There’s good news for women who pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math, known as the STEM fields. According to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, women in STEM jobs earn 33 percent more than those in non-STEM occupations and experience a smaller wage gap relative to men. Plus, STEM careers offer women the opportunity to engage in some of the most exciting realms of discovery and technological innovation.
Yet, while women make up nearly half of the U.S. workforce, only 24 percent of STEM workers are women, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Perhaps the secret isn’t out yet: Women who choose STEM careers report a great sense of satisfaction, especially with regard to collegiality, intrigue and an opportunity to make a difference.
Early mentorship makes a difference
“I had an amazing chemistry teacher in high school who really got me excited about science,” says Melinda Hill Einsla ’02, associate scientist at Dow Chemical. “I thought that I wanted to be a high school chemistry teacher, just like her, but once I went to college and became involved with undergraduate research at Bloomsburg University, I realized that what I really wanted to do was research.”
At Dow, Einsla designs new polymers for applications like adhesives and textiles — work she was first exposed to as an undergraduate at BU. “Undergraduate research was a very significant factor in my ultimate career choice. My research adviser, Dr. Cindy Kepler, and I worked together to synthesize siloxane polymers, and we had the opportunity to present our research findings at regional and national American Chemical Society meetings,” she explains.
Female scientists are not the exception at Dow, and Einsla believes that will soon be the case in most other corporations.
“The gender barriers that existed for our mothers and grandmothers are really starting to disappear. Women in science are more and more prevalent and women are conducting ground-breaking research all over the world,” she says. “At Dow, I work with many talented, intelligent women who are successful scientists, engineers, businesswomen and leaders. Young women today should know that they have the ability to be or do whatever excites them, and the most important factors are their own confidence, knowledge and skills not their gender.”
“Whether it is a societal construct or inborn nature, women tend to perform better when part of a network,” says Bell, who benefitted from mentoring during her graduate work. “My research adviser was supportive of a career in academia, and supportive of my working toward my doctorate while being a single parent of a young child. Through her I met other women in science and gained other mentors. In fact, I can thank all of the women then at the University of Louisville Department of Chemistry for helping me get where I am today.”
At Bloomsburg, Bell’s primary research focus is in blood clotting. She has developed a quick and inexpensive assay to test inhibitors of clotting and identified two weak inhibitors of thrombin, the main enzyme involved in blood clot formation. Both projects are important targets for pharmaceutical companies interested in anti-clotting agents that could help prevent heart attacks and strokes.
“I crave intellectual stimulation, and so a career in chemistry suits me very well,” says Bell, who is also dedicated to supporting other women in science. “I try to honor the dedication my mentors showed me by sharing my story with up-and-coming students and serving as a mentor for students and new faculty alike.”
A career path with rewarding opportunities
For Katy Parise ’04, a career in science was the last thing on her mind when she registered as an English/secondary education major at BU. “I enjoyed writing and wanted to be a high school English teacher,” she says. But when she took the required general education introductory biology course for non-majors, she was inspired to take a different career path. Today, she is senior researcher at the Microbial Genetics and Genomics Laboratory at Northern Arizona University.
Parise manages research projects that focus on understanding the evolution, ecology and epidemiology of a number of disease-causing bacteria including anthrax, plague and hospital-acquired infections.
“The opportunities to learn new techniques, analyze data and write papers are endless here, and I am never without something interesting to do and learn,” she says. “Plus, I enjoy the nurturing and organized environment. For example, we focus a lot of our time and resources on training undergraduates, which is important for the next generation of researchers.”
Parise believes women are well suited for science careers. “For my work, an interest in disease genetics and ecology is expected, but it also entails focus, organization, multi-tasking and the expectation that you will either fail or succeed — skills gained through everyday life,” she says.
The female advantage
While science careers require skill, they also require some inherent traits that many consider to be female strengths.
“Women come equipped with a deep sense of commitment, a desire to pursue excellence, attention to detail, thoroughness, patience, fortitude and diligence,” says Susan M. Dallabrida ’93, vice president of clinical science and consulting services at PHT Corp. “These attributes make women especially acclimated to a career in science.”
Boston-based PHT helps pharmaceutical companies and research organizations collect data directly from patients through mobile apps.
In her leadership role with the company, Dallabrida focuses on instrument development and validation, and conducts clinical studies on data collection. Her work helps researchers gain insight into how patients feel and function. and melds her interests in science and business.
“From early on, I wrestled with competing interests in medicine, science and business,” she explains. “My role at PHT is a way of finally reconciling and unifying those areas that I have found greatly exciting and intriguing. I am able to impact clinical trials across therapeutic areas on a global scale and directly contribute to accelerating and delineating novel, effective and safe therapies.”
To make the most of a career in science, Dallabrida advises women to focus. “Every experiment leads to more questions,” she says, “and figuring out what to pursue and what to put aside is key.
“Confidently leave your comfort zone and move in a direction of change when needed,” she says. “But it’s also important to be an example for other women in the field. Become a great mentor and light the path for those who will follow your lead.” •
Amy Biemiller is a writer with the LightStream Group.