Four women leaders in science share their experiences and perspectives.
Read our corresponding Science News article: BrightFocus Honors UN Women and Girls in Science Day
Tonya Matthews, PhD is Associate Provost for Inclusive Workforce Development, Director of the STEM Innovation Learning Center at Wayne State University, and a Board Member of BrightFocus Foundation.
Diane Bovenkamp, PhD is Vice President of Scientific Affairs, BrightFocus Foundation.
Preeti Subramanian, PhD is Director of Scientific Programs, Vision Science, BrightFocus Foundation.
Sharyn Rossi, PhD is Director of Scientific Programs, Neuroscience, BrightFocus Foundation.
Dr. Matthews: Hello and welcome everyone to our conversation today celebrating the United Nations International Day of Women and Girls in Science. I am Dr. Tanya Matthews. I’m Associate Provost for Inclusive Workforce Development and Director of the STEM Innovation Learning Center at Wayne State University. I also have the honor of sitting on the Board of BrightFocus Foundation and today I’m having a nice chat with my colleagues, the leadership scientific team of the BrightFocus Foundation and we're going to talk a little bit about our experience as scientists, our experience as leaders, and our experience as women leaders in science. So we've got with us today Dr. Diane Bovenkamp. Diane is the Vice President of Scientific Affairs for BrightFocus Foundation. We have Dr. Preeti Subramanian who is the Director of Scientific Programs particularly in Vision Science and we also have Dr. Sharyn Rossi, Director of Scientific Programs in Neuroscience. Welcome!
Dr. Bovenkamp: Hello!
Dr. Subramanian: Thank you!
Dr. Rossi: Thank you. Hello!
Dr. Matthews: I’m so excited to have this conversation with us today but let's start with the basics right, science is still very scary for a lot of folks and we all have different origin stories like any good superhero. So I’m going to start with you Dr. Subramanian. What made you think about becoming a scientist?
Dr. Subramanian: I was always interested in science very early on from my high school days and I was fascinated by really the biology at the basic and the molecular levels. And the more I learned about it the more I was excited. I really wanted to pursue a medical career and I kind of was more attracted and drawn towards biochemistry and biology and ended up having a career in research. And you know it's been an exciting journey being in research. It's really provided an opportunity to answer some important questions in the in the field of science to really advance the knowledge in the field.
Dr. Matthews: Wow, so you knew kind of early. What about you Dr. Rossi?
Dr. Rossi: So I also knew pretty early that I was interested in science. My mother actually introduced me to Jane Goodall and Diane Fossey. I became really interested in the great apes and their ability to communicate and so that naturally led to an interest in the brain. And so when it came time for me to go to undergraduate I attended Northeastern University because they had just started a new behavioral neuroscience program and I knew that I’d be interested in the brain for the rest of my life and I would never get bored.
Dr. Matthews: Yeah it's quite complicated. There's several lifetimes worth of brain work that we can do. What about you Dr. Bovenkamp? How did you get interested in becoming a scientist?
Dr. Bovenkamp: Well like Preeti, I have a PhD in biochemistry and I actually paralleled a lot of what she was saying I relate to. I started at an early age, but I've always had science in my family. So my dad had a PhD in chemistry, as an organic chemist. My mom was an ER and orthopedic nurse and my brother ultimately ended up becoming an engineer. So those were very interesting family dinner time conversations. But yeah, just from an early age I thought I wanted to go into a medical related career but what really fascinated me ultimately was going into biochemistry. It just fascinated me that things that you can't see with the naked eye were the basic building blocks of life and like the motors of life. And that was just fascinating to me. I was also motivated, I originally started in cancer research and I went to cardiovascular disease research at Harvard and Hopkins, where I was motivated by family members who were affected. So I think a lot of our scientists that we fund right now are also motivated to go into glaucoma, macular degeneration, and Alzheimer's and related dementia, just it's driving them as well.
Dr. Matthews: Yeah well, we've got a lot of I think common through lines. Dr. Bovenkamp you mentioned that you've got engineers in your family. That's me. I’m a biomedical engineer. I feel a little chagrined. I was good in math and science but kind of didn't like it. I was working through it, but it was very interesting. I was one of those young folks that didn't associate my interest in medicine with being a scientist. Somehow or other we sometimes disconnect that. I too, like Dr. Subramanian, wanted to be in medicine. Maybe a doctor or a surgeon or sort of something like that. And I eventually ended up in biomedical engineering where I could research and ask questions and build equipment for all doctors. The dream just got bigger and bigger and bigger. And so, I think one of the things that I’m hearing is, you know a lot of folks are inspired by medicine, right. Especially right now. Doctors, nurses, front line folks amazing, amazing work but there are a lot of inroads to being inside of the medical field, right. And one of those inroads is research and science. So, let me ask the other question. What exactly do researchers and scientists do in a lab? So, Dr. Rossi you mentioned a little bit of your experience. What is the day in the life like if you're actually in a lab being a scientist?
