Sunday, July 14, 2024

Round table: Women in science, prominent female scientists describe keys to success


The discussion was held at the new global headquarters in Raleigh for Merz Aesthetics and moderated by Business North Carolina Associate Editor Colin Campbell. It was edited for brevity and clarity.

Photography by Bryan Regan

Pictured below, 1st row:
LAURA GUNTER, president, North Carolina Biosciences Organization
SAMANTHA KERR, chief scientific officer, Merz Aesthetics

2nd row:
TERRI PHILLIPS, chief medical affairs officer, Merz Aesthetics
MEG POWELL, founder and CEO, 501 Ventures
CHRISTY SHAFFER, partner, Hatteras Venture Partners; managing director, Hatteras Discovery

3rd row:
AMANDA TAYLOR, Durham site lead, Merck
CHRISTINE VANNAIS, chief operating officer, FUJIFILM Diosynth Biotechnologies

women in science panelists

The numbers reveal the hard fact: Women were 48% of U.S. workers but filled only 27% of science, technology, engineering and math — STEM — jobs in 2019, according to the U.S. Census. While that’s up from 38% and 8%, respectively in 1970, the relatively low participation shouldn’t diminish the importance of the role that women, particularly those in leadership positions, play in science. Business North Carolina magazine, with the help of Raleigh-based Merz Aesthetics, the world’s largest dedicated medical aesthetics business, recently gathered a panel of experts to discuss the state of women in science, why it’s important, how it’s changing and what needs to be done to expand it.

When did you realize that you wanted to pursue a career in science? How has your passion for science evolved between then and now?

KERR: It was my curiosity. I want to understand how and why things work. That takes you down a path to research. It’s how I started and how I remain.

POWELL: I went to where my natural talents worked best. I loved chemistry because once I learned a concept, I could apply it more broadly. It made sense to me. It’s that insatiable curiosity that continues today.

SHAFFER: I attribute my scientific curiosity to a middle school teacher. She was an excellent teacher. And I was very curious. She gave me a lot of extra-credit work. That got me hooked on it.

GUNTER: A teacher in middle school and my high school chemistry professor, who was a Ph.D. chemist and had worked in industry before choosing to teach, sparked my interest in math, science and chemistry. They all made sense to me. I ended up being a laboratory aide for a couple years in high school. That really spurred my interest.

TAYLOR: I love math and chemistry. My high school chemistry teacher, who also taught my father, took me under his wing. I was his lab assistant. He encouraged me to study engineering, not chemistry. I’m a chemical engineer. My curiosity continues today. How
can I turn something scientific into a practical application?

PHILLIPS: I’m the child of health care practitioners — a dentist and a nurse. There were many medical books at home, and I got into them all the time. I love being a student. It’s my favorite profession. So, medicine was a natural choice, because you never stop learning. I considered becoming a lawyer because I had this vision that they mostly worked in law libraries. I thought that constantly being around books would be great. Then I discovered that’s not what lawyers do. That’s what law clerks do. So, science and medicine became my inspiration.

VANNAIS: I’ve always loved nature, being outdoors and camping. That came from my family. I had an aunt who ran a laboratory. As a child, I would pick plants and make tinctures. I was curious about the environment and its creatures. That kept me in science. But I’m not a scientist. I’m a safety professional and lead an organization. It’s a different path but under the same umbrella. Leading an organization that makes products that help people gives me joy and satisfaction. Even on the horrible days, I feel like I’m adding value. That keeps me going.

How and why did you transition to a leadership role?

GUNTER: I earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry then worked on independent projects in labs. But I was more social than that. So, I decided to switch to the business side of science. Early on, I translated science for the lay person. That’s helped me over the years in different roles, including at NCBIO. I talk to legislators about complicated issues. They can’t be broken into simple soundbites.

TAYLOR: After spending time on the shop floor and implementing ideas, I began working with a plethora of people. Coaching, mentoring and developing them is inspiring to me. I enjoy watching them go from struggling with an issue to understanding it then growing and prospering. That’s the reason I moved into a leadership role. It drives me and makes me want to stay in my current career. Pharma and biopharma have a noble mission, and I love knowing that my daily contributions help make a huge impact on humanity. You certainly can develop leadership skills, but it starts as an innate ability to connect with and help people.

