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Women in Science Testimonials
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In the May issue of the SETAC Globe, Beatrice Opeolu wrote about the obstacles that African women face when they decide to pursue a career in science. This has prompted SETAC women from around the world to share their stories about overcoming gender barriers, society expectation and more to highlight that the issues facing ambitious women in science are ubiquitous but not insurmountable.

SETAC serves as a network and resource to female researchers, and we are currently raising funds to help support travel to the women’s event that will be held in conjunction with the SETAC Africa 8th Biennial Conference in October in Calabar, Nigeria. Please enjoy these stories and contribute to this worthy effort. Any amount helps!

Patricia Asanga Fai: Challenges and Opportunities of a Female Researcher in Africa

Patricia FaiI am Dr. Patricia Asanga Fai, a Senior Lecturer and Ecotoxicologist at the University of Dschang, West Region, Cameroon. I am also the Head of Division for Admissions and Students’ Records at the University of Bamenda in the North West Region of Cameroon.

I was born to educated parents, who knew the importance of educating not only male but also female children. My mother is a retired teacher, and my late father was a researcher in the Institute of Agronomic Research and Development (IRAD) in Cameroon. Given this background, it is not hard to see why I, like my brother and sisters, was given a good education, which has permitted me to excel at all levels of my studies. Though I do not consider myself a typical African woman, I faced numerous challenges as a woman from Africa as I progressed in my career. In this article, I wish to focus on the support that has helped me get to where I am today.

Although I feel privileged that my parents supported my studies through to the master’s level, they had to raise additional sources of revenue, which required great self-sacrifice since all my siblings were also in institutions that demanded a lot of financial support. It was clear to me that as the first child, I had to look for a job as early as possible to ease their difficulties by at least being self-reliant and, if possible, to support their efforts to educate my siblings. However, there were no part-time job opportunities to support my studies, so although I was keen on doing a PhD, I had to work for some time after receiving my MSc degree. I was lucky to be recruited as an Assistant Lecturer at the Department of Animal Biology of the University of Dschang in 1999.

Thanks to a fellowship from the Tropical Biology Association (TBA) I underwent a one-month field training on tropical ecology and conservation in Kenya in 2000. This was followed by an EarthWatch fellowship, which permitted me to carry out a two-week field training on Tanzanian Forest birds in the Usambara Mountains. In 2003, I was sponsored by the African Society for Toxicological Sciences (ASTS) to present at their 3rd International Conference in Abuja, Nigeria, where I won a prize for the best poster presentation sponsored by the Third World Medical Research Foundation (TWMRF). All these exposures paved the way for me to succeed in getting the prestigious Commonwealth Scholarship to finally carry out my PhD studies in the UK from 2004 to 2007. While studying in the UK, I joined the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (SETAC) as a student member, and obtained student grants, which permitted me to attend and present at SETAC meetings in the UK, Europe, North America and Africa. This opened a new world to me, as I got to meet top scientists in my research domain in Africa and around the globe. The support given to me by SETAC has been like none other in projecting my career forward. I progressed in the Society and eventually took up leadership positions including SETAC Africa Vice President and President. Through this, I have obtained leadership skills which have contributed to my appointment as an administrator in one of the state universities in Cameroon, The University of Bamenda. In 2010, I was successful in securing an International Foundation for Science (IFS) grant, which kick-started my research career on my return home after earning my PhD. Equipped laboratories are not easy to come by in Cameroon. The IFS grant gave me the funds to purchase basic laboratory equipment, glassware and chemicals for my research, and enabled graduate students to carry out research for their projects under my supervision, which has led to publications in reputable scientific journals.

It is clear for me that without the financial support I received from the various fellowships and grants, I would never have been able to attain my present position. Considering that I am a privileged African woman, it can be said that other African women need even more assistance to enable them make headway in developing their careers.

Charmaine Ajao: Breaking With Tradition

My name is Charmaine Ajao. I was born in 1979 on Malta, a small and sunny island in the middle of the Mediterranean sea. I was raised in a society that was built around the church. A society where the man went to work and the woman stayed at home to raise the children and help them with their education. As the standard of living started to increase and life became expensive, women started to work as well. My mum resumed her nursing profession but only after both my brother and I started secondary school. Her shift work allowed her to be home right before we arrived back from school.