Dr. Rossi: Well, I actually have quite a unique background I think in neuroscience, working on you know tiny little cells all the way to whole animals. Every scientist is different but on any given day I would do things like cell culture, surgeries on animals, looking at brains and three-dimensional space. And so now that I’m in a research-related career I would say those are some of the things that you know I miss a little bit.
Dr. Matthews: Thank you and you mentioned the related career right, because you three are leaders also in science, so you lead scientific teams, you lead research, you lead grant reviews in that space. So, Dr. Bovenkamp and Dr. Subramanian you're both biochemists, right so, and now you're scientist leaders. Does that mean you only work with biochemists? Are you just leading teams of biochemists to solve these problems?
Dr. Bovenkamp: Preeti why don't you go first.
Dr. Subramanian: Yeah, well you know biochemistry is kind of core to many areas of research. And my background has been in vision research since my postdoctoral days and I've spent 10 years as a bench scientist doing vision research related to macular degeneration. But it's a collaborative field science currently. So you not only work with biochemists, but you work with immunologists. You work with cancer researchers. And really that collaboration is what drives the innovation in one field which can then be applied to another field. So a breakthrough in cancer research angiogenesis which also is the underlying for macular degeneration, you know so you have those parallel applications. So, it's really collaboration and working with diverse backgrounds of scientists.
Dr. Bovenkamp: Yeah and I think that you know one of the cool things that we do, the three of us do, in addition to you know leading and helping to fund scientists to find cures and then figure out you know what causes disease, we help to organize little mini scientific conferences. One of the ones that's actually going to happen virtually in about a month or so is something that we started called Common Features of Neurodegenerative Disease. The eye is pretty much part of the brain, like the central nervous system and so there's a lot of common features. So with Preeti and I with the biochemistry background and molecular biology and that really you know it's like what Sharyn was saying, she has a really broad experience base as well. So all of us have a broad experience base so that we can talk the language of almost all of our scientists that we're funding. And I think that what we want to try and do is nudge and encourage and lead the scientists to think beyond their disease silo sometimes and to try and come up with innovative ideas. That's going to ultimately help the affected families. Those are the people that we really serve at BrightFocus and the scientists serve as well trying to find these discoveries.
Dr. Matthews: Yeah a lot of this is just making so much sense. That's one myth busted. Scientists are indeed very disciplined, but we don't work in a bubble, right. We work across. We share ideas. We think about what's happening in the other lab room. And I think it's that level of curiosity which ultimately led me to be a scientist. I’m very curious. I like learning new facts and I'd much rather learn it in conversation, I have to admit than say reading a book alone, so I actually like sort of sharing with colleagues. And so that's one of the things that keeps me motivated because science is a long haul, right. Sometimes we're answering questions that we get immediately. Sometimes we're answering questions that take years and teams and a lot of work and what I call good mistakes. So for you Dr. Rossi, as you're in this space, what do you use to keep you inspired? What keeps you inspired to stay in science, to stay in a field that's trying to cure diseases?
Dr. Rossi: Well I have to say at BrightFocus we have a very unique opportunity to hear directly from the people that are affected by these neurodegenerative diseases and so you know we often hear about their struggles and their circumstances and that's always been a real driver for me and my work and my research. And you know the idea that we might be able to have some sort of positive effect on the outcomes for you know these people is really rewarding.
Dr. Matthews: Wow. So Dr. Subramanian, is there anything right now that has you kind of excited about what's going on in our world? This world where we're trying to cure Alzheimer's, macular degeneration, and glaucoma. Is there anything that has you excited right now, that you're really paying attention to?
Dr. Subramanian: Well there are new exciting treatments becoming available in glaucoma that is extended release drugs that are being available for patients. In macular degeneration that is you know a longer window for injections, instead of the monthly injection. That's exciting news. And really from the BrightFocus programmatic point of view, we have introduced post-doctoral fellowship programs in our vision portfolio this year. So that's really exciting because it really gives the early career scientists an opportunity to pursue their passion in research by really having a grant that would you know give them that edge of independence early on in their career.
Dr. Matthews: And what about you Dr. Bovenkamp? I know you're a fan of bold ideas and you're always sending us interesting things to look at. What's got you excited right now?
