Inspirational female leaders in STEM

Science Talks Podcast with white microphone on a dark blue background, surrounded by white icons representing various science fields/tools
Dr. Brittany Uhlorn, BIO5 Institute

Women make up nearly half of the U.S. workforce, but only 27% of the STEM workforce. The University of Arizona and the BIO5 Institute are working to combat this gender inequity, and Dr. Betsy Cantwell, Senior Vice President for Research and Innovation, and Dr. Jennifer Barton, BIO5's director, are leading the charge. Cantwell and Barton share tips for succeeding as a woman in STEM, particularly engineering, as well as how they navigate the intersection between STEM and business to bring valuable innovations to their stakeholders. 

You're both accomplished engineers as well as academic leaders. Was there a defining moment in your early years or in your school years that led you to this career choice? 

BC: The defining moment for me was when I had completed an undergraduate degree in psychology. I started my career there and was about to enter graduate school for a master's in social work. I had an epiphany when they were running us through how the program would go, and I went, “Nope.” I literally got up and walked out, but I didn’t know what I’d do next.

I thought a lot about what I really wanted to do, and I was very motivated by moon landings. In kindergarten or maybe even preschool, they put this little TV on the stage in the school auditorium. We all filed in, and nobody could actually see it, but we could hear it - we listened to the moon landing.

I decided I wanted to be an astronaut, but in order to be an astronaut, you either need to be in the military, which I was not, or get a Ph.D. in something STEM related. So I went back to school and started all over again, and here we are today.

JB: I came from a whole STEM family. My father was an aerospace engineer, and my mother was a chemistry and math major. I have four brothers, and the three older ones are all engineers. My parents believed very firmly that you went to school, you got a four-year degree, and you went out and worked, so you needed a first job that you could get a good job or needed a degree where you could get a good job. 

I was allowed to study anything I wanted as long as it was engineering. I thought, if I'm going to be an engineer, I might as well be the one that makes the most money. The top of the list at the time was a petroleum engineer. I was in Texas, but I didn't want to work on an oil rig, so number two was electrical engineering. I went and got an electrical engineering degree. I have to admit, electrical engineering is an incredibly great background to have, but it was not my passion. 

I went to work for the space station program, where I got to work on the electrical system layout and the external lighting system that led me to the NASA Johnson Space Center, where I got to work with the astronauts on a mock-up of the International Space Station. I then realized there was this thing called biomedical engineering that you could do that would work with human systems in the context of engineering. 

When I had the opportunity, I went back and got a Ph.D. in biomedical engineering and figured I'd go back to work for NASA because I also wanted to be an astronaut. I think we all wanted to be astronauts at some point! I wasn't ever selected, but it led me to the opportunity to come to the University of Arizona, and this has been fantastic.

You both hold multiple degrees in engineering and worked for NASA as engineers. With the odds stacked against you as female engineers, how have you found success? What are some life lessons that you can share with young girls and young women about opportunities as they present themselves?

BC: Women are just as good engineers as men. If you get the opportunity and you get the job, you'll probably do better because you perform better, or at least equally well. The trick is to find those places to work where your performance is what matters.

JB: You may have heard of the Sherlock Holmes versus Hermione Granger idea, where disciplines where charisma and brilliance are valued tend to be male dominated because Sherlock Holmes was brilliant. He didn't work. He just thought of the answer, and it was right. Very many of the sciences that are dominated that way. On the other hand, someone like Hermione Granger is a hard worker, and that explains her accomplishments. 

I remember hearing this theory, and there's some flaws in it, but it's an interesting thought application - Are women more accepted in field where hard work and results are what matters? I thought if that's the case, engineering ought to be female dominated because you cannot talk your way into a bridge being sound. It either is, or it isn't, and your hard work gets you there. Thinking about that really helped me. I work hard, and I succeed by learning through my experiences. 

BC: I think a lot more women in STEM fields, especially engineering, have a high appreciation for the privilege of working around other smart people. That's not a gender specific thought process, but an awful lot of women in engineering are appreciative of being around all these smart women. It does take a village to get a big engineering job done, just as an example. It's really hard to be the brainiac in the room - the Sherlock Holmes in the room - and get something like a big bridge built. The point is to appreciate that you may not always be the smartest person in the room, but that's actually not nearly as good a position to be in as the one where you understand that there are lots of smart people and they have an enormous amount of value. Together you get a lot more done.