During my university studies, I could still see that the lecturing arena was dominated by men.  It was during my generation that women started to take their place in Malta because of the change in the political arena of the country. In 2001, I obtained my bachelors of science degree in biology and chemistry. At that time, Malta was negotiating its membership in the European Union. The negotiations generated new posts in the regulatory arena, which required learning the EU legislation and building new national regulatory structures. My desire was always to work in the environmental field, and these political changes provided me that opportunity. At that time, the government decided to merge the environment department with the planning authority. Most of the workers at Malta’s environment department disagreed with this merger and moved on. All of a sudden, there was no one to take care of the the EU environment portfolio that was under negotiation. It was a great opportunity for me. On my first day in the office, I found an empty desk with a big stack of papers for me to read to prepare myself for a meeting in Brussels with the EU Commission a week later. The same excitement continued for five whole years. Malta joined the EU in 2004, and I took a job at the European Chemicals Agency at the end of 2007.

Even though I loved my job, it was difficult as a young woman to juggle my demanding job, which required a lot of traveling, with my family life - a Nigerian husband and a young daughter.  Fifteen years ago, a Maltese girl marrying an African man broke with tradition and was accompanied by a lot of back talk. This might sound very familiar to you. But I learnt that whilst traditions and cultures are important, because they give you a sense of identity, the key to a successful career is a supportive partner. For me, it was a husband who took pride in seeing me reach my career goals. A husband who is willing to step out from the cycle of tradition and give a helping hand in the house, with the children and wherever it is needed.

Hence for those ladies that are pursuing a scientific career and that are being pressured to get married by their parents, be bold, and if the man that is being presented to you does not support your career goals, resist the union! Women must use their voice to break forth. Scientists are made to ask questions, to explore, to find solutions. For those with a Christian faith, remember even the Bible says not to limit a limitless God (Isaiah 55:9). Then let us not be the ones that limit ourselves by staying silent and not expressing our career goals. Change starts with little constant steps. “You must be the change you wish to see in the world” - Mahatma Ghandi.

When I was in Malta, our society did not yet have an established structure of day care. Kindergarten finished at around 12:30 p.m. I finished work at 5 p.m. and both my parents were still working at that time. I was not supported by the extended family as is mostly the case in African countries. What was I going to do? Stop working? No, I did not want that, and my husband did not want that either. It wasn’t easy, but we worked it out.

For those women that are married and are feeling the pressure from their families and society to bring children in this world, I encourage you to discuss with your spouse the option to wait until you feel that you can break for a short time from your career. I have many African friends who are still feeling that pressure even though they are living in Europe. They, however, actively decided to make their own choices.

You also have the power to make your own choice. Do you feel disabled because you wish to pursue your scientific career but your family is against it or your spouse is completely against it, so they do not want to help you with taking care of the children? Do your utmost to be part of the SETAC Africa Women's Event in Calabar 2017 to get assistance on your way to overcome the obstacles you are facing.

Charmaine Ajao is a mother of three children, holds two scientific degrees and is now working as a senior scientific officer at the European Chemicals Agency in Helsinki, Finland. She is a SETAC Europe Council member and the Chair of the Regional Branches Committee of SETAC Europe. She motivates African women to reach their potential and through her voluntary work with the Redeemed Christian Church of God, Helsinki, Finland.

Jenny Stauber: Professional Challenges and Advice

Jenny StauberWhat have been the biggest struggles you have had to deal with as a female research scientist?
Following four years as Deputy Chief of a large research division (500 staff and affiliates), I had the opportunity to take on the Acting Chief role for nearly a year before someone external from overseas was appointed. I did apply for the position but was unsuccessful despite being financially rewarded later for doing a great job. That was a bit tough for me to accept, but I put personal feelings aside and did my best to help the new person into the role as I stepped back to be Deputy Chief.

The next challenge was an organizational restructure. Divisions were abolished and Chief and Deputy Chief positions were no longer required. That left me feeling undervalued by my organization. However, I was fortunate because I had kept up my research and advisory board roles throughout the time I was Deputy Chief, so I was able to fairly easily transition out of research management back to a Chief Research Scientist role, which I am really enjoying. Female leaders like me didn’t fare well in the restructure at all. Before the restructure, we had five female chiefs or leaders, but post-restructure, our business unit has no female directors. It was disappointing as I had worked hard in my division to develop a pipeline of female leaders and give them the skills to step up, and yet none were successful, despite diversity and inclusion policies across the organization. But the important thing was to stay positive and try to effect change for the younger cohort of females coming through.