Dr. Bovenkamp: Well I think that there are so many good ideas I don't want to single out one particular idea right now. But what I am really passionate about is supporting scientists, men and women but today we're talking about women, to kind of transition from their early career positions to get up into those sometimes seemingly unattainable upper echelons of seasoned investigators. I think that at BrightFocus what we do, is it's a safe place where scientists can send their innovative ideas. We have an excellent collection of world-class scientists on our scientific review committee that helped guide us in the science that we pick. And we do have programs, so we have what we call Fast Track in all three of our programs. It's like a boot camp for early career investigators to network with peers and with people who are experts in the field and to learn. They do a mock grant proposal. They learn how to express their ideas. Our funding really gives them you know enough preliminary data that then they can go on and obtain you know larger grants say from the NIH or maybe even for-profit companies. But one thing I did want to mention though is what also excites me is working every day with these two excellent scientists beside me. I mean who just happen to be women. But I couldn't do it without them and I think that maybe the public can you know you have like the Hollywood movie kind of viewpoint of a scientist as a male in a white coat with the pocket protector working in a wet lab. I think that you know there was study by the NIH a while back where only 6% of PhDs you know went through to go on into you know a wet lab or become a scientist which are all the people that the scientists who are doing basic translational clinical research that we're funding. And the other 94% right are people who are in research related careers like Dr. Rossi and Dr. Subramanian and myself, and yourself as well. You're a head of a university.
Dr. Matthews: At a research university, yeah.
Dr. Bovenkamp: Yes, yes and so I think that it couldn't get done. Science couldn't get done without everyone playing their part and supporting each other.
Dr. Matthews: I think that's a really good point because one of the things that has me excited is I’m seeing things appear in the news right now. I think one of the interesting impacts of the pandemic that is happening right now is that we're talking more about science. We're talking more about what it takes to move these things to the forefront and actually we're talking about Alzheimer's, right. I remember seeing stories about let's think about this you know we've got folks who are being isolated. So what does isolation mean sort of in those spaces? And I saw the message getting out to maybe families or people or young people who didn't have an experience with Alzheimer's and so it was broadening the base of folks. You know I personally have a family history of glaucoma in my family so I’m very tuned into that but it was really interesting to hear other people getting into the conversation. And a couple of things we've alluded to at this point you know scientists, men and women scientists, happen to be women scientists, so we talk about this a lot right now. Right, let's get more girls interested in science. Let's get more girls interested in STEM. Let me ask a hard question. A good scientist is a good scientist, right so why do we need to think particularly about getting women and girls interested in STEM? I’m going to start that question with Dr. Rossi.
Dr. Rossi: Thank you. Yeah so I think it's important to have you know diversity across all sectors of society and particularly across all fields in science. And you know our society has largely been dominated by males for quite a long time and now we have kind of a cultural shift going on and women are being more recognized as leaders and thought leaders. You know I think we need to start enacting the changes and put them in place and policies and infrastructure to really help empower you know women to succeed in these positions. I think that shift is happening and it makes me hopeful.
Dr. Matthews: Thank you for that.
Dr. Bovenkamp: And if I could add to that I think that it's also coming from within ourselves, right. Just becoming knowing that that's an option as a career, right and that you can be passionate about science and to not take yourself out of the running.
Dr. Matthews: Yeah, thank you. And I think with being first or new there are always some interesting challenges. So Dr. Subramanian, is it easy? Are there any challenges to being a woman in science right now in this time?
Dr. Subramanian: I wouldn't say it's a challenge but it's the challenge is more looking for the right opportunity and connecting with the right people in the field to really further your passion, your curiosity for science. So once you reach out to the right people in the field, I think you can have things fall in line of moving forward and upward in science.
Dr. Matthews: And I want to piggyback on something Dr. Rossi said. It's really also about new ideas, new perspectives, and bringing something new to the table. And I would say in science, innovation is always a little bit of an uphill climb, right. That new idea has to be tested and retested and questioned and re-questioned. And so sometimes you know as an engineer when I would find myself in that space, I may be bringing a different perspective or a different life experience to the table and that's where my new idea came from. And there's the newness of me and the newness of my idea that you know I’m working at the same time but and it is a challenge but that's why I became a scientist, right. It really is sort of those challenging and curious conversations. So we're coming to the end but I did want to get in a question about being a woman in leadership in science. I’m going to start with you Dr. Bovenkamp. You know through your work at BrightFocus you are the director or one of our directors. And so in that role as a as a female leader in science, do you see your role being able to advance women and girls in science?
