Women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math):

Today’s Mentors Create Tomorrow’s Leaders

You hang posters of role models on your wall and save quotes from them in your journals. Role models make you feel seen, encourage you to keep going and permit you to think, If they can do it, so can I. My role models are part of the reason why, today, I am proud to be a medical geneticist.

Growing up, my role model’s photo hung in our upstairs hallway. Though I never met my Grandpa Herbert, his figure loomed large in my life. A well-known chemist at the University of Chicago, he was my inspiration, and I wanted to follow in his footsteps. There were no women scientists in my life, but Grandpa Herbert was the closest I could get to admire someone who resembled me. Family likeness was the best way I could see myself as a scientist and researcher. I knew I would not let the absence of female representation stop me from pursuing my passions.

As I got older, I set my intention to become a scientist like Grandpa Herbert. I was

hopeful I would find female professors and peers like me in the scientific community. In reality, I sat through several high-level undergraduate math and science courses with few other female students.

The lack of representation changed when I went on to graduate medical studies at the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn), where I met a Professor of Genetics. Dr. G became my personal and professional mentor; she helped foster my passion for genetics and provided guidance that set me on the path to where I am today.

Among other strong female faculty at UPenn, and throughout my career, I have been fortunate to meet numerous women who shaped my interests and passion for research. Their mentorship was invaluable and helped me reach my goal of becoming a medical geneticist. But in many cases, especially early in my career development, these mentors were not readily apparent. This, among other barriers, is all too common. According to Pew Research Center, women’s representation among the six STEM occupational clusters has not changed significantly since 2016. Change is happening, but not fast enough.

I recently participated in a panel for my 14-year-old daughter’s school about careers in science and medicine. I sat alongside three other women in the science fields, and we spoke about our career paths. Hearing their passion made me consider what would be missing from the scientific community had we stopped pursuing our dreams or been discouraged and lost our innate curiosity. As I looked out into the audience, about half of which were teenage girls, it reminded me how impactful it is to have role models illustrating that you can make it as a woman in scientific fields, and how each generation is blessed with more role models than the one before. While this is progress, more work needs to be done. As I look to the future, there are a few things we can do to inspire young girls to develop a passion for STEM.

First, looking for role models as a woman in STEM doesn’t always mean looking up. You can also look beside you or to women in advanced positions in other STEM fields. Sometimes the people right next to you have the same goals and serve as the best support systems.

Second, if you are a woman in the sciences, I encourage you to be a mentor. Mentoring benefits both parties, offering an opportunity for mentors to improve their leadership skills. UPenn reports that mentees and mentors are both promoted more often than those without mentors.

Finally, women in STEM offer incredibly valuable and varied viewpoints across all areas of science. We must elevate scientists with diverse backgrounds and lived experiences. New viewpoints lead to questions and discoveries vital to the expansion of our field.

Ultimately, we need to inspire one another. If you don’t see role models that look like you, don’t get discouraged. Continue pursuing your passions. You may not have seen people like you in the textbooks, but you can be the first! And for all those who will come after you, seeing your success in academia, labs, hospitals and all the places where scientific discovery takes place will remind them that if she can do it, so can I.

Elizabeth Chao, MD

Elizabeth Chao, MD

Ambry VP, Clinical Diagnostics Laboratory Director