Einstein Women in Science Learn How to 'Seize Their Spotlight' and Take Pride in Their Accomplishments

Women scientists often face formidable challenges: gender bias, stereotypes, unequal opportunities, pay disparities, and difficulties balancing personal and professional pursuits. Leaders of the annual Women in Science Day event at Albert Einstein College of Medicine chose this year’s theme, "Seize Your Spotlight: Empowering Women in Science to Step Up & Stand Out,” with those obstacles in mind.

“Seizing the spotlight breaks through those barriers and ensures we take control of our own visibility and receive the acknowledgement, credit, and opportunities we deserve as a result of our contributions to the field,” said event co-chair Sara Lamcaj, a Ph.D. student in the lab of Harris Goldstein, M.D., and a member of the Women’s Networking Group (WNG), which led the February 14 event. April Mueller and Alexandra Tse, both M.D./Ph.D. students, and Ilana Karp, a Ph.D. student, also served as co-chairs.

“It has never come naturally to me to speak about the work I'm doing, to advertise it,” said Ms. Tse, who is in the lab of Kartik Chandran, Ph.D. “In talking to a lot of my colleagues, especially female colleagues, I feel like a lot of us have that hesitation.”

Alejandra Gurtman, M.D.
Alejandra Gurtman, M.D.

Building Community

Experts in digital self-promotion, public speaking, and career development—and keynote speaker Alejandra Gurtman, M.D., senior vice president, Pfizer Vaccine Clinical Research & Development—were among the presenters at the half-day event. In his opening remarks to the audience of 120 people in Lubin Dining Hall, Yaron Tomer, M.D., the Marilyn and Stanley M. Katz Dean at Einstein and chief academic officer at Montefiore Medicine, praised the WNG for its efforts to initiate meaningful discussions, strengthen the network of women scientists, and build a welcoming, supportive community.

“By fostering a culture of diversity and inclusion, we can harness the full potential of our scientists and researchers, and drive advances in education, research, and patient care,” said Dr. Tomer. “As we develop the College of Medicine’s new strategic plan, gender equity will be among our major initiatives.”

In her keynote address, Dr. Gurtman described her decision to pursue vaccine development, even though she enjoyed caring for patients as an infectious disease physician. Following a fellowship, she founded a travel medicine program and became involved in global vaccine clinical trials. Some of her experiences provided lessons that became central to her work in helping develop a vaccine for COVID-19.

“Not everyone has a straightforward path,” said Dr. Gurtman. “It’s important to keep your mind open to potential and the opportunities that may come to you.”

Roots of Inspiration

WNG was originally founded within the department of anatomy and structural biology, with its first official meeting taking place in January 2011. Its goal was to provide a forum for networking and to give members at all stages of their scientific careers the benefit of others’ experiences on issues of interest for women in science.

Attendees at the fifth Women in Science event
Attendees at the fifth Women in Science event.

Over time, membership grew to include graduate students, postdocs, and faculty in other departments. WNG’s work was later boosted by the creation of the office of career and professional development for graduate students and postdocs and its director, Diane Safer, Ph.D., who now serves as the group’s faculty advisor, as well as the ongoing support of Anne Bresnick, Ph.D., associate dean for postdoctoral affairs, and Victoria Freedman, Ph.D., associate dean for graduate programs in biomedical sciences.

In 2019, the group began planning its largest event: the inaugural Women in Science Day, scheduled for February 11, 2020, to coincide with the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, with students and postdoctoral fellows taking the lead. Registration for the event, with its theme of “Speaking Up and Standing Out,” was so large that WNG leaders changed the venue to accommodate the crowd. The COVID-19 pandemic forced the 2021 and 2022 events, respectively titled “Reimagining Resiliency” and “Challenging Complacency,” to be held virtually, but hundreds of participants and workshop facilitators attended. Last year’s in-person event, “Building Better Balance,” featured sessions on setting goals, saying “no,” and balancing roles.

"This event grows bigger and stronger each year, thanks to the commitment of our graduate students and postdocs, who are determined to consistently step up to lead and volunteer their time," said Dr. Safer. "They are gaining event-planning, marketing, delegating, and management skills, and striving to recruit new volunteers to keep WNG strong, even as they are in the midst of their research projects."