What is the best advice you could give to young female scientists?

I have actually benefited from being female: I have had opportunities to be on advisory boards or panels because they have been all male with no women. These opportunities have then led on to others, through building networks and proving my capability.

So here’s my advice:

  1. You have to be in it to win it! Don’t be afraid to put yourself forward for opportunities. I think visibility for women is particularly important, and you need to be proactive and to look for opportunities. Self-promotion is something you need to learn. If an opportunity comes, you grab it with both hands even though you might be out of your comfort zone taking this on. This is not the time to worry about what you cannot do!
  2. Volunteer! I believe young female scientists should volunteer through professional societies like SETAC for committee and working group positions. You meet lots of people through these professional networks, and they are incredibly important throughout your career. Self-confidence is built through your peer network. Having a good mentor helps as well, someone who knows you and can help you with networking. In my case, I had a wonderful mentor during my early career, and it was a huge part of building my self-confidence because I was given opportunities early on to do my own research, publish papers and travel to conferences. Not everyone gets these opportunities, but they help build your research reputation and your confidence.
  3. Don’t get into research management too soon. You have to build your research reputation in a particular field first and then you can step into research management. By doing so, you can step out again if necessary, as I have.
  4. Stay passionate about science so you, too, can inspire others in future.

Gertie Arts: Balancing Work, Family and Personal Needs

As a female scientist, I have always felt a strong wish to achieve balance in my life – balance between work, family and personal needs. In my work life, I have experienced that this wish is more strongly felt by women than by men. Because of these differences in views, communication is very important in order to achieve your own goals. My experience is that starting a job while you have a family with young children, needs clear communication. Communication will help you convince your colleagues and managers that you will stand for the work and tasks that are assigned to you. This communication includes a negotiation about the amount of time you need for your family and the explanation that you will perform your tasks and your work. Building this trust is very important. It is also important to realize that the balance in work, family and personal needs is continuously changing. Once you think you have reached it, it has already changed, because your family needs have changed or your work calls upon you more intensively. Coping with this ever-changing balance is one of the challenges I have faced in my career.

Personal Basic Values

At work, it is important for me to act from a set of personal basic values – respect, gender equality, inclusion and cooperation. These are values not viewed as very helpful in competitive environments. However, these values are important for bringing science forward. Questions posed by society to scientists are becoming more and more complex. Such questions can only be answered by multidisciplinary research as one scientific field cannot provide the full answer. It is my experience that in these multidisciplinary teams, women can play an important initiating and leading role. Environmental risk assessment is a good example as it is performed in a multidisciplinary environment per sé. It will give women all over the world, and African women in particular, opportunities to grow and develop professionally.

Iji Oluwafikemi: The Woman in STEM I Am Today

Powering Through Inequality

Iji OluwafikemiAlthough raised to be a strong woman, nothing in the world prepared me for the challenges associated with gender stereotyping. Choosing a male dominated profession meant I had to assert myself at all times, that I am more than equal to the task and can take on responsibilities like my male counterparts. Another stereotype in our society is that a woman’s place is in her husband’s house. Therefore, the pressure is always on, especially balancing a successful career with a successful home. Striking this delicate balance is a day-to-day task.

In my senior lecturer position, I am able to promote science education for girls and women by mentoring female students and promoting womens work while addressing gender gaps and supporting gender equality at my institution. My goal is to recruit women to my team as we work on implementing new ecological recovery strategies.

Erica Brockmeier: Mamma Said There’d Be Days Like This

Erica BrockmeierMy mother is one of the most supportive and loving people you’ll ever meet. On the night before I started my first job, after completing graduate school, she sent me a note to wish me well and included her best career advice, “Be present, find meaning and happiness in what you do, don’t sell yourself short, and don’t look for others to validate what you’re doing.” Her advice resonated with me in those first weeks and months of work as I embarked on my career journey as a post-doctoral research associate.

A year and a half later into my post-doc, one of those pieces of advice rang loudly in my ears. It wasn’t because I had followed my mom’s advice but rather because I had gone against it. After what had felt like countless months of dealing with new and urgent tasks and endless shifts in my project’s aims, I found myself having a breakdown in my boss’s office in the middle of one of our meetings. All I could think about when I left was that I had failed to follow another piece of my mother’s advice, Don’t cry at work.

