Women in Science: Riding the Waves

Once upon a time not so very long ago, a young lady in an Oklahoma high school aspired to help people by pursuing a career in sociology or social work. The sciences did not appeal to this young lady because she was not interested in becoming a doctor or a nurse--the only career choices considered at that time and in that place to be viable options for a woman scientist. In due course, the young woman reached her social science goal and launched her altruistic career. But as she became more experienced in the ways of the world, disillusion set in, and the wiser young lady moved toward a career to which she was much better suited, both personally and intellectually.

That naive, rocky beginning to my career has been followed by a continuously evolving realization of my desires and capabilities. This realization started off with a Master of Science degree in botany from Oklahoma State University and a Ph.D. in plant biology from Washington University in St. Louis. After completing my Ph.D., I stayed on at Washington University to do postdoctoral work with Joseph Varner. I went from there to Uppsala, Sweden, where I worked for 6 months as a visiting researcher.

From postdoc work, I moved--traditionally enough--into an assistant professor position at a mid-sized research and teaching university, with primary teaching responsibilities in cell biology and plant development. After several years at this institution, I moved on and have spent the last 5 years in industry working on protein production in plants. For the first two of those years, I was at the Pioneer Hi-Bred seed company in Johnston, Iowa, where I was a member of a technology development group. Then, 3 years ago, several members of this group, including me, started a company in College Station, Texas, with the goal of continuing to commercialize protein products from transgenic plants. I was a founding member of the company team and have continued to grow as the company has. Currently, I am the senior scientist in charge of the research arm of the company, as well as vice president of technology development. As such, I participate extensively in company management.

I have not traveled this path alone. Indeed, my husband of 28 years, who has an M.S. in biology and a high school teaching certificate, decided early in our marriage that he would follow me along my career path. This has been quite helpful to me, in that it has given me the flexibility to pursue opportunities as they arise. However, it has been difficult at times for him, because his job prospects tend to depend on the size of the city to which we move. Our children--we have two boys, aged 14 and 20--have generally benefited. They have experienced a wide range of life situations in our moves, and I believe that this has contributed to their tolerance of differences and their global views of life.

Even with a loving family, however, achieving my career goals was not always smooth sailing, and I have got to where I am today only after a lot of stops and restarts to detour around roadblocks in traditional paths. One challenge I faced was having an undergraduate degree in a nonscience field. I spent a lot of time retraining myself in the sciences, which meant that I was among the older graduate students in my Ph.D. program. Also, by the time I entered that program, I had a 2-year-old child. I dealt with this challenge by using my ability to focus and my drive to finish school to make up for what I lacked in time.

A second challenge was in my faculty position. I had a great deal of trouble obtaining grants, which had a direct impact on my not achieving tenure. At the time, I felt my options for continuing in a scientific career were quite limited, particularly if I were to stay in academia. But I had no desire to teach full time--I wanted to do research. I believed that obtaining a position in industry would allow me to do that, but I was not quite sure.

In deciding how to make the transition into the next phase of my career, I did a lot of reading and I asked a lot of friends for their advice. The friends to whom I turned most often were women who had established successful careers on alternative paths. With these friends and my husband as my support network, I was soon able to repair my damaged ego, redefine my goals, and then move forward in a plan to achieve those goals.

During this process I learned that I'm intelligent and accomplished, no matter what the assessment of other people; that I wanted a career in scientific research; and that other opportunities are available if one looks. Therefore, if I could offer any specific tips/lessons to my female colleagues, I would say above all, be true to yourself and to your desires. In addition, be excellent in your field. Look for and follow "odd" opportunities-those that are not of the traditional type. You should also write down your personal goals and desires and review them periodically. And don't be afraid to be aggressive with those goals and desires! For a time, I wrestled hugely with my ambition to be a famous cutting-edge scientist, feeling that this goal was too selfish and that I ought to be more altruistic. In the end, however, I kept that goal on my list, and it has served me well ever since.

No one has to look far beyond the statistics regarding women in high positions in Fortune 500 companies to know that certain types of opportunity are just not easily accessible to women. My company, for example, is currently recruiting a research director, a CEO, a clinical studies coordinator, and a marketing manager. We have had one women apply for all those positions combined. I am surprised and disappointed that there is such a dearth of women with the experience and qualifications necessary to fill these positions.

Even so, I envision a world in which women can enter professions because they excel in their chosen field and in which women do not have to fight for respect and position--where those opportunities are routinely available. I hope that many women will take risks and enter jobs for which they have opportunities, even if it means a lot of additional learning, so that--in time--they can gain the experience necessary to enter jobs with clout and high earning potential.

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