by Francesca Seta
Francesca used to be a BUMC postdoc, recently she got a position as assistant Professor in the Department of Medicine at BUMC, where she researches the molecular and genetic mechanisms of arterial stiffness and how to cure and prevent it. She also wrote an interesting post for the postdoc blog, enjoy!
About being a scientist
The Danish toy giant LEGO has recently grabbed media attention for the release of a new minifigure: the “scientist”. The little yellow brick wearing lab coat, glasses and a pen in the pocket looks cute and sharp; definitely not a mad, nerdy or evil scientist, as often portrayed in the collective imaginary (think Shelley’s Dr. Frankeinstein or Doc from the movie “Back to the Future”). Most of all, the “scientist” is female. As I dug deeper, I was surprised to discover that LEGO has been criticized in the past for gender bias and its previous attempts to market to girls found guilty of perpetuating the “pink and pretty” stereotypes of female representation. The new “lady scientist” may be, in part, an attempt to amend such gender bias accusations.
This came just a few months after yet another much debated release: the book “Lean in” from Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO, in which the author encourages women to engage more in leadership roles in the workplace and blames them for not embracing their full potential. All the debate about gender disparity in the American workforce and particularly in STEM careers (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) made me think: what does really take to succeed in science, independently if you are a guy or a girl? I asked myself this very question many years ago as a PhD (female) student when I was looking for sources of inspiration and directions about my future and my career. At that time, I came across a great book, “Advice for a young investigator” from the Spanish scientist Santiago Ramon y Cayal. According to the eminent neuroanatomist, hard work, passion for work, family and country, ambition, patience, humility, pursue of original data and master of the techniques are the qualities required to succeed in science. Most importantly, the idea of having to be exceptionally smart or genius, as sometimes scientists are envisioned in the popular perception, was not even mentioned in the book. Although the book was first published in 1897, the principles it promotes are timeless and universal and I reasoned that being successful in science boils down to willpower, self-motivation and perseverance, none of which, are gender-related qualities or restricted to STEM careers (a sport coach would probably have a similar piece of advice for young athletes as Ramon y Cayal had for young investigators).
In a recent trip to my home country, Italy, I went to renew my ID and the office clerk asked me what my profession was. To my surprise, the profession “scientist” was not in the list of choices although they had “academic researcher”, which is pretty close. Despite the profession of “the scientist” being somehow nebulous and elusive in Italy, growing up I never felt discouraged to pursue a STEM education and career and definitely not because of my gender. Now, as an early stage investigator, I come to appreciate how lucky I was to have teachers, family and mentors that rewarded perseverance and valued resilience as I was growing up. Those are the very qualities that, during my PhD and postdoctoral years, helped me to face failed experiments, long hours in the lab and many years of training at low pay. And probably these are the very same qualities that keep us scientists going these days in face of NIH spending cuts and low grant success rates that threaten to shut down our labs. Sure, STEM careers are tough but after all, the ideal of making an impact against human suffering, advancing knowledge and the satisfaction that comes from successful experiments, new discoveries, published articles and funded grants, make it all worth it. Despite the hardship and the challenges, science is creative, exciting and rewarding if you do not give up. And hopefully the little “scientist” LEGO figure will help to pull more young people into it.