As much as I tried to move on from the incident, I felt myself becoming increasingly distressed and anxious about my job and my career. I also felt guilty about my previous breakdown and worried that I would be seen as weak and overly emotional. I felt like I had gone from being an up-and-coming independent scientist to the girl who cried in the office.

After the dust had settled on the stressful period of my job and I was able to get back into a regular routine, I recognized that my frustration and tears were not a sign of weakness. Rather, my emotions helped me realize that an academic research job was not the right fit for me. I was then able to focus my energy on finding a new STEM career path that was a better fit for my expertise and my passions. After completing my post-doc contract, I was able to find a new job as a medical writer. I am thankful for the lessons learned during my post-doc and also grateful for the chance to stay in STEM while working at a job that’s a better fit for me.

Stresses will come and go, and the life of a scientist will always be fraught with challenges. Regardless of where you end up in your career, one of the things that will propel you through the tough times is self-confidence. Confidence is the resounding voice in your head that tells you “I can do this” and when you hear that voice, you believe it. Confidence also helps you recognize that the mistakes you make on one stressful afternoon don’t have to define you in the long term.

Women in science face unique challenges related to self-confidence, even from a young age. When students are told a story of a person who is described as “really, really smart” and are then asked to select a gender for the person in the story, girls as young as six years old were more likely to identify that “really, really smart” person as a man. Girls were also less likely to play games that they were told were for “children who are really, really smart.” Another study found that 10th grade girls tended to rank themselves as less skilled in math and science than their male counterparts, even if the girls’ test scores reflected strong abilities in STEM.

Our own internal dialogue is a powerful force that dictates our actions and reactions. When we don’t know how to counter our own negative impressions of our abilities or have low self-confidence in general, it can make pursuing a career in STEM challenging. A lack of confidence makes science seem like it’s only meant for the “really, really smart” people.

With this barrier in mind, how can we bring more women to STEM? Another research study, which focused on the exercise habits of both women and men, shows us the importance of mentors and peers as sources of inspiration. The study found that people are inspired to run faster and train harder when they see friends sharing their own fitness stories on social media. The most telling finding was that while men can find inspiration from both male and female friends, women tend to only become inspired to exercise harder when they see stories from other women. If we want to encourage more women to become scientists, we can start by encouraging self-confidence and serving as mentors to girls who are looking for someone to inspire and support them.

The SETAC Africa Women’s Event at the upcoming SETAC Africa biennial conference will provide a forum for helping women early in their careers recognize their true potential and can help them more accurately valuate their own self-worth. This event will provide a place where other women can take steps towards their own fulfilling career. Your support for SETAC Africa will help many aspiring young women meet other STEM female mentors, develop self-confidence and gain inspiration to pursue the career that makes the most of their skills, abilities and passions.

Helena Cristina da Silva de Assis: An International Road to Success

Helena Assis with her childrenI was always curious and I always wanted to work in a research lab. I graduated with a degree in veterinary medicine and worked in a veterinary clinic for small animals, but soon I went to work on aquatic toxicology in a government environmental agency. After four years, I applied for a position as professor at the Federal University of Paraná. The challenges were many, one being I was pregnant. Maternity is considered a “challenge” for Brazilian scientists because the science and technology system does not include benefits that help the women scientist to reconcile career and family. I had to decide what to do. Go ahead with my application or leave everything for the baby? My first child was born five days before the application test, and I was able to do both: I nursed my son during the application tests and was approved in the first round. Fifteen days later, I defended my master’s degree in the area of renewable aquatic products. I enjoyed my work with aquatic toxicology and kept a Ph.D. in mind. However, there were no Ph.D. programs in Brazil in my area. I faced another challenge: Could a married woman with two young children (my second was born in 1991) go abroad to complete a Ph.D.? The first idea was to go to the USA, but I had some difficulties because of the children. During this period in 1993, I participated in the first SETAC World Congress in Lisbon, Portugal, where I met my future doctoral supervisor.

