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What I Told Grace

sponsored by SCIEX

“Extraordinary Grace” could be your daughter, your niece, a student in your lab, even a younger version of yourself. Grace’s mentors shape her life and career in science and ultimately guide her to fulfil her potential in spite of challenges she faces. Through this interactive survey, SCIEX aimed to collect experiences that could be used to inspire the next generation as well as shine a light on identity, opportunity, representation and inclusion in science.

When you were younger, did you have a role model who inspired you to pursue science?

Christina Jones: In my middle and high school years, there wasn’t one role model in particular who turned me onto science. It was more a case of me enjoying science and doing well on tests, which pushed me in that direction – cultivated by some particularly good teachers. Additionally, when my mom was hospitalized while I was in middle school, I realized I wanted to do something that was going to impact human health.

My first real mentor was Isiah Warner, who was the Vice-President of Strategic Initiatives at Louisiana State University. He shaped the whole trajectory of my career. As a young student, I was trying to navigate this thing called “science,” which was totally unfamiliar – I had no real idea of what a PhD was. And here was this person who had all the knowledge, very senior in his career, renowned for his research, and passionate about increasing diversity in STEM. Not only that, but he was a Black male, with other Black people and people of Color in his research program – a huge confidence booster and counter to much of what I’d seen on TV growing up. He also helped with all the soft skills that are crucial for success, including time management, understanding one’s learning style – even the etiquette at a formal banqueting dinner (something a lot of people may take for granted). Overall, his holistic approach made sure I had the tools I needed to be successful.

Women and people of color are more likely to drop out of university STEM courses. Why do you think that is?

Isabelle Kohler: You do tend to find a relatively even split of men and women at the undergraduate level – even in STEM. But most of the professors are male. And when I was a graduate student attending conferences, I got the impression that the few women at the events weren’t enjoying themselves as much as the men; they weren’t as welcome and didn’t feel as free to express their enthusiasm or excitement about their work. I remember thinking, I’m not surprised some women conclude this isn’t the path for them. I also saw women dressing like men and imitating the behavior they saw at these male dominated shows. But I think we need to embrace diversity – let people express their unique personalities and perspectives. And that’s one thing I say to the younger people who I mentor: Be yourself – you’ll get more respect and you’ll be happier in the long run.

As a young student, I was trying to navigate this thing called “science,” which was totally unfamiliar –I had no real idea of what a PhD was.

Jones: The “leaky pipeline” is a complicated problem, but I think confidence plays a big role. Most university students will face some difficulties early on in their studies where they wonder, “Is this really for me?” – especially with the sudden transition to self-directed learning. And when you look around and see few students or teachers, as Isabelle discussed, that look like you or come from similar backgrounds then it can compound the problem – social isolation is a big problem that students from minority backgrounds can struggle with. Diversity at all levels will clearly help here. But effective mentoring can also be instrumental in giving students the confidence they need to keep going. We need to get better at providing – or even just making students aware of – the resources that are available to help them

Grace talks about being passed over for promotion, while male colleagues with less experience and accolades are being promoted. Have you experienced anything similar or seen it happen to a colleague?

Jones: I’ve seen it happen – colleagues either not getting the promotion they deserve or being paid less than their male colleagues for the same job. Often it’ll lead to the person concluding that the organization doesn’t value them – rightly so – and looking for other opportunities. I’ve advocated for a colleague in the past, warning their boss that they’ll end up losing them if they don’t invest – to no avail. And sure enough, the employer was looking to hire them back a year later!

Kohler: I think things are getting better in this area, but I do see women being overlooked – often simply because they want a better work-life balance than their older, male colleagues who may not have the same responsibilities at home. Though it is worth pointing out that I have received several opportunities to join the Board of prestigious associations, in part, because of the increased awareness of gender equality.

Grace talks about finishing a paper with a good chance of being published in a high impact journal. But a colleague who previously worked with the editor said they’d have a better chance of getting published if they’re named as the first author. How would you advise someone in this situation?

Kohler: I would say, no way – you’ve got to fight for your rights and scientific integrity! If you’ve worked hard on a paper, you have to state your case and make sure your name is adequately highlighted in the author list. The alternative is entering into a game that won’t help you in the long run while damaging science in the process.

Jones: One thing I’ve learned is to always agree upfront who will be the lead author based on who is contributing the most to the project. It can be an awkward conversation (and it can be subject to change if roles evolve over the course of a project), but it ensures everyone is on the same page from the outset. But, as Isabelle said, you really have to stand up for yourself in these situations and say, “I contributed X, Y and Z, which means I am the first author.” Regardless, any leverage a wellconnected person’s name brings comes from the fact that they’re on the list – not that they’re the first author.

How can mentorship be a catalyst for change?

Kohler: Though there are specific mentoring programs for women and people from minority backgrounds – and that’s great – I feel we should be aiming towards a situation where everyone, from all backgrounds, have experience working with a mentor and being a mentor themselves. This way, we can make everyone aware of the issues different groups of people face and how their bias can contribute. The issues associated with a lack of diversity is something we should all be aiming to solve – regardless of our background.

Can you give an idea, piece of advice, or solution that could improve science for future generations and, in turn, help create a truer picture of our industry?

Jones: Innovation in science and technology drives the global economy and will play a key role in solving many of the problems we, as a species, face. And when you think about it from that point of view, it’s clear to me that everyone from across the globe with a variety of backgrounds should be represented. Not only will a diverse range of perspectives help us solve problems more quickly, but it will also ensure that we’re focusing on the right problems. If you look at the work someone like Rena Robinson is doing as a human health researcher looking at disease disparities that have a disproportionate impact on people of color – that research wouldn’t exist if if someone with her perspective wasn't making it happen.

Kohler: I agree. One of my research interests is the differences between male and females at the (patho) physiological level. This is important, because a large proportion of (pre-)clinical studies focus solely on men. How can we be inclusive in academia if we don’t follow the same principles in our own research?

Join the science community as they hear from Grace in person. As part of the next chapter in her journey, Grace will give a keynote speech, explaining what she has learnt from her mentors: Register to book your seat now!

Christina Jones is a Research Chemist and Partnerships and Outreach Strategist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, USA; and Isabelle Kohler is an Assistant Professor, Division of BioAnalytical Chemistry at Amsterdam Institute for Molecular and Life Sciences, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, The Netherlands

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