VANNAIS: It happened over time. I didn’t say today I’m going to be a leader. It took time to discover the joy and value in being a leader. It’s a skill that some people lack.

KERR: There wasn’t a day when I woke up and declared I will be a manager or leader. It was something that someone else identified in me. I’ve had many mentors, and they said, ‘You should take on this team.’ But I was happy tending to my own research. They insisted, so I grew and started enjoying it. That one person gives you a little push, then you recognize the ability in yourself. 

POWELL: Developing people is an important part of leadership, but there’s more to it. It also involves assembling the right people into a team and applying it to the problem. I really enjoy that part, knowing the pieces or parts and how to fit them together to solve the big problems.

SHAFFER: It’s so much easier when you surround yourself with people who support you. When I was at Wellcome, which became Glaxo Wellcome, I was asked to be a project leader. I was younger than everybody else on the team, but I was responsible for working with the chemists, biologists and pharmacologists. I had a passion for that product. I understood how it worked and how it could help patients. They let me make some mistakes, but they always caught me. And they helped me. I think all of us probably have had people like that at some point in our lives. I did not want to be a CEO, and I fought it for a year. I told them I wasn’t the right person. One day the board chair told me that I had something that’s uncommon — common sense and good judgement. That’s why they wanted me to be CEO. I thought everyone had those traits. 

PHILLIPS: I’ve experienced being identified as a leader when I didn’t feel like I was. That happens to women more than men. Most men aren’t afraid to jump in with both feet, even if they’re not really sure about the situation where they’re landing. Most women wait until they’ve checked off every box and 10 more that say they’re qualified. I’m teaching my three daughters not to do that. When someone with experience identifies your talent or skill, believe them. Embrace and develop what they see. Many women struggle with trusting their abilities.

Do fewer female role models make it more difficult for girls and women to pursue a career in science?

PHILLIPS: There’s no question. If you don’t see yourself represented, then you don’t believe it’s for you. I had some great male mentors because there weren’t any women who could mentor me.

KERR: I recently received a LinkedIn message from someone who reported to me about 15 years ago. She has became a team leader at a great organization, but she doesn’t have any female peers. She needed support, so I sent her a number of suggestions that have worked for me. Your confidence can falter without peers or role models. It can be very isolating, and that’s when you have self-doubt. When I walked into an engineering lecture as a student, I was one girl in a sea of many boys. That would make anyone do a double take, even if the situation was reversed. We have to have confidence in each other and ourselves.

TAYLOR: There were few women working as engineers when I started. It’s hard. It’s lonely. You support your co-workers as an advocate, mentor, friend and colleague. Those are the people you have to rely on for help. There are going to be times when you’re alone, and you have to go to someone who will tell you that it’s OK and you can do this. I try to be that advocate to the people that I mentor.

What’s the difference between a good mentor and a good boss?

SHAFFER: Mentors truly care about you. They see your success as part of their role or job. I had a female mentor who had been Pfizer’s head of research years ago. I was nervous to meet her at first because I had read about all her accomplishments. She arrived in a denim jacket and boots, a reflection of her love for horses. We hit it off immediately. She asked me what I liked about my job. I spent 15 minutes telling her. Then she asked me about what I didn’t like. That took 90 minutes to explain. The most important thing she said came at the end of our conversation. She asked what are we going to do. She was with me and wanted to make my job better.

POWELL: I’ve had some amazing male mentors in my life. But the majority of them were professional because that’s what we have in common, and that’s where they can help. It’s important to find mentors who represent your whole self. As your career develops, you’re not only growing professionally. You’re growing personally, too. They know what string to pull and that next-level question to ask.

GUNTER: I recall a particular boss who cared about me and his role as a mentor. He gave me the opportunity to step out and maybe make a mistake. Most mistakes can be unwound. Sometimes you have to get out there and do something. It may not be quite the right thing, but that’s OK. The way that you react to something might not be how someone else would, but that doesn’t mean you made a mistake.

How do you build an organization where everyone is empowered to succeed?

KERR: You have to treat everyone equally. Each of your team members is exceptionally skilled at some things and not others. Early on, someone asked why I was forcing a person to do a particular task that he hated. I was trying to develop him. When I refocused him on what he was really good at, he blossomed.

