Women in Science Up Close and Personal, Part 3: Overcoming Obstacles
In the third of our series honoring women in science, successful women researchers reflect on their career journeys.
Lourdes Contreras made a big sacrifice to become a scientist: She left her home, family and friends behind in Mexico to pursue a Ph.D. in Europe. “I still remember the day at the airport, when everyone was gathered like it was a party,” she says. “I was sad and thrilled at the same time.” Because she had secured funding for only three years and needed to quickly complete her research, Contreras spent nights, weekends and holidays at the lab.
And yet, even after going to such great lengths to launch her career, Contreras, now a Formulation and Process Design Scientist in the Sandwich, UK site, felt she had to constantly prove her value in those early years. “Women have to keep their work as visible as possible to ensure it’s recognized,” she says. “It puts us at a disadvantage.”
Debra Pittman, a molecular biologist and Research Fellow working in rare diseases at Pfizer’s R&D site in Cambridge, Massachusetts, echoes the sentiment. “I’ve had to prove myself in every new position I’ve had,” she says. “To overcome that, I remember my passion for science and I keep learning new things.”
“I’ve been lucky to work at Pfizer for a long time, and I’ve found that I’ve been treated very fairly and given opportunities to grow as a scientist and leader, says Jennifer LaFontaine, Senior Director in Medicinal Chemistry in La Jolla. But early in her career, someone told her that she should be more serious and stoic in her manner on the job. “I later realized that that advice was probably a veiled way of telling me to act more like a man,” she says. “My colleagues could sense that that wasn’t authentic. I’ve found it much more effective to be myself and to not try to ‘act’ a certain way that meets another person’s expectations of who I should be.”
Many women also experience an internal obstacle: impostor syndrome, or the feeling that they’re not good enough and will eventually be exposed as frauds. The paradox of this effect, of course, is that it’s often most apparent in women who’ve been very successful in their education and career. Arpita Maiti, Senior Director of External Science & Innovation for Inflammation & Immunology and Microbiome, jokes that she still hasn’t overcome her impostor syndrome. “But a mentor once told me to ‘fake it till you make it.’ And that’s what I do, while also gathering information, listening, learning and continually trying to better myself.”
Striking a work – life balance is a complication that many women scientists face. “I’ve become an expert in scheduling, delegating and asking for help, both at work and home,” says Suvi Orr, Senior Principal Scientist in Pfizer’s Oncology Research Unit in La Jolla, CA. “Early in my career I would say yes to every request. It took me a while to realize the importance of setting boundaries. It’s especially important now that everyone is connected all the time,” adds Annaliesa Anderson, VP and Chief Scientific Officer for Bacterial Vaccines in Pearl River, NY. “Despite this, I don’t believe that there is such a thing as having it all. There are times where I’ve not been there for my family, for example when they’ve had events at school. But their dad films it for me and we watch it as a family when I’m home.”
Whether or not a situation is an obstacle is sometimes a matter of framing: Kathrin Jansen, Senior Vice President and Head of Vaccine Research and Development, was actively dissuaded from going into science by her father— not because he wasn’t a supportive father (he was), but because he feared that sexism would thwart his daughter’s career path. As a chemical engineer, he had seen how women were treated and pushed aside. Her mother was a lab assistant in chemistry, and both of them suggested other career paths, none of which appealed to Jansen. “Those problems my parents were worried about had no effect on me,” she says. “I saw them as challenges.”
Megan Robinson, Director of R&D Scientific Learning in Groton, CT, overcame a series of setbacks, starting with a college professor who told her that women don’t belong in science. But each discouraging experience only fueled her motivation to pursue a life in science:“I like proving people wrong! Perhaps that is an innate quality of a scientist, to try things that people tell you aren’t possible. That’s the nature of an experiment.”