It’s not always easy to be a woman in the male-dominated scientific research fields. Studies show less than a third of the world’s researchers are women.
But one group of successful young women has some advice for girls and women interested in science, engineering or math. These mentors know what they’re talking about — they all recently won fellowship grants from the L’Oréal USA For Women in Science program to continue with postdoctoral studies and to serve as role models for a younger generation.
Here’s how they talk about the hurdles they’ve cleared and encourage the girls and young women who aspire to follow them.
“Why do we think that half the population can possibly address the needs of the whole world? We need everybody participating,” Amy Orsborn, 32, said at the For Women in Science awards ceremony. She is a neuroscientist studying at New York University.
“For me one of the biggest challenges was just struggling with confidence in myself,” she said. “I think we need to teach women and girls that failure is not a sign that you can’t do it. You just have to put your mind to it, put your nose to the grindstone and get to work, and try again.”
Anela Choy, 33, advises aspiring scientists to “never stop seeking answers. … There are always more questions than answers, and sometimes that can feel really overwhelming.”
A postdoctoral fellow in biology, oceanography and marine ecology at Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California, Choy says the biggest challenge faced by female students in science is that there aren’t many women in positions of authority. “If you look at the gender ratios at undergrad school, grad school then onto the faculty level, they shift very dramatically.”
Shruti Naik, 31, is a postdoctoral scientist in immunology and stem cell biology at Rockefeller University in New York. She has one mantra to share: “‘Be brave.’ When people don’t believe in you or when you don’t believe in you — because it happens a lot — just be brave and go for it. You’ll be surprised at what you can accomplish when you put your fears aside.” One of the biggest challenges women face is self-doubt, Naik said.
“Women tend to question their own abilities, and I think that the environment doesn’t really do anything to combat that. We need more encouragement, more overt recognition of women.”
“Women are especially equipped to problem-solve and to come up with solutions, and I think we bring fresh eyes and a new perspective,” said Moriel Zelikowsky, 33. “I’m excited to see how that changes science moving forward.”
Zelikowsky, a postdoctoral neuroscientist in the Division of Biology and Biological Engineering at the California Institute of Technology, said that while the science and tech field has few women in the highest positions, there are now greater numbers of women studying at undergraduate and graduate levels.
“We definitely can’t drop the baton now,” she said. “As we say in science, the last 10 percent of work is always the hardest. So we really need to get in there and just not budge.”
Laura Sampson, 31, an astrophysicist at Northwestern University in Illinois, had no female professors in math or physics all the way through her graduate school studies. That inspired her to found a mentorship program to help younger students.
Her advice to the next generation: “You shouldn’t be turned off by the pop culture portrayal of scientists. Obviously, you don’t have to be a man to be a scientist, but you also don’t have to be completely single-minded and obsessed,” she said, noting that she and the other fellows have outside interests and hobbies.
Women scientists worldwide
Created in 1998, the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science International Awards identify and support accomplished female scientists around the world. Through the international program and the nearly 50 national and regional programs, like the U.S. program, nearly 2,500 female scientists from more than 100 countries have been granted fellowships to pursue promising research.