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‘The stereotype that STEM careers are only for men is changing’

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Mary Rodgers, virus hunter, principal scientist and head, Abbott Global Surveillance Center explains to Viveka Roychowdhury how strong female mentors and role models encouraged her during her journey from her first job during college to balancing motherhood with the demands of lab work

As a leading scientist and as a role model for women in STEM, do you find more women in STEM today than when you took it up?
Yes, I see more girls opting for careers in science, but we have a long way to go. I was lucky that I received the right encouragement, exposure and access to some wonderful mentors early on in life. I knew that I wanted to be a scientist from a very young age. But what I couldn’t decide at first was what kind of scientist I wanted to be — it turned out that my father-in-law (to be) was helpful. We were discussing my plans and I shared that I was majoring in chemical engineering. He said to me, “I don’t know, I just don’t see you as a chemistry person, you seem more like a biology person.” And I said, “Well maybe I’ll take a biology class.” And he was right, I am a biology person – I’m fascinated by molecular biology. I graduated with a bachelor’s in biochemistry from University Wisconsin-Madison and eventually earned my Ph.D. from Harvard in biological and biomedical science. I was in Mumbai recently for a transfusion conference and met many women who were at the helm of scientific institutions. I found this to be very impressive and encouraging.

What were the hurdles and how did you deal with them?
In general, I think exposure is a big hurdle because girls don’t always have role models who will plant an idea in their heads, whether it’s a subject to take in school, a summer class or internship to explore, or having confidence in their own skills, they may not be thinking in the STEM direction. I was really fortunate to have strong female mentors and role models at every stage of my career, and they each had a major impact on the path I took. From seeking work in a lab as my first job during college to balancing motherhood with the demands of lab work, I have really benefited from seeing other women have succeeded when faced with these same choices and challenges.

Are society’s attitudes evolving so that less women give up a STEM career than before?
I think the stereotype that STEM careers are only for men is changing, and it’s encouraging to see that a record number of women are getting PhDs in STEM fields. My own son even told me that he “wants to be a boy scientist”, which I think means that he thinks most scientists are women, although I’m sure there’s some bias there because of his mom. We need to keep this momentum going – for women to choose, strive and thrive in STEM, they need the right exposure in school, right encouragement as they choose their education pathway, and access to additional information as they select their career options.

You have the opportunity to observe women in STEM across countries and cultures. Which countries have you seen the most change in this aspect?
I’ve been working in research related to Abbott’s Global Viral Surveillance programme for five years now, and I haven’t seen many changes during that time – I find that amongst our global collaborators, women are present similarly to men.

What is your advice to policy makers, corporate boards and the scientific community at large, to improve contributions from women in STEM careers?
It’s important for parents, educators and others to expose girls to STEM, and encourage them in every way possible to pursue science and related fields. At home, it’s important for parents to gauge their girls’ interest and introduce the right reading materials and hobbies to nurture their aspirations. I always tell kids that if they like asking questions, then they might want to consider becoming a scientist – asking questions is fundamentally what we do. At the community level, recognising girls for academic achievements is important. Also, Abbott offers internships giving both girl and boy students the opportunity to contribute to our life-changing technologies alongside engineers and scientists who look like them.
For more information on Abbott’s STEM activities, parents and teachers can visit – http://www.abbott.com/women-in-stem/stem-resource-library.html

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