PHILLIPS: Women like to be around other women, and men like to be around other men. That’s human nature. So, to ensure you’re not creating a corporate culture that excludes people, you need to embrace inclusion. It’s a common term today, but it means everything. People have to feel welcome. That requires diversity. 

TAYLOR: Diversity inclusion is absolutely part of it. Leaders have to own some of that, too. It’s not uncommon for women to sit in the back of a room full of men. How do you change that? It’s thinking about how you include people. Eventually all of that becomes the way you run your business.

What’s the best advice you can give a girl who wants to pursue a career in science? 

TAYLOR: Don’t give up. It will be hard, but keep trying. Establish an expansive network of people who can and will help you. You don’t need to have close relationships with all of them. Things change fast. You grow, develop and learn different skills. If you say I’m going to be at a specific point or job in 20 years, it’s not going to happen. I encourage the people who I mentor to look at all the options. It’s good to build experience when you’re young then focus as you get older, when you better understand yourself and the opportunities.

GUNTER: Asking for help is key. My daughter is in college, and she calls me often to ask questions. They’re good questions, and I’m happy to talk through them with her. But some are program specific, and I don’t have the answers. But somebody does. Find those people. You have to engage. That’s a key component. You can’t know at a young age where you’ll end up. I wouldn’t have been able to describe my current job, even if it existed, at that point. You have to give yourself the chance to evolve.

PHILLIPS: It has never been easier to network, thanks to social media. When people contact me through LinkedIn, I’m happy. I’ve called complete strangers because they saw something that I was doing or a path that I took, that appealed to them. I do that all the time. The generation behind us has a lot there. I won’t say they’re less afraid to do it, but they’re certainly savvy enough to know how to network on social media. It’s easy; just DM them. When you’re 18 years old, don’t say you’re going to be a doctor or chemist. Expose yourself to different things. You don’t have to follow a straight or narrow path. I started college when I was 16 years old. I don’t recommend it. I made sure my children explored different options. There are so many career choices available.

VANNAIS: There was a period in my career when I felt I had to be sharper and better than everyone else, especially if I was the only woman or feeling isolated. I would take notes then research on the side. Now I ask questions. But that takes confidence, which took time to develop. Are we teaching our girls those skills? Are we raising girls and boys the same way when it comes to asking questions and taking risks, even if they aren’t 100% ready? That’s a community and cultural issue. I love being asked questions, and most people do. I’m not a Ph.D. scientist, but the best time of my week is going into the lab and hanging out with people who can tell me about some really cool stuff.

POWELL: Don’t close a door until you absolutely have to. As a college freshman, you don’t have to decide what you’re going to be at age 30, let alone 40 or 50. It took me until I was about 40 to realize that I’m really good at selling the business or components of science. Listen to yourself. Understand what you’re really good at, because you’re going to be great at that. It’s going to take a lot of hard work. There are consequences to every choice you make. As a science undergrad, you’ll spend entire afternoons in one lab while some of our friends go to classes three hours a week. But that dedication brings opportunities, so don’t shy away from it. You have to take the longest view sometimes to get through a chemistry or anatomy lab. They aren’t always fun in the moment. 

KERR: Believe in yourself. Don’t turn down any opportunity, even if it seems like a sidestep. You have to grab everything and be passionate about what you do.

SHAFFER: Students often ask me what they should do, and I always turn it around and ask them what their passions are. Then I tell them what a great time it is to be in science. There’s nothing we can’t do with our understanding of science. It’s a great field with many different jobs. You’ll figure it out.

How do we get to a point where women and men are equally represented in science?

POWELL: I graduated from pharmacy school in 2000. My class was 75% women. There are pockets within science that employ predominantly women. You see that in the contract research organization industry, for example, where most workers started their career as a nurse. It’s the opposite in engineering. So, the answer is different when you get down to that next level. Over the last few years, with the pandemic closing schools and forcing people to work from home, we’ve seen how much work that we have to do in regards to equality. I’ve seen reports that U.S. women have taken on an additional 40 hours of work each week on average compared to four by men. So, until you can get parity outside a work environment, there’s no way you can get parity inside it. How we get there is the question.

