Women in STEM: 2018

March is Women's History Month, a time to celebrate the contributions women have made to society. Sigma Xi will participate by celebrating women's contributions to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). We asked Sigma Xi members in STEM to share their career experiences and their advice for girls and women interested in STEM.

Sudharshana Apte

Sudharshana Apte Quote Box

Current Position

Research scientist at Altria Client Services and president-elect of the Forum for Women in Operations Research and Management Science

Please describe your job.

In my current role as a research scientist at Altria Client Services, I utilize mathematical and statistical approaches to analyze real-world dynamic systems and propose solutions that result in process efficiencies. I am motivated by the applicability of the research problems I pursue and play a key role in providing actionable insights that drive business decisions. 

My commitment to promote underrepresented groups also has me serving as president-elect of the Forum for Women in Operations Research and Management Science (WORMS). My goal is to increase representation of OR/MS professionals within the membership of the larger organization, to be able to provide mentorship opportunities for young women looking to start a career outside of academia. 

Was a mentor important to your career success? If so, how did you find this person and how did she or he help you?

Absolutely! I have been blessed to have been surrounded by positive role models that have encouraged me to be the best version of myself, both personally and professionally. I have found that routinely interacting with people you find inspiring teaches you a lot of what you need in order to be successful. When you reach a level of comfort with that person, you are able to have honest conversations about your career goals and identify paths to help you attain them. 

I have a broad set of individuals (both men and women) as my mentors: my professors, colleagues (both peers and superiors), and people in my field that I have become acquainted with at conferences. By not limiting myself to one mentor, I have been able to get diverse perspectives to address any questions or concerns that I may have. When in doubt, these are the people I turn to. 

What advice or lessons helped you as you built your career?

The best advice I received was to stay authentic and courageous. This required me to undergo a certain level of introspection. By identifying my core strengths and focusing on developing them, I have been able to create a unique brand for myself. This has enabled me to, both, grow as an individual and influence how others perceive me.

Oh, and do not underestimate the power of networking when you are looking to build your career: be deliberate and strategic. 

Maria Cruz-Torres

Maria Cruz-Torres Quote Box

Current Position

Senior sustainability scientist and an associate professor at Arizona State University 

Please describe your job.

I am an associate professor who teaches, conducts research, and mentors undergraduate and graduate students. I have conducted research on fisheries and aquaculture and I am currently working on a new research project examining the various factors that impact food security in tropical island ecosystems.

Has a mentor been important to your academic success? If so, how did you find this person and how did she or he help you? 

Mentoring has been key to my academic career because I am the first one in my family to attend college and earned a PhD. I did not have many role models growing up, although my parents always encouraged and supported me to attend the university. 

I have had two very important mentors in my career: Dr. Alida Ortiz and Dr. Bonnie J. McCay. The first was my professor when I was pursuing my undergraduate degree in marine biology. I took a course with her and that changed my life. She taught me how to conduct research and encouraged me to pursue graduate studies in anthropology. The later is another professor who I first met as an undergraduate, and she became my doctoral advisor. Both are very successful scholars and they taught me how to be persistent, to never give up, and not let anyone else define me. 

What advice or lessons have helped you as you built your research career?

Be passionate about what you do even if others do not understand what you are doing or why.

Jennifer Patterson

Jennifer Patterson Quote Box

Current Position

Chief Scientific Officer of  BIOFABICS in Portugal

Please describe your job.

I am currently working as chief scientific officer of BIOFABICS, a biomedical start-up company that is focused on the research and development of 3D biotissue analogues. The company was founded in Portugal in August 2017. In particular, we develop tailor-made implants for research in tissue regeneration and customizable experimental setups for studying cell behavior in situations that mimic the body as well as for drug discovery and testing. Our goal is to provide expertise, design, and fabrication of devices for researchers at companies or universities who are looking for novel, more accurate, and more reliable tissue models. 
As chief scientific officer, I am responsible for guiding/supervising the scientific research activities at the company and for helping to write grant proposals for research projects. However, since we are just starting up, I have also been involved with many aspects of the company, like developing some of the content for our website (www.biofabics.com).

Was a mentor important to your career success? If so, how did you find this person and how did she or he help you? 

Many mentors have been important to me throughout my career. One that I would highlight is my senior thesis advisor from my undergraduate studies at Princeton University, Professor Michael Hecht.  Professor Hecht actually nominated me for membership in Sigma Xi in 1998, and he cemented my interest in a research career by allowing me to pursue a very interesting and independent research topic for my senior thesis, which involved using transmission electron microscopy to look at the structure of novel proteins that had been designed in his lab. The research led to me being a co-author on a publication in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Professor Hecht also provided helpful career guidance, serving as a reference for my first job and also for my applications to graduate school.  We have kept in touch over the years, and he was someone I could turn to for advice while going through a career transition a couple of years ago.

My first research mentor, Professor Jonathan King, whom I worked with through a summer research experience for undergraduates at MIT, was the first who got me interested in biochemical/biomedical research. While working for the company Therics Inc. after graduating from college, my boss, Dr. Kathy Chesmel, and our company co-founders, Professor Linda Griffith and Professor Michael Cima, helped to develop my research interests in tissue engineering and 3D printing, and they were also very supportive of my eventual decision to pursue a PhD by offering suggestions of programs to apply to and by serving as references.  

Last but not least, I initially sought out Professor Patrick Stayton and Professor Jeffrey Hubbell, my graduate and postdoctoral advisors, respectively, because I was very interested in the research going on in their labs. However, I came to value them not only for their insight and scientific input on my research but also for their help in furthering my career.  While I know how busy both are with research/teaching/travel/family, they have always been very responsive when I have reached out for career advice or for a reference letter.

What advice or lessons helped you as you built your career? 

When I was deciding where to go for graduate school, I was given the advice to go to the University of Washington, in part because it has a great program in bioengineering but also because moving to Seattle would provide a different perspective from the Pennsylvania/New Jersey area where I had spent the first 25 years of my life. Since then, I’ve taken this even further, moving to Switzerland and Belgium and now being involved with a start-up in Portugal. As a result, I have come into contact with people who have diverse backgrounds and have experienced different working environments, and this has helped me to grow both personally and professionally.

Another lesson that I have heard often is that to be successful in research one needs to be persistent.  While this is true, I think it is even more important to be resilient.  Careers in research are tough.  Often experiments don’t work, leading to unexpected results or requiring additional troubleshooting.  The career path can be daunting, with many positions and also research funding being highly competitive.  Learning how to move forward from setbacks and stay positive is essential.

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