Planning for this year’s event began last summer, with continual assistance from Renee Rodriguez, the graduate division’s manager of special programs and events. The WNG student co-chairs agreed that the “Seize Your Spotlight” theme would be fitting; it would serve the dual purpose of highlighting their personal efforts to organize the event and inspiring others to take pride in their own work and publicly share accomplishments.

“We wanted to address this issue that a lot of women go through—that we are so happy to give credit where credit is due but sometimes we’re hesitant to take credit when we put in the work and achieve notable results,” said Ms. Mueller, also a member of Dr. Goldstein’s lab. “In order to seize leadership, whether in industry or in medicine, it’s important for me to learn how to be proud of what I’ve achieved myself, as well as what we’ve done as a team, and not feel awkward, like I’m taking the spotlight away from someone else.”

The event co-chairs agreed that despite disparate backgrounds, they share a deep interest in science and mentorship. Most have participated in previous Women in Science Day events, and all plan to remain involved with WNG throughout their time at Einstein.

“My grandparents were both scientists and professors in a very high ranking university in China,” said Ms. Tse. “They were silenced during the Cultural Revolution, and they eventually emigrated here. My grandmother became a seamstress. My mother dropped out of college to take care of the family. I was inspired by what my parents and grandparents gave up for me to have this opportunity. Every day when I have this chance to pursue my passion, it keeps inspiring me to keep going, even on the toughest days.”

Added Ms. Karp, who is part of the lab of Teresa Bowman, Ph.D.: “My entire family is made up of scientists or doctors. So science has always been a part of my life. From an extremely young age, my mom taught me that I could do whatever I wanted. As I got older, I saw that wasn’t true for a lot of people—there were girls who were afraid to go to the blackboard or felt they couldn’t do math or science. So I’ve become very passionate about advocating for other people because if I didn’t have that growing up, I wouldn’t have gotten to where I am today.”

Passion, Self-Promotion, and Public Speaking

During a workshop on digital self-promotion, attendees admitted that they often avoid publicly sharing their achievements because it feels embarrassing or conceited. “It’s not bragging to tell people what you’ve accomplished,” said workshop leader Sabriya Stukes, Ph.D. ’14, chief scientific officer of IndieBio NY and partner at SOSV, a global venture capital firm that makes investments in early stage life science companies.  “In telling people about the things you’ve achieved, you are working to strengthen the muscle of putting yourself out there.”

Sabriya Stukes, Ph.D. '14
Sabriya Stukes, Ph.D. '14

Dr. Stukes suggested audience members consider personal and professional skill sets to promote consistently on social media. “What is your North Star, what are your guiding principles and things you want to be engaged in and grounded in your personal and professional life?” she asked.

Amy Fox, M.D., M.S., professor and executive vice chair of pathology at Einstein and Montefiore, advised attendees to practice presentations, obtain feedback, and learn to enjoy sharing their love of science. In an improv-style exercise, she directed a few people to give on-the-spot presentations about polar bears, penguins, and time-share offers. The demonstration proved that quick thinking, confidence, and enthusiasm can help overcome nerves and fears of speaking to large audiences.

“With humor, grace, and style, engage your audience,” said Dr. Fox. “Let your passion, your enthusiasm, and your love for what you do shine through.”

The career panelists included: Hayley McDaid, Ph.D., associate professor of oncology, of medicine, and of molecular pharmacology at Einstein; Kayla Weiss, Ph.D., senior scientist at Pfizer and former postdoctoral fellow at Einstein; Rachel Fremont, M.D., Ph.D. ’16, assistant professor of psychiatry at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai; and Mercedes Vega Villar, Ph.D., senior experience researcher at Adobe and former postdoctoral fellow at Einstein. They urged audience members to seek out mentors, serve as mentors to others, and move forward with their work, even in the face of disappointments such as rejections for grant applications or from journals.

“Even if you fail, you learn something, and that’s growth,” said Dr. Villar.

“Don’t compare yourself to others,” added Dr. Fremont. “Tell others: ‘This is what I did and this is why it matters.’”

Event partners and sponsors included Einstein’s office of graduate programs in the biomedical sciences, the career and professional development program for graduate students and postdocs, the office of development and alumni relations, and the office of diversity enhancement. Additionally, Thermo Fisher Scientific provided financial support as one of the event's sponsors.