Women may still be outnumbered by men in the field of science, but more and more are pioneers in their fields and their ranks continue to grow. HealthCentral talked to two glass ceiling-breakers with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS), where female scientists are leading the way in cutting-edge research that is improving outcomes for people with blood and other cancers, as well as chronic diseases.
Gwen Nichols, M.D., is Chief Medical Officer of the LLS, and Selina Chen-Kiang, Ph.D., is a professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at Weill Cornell Medicine who is working with LLS on groundbreaking research to translate a therapy approved for breast cancer to a treatment for patients with lymphoma.
They talked to HealthCentral about their work and their goal to encourage more women to follow in their footsteps to achieve cancer cures.
HealthCentral (HC): What is the current state of women in the field of science?
Dr. Nichols: We’ve seen a lot of change over the last several decades in the number of women in the sciences, and I think that’s just great. Change is not complete, however, and we need to help women get to the highest echelons and become leaders in the sciences.
HC: How can we encourage more women to pursue careers in science?
Dr. Nichols: I think now, as you see [more] women [in science], you can say, “That’s the career I’d like.” I hope that goes a long way to convince women that they can become scientists and have a very fulfilling and successful career. Certainly, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society is supporting a lot more women with our grants.
HC: Why is it a good time now for more women to enter the field?
Dr. Nichols: There are a lot of reasons why this is an excellent time to think about a career in science as a really fulfilling and exciting way to live your life. It starts with increased STEM curriculum, science, technology, engineering, math starting in elementary school, so [young] people learn about science. But it’s also important that we’ve had some challenging but very important conversations in society about the important role that women play and the responsibility to become leaders.
My hope for the future is that we see a diverse workforce in cancer science. Innovation will come not from a narrow pathway of ideas but from bringing a lot of different disciplines, a lot of people who have been brought up in a lot of different ways to contribute as a team together to work to cure cancer. Change will come by being as diverse as we can be.
HC: What are some of the challenges women with careers in science face?
Dr. Chen-Kiang: At the end of the day, women have to work almost twice as hard. We have the stamina, and we are disciplined. We can do it. You need every support you can get. You need support from family, an understanding and supportive partner in life, and lastly you need mentorship. But you have to find the mentor yourself. This is a tradition in the men’s world. They have mentorship. We [women] are building that up now, and from here on, we are doing this in a very active way.
Dr. Nichols: If you think about how long it takes for you to go through medical school or to go through a Ph.D. program, that coincides exactly with your childbearing years and just starting a career. So, to make that hurdle and to be successful, you’ve got to do both. That’s not easy. It’s more about how you juggle to find the balance.
Dr. Chen-Kiang: Life is actually pretty long. After the childbearing age, you still have a long way to go. If you look at it that way, the horizon is bright. That’s how I mentor my students and fellows.
HC: How does LLS help with the balance of life and work?
Dr. Nichols: LLS is providing career development support at those critical times so that you have less stress from a financial point of view. We look at the people who have promising ideas and careers, and we really try to help them over that hurdle so they don’t have to worry and can concentrate on their science and on their families. I hope that will allow both women and men to have a nice life balance and be able to see that being a good family member with empathy is equally as important and actually part of being a good cancer scientist.
HC: What are some of the challenges you’ve faced as a woman scientist?
Dr. Chen-Kiang: It is a double whammy. I am a woman, and I am Chinese. Some of the obstacles are not only to being a woman but the stereotype of what a Chinese woman should be. I’ve been told by a male colleague that I don’t behave like a Chinese woman. The important thing is confidence. You basically consider that just noise and move on.
HC: What advice do you have for young women scientists?
Dr. Chen-Kiang: To start, I recommend that they find their passion, and once they identify it, not to be talked out of it. But it’s important that you not only contribute, but that you also enjoy it. Then you can go all the way. You need to be efficient and have discipline and creativity, too. Science is so wonderful. I can’t imagine doing anything else.
HC: Can you tell us about your study on translating a therapy approved for breast cancer to a treatment for patients with lymphoma?
Dr. Chen-Kiang: We have a wonderful trial for a particular type of lymphoma. The best treatment worked, but unfortunately it was not durable, so almost 100 percent of the patients would relapse within a year. We modified it and used our innovation, and we just finished phase 1 of the trial. Three and a half years in, we only have four patients move on. We not only know what’s wrong with their genome, we’ve already developed a new way to treat it. In fact, next week we are moving into phase 2 of the trial to make sure the finding is solid in a big population. We are very excited because some of the things we find can apply to other cancers as well. It’s going to be extremely useful.
[Interview has been condensed and edited.]
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Bethany Kandel is a New York-based journalist and author. Her articles have appeared in dozens of national publications and websites, including The New York Times, Prevention, Good Housekeeping, and Woman’s Day, and she’s written several books. After a breast cancer diagnosis, she began writing about the subject. She created www.BreastCancerFreebies.com, where she helps patients/survivors find free wigs, hats, and other resources to help them thrive. Find her on Twitter @cancerfreebies.