“Critical thinker. Problem solver. Persistent, creative, detail-oriented, patient and curious.” Those are the traits for a good science according to Shelly Xu, Principal Scientist at Nestlé Health Science’s Product Technology Center (NPTC).
We asked some of our top female employees who work in scientific roles to tell us about why they pursued their careers. Who inspired them? What keeps them going? And what advice would they give to young women, on this International Day of Women and Girls in Science?
It all began with microbes in elementary school
For Elizabeth Ostbye, R&D Manager at Garden of Life, the fascination started at a young age. “I’ve always taken an interest in our natural world and was curious as child about the way the world worked. I was especially excited to participate in camps, science fairs, and school projects relating to science. I specifically remember a class project in elementary school involving swabbing various surfaces around the school to demonstrate how ubiquitous microbes are in our environment.”
It was a high school class that did it for Eydie Quinones, Quality Assurance Manager at Garden of Life. “I was taking a biology class and the idea of learning more about all living organisms and how life started that fascinated me.”
It was also fascination and curiosity that spurred Preeti Sharma, Global Market Access Lead, into science, as well. “It was my curiosity to understand ‘why’ things are the way they are! My passion for science was inspired by my parents, particularly my mother who is my girl hero. I recall her discussions as a physician on clinical cases with her peers which fascinated me, along with her ability to explain in simple language what goes wrong at a cellular level when you fall sick.”
For Jacqueline Gerena, Director of Program Management (REMS) at Aimmune Therapeutics, pursuing a career in science was about affecting meaningful change. “I wanted to be an active participant in the transformation of the healthcare industry, in order to change the outcome and patients’ experience within the healthcare landscape. This can only be achieved by being part of the change, and not just talking about the need for change.”
“Science helps us understand the world around us,” says Urszula Mioduszewski, Technical Acceptance Coordinator. “It influences and improves our everyday life from food and medicine to the way we travel and communicate.”
You’re my inspiration
Sometimes it takes just one person to encourage us to choose a path in life, whether it’s through their words or actions. Or sometimes by just being a role model without ever realizing it. That was the case for Maria Reyes, Lead Microbiologist. “Growing up in El Salvador, I am very thankful I met a female doctor who helped me get better when I was a very sick child. She most certainly inspired me to go to dental school as I had seen for the first time ever, that a woman could also go to medical school.”
For Seletha Periman, Principal Nutritionist, she didn’t recognize some people as role models until many years later. “I was very lucky to have strong female role models that always believed in me and pushed me. I grew up in a very rural, conservative town and do recall getting push-back from adults that I talk to much or ask too many questions or have too many opinions. And being a young, outspoken person with big ideas was not always accepted. However, I seemed to find someone to take me under their wing and cultivate my interests. I didn’t realize how big of an impact these individuals were making at the time but reflecting back, I consider myself very fortunate to have benefited from strong female role models throughout my life.”
Teachers and professors also play an active role in helping to shape young people’s futures. “My high school chemistry professor inspired me to go into science. He believed in me and the skills I had to pursue a career in science and be successful,” says Lilyvet Rodriguez, R&D Manager, Operations, for Garden of Life.
And for some, it’s not a who but a what. “Nature has and always will be my greatest inspiration. It never ceases to amaze me,” says Azadeh Nolan, VP of Clinical Manufacturing and Supply Chain Operations at Aimmune Therapeutics.
It wasn’t always easy
While statistics vary from country to country, men generally outnumber women in scientific careers, even if more women obtain bachelor’s and master’s degrees in science. There are a variety of reasons for this, including some barriers than women have historically faced in fields that are perceived by some as being more “masculine.”
“Did I encounter barriers as a young woman in university interested in science? Definitely! There was a sentiment that I had less knowledge than my male counterparts. It made me strive to be the best I could be, and to also support other females in science so that they were not discouraged and kept going,” says Tatiana Sam, Senior Technical Services Manager.
Jacqueline Gerena also took those barriers as challenges. “I have encountered many barriers particularly by taking a non-traditional path into the life sciences, coupled with being a woman of color. My drive and determination was evident to those who soon became mentors and allies, and assisted me in breaking down those barriers.”
It’s about making a difference in people’s lives
The curiosity, fascination and determination that began early on has continued throughout the women’s careers. And, of course, working at NHSc, one of their motivations is how their work can help change lives.
Louise Peacock, Head of Pharma R&D at Aimmune Therapeutics, says, “I have been fortunate to work on several new medicines in areas of high unmet medical need. Seeing these products though development to regulatory approval, with the potential to change the lives of patients and their families for the better, is very worthwhile.”
Sue Jones, Global Medical Affairs Lead in Pediatric Allergy, also finds the reward in linking science and healthier lives. “In my team, we can make such a significant difference to a child’s life by providing specialized products to help them flourish and live a normal life. One way I contribute to this is ensuring that the child is always at the focus of what we do and that we listen to healthcare providers and parents to continually provide the most optimum products with clear communication about the strong science and research behind them.”
And, according to Michelli Pastrello Cornett, Senior Food Safety Specialist at the NPTC, let’s not forget that finding the “answer” is also a great motivation. “The best part of my job is the challenging side of it, the investigative part, when you must put in all you’ve got to find out what could be happening on a certain issue. You go above and beyond on brainstorming, contacting people you’ve never talked to, or reading scientific publications until late at night. And then, that moment you finally understand what is happening and how to fix it? Ah! That moment is precious!”
Ask questions and don’t give up. You’re especially equipped for this.
What advice would these women give to girls in school who are interested in science?
“Never question your own ability. Be confident and be bold. Science is for everyone and offers so many exciting opportunities to make a difference. Women are especially equipped to problem-solve and to come up with solutions,” say Maryam Olesen, Head of Global Clinical Operations.
Anupama Dattatreya, Senior Principal Scientist in Nestlé Health Science’s NPTC has advice that’s close to home. “I have two daughters of the ages 15 and 11. I can already see their love for science, and I encourage them to understand the basics and indulge deeper into the topic. I believe a strong foundation is essential to succeed in your career. Be curious, ask questions. Utilize all of the resources at your fingertips – the internet, internships, talk to professionals who are experts in the area. Continue to work hard and never give up!”
“Find a good mentor, be your own advocate, don’t be intimidated,” advises Lilyvet Rodriguez.
Tatiana Sam tells young women that the pursuit of a career in science is worth it. “There are days that may not be easy, but stick with it – it’s a rewarding field. I learn something new every day.”
Azadeh Nolan says, “Baby steps, be kind to yourself and always stay true to you. Trust your inner gut and work harder than you ever thought you possibly could. Then work even harder. Remain confident in your abilities and skills. No matter the obstacles, tackle them one at a time, never give up, ask for help if you need it and achieve small successes one after the other, no matter how long it takes or how hard the task. If you set your mind and efforts to it, you will achieve your goals -- each small or large one at a time -- with the next goal being closer for the taking than the one before.
Shelly Xu sums it up, “Practice makes perfect. Embrace mistakes.”