Dr. Bovenkamp: Yeah so I like to call it as I’m in charge of the global operations of our organization because we have funded over the past 47 years in 25 countries and all continents except for Antarctica, which I’m pretty proud of right there. And you know although we do find that at the post-doctoral fellowship positions we have typically you know 50% women are applying, right. But then when we get up to the more seasoned positions I think Dr. Subramanian and Dr. Rossi we were just analyzing the portfolio in the past few years we're only getting like 35% of our applications for the upper, more seasoned applications coming from women and that's reflected in the percent that we're funding just the past few years. So that goes to the, don't self-select out and actually we want to try and get the word out that you know, please apply. And I think a lot of times it's just as Preeti was saying, like you believe in your ideas that you're passionate about, but you don't have to do it alone, right. So a lot in science, it's a lot of it is taking your idea and kicking the tires with other scientists who are your peers and your seniors and don't try and lock it away and then go ta-da! Like it's really good to get other input from other scientists as well so that it can improve your applications.
Dr. Matthews: Thank you for that. I want to actually say thank you to everyone. All of you. Me too, because I do a lot of work also in that K-12 space and encouraging undergraduates to consider science and research careers and I found that it's helpful also just to show up. To have conversations like this. To be willing to take a break in our day and to have these discussions about why we like what we do and why we'd like to see more folks join us. I think sometimes we forget that just showing up, doing the work we do and being welcoming is the key I think to moving this forward. So I’m going to give us the last word with that classic question. I want to thank you again for being here celebrating the United Nations Women and Girls in Science Day celebration, a global celebration, and so I want to ask each of you to comment as we close out. What advice would you give a young woman interested in pursuing a career in science and research? So, I’m going to start as we began with Dr. Subramanian.
Dr. Subramanian: Yeah I would say the first thing would be to look for a mentor, and this does not have to be a mentor you've been working with. It could be an outside mentor who could advise you on your career journey. Network with your fellow peers in the field. There are plenty of opportunities for research related career opportunities in science. I highly recommend or suggest that you do informational interviews to learn more about these opportunities by in talking to people who have had a career path in those fields and see how you would fit in there and if that would really be something that you would like to pursue further.
Dr. Matthews: Thank you. Dr. Rossi?
Dr. Rossi: Yeah, I agree with Preeti. You know knowledge is key. Understanding the opportunities that are out there for you will definitely help you, you know, along your career path. I think flexibility is also key. There are going to be challenges, especially as a woman trying to make it in leadership positions. There are a lot of successful women out there right now, but they didn't get there without, you know a lot of sacrifice and so there's definitely a balance, a work-life balance and it's challenging. In addition to having a support network of mentors and your peers and colleagues, I think it's also really important to just advocate for yourself. Use your voice, find your voice, stand up for what you believe in, say what you want, say what you need, because there's definitely a man out there doing that.
Dr. Matthews: Thank you. Dr. Bovenkamp?
Dr. Bovenkamp: Yeah so if I could sum things up in like a deep thoughts kind of summary: follow your passion, don't give up until you achieve it, resilience and grit are your friends, trust your gut, get a seat at the table and always speak up. And that said you don't need to go it alone.
Dr. Matthews: Thank you. I think my advice would be to be curious, be brave, and be relentless. So be curious, right, especially if you're early in these investigations. Try all kinds of science. Get in there, all kinds of camps, all kinds of classes, all kinds of people. Knock on a scientist's door. I will tell you there is nothing a scientist likes to do more than talk about their science. They will talk to you about that so you could get that information. And you know and be brave, right. At the end of the day if you become a scientist and a researcher, you're going to be asking questions that no one has the answers to. That can be kind of scary. So that's where the bravery comes in. Start practicing early and be relentless. You know every scientist who's gotten a yes or eureka has like 999 no's and that didn't work, that sort of come before that. These are all things we can practice while you're trying to figure out what kind of scientist you would like to be. So again, this has been an amazing, amazing conversation. So glad that I could be joined by these three amazing women and for those of you out there who've now decided they can't quite get enough and also want to know a little bit more about what BrightFocus Foundation is doing in the world of Alzheimer's disease, macular degeneration, and glaucoma, please feel free to come and visit us at brightfocus.org. You can also find beautiful, intelligent pictures and bios of the guests that you have seen here today and learn more about what the opportunities are out there, particularly if you are an early career, mid-career, or distinguished career scientist. Please consider looking to BrightFocus Foundation to be a part of your work and your investigations. Have a wonderful afternoon.
This content was last updated on: February 10, 2021