Breaking the glass ceiling: Women’s career mentoring lunch facilitates conversation about being a woman in STEM

Aleenah Ansari

The CNT Women’s Career Mentoring Lunch Series provides a friendly, open environment for female researchers to share their experiences with each other. The most recent lunch featured Rosana Risques, an assistant professor in the University of Washington (UW) Department of Pathology and principal investigator of the UW Risques Lab.

The Center for Neurotechnology (CNT) is committed to creating space for female researchers to build community and learn from each other. For this reason, the CNT sponsors the Women’s Career Mentoring Lunch Series, which is a platform for CNT students, post-docs, summer program participants and faculty to hear stories from other accomplished women involved in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

“It’s our goal to provide CNT women and others with an opportunity to discuss challenges and improve their ability to tackle them, said Scott Bellman, the associate director of diversity at the CNT. “There’s value in coming together, sharing a meal and meeting people with similar academic interests and goals.”

During the women’s mentoring lunch, a female scientist, researcher or clinician discusses her career’s challenges, pivotal moments of growth, and self-advocacy strategies. Afterward, attendees are free to ask questions.

Madison Bravo, a Research Experience for Veterans participant and attendee, was excited to learn strategies about how women in research can respond to the challenges they face.

“I’d like to learn from other people’s experiences so I can hear bits and pieces that I can puzzle together,” Bravo said. “Learning from their failures and successes will prepare me when I get to [graduate school].”

For the most recent event in the Women’s Mentoring Lunch Series, CNT leadership chose Rosana Risques, an assistant professor in the University of Washington (UW) Department of Pathology and the principal investigator of the UW Risques Lab, as the featured speaker. She was selected for her extensive experience in graduate school and as a researcher on the molecular alterations that occur when a human cell becomes a tumor.

During the lunch, Risques began by discussing her academic journey and move from the Autonomous University of Barcelona, where she received her PhD in molecular and cellular biology, to the United States for post-doctoral work.

“I spoke very little English when I moved here,” Risques said. “When advocating for yourself, it’s important to tell a story of your accomplishments. If my colleagues see my accomplishments, it doesn’t matter if I have an accent.”

During the lunch, Bravo asked about what barriers Risques faced as a woman. Risques said that she felt the imbalance when she entered academia and decided to have kids.

I was told that having kids would slow down my career, but I was determined to make it work,” Risques said. “It was the right time for me to have kids. I had a five-year grant and a good research project. I focused on being productive and did the best with what I had.”

Risques also discussed the differences between academia and industry, and she’s seen a greater push for diversity in both contexts.  

“Most departments have built or are building a diversity committee,” Risques said. “It is finally [being] acknowledged that women and minorities need to be represented in academia, especially in STEM fields, where diversity has been minimal.”

Risques also discussed the importance of recognizing your strengths and staying true to what you need from a research experience, mentor or project.

“We have gone through the same training and achieved the same milestones as every other candidate. Our gender does not make our achievements any less valuable,” said Erica Busch, an attendee and Research Experience for Undergraduates participant. “We also have to be true to ourselves in choosing an environment that feels appropriate to us.”

Risques invited all the attendees to take their personal and professional goals one step at a time.

“At the time, I did what I thought was right for me,” Risques said. “You have to be very flexible and resilient, but most importantly, you have to really enjoy what you do so that [regardless of what] your next step in your career is, you feel happy about your accomplishments.

After the lunch ended, Busch had an opportunity to be a role model for a few attendees who were rising freshmen in college. They asked for her advice about navigating college as a woman in STEM, and Busch shared advice from her perspective as a rising senior in cognitive science and computer science at Dartmouth College. For her, this interaction exemplified the fact that women can empower each other by sharing their stories.

“They [the attendees] may not have gotten that advice if we didn’t have that lunch, so they may have made the same mistakes or had the same insecurities as I did,” Busch said. “The only way to even the playing field for different genders in STEM is by working together, sharing advice and bolstering one another.”

Read about our last Women’s Mentoring Lunch Series with Kristi Morgansen, a full associate professor and associate chair for academics in the UW Department of Aerospace & Astronautics, here. You can also learn more about the Women’s Mentoring Lunch Series by contacting Scott Bellman.