Celebrating women’s contributions to science

We speak with just a few of the many female researchers whose work is moving science forward.

While gender parity remains a significant problem in STEM research—according to UNESCO, women account for just 28% of researchers worldwide—female scientists are also making major contributions in male-dominated fields. We speak with some of those women about their work and ask them what advice they have for aspiring scientists.

Anderson PhotoBrooke Anderson Thornton
Mission Operations Manager - NASA

ResearchGate: Could you tell us a bit about your work?

Thornton: I am the Mission Operation Manager for the Stratospheric Aerosol Gas Experiment (SAGE) III on International Space Station (ISS). I oversee the operations of the instrument on the space station. The number one priority is to ensure the instrument is working properly, and we do this by monitoring temperatures, voltages, currents, and other information from the instrument to ensure it is operating within its limits. We also develop and execute the commands that operate the instrument, download the science data from the instrument, and coordinate ISS activities and special science requests.

RG: When you were entering your field, were there women you looked to as science role models?

Thornton: When I first began at NASA, I was performing radiation analysis on new concepts for space suits and habitats. During my research, I encountered some of the work that Dava Newman had done at MIT. Her use of multi-disciplinary research on the space suit gave me the motivation to look into how different materials could not only provide radiation protection, but also support other systems including structural and thermal support.  Now it’s great to see that her hard work has propelled her to Deputy Administrator at NASA, and this continues to motivate me to work hard knowing the possibilities I could reach.

RG: What advice would you give young women thinking of pursuing careers in science?

Thornton: My advice to young women is to have determination and not take things personally, especially negative feedback. Know that you will make mistakes and people will call you out on them. When this happens, it’s easy to take it personally and let it lower your self-esteem. Criticism doesn’t mean you’re not a good scientist or engineer! You need to have determination: learn from it, correct it, and continue to work hard; then you will earn respect from your colleagues.

 

Juliet EmamaulleeSurgeon Photo
Surgeon - Alberta Transplant Institute

RG: Could you tell us a bit about your work?

Emamaullee: I am a board certified general surgeon, and I am now working on my subspecialty training in liver and pancreas surgery as well as liver, kidney, and pancreas transplantation. We take care of adult patients with cancers in their liver and pancreas, and we transplant children and adults with liver failure and kidney failure. We also run the world's largest program for clinical islet cell transplantation, which is a treatment for patients with Type 1 diabetes.

RG: When you were entering your field, were there women you looked to as science role models?

Emamaullee: All of my mentors have been male, but there have been a few women scientists and surgeons that I have known and find very inspiring.

RG: What advice would you give young women thinking of pursuing careers in science?

Emamaullee: I would say that science is really fun! It is a great way to challenge yourself and to make a contribution to society that will hopefully outlive your career. Taking care of patients is very rewarding, and allowing them to participate in research to advance the field is a unique option that clinician scientists can offer.

 

Oluwasayo Kehinde MoyibBiochemist Photo
Agricultural Biochemist - Tai Solarin University

RG: Could you tell us a bit about your work?

Moyib: My field is biotechnology and bioinformatics for food security, improved health, and a safe environment. I focus on tropical root tubers, such as cassava and yam, legumes, indigenous cereals and millets. Apart from increasing yield to raise the economic power of farmers, I also consider the nutrient status of those plants to be very important. We are what we eat, and research in this area can save people from malnutrition, boost their immune systems against disease, and translate to a healthy and wealthy populace overall. In pursuit of these goals, I do lots of genetic diversity studies for molecular breeding of desirable agronomic traits and nutrients in food plants. I am also working on projects to develop biosorbents from agricultural waste to raise the economic power of farmers and have a positive impact on the environment.

I recently became interested in cancer research as well, as the WHO has declared Nigeria to have the highest prevalence in cancer in Africa. I want to develop biomarkers using omics technologies. This requires multidisciplinary cooperation, and I am looking for collaborators in public health, epidemiology, or oncology at a hospital with a registry.

RG: When you were entering your field, were there women you looked to as science role models?

Moyib: No, not really. I knew of a few women scientists, but all I saw were men.

RG: What advice would you give young women thinking of pursuing careers in science?

It is a rough road, but not that rough. To survive as a scientist, you must take it to the PhD level—that is foremost. To get to the top of your chosen field, you’ll need a plan. Mentors and role models can make the journey smoother. And it’s important to find a balance between your career and home life.


Joan W. BennettFungus Researcher Photo
Fungal Geneticist - Rutgers University

RG: Could you tell us a bit about your work?

Joan W. Bennett: I’m a specialist in toxic mold and spent my life studying how agricultural molds contaminate food supplies. After Hurricane Katrina hit my home in New Orleans, I was very aware that there’d be fungus everywhere and was determined to sample it. When I left, my suitcase was half-filled with clothes and half-filled with mold samples in petri dishes. During the post-Katrina evacuation, I accepted an offer to work as a professor at Rutgers University and studied the mold that grew in the aftermath of the hurricane. We used genetic models on mold’s volatile organic compounds (VOC) to cause symptoms of Parkinson's disease in fruit flies. After that, we got funding from the Department of Agriculture to develop the effects of VOCs on plants. I’ve also been working here at Rutgers and nationally to create mentorship programs and a leadership course for women in science.

RG: When you were entering your field, were there women you looked to as science role models?

Bennett: I’ve been a woman in science for quite a while, and I’ve seen the changes that have come to pass. It used to be really difficult if you were female to even be considered for a tenure track job at a major university. It would be openly said, “she’d never get hired, she’s a woman.” So I was the beneficiary of the young scientists and feminists who worked very hard to change that playing field and make it possible to get hired. Because of that groundwork, I got a tenure-track job in 1971 and for quite a while I was the only woman in my department. I am optimistic that there can be still greater change, because I’ve seen the change that I have. Quite a few of the women who have become presidents of major universities in the US have come out of the sciences, and I’m happy to see that!

RG: What advice would you give young women thinking of pursuing careers in science?

Bennett: It’s a lot better to be a woman in science now than it was when I started – and it was pretty good even then, because science is wonderful! You’re always doing new things and you meet interesting people. The biological sciences have exploded, and as a geneticist, it’s incredible what we can do with DNA now. We can sequence DNA from Neanderthals—I love it! I always try and tell women this is a wonderful way to make a living. It’s always interesting, always something new.

Featured image courtesy of Brookhaven National Laboratory.