On the 15th of March 2021, as part of the celebrations for the International Women’s Day, WATT and the BioData Innovation Centre at the Wellcome Genome Campus have co-hosted the event Women in Science – how and when to leverage your strengths?
Our panellists included early-to-mid career female professionals who followed different career paths in STEM: Jelena Aleksic, a geneticist and serial entrepreneur, who is now CBO and Co-Founder at the startup Pharmenable; Joana Flores, a life sciences and healthcare professional, who is a Strategy Manager at Cancer Research UK; and Gosia Trynka, a Group Leader at the Sanger Institute and Science Director at Open Targets.The event gathered +100 attendees, including men and women, who also engaged in the discussion via Q&A chat.
The conversation flew by with the panellists reflecting about their professional experiences and walks of life, the importance of having a positive impact in society, and also the power we have on changing our circumstances and influencing our environment.
The general consensus was “Get out of your comfort zone!” – “It’s easier to stick with what is familiar and we are missing out on new opportunities”, Gosia said. “Starting a group (in academia) is really like that – I felt uncomfortable for the first 3 years. I did not have people skills, time management skills, a skill to say no to things. But take it as an opportunity to develop yourself and be open to develop new skills”, she added. Joana agreed as she described how she has taken her time to try and experiment on different professional roles since her PhD. “It’s not a destination, it’s a journey.”
Jelena shared her thoughts as well – “Stable jobs existed 30 years ago, but things are very dynamic nowadays. You don’t necessarily have to be the best at everything you do. Each of us have a unique combination of skills, a unique puzzle piece.”
The panellists were also asked to identify and share the obstacles they faced. Joana talked about the difficulties she had on detecting the range of opportunities out there when you are closed in the academic mindset. As an academic you are used to have a hypothesis and test it until you have data to either prove or disprove it. In certain roles outside academia “you might need to go with your gut feeling”, without being absolute certain of something. “This is a mindset shift that needs to happen.” For Joana, mentoring and working on feedback was something that helped her along the way. “Reach out to people on LinkedIn. You will be surprised how responsive they can be.”
Jelena remembered the challenge she encountered when she was first involved in fundraising “Pitching an experiment is very different from pitching to investors. Different communities have different priorities and different languages.” Find someone who has done it and ask if they want to be your mentor, she advised. They help you navigate the space and identify which opportunities are there.
One theme that seemed to really hit a nerve with the public was how to overcome Imposter Syndrome. The Q&A chat was flooded with questions at this point. Gosia advised on mindfulness and meditation – “In academia you are rejected 99% of the time. Good ideas get rejected, good papers get rejected, but that’s not a reflection of you as a person. Don’t take things personally.” Jelena intervened by pointing out “I know Impostor Syndrome is real, but if you are in a hostile environment, it’s not Imposter Syndrome, it’s reasonable anxiety.” Is it Imposter Syndrome or is your environment making you uncomfortable? “Find community. Build community. Create a more positive environment”, she added. “We set culture in our environment. This is one of the ways we can implement change.”
It’s becoming ever more apparent the need to address mental health issues in the workplace. Joana shared how her experience in strategy consulting was draining for her, when she had to work 60 to 70 hours per week, until she had a mental breakdown. She discussed the importance of talking about these issues with someone, a friend, a line manager, a family member. Opening up about it was fundamental for her recovery. Gosia added “It’s hard to address problems if we are not aware of them. Bring up those issues to your line manager and supervisor. Reach out to HR (human resources), if you cannot talk to your supervisor.”
Jelena added “I have a work phone and a personal phone. I am not reachable in weekends or in the evening. I work 35h per week. That’s what is sustainable for me.” Jelena is most productive when she has time to do things she enjoys and that help her recovering from work. In contrast, Gosia said “I find work as a big hobby. I have no work-life balance.”
At the end of the event, we asked our panellists for one sentence to answer “What do you wish you had known when you first started your professional a career?”
“There are interesting and meaningful careers outside of academia that will continue to draw on your science knowledge and continue to enable you to learn new things.” – Jelena
“Talk to people. Talk to your supervisor and talk to your friends and fellow PhD students.” – Gosia
“You don’t need to have a masterplan. What you need to do is to figure out your values and your strengths and just combine them to find a position that you are really passioned about.” – Joana
Written by Iris Batalha
March 15 2021