Five lessons for aspiring female scientists

Women still lag behind men in STEM careers. Marina Bacac, a leading cancer immunotherapy scientist, has advice on how to change that.

The number of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) professions continues to lag behind men. Globally less than 30% of researchers are women, and just 11% of senior research roles in Europe are held by women. These disparities reflect enduring gender stereotypes and social bias that deter girls and women from entering STEM fields. But the tide is turning and female scientists are making extraordinary contributions to molecular microbiology, physics, plant biology, material science, space exploration and so much more. In my career as a cancer scientist, I overcame many challenges to pursue work on the cutting edge of cancer research. Here are five lessons I learned:

1. Let curiosity drive you

Early in your career, study what you’re passionate about. As you explore, reflect on what you want to achieve in your life in a big-picture sense. Academia will give you freedom to explore different research topics until you settle into a specific field of research. Savor the time you spend building your foundation of knowledge and experience.

2. Nurture an independent mindset

Allow yourself the freedom to think creatively, even when your ideas are different. There will be times when you have to fight to advance work you believe in. Be comfortable speaking up when your approach differs from your colleagues’ – regardless of their genders. On the flip side, listen actively and when you realise you’re wrong, be ready and open to accept other points of view, to change your own, and to learn from this experience.

3. Be resilient

Your career will be a rollercoaster. When you’re on the top – say, when you complete a study and get the results you dreamed of – enjoy it. Take that time to build confidence in your career decisions. When bad news brings you back to earth, use it as an opportunity to emerge again. Reflect on what you learned and convert it into positive energy to move forward. In the field of cancer research, we have a long history of failures punctuated by great victories that advance the field.

4. Build teams

Nobody succeeds alone, especially in R&D. The most successful teams excel at bringing together people who work constructively towards a common goal. Nurture a collaborative culture. Every person has unique contributions to make. Be aware of your strengths and limitations, and know how they differentiate you from others. Adopting this team mindset – and working with others who share it – will help everyone succeed.

5. Build bridges with researchers at other institution

Collaborations between scientists in industry and academia provide a crucial nexus in the fight against cancer. Industry and academic researchers often work to solve the same challenges; each can bring different resources to the table. Focus on building bridges wherever your career takes you.

Whichever path your career takes, if you follow these principles (and find your own) you will learn one thing for certain: science is gender-blind. We can all succeed in STEM fields – and be the leaders, the ground-breakers, and the pioneers the world needs us to be. Let’s hope more women heed the call.

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