Women in Science Day 2023: The Challenge of Finding Balance

For many women pursuing science careers or working as professors or researchers, juggling their professional and personal lives can be a challenge.

Victoria H. Freedman, Ph.D.

Victoria H. Freedman, Ph.D.

In order to help women overcome those challenges, Albert Einstein College of Medicine’s Women’s Networking Group hosted a half-day event in February featuring speakers and workshops focused on building better balance. The fourth annual Women in Science Day celebration at Einstein, inspired by the United Nations International Day of Women and Girls in Science, was supported by the Graduate Division, the career and professional development for graduate students and postdocs program, the office of diversity and inclusion, and the office of alumni relations.

“It’s important to celebrate our achievements, acknowledge that work needs to be done to overcome barriers that might prevent us from reaching our potential, and recommit ourselves to supporting each other,” said Victoria Freedman, Ph.D., assistant professor of microbiology & immunology and associate dean for graduate programs in biomedical sciences.

An Ongoing Journey

The event’s keynote speaker, Maria Contel, Ph.D., professor of chemistry and director of the Brooklyn College Cancer Center at the City University of New York, described herself as a mother of two, a partner, sister, friend, and activist whose story as a scientist is one of resilience and of finding joy and balance. Dr. Contel's work focuses on the use of synthetic inorganic and organometallic compounds that may be suitable in the development of anticancer and antimicrobial drugs.

An immigrant of Hispanic descent, Dr. Contel said she found her calling in research and set a goal to earn a Ph.D. She said she was committed to establishing a routine that would allow her to enjoy music and dance, socialize with friends, and travel while she pursued her advanced degree. Along the way, including during her time as a postdoctoral fellow in Australia and the Netherlands and as a senior researcher in Spain, there were numerous challenges: loneliness, romantic break-ups, low pay, a supervisor who wouldn’t provide resources or allow her to be a corresponding author on papers, and competing labs.

Women in Science Day 2023 keynote speaker Maria Contel, M.D., Ph.D., talks about the need for work-life balance
Women in Science Day 2023 keynote speaker Maria Contel, M.D., Ph.D., talks about the need for work-life balance

She persevered, applying for research opportunities that eventually brought her to New York City, where she refocused on starting her own lab, setting new goals, finding mentors, and pursuing funding for her work. More challenges arose as she juggled her growing professional role with responsibilities as a mother of two young children and wife to a firefighter, all of which became even more challenging during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Through it all, Dr. Contel said she made time to think about strategies that would help maintain balance, including: avoiding overcommitments, delegating work, setting goals, and choosing to carefully divide time between research and administrative duties. In recent years, she has devoted more time to mentoring, an activity she has found rewarding and helpful to others.

“Work-life balance is always a work in progress—it is not a fifty-fifty or linear concept,” said Dr. Contel. “There are different moments in your life when you have to prioritize one of the two areas, and that is fine.”

She added: “You also want to work at a place where you are celebrated and not just tolerated. Administrators at research and medical institutions as well as federal agencies have a responsibility to change work conditions to create a more accessible and collaborative environment for all.”

Sparking Ideas and Confidence

Libusha Kelly, Ph.D.

Libusha Kelly, Ph.D.

Event attendees were able to choose two of three workshops offered: “Saying No,” led by Donna Vogel, M.D., Ph.D., scientific career educator and former director of the professional development office at Johns Hopkins Medicine; “Setting Goals,” led by Thalyana Stathis, Ph.D., associate director of the office of career and professional development at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center; and “Balancing Roles,” led by Libusha Kelly, Ph.D., associate professor of systems & computational biology and of microbiology & immunology at Einstein.

During Dr. Kelly’s workshop, participants shared the various roles they hold, such as extrovert, explorer, problem solver, fighter, optimist, motivator, idealist, and even cat mom. By the time Dr. Kelly called on everyone in the room, she had listed dozens of other roles suggested on a whiteboard, including mother, daughter, wife, sister, volunteer, scientist, and confidante.

“The point of the exercise is to make people feel they’re not alone—we have a really, really extraordinary group of people at this institution with different roles and experience,” said Dr. Kelly.

Workshop attendees expressed a range of strategies they used to navigate conflicting roles and demands. They included the importance of planning, enjoying things that bring happiness, setting boundaries with yourself and others, worrying only about things under your control, and being kinder to oneself.

“Sometimes it’s like juggling balls in the air and realizing which ones are glass and which are rubber," said Fanta Sissoko, program manager in the office of diversity and inclusion, who said she heard the juggling metaphor from a motivational speaker. "Sometimes it's OK to drop the rubber balls and get back to them later, even if that comes with some feelings of guilt."

“I think the biggest takeaway from this year’s event is that we’re all in this together,” said April Mueller, an M.D./Ph.D. student and one of the event’s co-chairs, along with M.D./Ph.D. student Alex Tse and Ph.D. student Ilana Karp. “We are all facing difficulties, searching for balance as women of science, and we need to learn to lean on each other and share our struggles,” Ms. Mueller said.

Exploring and Networking

In an hour-long closing session, four Einstein alumnae shared their personal journeys and tips for achieving balance.

Organizers of Einstein's 2023 Women in Science Day event
Organizers of Einstein's 2023 Women in Science Day event

“One of the hardest things was not being afraid of trying something different,” said Irene Jarchum, Ph.D. ’09, associate director of the International Immuno-Oncology Network with Bristol Myers Squibb, acknowledging that the transition from a post-doctoral position to a different job can be difficult. “I networked with a lot of people.”

“It helps to have people to bounce ideas off of and gain confidence,” said Sara Nik, Ph.D. ‘19, equity research associate with H.C. Wainwright & Co., LLC., who noted the support she received at Einstein. Dr. Nik said Teresa V. Bowman, Ph.D., associate professor of developmental & molecular biology, of oncology, and of medicine at Einstein, “gave me space to explore opportunities outside the lab and was an encouraging sounding board,” along with Diane Safer, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and director of career and professional development for graduate students and postdocs.

The panelists agreed that it is also important for women to be honest with themselves and their families about what they can and cannot do and to seek work cultures and supervisors who demonstrate that they are “good human beings,” reasonable, trustworthy, and respectful.

Throughout the day, speakers emphasized the importance of mentorship. Dr. Kelly said mentors can help you see your own life more clearly and can enable you to visualize potential paths you can explore.

In her closing remarks, Harriette Mogul, M.D., M.P.H., ’65, an endocrinologist in private practice, noted that many women have accomplished success in their careers despite challenges that remain today, including inequities in salaries, laboratory space, and clerical support.

“Based on the roster of accomplishments of today’s Women in Science participants, I’m pleased to report that times have indeed changed,” said Dr. Mogul. Supportive programs and people, she added, have meant that “the potential of ‘having it all’ at the same time is far less remote…Connection and communication remain, as always, key components for survival in academia and industry.”