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Conference celebrates, illuminates women leading the way in science

“Organic chemistry was absolutely beautiful to me,” said Lucy Shapiro, PhD, describing the encounter that led her from the art career she thought she would have to the illustrious science career she has had instead. “Being a painter, I could see the compounds in 3-D. I could use my imagination.”

Shapiro was among a slate of celebrated female scientists who explored how women and other underrepresented groups are changing the face of biomedicine, at Leading the Way, the fourth semi-annual Women in Medicine and Science Conference held earlier this month. Sponsored by the Stanford Medical Alumni Association, the conference offered stories of boundaries pushed and obstacles overcome -- plus a healthy dose of practical advice for women building science careers across academia, industry and government.

Shapiro’s keynote, "The Joy of Scientific Discovery," described a journey that seems serendipitous on the surface, but was actually built on passion, persistence, and a series of inflection points she can see now, looking backward. “I got a ‘D’ in my first organic chemistry class,” revealed the acclaimed developmental biologist. (She tried to drop the class, didn’t attend it, was required to take the final, and circled all the ‘B’s just to finish). Now a world leader in antibiotic/antifungal drugs, Shapiro received the National Medal of Science from President Barack Obama in 2011.

Presenters echoed common themes throughout the day: build networks. Identify trusted advisors and sponsors. Acquire and hone the skills you need. Stay curious. Be tenacious. Take smart risks. Don’t be afraid to fail.

“Find your passion; prepare for the opportunity when it comes along,” said Sandra Horning, MD, who spent her early career at Stanford working on lymphoma clinical testing and the first monoclonal antibodies for cancer. “I discovered I had a passion for leadership: setting a vision, creating an environment, experiencing the joy of watching others succeed. Genentech gave me that opportunity.” Horning is now chief medical officer and head of global product development at Roche/Genentech.

Stanford immunologist and food allergy researcher Kari Nadeau, MD, PhD, went on to describe the myriad ways females are discouraged from entering the sciences -- from early teasing and stereotyping to unequal pay and career marginalization later. “There are wonderful people doing science, men and women alike, but there is a trend that women aren’t going into science,” she said.

After Stanford psychologist Jeanne Tsai, PhD, presented research on how culture influences our perceptions of desirable emotional states, Hannah Valantine, MD, a cardiologist who is currently on leave from Stanford to serve as chief officer for scientific workforce diversity at the NIH, gave a talk called "Diversity Makes Better Science." Valantine described research showing how diverse teams outperform homogenous teams, in every setting -- from jury deliberations to stock trading to athletic competition to publication in medical journals.

“Time after time,” she said, “the heterogeneous teams came up with better solutions than the homogenous ones.” Bias is pervasive in science, she said, and finds its way into letters of recommendation, call-back rates for candidates, who gets hired, who gets promoted, what people get paid, even fairness in NIH peer reviews.  It is often subtle, she explained, and quite unconscious: “When you walk into a room, your brain is counting, even if you don’t realize it.”

The NIH Initiative is identifying strategies for transforming institutions (not just individuals), creating better outreach and more diversity in applicant pools, and identifying tactics for retention.

Throughout the day, audience questions drove lively Q & A sessions. One query that had many heads nodding in recognition: What do you do when your idea is ignored in a meeting, only to be acclaimed when a male colleague raises it a few minutes later?

“Use humor,” suggested Deepti Jaggi, MD, president and chief medical officer of Clinakos, participating in the Women on Boards panel discussion.  And don’t assume malicious intent.

“Say: ‘Yes, John, that’s what I was trying to say a few minutes ago,” she said. “'Thank you for supporting my idea’.” Women who see this happening in meetings can speak up for each other, she added. Jaggi also encouraged women who are currently serving on boards, or want to join them, to check out the Stanford Women on Boards Initiative.

Previously: Women of Stanford Neurosurgery: "We must affect change in overall attitudes about women with power"What it is truly like for women doctors: A Stanford resident shares stories of gender in medicineHonoring women and girl scientists and Stanford scientist Lucy Shapiro: "It never occurred to me to question the things I wanted to do"
Photos -- of Lucy Shapiro (top), Hannah Valantine (middle) and alumnae Sharon Drost, MD, and her daughter, Juliet (bottom) -- by Steve Fisch
Additional reporting by Jennifer Gennuso

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