressed that it's been important for her during her career to follow her passion, even as her interests have evolved. "I know that no matter what I do, I'm going to enjoy it."
And in research it's crucial to stay open not just to various career paths but to the wonder of what the science itself might be teaching you, she said.
"Your job is to learn," she said. "There is a great role for mysticism or spiritualism in science."
All the panelists had found their general passion for science — and the constant curiosity that underlies their work — early in life. Seattle Children’s cystic fibrosis expert Dr. Bonnie Ramsey, who has had a hand in major breakthroughs in cystic fibrosis treatment such as the development of inhaled antibiotics and a new type of drug that targets the disease’s underlying genetic cause, first got interested in science in a quest for the perfect pear.
She grew up on a pear farm in Oregon and her father, the pear farmer, steeped himself in agricultural and genetic research as he worked to breed a tree that would yield the ultimate fruit.
“His passion became my passion,” Ramsey said. “I was extremely lucky to have parents who were very supportive, particularly my father. And this was in the ‘60s and ‘70s when women were not encouraged [in science].”
Fred Hutch microbiologist Dr. Nina Salama, who leads a research team that studies the stomach cancer-causing bacterium Helicobacter pylori, said she was interested in biology from a young age but it wasn’t until college that she learned about scientific research as a career option.
“I had no idea if I would make it but I loved trying to discover new things. My mantra has always been: 'I’ll just keep going until people tell me I can’t do this anymore,'” she said. “And that’s how I got to where I am today.”
Bernard traces her interest in science to playing on the beach in her native Cape Cod, Massachusetts, as a child and wondering why hermit crabs chose the shells they did. When a young girl in the audience asked the panelists when they got started in science, Bernard answered, “I like to think of science as not so much a career, but who you are … It’s hard to pick one particular time you started — and I don’t think it’s possible to ever really stop.”
Another thread running through the evening’s discussion: Failure. Many of the scientists shared stories of people who tried to tell them they didn’t have the chops to make it early in their careers. But more than just discouragement, it’s important to know going in that disappointment is more common in scientific research than those exciting eureka moments, the panelists said.
Jayadev talked about the struggle of trying to get grants funded or publish findings — and dealing with repeated rejection without taking it personally.
“One of most difficult things for me to understand [in this field] is that you’ll have an idea, and you’ll pitch it, and people might not bite at first,” Jayadev said. “It was hard to realize that’s OK; you have to have a thick skin and you have to go back and try again.”
Ramsey agreed: “You’ll have many more failures than successes, but you have to believe in yourself.”
De los Santos described a trip she took to Tanzania with other PATH researchers to better understand which types of diagnostic tools would best serve people in those communities. Seeing the struggles there firsthand both energized her and broke her heart, she said.
“One of the difficult pieces in my work is sometimes I want to get to the solution right away and I want to fix the problem right now. And it takes a long time,” she said. When she visited Tanzania, she said, “I looked at the situation and I’m thinking, ‘Wow, there are so many needs. The needs are so great in many of the communities and our progress is so slow.’ Faced with that I was like, ‘I need to work harder.’”
Despite the evening’s theme, the mostly female makeup of the audience and their clear enthusiasm for the subject, the topic of being female in science was rarely explicitly broached. A doctorate student in the audience said she feels there’s a perception among her (female) peers that to be in a leadership position in science that you have to sacrifice big parts of your personal life. She wondered if the panelists had dealt with that issue.
Reading between the lines of the question, the panelists talked about balancing having children and succeeding in their careers. But de los Santos cautioned the student not to take that “choice” at face value.
“Yes, you have to make decisions,” she said, “but I’d just say be very careful of false choices. Sometimes people put things in a very binary mode, either this or that, it can’t be both. Well, why not?”
The other panelists nodded, prompting Cohen to ask how many of the researchers have children. Four of the five raised their hands.
“We might not know where they are though,” Jayadev quipped.
Another audience member asked the researchers to ponder how their careers might have been different if they were men.
“I don’t feel like being a woman stopped me,” said Salama, to loud applause. “I just did it. Maybe it did in some small ways, maybe my path would have been a little bit different, but I’ve basically gotten to do what I wanted to do.”
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.