TAYLOR: It starts with having conversations with middle school students. By the time they get to high school, they’re already on a career path. It also requires showing girls the opportunities that exist. They can be an engineer, plant manager, environmental health and safety professional, or a physician. They don’t have to pigeonhole themselves.

KERR: It starts with school students, speaking with them so they see real people and hear our stories and how we got to where we are now. In the pharmaceutical industry, for example, the majority of lower-level jobs are held by women. But as you go up the ranks, the percentage shifts toward men. That’s when it comes down to having a network and supporting and giving each other confidence to move up and not second guess ourselves.

How does balancing work and family affect women’s careers? What needs to be addressed?

PHILLIPS: We must figure out how to keep more women on their career path once they start their childbearing years. It’s a big problem in the United States. Other countries do a good job with it. I have a team in Frankfurt, Germany. Women there do not suffer for taking the first year of their child’s life to be at home. They jump right back onto the career path they left and do so in their own time and their own way..

SHAFFER: There was a young woman in our company, and I talked to her about returning to work after she had her first baby. She wondered why I thought she wouldn’t. As a mother, you’re pulled in many directions. You might feel guilty about working. I offered to talk to her if she started having those feelings. She called about a month after she had the baby and said she didn’t think she wanted to return to work. I told her she could come back anytime. Maybe she would feel different when her child was in kindergarten. She returned to work after about three or four years, and it was like she never left. She ended up helping start a company after we were acquired. I’m sure that she’s passed forward that idea. Many women and men say they’re not going back to how they worked before the COVID-19 pandemic. We’re at a time in our industry when there are many available jobs. People are seeking flexible and adaptable companies. Companies have to figure out how do to proceed in this new environment. Those that return to the old ways will be at a disadvantage when it comes to finding workers.

POWELL: I first met Christy Shaffer a year after I had my first child. Over lunch, she told me that it was normal to feel conflicted and shared examples of how she managed it. You have to see yourself in someone else. I made a significant professional decision for solely personal reasons. And in retrospect, it was the best professional decision I could ever make. It opened up the world of entrepreneurship. In the moment, it felt like I was giving up a lot. And for the first six months, I introduced myself as a former vice president at GSK. A decade later, I call myself a serial entrepreneur and am on my fourth startup. Christy’s reassurance was vital to making that happen. Over the last year, there has been no greater joy for me than 3 p.m., when my kids get home from school. We have childcare, so I’m not responsible for watching them, but being able to see them then instead of in the evening has been a blessing. I would never give that up at this point. I heard a career coach say there’s no such thing as work-life balance. It’s work-life integration. Men and women are recognizing that reality. If the pandemic truly ended after six months or a year, it would have been easy to fall back into old work-life habits. I’m hopeful its duration has embedded new behaviors.

GUNTER: After my second child, I worked for a while. But I couldn’t get her in daycare, and everything was compiling against me. At that time, Dr. Hamner, the N.C. Biotechnology Center’s president, was contemplating retirement and reminiscing about his career and life. He offered me some advice: I could always get another job, and whatever I decided was going to be OK. So, I stepped away for a bit, taking the opportunity to see if the grass was greener. I realized that there’s no perfect answer. We can be good employees, leaders and parents without looking like everybody else in the neighborhood, country or on television. We can forge our own path. But that can be hard, so we need to communicate that it’s OK. Your decision only needs to work for you and your family.

KERR: The pandemic has forced many people to work from home for a couple years. Their work and life are intertwined more than ever. I continually remind my team that we all have to make time for ourselves. This is harder when you are working from home, and you can stay on your computer 24/7. As the pandemic ends, the return to normality, whatever that may be, will require many discussions, understanding and leadership. This is a new age. I hope that we take the opportunity to change things that should be changed, because some-times when there is a significant event, there is disruption. This gives us an opportunity to think differently. I like that.

TAYLOR: The pandemic has afforded mothers flexibility that I didn’t have when my children were young. That may be the only good thing that comes from it. We’ve demonstrated that it’s possible to work from home without things falling apart. Maybe we don’t work that way forever. Maybe we create a hybrid approach of working from home and in the office. I went back to work after having a baby. I was the only female professional in an organization of 200 people. You do what’s right for you and your family. If it’s stay home, then stay home. If it’s come back, then come back. Whatever the decision, don’t feel guilty about it.

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