Women in STEM Event: Tenacity, self-confidence and professional connections are keys to success

Feb. 16, 2021

Six women representing various education and career stages openly shared their struggles, triumphs and advice with attendees at the virtual BIO5 Inspiring Women in STEM event on February 2.

Zoom screenshot of virtual Women in STEM event

Though women make up half the college-educated workforce in the United States, they account for less than 30% of those working in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.

The annual BIO5 Inspiring Women in STEM (WiS) event provides girls and young adults with resilient female role models and encourages them to pursue their STEM interests. On February 2, six extraordinary women from the BIO5 Institute representing different STEM education and career stages spoke candidly with an audience of 128 about finding their passions, overcoming adversity, and the importance of support.

“To develop a robust workforce of the future, we must encourage women and girls to explore STEM disciplines and give them opportunities for success,” said Lisa Romero, BIO5 senior director of public affairs and communications and moderator of the event. “We are lucky to have inspiring role models who have navigated successful STEM journeys of their own, and in turn, share their earned wisdom.”

Each speaker found her unique passion for STEM at a young age. For those unsure about what the future holds, Kristen Pogreba Brown, assistant professor in the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health, encouraged audience members to trust their instincts. She reminded them that as women, their interests in STEM may not align with the views of society or their female peers, but that doesn’t mean they should shy away from pursuing their dreams.

Serving as an example of Pogreba Brown’s point, Ying-hou Chou, assistant professor of cognition and neural systems, shared that she was discouraged in high school from specializing in STEM – even warned she would not be successful. Instead, she and her female classmates were expected to study humanities.

“Did I listen to them? I’m glad I did not!” Chou said.

This wasn’t the only instance Chou faced gender-based scrutiny of her career trajectory. After taking a three-year maternity leave during her postdoctoral fellowship, she experienced great difficulty finding a faculty position. Now a mother, many assumed she was less dedicated, focused or productive than her competitors.

“Success should not be defined primarily by status, salary, publications in high impact journals or number of grants,” Chou said. “Making time to enjoy your life with family despite tight pressures, being able to secure an education despite obstacles, and having a positive effect on others should be achievements as well. The capacity to pick oneself up and bounce back is something we should value in ourselves and others.”

Chou’s experience also resonated with Malak Tfaily, assistant professor of environmental science, who finds being a working mother incredibly challenging. Though Tfaily enjoys her two rewarding roles as a mother and researcher, she often finds balancing them difficult.

However, Tfaily told the audience it is possible to navigate a meaningful career and raise a family. Her female colleagues, many of whom are also mothers, are great examples.

“I work alongside a lot of strong female leaders who demonstrate constant respect and care for those around them,” she said.

While all panelists agreed that pursuing STEM as a woman was immensely difficult at times, they shared their advice for overcoming adversity.

Tfaily stressed the importance of fighting for oneself with the same strength one would fight with for others, especially loved ones. After surviving 23 years of bombs and wars in the Middle East, at times living without basic necessities in an 8-by-8 bomb shelter built by her father, Tfaily has learned to cherish each opportunity and find the strength to follow her dreams.

“Be brave enough to know that you can make a difference,” Tfaily said. “If you want something to happen for you, begin with believing in it and yourself before anything else.”

Along the same line, Clara Curiel-Lewandrowski, professor of medicine and Interim Chief of the Division of Dermatology, encouraged audience members to learn how and when to push for what they want, deserve and believe in.

Chou urged young women and girls to constantly “develop” themselves. She empowered them to challenge thoughts of “if” they could do something, instead focusing on when and how they will.

In addition to standing up for oneself, several of the panelists, as well as keynote speaker, Barbara Fransway, highlighted the importance of finding a support network.

Public health undergraduate student and BIO5 KEYS Research Internship alumna Erika Barton shared that stepping outside her comfort zone, asking questions, and seeking out faculty mentors have provided the foundation to chase a career in STEM. While Barton is now comfortable making connections as a college student, she stressed the importance of doing so in high school to the younger audience members.

Pogreba Brown discussed the power of “finding a cohort.” As someone in a STEM field with greater female representation than others, the public health researcher has benefited greatly from collaborating with her fellow female colleagues.

“I have an amazing group of female mentors, colleagues and employees, and I am so honored to work with them,” she said. “There is something truly unique about when you get a strong group of intelligent women together…and it’s another way we can continue to grow women in STEM.”

Fransway, manager of genomic research services at the University of Arizona Genetics Core (UAGC), spoke about the importance of mentorship and professional relationships. She’s been working at UAGC for over 20 years, and gives most of the credit for her longevity to her colleagues and the professional relationships they have built over the years.

Most of those relationships have centered around mentorship in which both the mentor and the mentee benefit from one another. She also challenged the idea that a mentor had to be significantly older than the mentee and that the mentee had to be someone early in their career.

“You’re never too young to be a mentor…and you’re never too experienced to benefit from a mentor yourself,” she said.

Fransway encouraged audience members to find a sounding board mentor – someone other than a family member or a direct supervisor- who cares about your professional growth and is interested in seeing you succeed. This type of mentor understands you as a person and can be a resource to work through any challenge.

After overcoming countless obstacles and earning successes, each of the speakers have found their unique voice as a woman in STEM. Pogreba Brown says that while it’s been a hard road to get where she is, it’s been an immensely rewarding journey.

Curiel-Lewandrowski reminded the audience that the journey is never over, however, so they must constantly reevaluate what they are doing and why. If their career is no longer a source of joy, it might be time for a change.

The physician-scientist also touched on resiliency using her hiking accident the prior weekend as an example. Though she took a hard fall doing something she loves, she is more determined than ever to get back up and start again.

“That’s life. It’s going to happen physically and mentally,” the physician-scientist said about falling while pursuing a passion. “But you don’t stop doing it. You love what you do, so you stand up and do it all over again.”

This event was part of the Discover BIO5 series and 20th year celebration of the BIO5 Institute.