You both work at the intersection of business and science. How do you integrate those two to achieve your goals?

JB: One of the great experiences I had was working on the space station program and having to write grants - you had to look at the specifications and write what the prime contractor wanted to hear. I think that is one of the points that people sometimes get hung up on - they want to write about what's in their head. They’re not thinking about what the customer wants. That mentality of thinking about what the customer wants, or what value you can provide to the customer, is something that is persistent in all different dimensions of your life. 

I've always tried to keep that in mind, and I've always tried to think of what I can provide that’s going to provide value or have a return on the investment. 

BC: Engineers make good corporate, and even institutional, managers and leaders because we are frequently trained to think about the complex system that must come together and function, which is why business attracted me. 

I had reached a point in my career where I had to learn a lot about business in order to function and make all the things that I was trying to make happen, like get huge buildings or build a hundred-million-dollar program. I had to understand all the companies that were coming to work with us. I worked at a national lab at the time, but I had to really understand the business ecosystem and the different social constructs at those organizations. 

Communication has been key. Every student in STEM should understand that they will become a communicator. It will be a core part of what they must deliver in order to get through any aspect of working in a STEM business environment, and absolutely in academia where you have to really think about communicating in all its glorious forms about your data. I spend so much of my time thinking about how to communicate what we do at the university.

Dr. Cantwell, prior to coming to the University of Arizona, you were the CEO of the ASU research enterprise. How are our competitive rivalries and collaborations with the other institutions in the state driving bioscience innovation in industry and research and advancing our education goals in our state?

BC: It makes an impact waking up every day and wanting to make a difference. We're clan-based creatures, right? The way that competition works the best across between ASU and U of A is really where we are taking that, “I want to make the world a better place,” mindset and pitting ourselves against one another. Sometimes however, we come together, and we compete against the California schools for instance. Competition is always best and works really well when we're using it to accelerate our mindset of wanting to do better. When you look up how many of our grants and contracts are done jointly with ASU, there are hundreds of them. Our people are talking to each other because they want to get the work done. They want to work with people who think like they do, and they want to do better for the world. You see it at NAU as well. 

Our universities in this state are driven to find solutions, to provide value, and culturally, I think that's an aspect of Arizona. Other universities have people who feel that way, but it isn't nearly as embedded in their culture.

JB: I agree. I like to say that my competition is cancer. We’re working against the diseases that affect people, or it could be in the inequities that are in the world, or threats to our environment, or just the unknown pushing back the unknown. 

I am thrilled that we have such a cooperative state, and I have many, many collaborators and cooperators. Sometimes they're your competition when you're trying to get grants, because there is only so much money that the federal agencies are handing out. But sometimes they're your collaborators. I think everybody keeps in mind that we aren't each other's competition so much as we are here to help build on each other. I also think Arizona is unique in that respect,

Competition is great. We love it. We thrive on it. We want to be the first that gets us up in the morning, and we're going to do something better. It’s a very healthy, good thing. 

One of the top goals of BIO5 is driving innovation through research and education. But sometimes we get tired and bogged down by the administrative tasks of our jobs. How do you remind yourself of the mission, and how do you share that with your students? 

BC: I like to think about where I can create the next runway out into the future, and how I can include students and collaborators. That keeps me going, and it provides the university with a sense of forward motion and the ability to have new thoughts and ideas. That's kind of what innovation really ought to be for us.

JB: I don’t ever get to be stuck in that mode without innovation for very long because I just walk in the lab, and I've got five grad students and half a dozen undergraduates. Then the KEYS high school student comes in and says, “Why are you doing it this way? Why aren't you doing that?” It's so refreshing to have the students come in and ask why, and they’ll come up with their own ideas. Some are out there, but there's always at least one out of the 10 that's a really, really fantastic idea. 

I'm here at the University of Arizona because of the students. The students are the heart and soul of the research we do, and it's so much the better for them that we bring people in young. I love having the high school students, and I love having the undergraduates - the undergraduates keep the graduate students nervous because they're just nipping at their heels and making them perform. We need to nurture that friendly competition. We need to encourage these students to be innovative and to come up with their novel ideas that are changing the way that we do research and business.