“STEM fields are very rigorous and need to start early in education,” notes NIBIB deputy director Dr. Belinda Seto, co-chair of NIH’s committee on women of color in biomedical careers.“You have to have the love, the passion, in addition to the ability in math and the sciences. In this country we seem to have a mindset that girls don’t like math. I don’t believe that there are ability differences based on gender. I think it’s our attitudes, our mindset, that is influenced by societal view that girls don’t like math and science.
“There has to be a cultural shift,” she continued. “We have to start believing that it’s perfectly fine for a middle-school girl to love algebra. Her passion has to be celebrated early on. Mentoring is really critical for STEM fields.”
To start changing the mindset, and to offer a cadre of ready-made tour guides online, the committee launched WoCRn at www.wocrn.nih.gov/ in fall 2011. The women of color committee is a component of the NIH working group on women in biomedical careers, co-chaired by NIH director Dr. Francis Collins and Dr. Janine Clayton, director of the Office of Research on Women’s Health. Concerns of women of color are being addressed by the work group through the committee; operated by ORWH, WoCRn is one project of the group.
“The [Donna] Ginther paper in Science in 2011 showed that there are lower success rates for scientists of color as compared to non-Hispanic white scientists,” explained NIA deputy director Dr. Marie Bernard, who co-chairs the committee with Seto. “When factors such as country of origin, training site, etc., were controlled, there remained a difference for some scientists. The committee has been examining these issues and…found that women of color may not have adequate role models and support networks. WoCRn is a virtual network to help fill that perceived gap. It does not take the place of personal relationships. However, it is a means by which an initial introduction can take place, with it then being up to the parties involved to develop a relationship if they wish.”
A Virtual Community
The web-based network—open to anyone with an interest—offers a wide range of information and ways to connect: from forum articles on “Demystifying the Grant Review Process” and “Applying for an NIH Grant” to a post asking for temporary housing suggestions for summer interns. Close to 900 people had joined the network as of spring 2013.
Dr. Belinda Seto, co-chair of NIH’s committee on women of color in biomedical careers, says, “We have to raise mentoring to the next level, to advocacy.”
WoCRn, a web-based network at www.wocrn.nih.gov/, is open to anyone with an interest. Close to 900 people had joined the network as of spring 2013.
“We wanted to create an online community, a place for NIH to say we care about these issues,” explains NIA’s Dr. Cerise Elliott, a research program analyst who developed WoCRn with NIA colleague Dr. J. Taylor Harden (now retired). “Our goal is to connect like-minded people, find other postdocs and people interested in science and get them to interact.
“Although the numbers are improving,” she continued, “women are still underrepresented in STEM fields. The network offers a baseline of resources. It’s also a tool for the extramural community, another way to get the NIH name out there. There are other opportunities for the network to look at workability issues, career advancement and the resources to provide forward momentum someone might need.”
Guiding Lights Necessary
Bernard says she could have used such a resource in the early days of her own career.
“I trained at a time that women were just beginning to be seen in large numbers in medicine and science,” she said. “My medical school class had the largest number of women yet seen at the University of Pennsylvania—one quarter of the class. Thus, I ran into all of the challenges that are now hopefully behind us—being one of few women on clinical rotations; being picked on or ignored because I was a woman.
|Dr. Cerise Elliott (l) of NIA developed WoCRn with an institute colleague; at right, NIA deputy director Dr. Marie Bernard co-chairs the committee on women of color in biomedical careers.
“Fortunately,” Bernard said, “I had a number of male mentors who helped me cope with challenges. I also had an outstanding female mentor—my mother, one of few minority women physicians at the time that she trained and a wonderful guiding light as I pursued my career.”
Clayton emphasizes that the need for role models cannot be overstated. “I believe mentoring is critical to the advancement of women in many fields, especially in STEM,” she said. “Mentoring is crucial to training in general and it’s achieved in a variety of ways that are not always labeled as such. In STEM, there are established pathways as well as a collection of unwritten rules that constitute, in effect, a playbook for advancement in STEM. It’s not that you can’t progress without the playbook, but it’s a lot easier when you know the ‘rules.’”
Seto suggests going beyond traditional ideas about helping the next generation.
“We have to be catalysts,” she said. “We have to raise mentoring to the next level, to advocacy. I had a wonderful mentor who pushed me. Beyond mentorship, advocacy and sponsorship go a step further.”
Science is not a solitary pursuit, Bernard pointed out. More and more, a team approach is
“I think that science advances in the future will require more collaborative and interdisciplinary work than has been the case in the past,” she said. “New advances will require networks of scientists from a variety of fields to come together to solve problems such as mapping the human brain, as has been proposed by President Obama. Being positioned to take advantage of such networking opportunities has traditionally been a problem for women, and particularly for women of color. The WoCRn was developed to facilitate connections between scientists who are women of color or who are interested in issues of women of color.”
The network may be small now, but its influence can be enormous, predicted Seto. “We’re nowhere near the critical mass, but we can be a strong, advocating community. We have to get to the point where women scientists are no longer the afterthought for awards, lectureships and leadership positions. Our numbers may be small, but that does not mean we don’t have a powerful voice.”
Clayton agreed, concluding, “I want the network to encourage and support women to pursue their aspirations. I’m hoping it will provide both peer-to-peer connections and facilitate mentee-mentor relationships as well as promote the advancement of women of color scientists for a variety of opportunities. I’m also hoping it will help anyone interested in STEM understand the landscape and deftly navigate through the potholes and pitfalls.”
The web site for the work group is womeninscience.nih.gov.