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Women Working to Cure Cancer Share Tips for Breaking Into Male-Dominated Fields

Dr. Elizabeth Yuko is the Health & Sex Editor at SheKnows. She is a bioethicist, adjunct professor of ethics at Fordham University and has written for publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Rolling...

How to succeed as a female scientist, straight from women working to cure cancer

Winning Women

Science has the reputation for being a lonely profession, with researchers spending their days hunched over a microscope looking for signs of movement. But according to real-life scientist Dr. Selina Chen-Kiang, professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

When she attended a gathering for parents at her daughter’s kindergarten, one of the other parents said to her, “Are you a scientist? You look absolutely normal!” Chen-Kiang tells SheKnows she thinks this is a good sign we’re moving away from the stereotype of what it means to be a scientist — including that they tend to be men. Currently, she is performing groundbreaking work to translate a therapy approved for breast cancer to a treatment for patients with lymphoma.

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Similarly, Dr. Gwen Nichols, chief medical officer of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, stresses that if a profession is interesting, you should pursue it — especially when it comes to girls and science — and echoes Chen-Kiang’s thought that a career in science is so much more than people think it is.

“The most important thing to say is that it’s a diverse kind of career,” Nichols tells SheKnows. “I’ve had the opportunity to do many things: being a teacher, a caregiver for patients, science and [help formulate] the mission of an organization that does cancer research. It’s such a broad and interesting field to get into. It’s not a lonely career anymore.”

Under Nichols’ leadership, the LLS has funded increasing numbers of female scientists who are conducting groundbreaking research in blood cancers, including transformational immunotherapies and precision medicine.

“The careers in the sciences are incredibly interesting and gratifying, and it’s an exciting career choice,” Nichols says — but that doesn’t mean it’s not without its challenges.

“One is the challenge that early on, girls are told that they’re not good in the sciences or they don’t have good math skills,” Nichols explains. “And I think there’s also the challenges that — at least when I was growing up — that there weren’t a lot of role models that had successful careers and looked the way I thought I wanted to be when I became a scientist. And I think that’s changed.”

Chen-Kiang agrees, saying that women in science need to work “almost twice as hard” as men do to get to the same place and notes that part of this is because for women, the early part of their career development coincides with the time in their lives that they may get pregnant and become mothers. She credits having a “very supportive partner” with some of her success and also notes the importance of mentorship by other women in the sciences.

“It is a very supportive community — we really support each other,” Chen-Kiang says, adding that with increasing numbers of women in leadership positions — like herself — they are able to understand what younger female scientists are going through and help them whenever possible.

One of the ways Nichols assists younger female scientists is through career development awards at LLS, which target different stages of science careers and provide financial support when people need it most — “when you have the tugging of your personal life and scientific life at odds with each other,” she explains.

In fact, Chen-Kiang is one of the scientists who has benefitted from these awards and says it has made a huge difference in her career. “Once one gets over the hump, there’s a different sense of confidence,” she adds. “It gets a little bit easier.” 

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At the end of the day, she hopes that more women decide to pursue careers in science.

“You don’t want to feel that science is very dry or boring. It’s incredibly exciting, it’s teamwork — everyone with their passion can come in to contribute,” Chen-Kiang says. “The hope is what comes — what can be helpful to cancer treatment [and] to curing cancer — and that’s the goal.”

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