At the SETAC meeting, I participated in the group exploring the formation of a geographic unit in Latin America. I became a member of SETAC and found the discussion forum for my research. In 1994, I went to Germany to work on my Ph.D. in ecotoxicology. Another challenge? I had to leave my children in Brazil with my husband and our parents the first few months so I could learn the German language. Remember, at that time there were only telephones and fax machines for communication. Additionally, there was still a male-dominated society where the women were expected to take care of their children and stay home. Many colleagues in the language course asked if it was my husband who was getting his doctoral degree.

Helena Assis in the North SeaDuring my Ph.D., I organized day care for my children and participated in several scientific trips on fishing vessels to collect samples for my thesis. The most difficult one was to the North Sea, where we had strong winds from the coast of Germany to Scotland. I had no way to communicate with my family, and I was facing a winter with very low temperatures for the first time in my life. But I survived that trip and continued my journey for four years – dividing my activities between home and work; as wife, mother and researcher. In 1998, I defended my thesis in German, being the first doctorate of the Department of Ecotoxicology at the Berlin Technical University. My children often participated in my research, already curious about it. I often wondered if I was doing the right thing, but my children are proud of me. Today, one is a lawyer and another is a chemical engineer. I feel like Ive been a multiplier of ecotoxicology research – especially of biochemical biomarkers research – in Brazil through the training of human resources and the dissemination of knowledge. In 2010, I spent one year in Ottawa, Canada, for a postdoc research post in environmental genomics. The challenges for the women researcher, mother, and wife are many, but it is possible to overcome them with perseverance and by not losing the goal of achieving your dreams.

Michelle Bloor: We Are All Role Models

Michelle BloorAs a female academic in the field of engineering, I have always worked in a male-dominated arena. Ten years ago, there were three female academics in my department and today we have six. Every woman in science is a role model. The undergraduates in my department are role models for girls at school, and my female Ph.D. students are role models for the undergraduates. It is inspiring to see women at the top in science because it shows others what is achievable. As a Ph.D. student, my role model was Professor Lorraine Maltby, University of Sheffield, and although I had not met Lorraine at that stage in my career, it was reading her publications and listening to her presentations at SETAC events that inspired me. In 2016, when I became the President of SETAC UK, it was a great honor to meet her – more so because I had followed in Lorraine’s footsteps as she is a past president of the organization.

I grew up believing that men and women are equal and that feminism in the modern world was as necessary as an umbrella in the sunshine. I was surprised when early in my career I noticed a conference dedicated to female scientists, but I soon started to realize that inequality exists in science and how it is crucial that women who are doing well and carrying out great work are visible. Young women and girls need to see women in science and see what they are doing. We can also be role models for men who will learn they also deserve a better balance between family and work life.

For more than ten years, I have attended SETAC conferences and workshops, and these experiences have provided me with an opportunity to share my research, participate in thought-provoking discussions, develop my scientific curiosity, network and meet friends – all of which enable me to be the scientist that I am. I feel initiatives that recognize women’s research and help fund their careers and development are crucial to ensuring greater female participation across the STEM sectors – science, technology, engineering and manufacturing.

Michelle Bloor is the SETAC UK Branch President and a SETAC Europe Council Member

Annegaaike Leopold: My Story as a Woman in Science

Mine is a positive story about being a woman in science. To be honest, being asked to write something about my experiences led to me thinking about this for the first time! I have never felt truly disadvantaged being a woman in science. On the contrary, being a girl and later a woman may even on occasion have given me a special kind of attention, which I might not have received if I had been a boy. However, since my interest in wildlife and studying animals was always my only purpose, I never felt I was “misusing” such situations.

My childhood, spent in South Africa, Surinam (South America) and India gave me the unique advantage of studying wildlife, spending time among wild animals, and learning from leaders in wildlife conservation, such as Lloyd Wilmot in Botswana, with whom I was in Xaxabe Camp in the Okavango swamps when I was eight. Ten years later, I was lucky enough to travel through the tiger reserve Ranthambore in Rajasthan, India, studying this magnificent animal with one of the great fighters for the conservation of the Bengal tiger. My fascination for the tiger and its plight gave me the final drive that I needed to overcome my uncertainty about physics and chemistry and sign up to study biology.

