What do you think of when we say Science?
Beakers, lab coats and goggles? Dissecting a frog in science class? Well yes, all these things but so much more.
There are disciplines like kinesiology, genetics, glaciology, astro-, nano-, and environmental chemistry, just to name a few. And certainly, there will be many other “-ologies” and STEM fields that will have emerged by the time our kids are grown and ready to choose their careers.
To celebrate all the incredible women in science who are trailblazing, helping recruit even more women in science, and becoming role models for girls just beginning their own journeys, we’ve designated January as Raising Nerd’s Women in Science Month.
Because when girls are able to not only imagine but also literally see others like themselves in a STEM career and are encouraged, we know they are more likely to pursue and stick with STEM subjects in school. So it’s Raising Nerd’s goal to inspire, relate, and encourage girls and women of all ages and backgrounds to pursue their passions by showcasing a variety of bad-ass women in science.
February 11th is International Women & Girls in Science Day, so please join us in honoring these amazing women by sharing their stories and reminding every girl you know that with the desire, access, and a little persistence, they can do anything!
Women In Science: Dr. Elaine Choung-Hee Lee, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Molecular Biology & Applied Genetics, University of Connecticut
“I love my job because I get to try to figure out what makes people bigger, faster, stronger, and tougher, and what we can do to make ourselves more resilient, physically.”
With you being a bad-ass woman in the field, I’d love to get your story on how you entered such an interesting field or what your interests were as a child that helped you or your parents identify that science was the field for you.
I have always been an athlete (runner and rower) and avidly interested in sports. Science and math always were interesting to me as a child. In college, I learned that there actually were scientists who specifically study the science of sport and nutrition and this was an amazing revelation to me – that there could be a career in researching the things that I am naturally curious about in my everyday life. Now I work with folks who want to get fit and healthy, elite athletes, professional athletes, and even our nation’s military because understanding how to be fit, stay fit, perform at our best, and nourish our bodies during stress is something that everyone cares about. I love my job because I get to try to figure out what makes people bigger, faster, stronger, and tougher, and what we can do to make ourselves more resilient, physically.
What advice would you give to girls interested in pursuing your specific field? (this can be advice for any age child as young as kindergarten or as old as college…whatever you feel is most important that you’d like to share)
I advise young people to try science out. There are so many programs at libraries, museums, science centers, high schools, and even colleges and universities these days that try to promote STEAM among even very young children. The internet is amazing thing that can link you to all sorts of programs that don’t cost any money and can introduce you to scientists, science opportunities, and programs that can be a couple hours to even a multi-week summer program. I tell young students to be open to experiences and try things out so that they can learn over time what they do and don’t like in STEAM fields and figure out what makes them excited about a future career.
Talk about the challenges you faced as a trailblazer in your field … or … Tell us about a time where you failed and how you overcame it or recovered from it?
There are many challenges in the world of science, especially for women, but the good news is, these days there are also lots of avenues of support for young women, and mentors who want to work to help women scientists, engineers, mathematicians, etc. excel. One challenge I have been working through recently as a woman, is being a new mom to a one year old and working on my success as a scientist and a professor. It is a real challenge every day, to be a mom and balance my life with my wonderful new baby, and still be working hard and competitive in a fast-moving field, but the benefit is, that having a family is an incredibly rewarding and wonderful thing that makes life so happy every minute. I have learned through this challenge that we all need to balance and be flexible and adapt to change and new stressors and it has even made me think differently about research and productivity to make me a better leader, boss, scientist, and person.
“It was amazing to be in that position and to feel that sense of accomplishment and pride at having earned that position at the table, but it was also very intimidating.”
Another challenge in our field, is that the world of sports and military medicine is still very male-dominated and for women to rise up in the ranks and become leaders and support other young women can be challenging. I have been able to work through this challenge, but contacting and getting support from other women leaders in the field and we all work together to help everyone move forward and help move women in sports science move forward. Recently, I was invited to give a talk at a meeting for some folks who are in high positions in the U.S. military. Of the many speakers and meeting attendees, I was the only woman, and I think, by far, the youngest person in the room, too. It was amazing to be in that position and to feel that sense of accomplishment and pride at having earned that position at the table, but it was also very intimidating. However, I think going through that experience and succeeding in my presentation and work with those folks taught me that if you have good ideas and you are confident about the quality of your work, you can really break down lots of barriers and obstacles.
As far as failure, every week I fail at something, but it is important, especially in science, to pick yourself up, learn from the failure and change something so mistakes don’t happen again. In this way, failures aren’t really absolute, but rather are opportunities to improve and shape yourself over time into a better professional and person constantly. Recently, we did some field studies and I didn’t double check the work of some of our younger students because they are quite good. We all missed a major mistake that basically left a huge chunk of our very expensive data, unusable. Instead of yelling at the students and getting devastated that we lost so much data, I was calm and told our students that this is a very hard lesson learned. We all have a system now of double-checking each other, and we have also tried to figure out how we can get data in a different way from human blood samples that we have frozen to try to get at the same questions were trying to ask in our research study. I hope that from this failure, my students learn to check their work more carefully and to be kind in moments of frustration to their trainees and people they are mentoring. I have learned that I need to sometimes supervise things more than I do, even when I have good people, and that we all need to be accountable to each other. It has been a very tough lesson, but an important lesson.
Where do you anticipate the next big opportunity for girls in your field and what can they do to position themselves for success?
Goodness, women can do anything in any field these days, and all scientific fields are rapidly moving forward. In scientific research and academic, it would be great to see women rising to leadership positions as independent scientists at the head of their labs, training lots of young scientists and students. In academia, it would be wonderful to continue to see women Department Heads, Deans, Provosts, and Presidents at many universities, and all of these women working together outside their institutions to support young women in all fields.