Women in Neuroscience Panel Discussion provides a space to talk about real-world challenges faced by female scientists and engineers

Wayne Gillam

What is it like as a woman to prepare for and enter a science and engineering workforce where men hold almost 70% of available jobs? What are the challenges a person will face intrinsic to that environment? How can one face those difficulties and overcome them?

Questions like these were addressed at the Women in Neuroscience Panel Discussion, an online event held by the Center for Neurotechnology (CNT) last academic quarter, which was moderated by Sara Goering, a CNT faculty member at the University of Washington (UW). The panel featured several women who are well established in neuroscience-related careers and offered attendees the opportunity to ask questions about academic and career pathways for female scientists and engineers. The panel is part of the Center’s ongoing Women’s Career Mentoring Lunch Series, which is a platform for CNT students, post-doctoral researchers, faculty and staff to learn from the life experiences of accomplished women involved in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

“The panel was a collaboration between the CNT’s Diversity and Industry programs,” said Scott Bellman, the panel organizer and associate director of diversity at the CNT. “Panelists came from several cutting-edge neuroscience companies to discuss their transition to industry and their career pathways. Understanding these pathways and having access to mentors can be incredibly valuable to students as they imagine their future careers.”

Advice for graduate students

At this panel, the discussion centered chiefly around how female graduate students could best prepare themselves for a successful career in science and engineering. Encouraging students to seek out a diversity of skills and experiences was a theme.

“If there is one takeaway that I would like to give about my experience so far, it is that within your training, the more you can diversify your experiences, the more skillsets you will acquire,” said Yagna Pathak, a panel participant and senior research scientist at Abbott Neuromodulation. “I think that the diversity of what I had — an engineering-focused Ph.D. and a clinically-focused post doc — allowed me to be a really good fit for what I currently do at Abbott, which is a little bit of both. My role is as a scientist, but I sometimes dabble into engineering-heavy projects that are related to innovation and technology.”

Other panelists echoed Pathak’s comments by saying that varying academic and job experiences were important, emphasizing that broad skill sets can help increase an individual’s market value and job opportunities.

“Combining different disciplines and topics is what really gives you value,” said Laura Dubreuil Vall, who is a clinical scientist and neurotech innovation lead at Roche, “For the last eight years I have been conducting my research in academia and jobs in different startups in the neurotech field, for example, Starlab and Neuroelectrics. That gave me a broad overview, and it’s really helpful when you go to different companies.”

“I did my bachelor’s and Ph.D. in neuroscience, and I also minored in theater in college,” said Kaitlyn Casimo, who is the training and outreach specialist at the Allen Institute. “As an undergraduate, I didn’t realize how much theater training both onstage and backstage would help with scientific communication and all the other things that I do now in my job. The Allen Institute has open data resources that are available on the web, and I train researchers how to use them for research purposes and educators how to use them for teaching purposes”

Panelists also talked about the benefits of extracurricular activities for graduate students, both in terms of work-life balance and in regard to the unexpected opportunities those experiences can sometimes bring.

“In terms of extracurriculars, I feel that if you don’t do anything besides your research, it’s very easy to get burnt out, and that’s the worst thing that can happen to you in a program that is as uncertain as a Ph.D. program tends to be,” said Pathak, whose free-time interests include dancing and biking. “I’ve been dancing my whole life, so having that outlet was really beneficial to my own sanity. I also think your extracurricular doesn’t always have to be separated from your research interest, because a lot of what pushed me into neuroscience in the first place was just understanding the benefits of music and dance and how these things affect neuroplasticity.”

“It’s really tempting to say, ‘Oh, I don’t have time to do things outside of my research.’ But everyone in grad school is doing their research, so in order to differentiate yourself from all of the other people who are in grad school and build the skills that will help you figure out what you want to do after graduation, you have to do things that aren’t research,” Casimo said. “I was involved in outreach my whole time in grad school at UW and with outreach programs through the CNT. And, I directed a play, which is partly how I heard about the job I have now. One of the actors in the play worked at the Allen Institute.”

Tips for navigating the working world

Audience members also asked questions about how to successfully build and manage a STEM-related career. Panelists provided guidance and specifically addressed how to navigate the challenges of finding employment and working in fields where women are underrepresented.

“One thing we see in industry, looking at resumes, is that guys will apply for a job when they meet about 80 percent of the requirements, whereas women will only apply if they meet the requirements 100 percent,” said Jessi Mischel, a lead clinical and research engineer at Ripple Neuro. “So I say, start changing that. Start applying to jobs, putting yourself out there.”

“I think the only limits you have are the ones you set for yourself. Be aware of what your skill sets are and read between the lines when you look at job descriptions. Sometimes your qualifications will actually stretch the scope of the job you are applying for,” Pathak said. “Hiring managers do not always know what they want. They are looking to fill a role. You can help them decide whether you are the right fit for that role or not.”

“You don’t have to think about it as, ‘I must work for X,’ or have the right title. Instead, think, ‘What is the outcome I want, and then how do I best affect that?’” advised Katherine Pratt, a program manager for Microsoft’s Ethics and Society team, a multidisciplinary group at Microsoft responsible for guiding technical and experience innovation toward ethical solutions.

The discussion included talking about the benefits of working at big companies versus small startups, achieving work-life balance in science and engineering, and how to set clear and explicit boundaries with employers. The panel advised that key to achieving many goals in the working world are activities students can do now, such as finding good mentors while in school, participating in supportive groups and organizations such as the Society of Women Engineers, and developing a strong, unshakeable confidence in oneself.

“If someone tells you to have more confidence, first try having more confidence with your lab mates, because that’s a low-risk scenario,” Pathak advised. “And once you practice that with people you’re comfortable with, it’s going to be easier to do with people that you don’t know.”

Solutions that address common challenges

Throughout the event, panelists gave multiple points of view regarding how to best deal with common issues women face in academia and the working world. According to Bellman, helping attendees become aware of how other women have solved problems that they themselves might face in the future is a key reason for having the panel discussion.

“This highly-rated mentoring series at the CNT provides women opportunities to discuss challenges, as well as strategies and solutions for overcoming them,” Bellman shared. “Center leaders and other allies are also encouraged to explore effective ways of supporting women as they engage in activities and bring their talent to the Center.”

Panelists themselves reaffirmed the importance of gatherings like this one.

“I think we all know how important it is to see female role models that are in the same field as us, so it’s really exciting to be here,” Pathak said.

“Finding a diverse group of women, whether it’s a formal support group or informal chats with peers or a mentoring relationship, means that you get more perspectives on what the problems are that are out there,” Casimo explained. “The solutions other women are identifying to start to address those problems may also be applicable to challenges that you’re facing.”

For more information about the Women in Neuroscience Panel Discussion or the Women’s Career Mentoring Lunch Series, contact the CNT Associate Director of Diversity Scott Bellman.