There were some occasions where I felt uncomfortable with offers from male researchers because their intentions were unclear. In one case this kept me from spending a gap year in India studying tigers… I do not know what my life would have looked like had I accepted the invitation…

In my professional life as an ecotoxicologist in the contract laboratory world, I have frequently found myself working with men, especially in an international business context. I have always found that I generally enjoy working with men more than with women – there is far less of a sense of competition, it seems. I also believe that female intuition and subtlety, combined with my interest in connecting (with) people from all over the world, listening to people, understanding cultural differences in communication, and body language have helped me considerably in dealing with situations successfully. Whether these are all attributes I have because I am a woman I am not sure – perhaps in part; it is also part of my personality and my background.

When I think about people who have inspired me with their initiative and courage, they have been women: Joy Adamson being the first one – I loved her books about Elsa the lion and her cubs – followed by Jane Goodall, and finally, my good friend the late Mrs. Soonu Kochar, not a biologist but a very accomplished diplomat in the Indian foreign service. They have all played a role in inspiring me to take roads less travelled!

My message to my fellow female researchers would be: Once you have your mind set on what you would like to achieve, it is possible to overcome all kinds of hurdles. Stay with it and do not pay attention to those who say you might fail.

Ngozi Oguguah: Inspired and Inspiring

Ngozi OguguahI have come across a few people I consider my mentors, but the greatest of them all was my mother. On her return from the USA in 1965, after earning her bachelors of science in library science and history, she became the first female graduate in my hometown. However, she could not get a job due to gender discrimination. Consequently, she had to reinvent herself and become an entrepreneur. She taught me and my siblings that we could be whatever we wanted to be once we were focused and determined to succeed. From her, I learned that presentation and packaging are key in any venture – be it in family, work or business – and when a woman is educated, she can break barriers. She was a very positive role model to a lot of people, especially young girls and women. She stood up against gender discrimination and encouraged women and young girls to acquire entrepreneurial skills because according to her, the woman is the backbone of the society – an economically independent woman is key to the growth of the family and the nation at large. This philosophy has been my guiding principle.

I was educated at the University of Nigeria, Enugu State in Nigeria, from where I obtained a B.Sc. in zoology and biochemistry, and an M.Sc. in fisheries biology. I am currently enrolled in the same school for a Ph.D. in marine pollution. I have participated in various online and on-site courses. I have also attended workshops and seminars in Africa, USA and Europe. This experience not only provided me the opportunity to practice, but it has developed my interest in gender-based development, product enhancement and environmental topics, giving me a broader view of issues.

My overall long-term vision for science research and development in Nigeria is to see a research that is demand driven, solves current and emerging challenges of the society, and informs governmental policy decisions at different levels, which will lead to sustainable scientific development. The crop of researchers coming out of my workplace, the Nigerian Institute for Oceanography and Marine Research, Lagos, indicates that a great future is ahead of us in Nigeria. We are interested in solving the problems of food scarcity, poverty and poor health through a participatory approach. I want to build my technical skills, develop my leadership and management capabilities, and broaden my networks. I also want to increase my publications and have a more positive impact in formulating policies that impact positively on women and youth in agriculture. I see a Nigeria where government’s commitment to agricultural development benefits from cutting-edge science with advances in technological development, capacity-building, technology transfer and policy research. This can be achieved by more responsive access and participation, competitiveness and profitability, and sustainable rural resource management.

I am a firm believer in creating networks whether academic, work or family related. I share information and through sharing I learn. I am very active in my various alumni associations and professional bodies. I am a great advocate of mentorship. I serve as a mentor in the Cherie Blair Foundation, African Changemakers Mentorship Program and as an African Women in Agricultural Research and Development fellow, working with other fellows and mentors to create awareness of opportunities in the agricultural sector through role modeling events, seminars, workshop, community outreach and sharing through social media.

Tamar Schlekat: My Journey as a Female Environmental Professional – Perspectives From Two Continents

Tamar SchlekatI always liked science and math, and I excelled at them. My interest in environmental science, in particular, developed in middle school when I wrote a paper about the effects of chemicals on the ozone layer. During high school, in a girls’ preparatory school run by nuns in the Middle East, my chemistry teacher said to me, “Why put so much effort into it? Whatever degree you get will look the same framed over the stove.” While I specifically remember his comment, it wasn’t because it bothered me at the time. Unfortunately, this was a common sentiment, and the comment only stuck with me because it was so articulately put. I am glad I ignored him and the others like him in my world back then.

