Women in Biosciences: Let There Be No Limit

The response to Jackson Laboratory's Bioscience Careers Forum in December 2015 was overwhelming and participant feedback was to have more focus on women in biosciences. The Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine then held a follow up forum, The Bioscience Careers Forum II: Women in the Biosciences.

Students from various education levels and bioscience-related fields attended JAX’s Farmington, Connecticut location on March 11th, 2016. Along with learning more about applying to jobs, finding internships, networking, and interviewing skills, students heard our CEO and President, Ellen Matloff, speak about society’s impact on girls and women pursuing careers in the biosciences.

Ellen kicked off this discussion engaging the audience by paralleling her story as a women in bioscience with how society influences girls and women who pursue academics and careers.

One of the most impactful moments of Ellen’s keynote address was a story of two female elementary school students. A school in the greater New Haven area hosted two events for their students. Girls were invited to attend a Father/Daughter Dance while boys were invited to attend a Mother/Son Star Wars night at the science museum. These two girls asked their Dad if they could go to the science night instead. Their father contacted the principal and asked that both events be opened to both sexes.  The girls were given permission to attend, but their female friends were not - so they reluctantly declined. This raise an important question, are we taking into consideration the fabric of families today? We have solo parents, same sex parents, families in which one parent is deployed or deceased, children raised by grandparents or other adults, and other families who don’t follow typical gender stereotypes. Events like these are not inclusive of all families.

These events sent Ellen a message, “if you are a girl please, show up to a dance and look pretty. But if you want to learn about science at the museum, you must be a boy.” This is not the message we want to send to our daughters or sons.

So how can girls get involved and supported in a career in biosciences?

Ellen stressed the importance of strong female role models. She had many throughout her education. After graduate school, when she was hired at Yale, Ellen found that one of her best mentors in bioscience was a man, Dr. Vince DeVita. He is world-renowned for being the head of the National Cancer Institute and a pioneer in the treatment of lymphoma. He also has a long track record of hiring, supporting and promoting women. Women having careers in bioscience is a joint effort between men and women, “men are often the best advocates for women in biosciences.”

To welcome males and females into biosciences we can increase field exposure to students starting, not in high school or college, but in elementary school with job shadowing. Offering more internships can help students explore fields they find interesting. How can we make these opportunities available? By rewarding industry and faculty for creating mentoring and teaching opportunities.

Ellen’s advice for students is to “let there be no limit. Whatever interests you, look into it, go for it.” You can succeed by “choosing supportive mentors.” What is great about today’s technology is it allows us to connect with just about anyone through social media. She stresses, “Do not limit yourself by fear.  Apply for opportunities that are out of reach. Don’t be intimidated and feel like someone is too famous or too successful to approach.”

She expressed that choices are key, choose your career, boss and spouse carefully.

Will your career involve a lot of travel? Will it require call nights and weekends? Is this compatible with the life you see for yourself? Explore your boss’ track record, does your boss support women? Are there other women in leadership positions? Will your spouse support your career? If you want a family, will he/she be a partner in raising a family?

Ellen Matloff left Yale two years ago to start My Gene Counsel. She is now the Founder and President. She shared her own quote to express her life choices, building on the famous Frost quote about taking the path less traveled:  “Sometimes neither of the existing paths work. It is then that you take out your machete and cut a third path.”

She left students in the audience feeling impressed by her courage to speak up about these issues, inspired to support these ideas, and excited to jump into their careers without fear limiting their potential. 

Watch the Ellen's speech below:

What was the memorable issue Ellen discussed? Join the conversation by tweeting at @mygenecounsel with #JAXBSF to share your thoughts.