After high school, I was fortunate to be able to come for my education to the land of opportunity – the United States. While my parents did not stand in my way, they did not exactly brim with joy either. They only allowed me to attend the school my older brother – read male – was attending, regardless of its fit for my educational needs, so he could supposedly “look out for me.” It wasn’t a perfect fit for me – it didn’t have a school of environment, you see. Nevertheless, I persisted and did what was probably even better for me, and got a bachelor of science in chemistry, followed with a masters of science in public health in environmental quality. After schooling, I entered the workforce in the US. 

When it was time to have children, I took every minute of my unpaid maternity leave twice and then went back to work part-time for a while. A fellow mom who had stopped working questioned why I didn’t quit altogether. The answer was obvious to me. Women cannot take time off as they will be perceived as lacking of commitment, and their career will suffer. Well, I did manage to juggle family and work, aided by flexibility in my schedule. For a while, I avoided the more challenging projects at work as they required commitments my growing family couldn’t afford because my husband had a demanding job. Eventually, my children got older and my career prospered. I was given important assignments and received several promotions. Ultimately, I ended up in a leadership position, where I quickly found out how underpaid I was. I was making 30% less than my male colleague, who was in same company and the same field, with the same amount of experience, and he had fewer duties. Well, it was 28% to be exact, but 30% sounds better and is a US average for pay disparity. I am sure it was not outright intentional on the company’s part, but clearly I wasn’t going to be given equal pay without demanding it – even in the so-called “land of equality.” I think I may have become demanding if I had remained in that position, but I was ready for a career switch. As of last October, I am the SETAC Scientific Affairs Manager. I love my job because I get to keep up with the latest scientific issues and help facilitate the SETAC motto of Environmental Quality Through Science®.  I also finally managed to combine my interest in science with my passion for environmental advocacy, all while calling it work. I found that elusive “purpose” in my career. My advice to all girls out there: Do what you want to do, and demand what you rightfully deserve.

Jenny Shaw: Overcoming Imposter Syndrome

Jenny Shaw

Throughout my PhD, I wondered when I would be discovered to be an imposter, someone posing as a grad student. Sitting in lab meetings, departmental seminars and PhD defenses, I was convinced that I was the only person in the room that didn’t fully understand the topic being discussed, be it someone’s experimental setup, the statistics being proposed or the new theory threatening the dominant paradigm. This lack of confidence dogged me throughout my PhD, although I gradually learned I wasn’t the only one. Through conversations with other students, postdocs and the occasional professor— mostly female—people would reveal their own insecurities only after I disclosed mine.

Self-doubt is certainly not limited to women, although perhaps women are more willing to admit it. At the time, I perceived most male grad students and postdocs to be more knowledgeable, perhaps only because they participated more in discussions. Did they, though? It may have been that men were louder or more confident when they spoke, if only to interject a point or ask a question. But that was enough for me to assume they could speak expertly on the topic at hand. Meanwhile, I struggled to find time and the mental capacity to stay current with the literature in my field, let alone tackle the broader theories and topics discussed in larger meetings.

I did my best not to compare myself to other grad students, although this was a constant challenge. I believed in my PhD project and had the support of other grad students and postdocs, and my advisors. Rather than let self-doubt paralyze me, I focused on my research progress and achievements, no matter how minor. Finding key papers from which to adapt my tricky experimental setup. Yes! Being awarded a grant for a few hundred dollars. Every little bit helps! It sounds trite, but it’s important to celebrate progress in all its forms.

Ironically, conversations with two male professors debunked my misconceptions about the unflappable confidence of my male colleagues. Both of them were tenured and highly prominent in their fields, known for their breadth of expertise and widely respected. One of them remarked that he usually understood only about 30% of what was presented in any seminar. And poof! So disappeared my notion of being the only one in the room without a full understanding of the presentation. Later on, when I was writing my dissertation, I confessed to my advisor that I always wondered when he and my other advisor would “discover” that I was posing as a grad student, that I didn’t have what it takes to be a researcher. He said, “That feeling never really goes away, you know.” I was blown away. If there is one take-away lesson from my story, it is to never doubt yourself. And keep talking to others. You never know when or from whom you will receive the most valuable bits of insight.

Dr. Jenny Shaw is the managing editor of the SETAC journal Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management and a researcher with the Marine Science Institute at the University of California, Santa Barbara.