Being Part of Culture Change for Women in STEM

Mar 01, 2018

By Adriana Bankston, bench scientist turned science policy researcher

We spoke with Adriana Bankston, member of the Board of Directors at Future of Research (FoR), on her experiences as a bench scientist turned science policy researcher, and her support for women in STEM.

The importance of having female mentors

I grew up in a family of scientists, and have always had strong female role models. On a personal level, this includes my mother, grandmother, and mother-in-law, all of whom have impressed upon me that idea that women are great leaders. I also learned that many issues experienced by women are very similar across workplace settings, including in academia and industry. But perhaps the biggest influence of my adult life was my former PhD advisor. Working with her, I got a chance to see what it meant to be not only a great scientist, but also someone who could balance a successful scientific career with a rich personal life. I looked up to her as someone with authority, but also as a friend I could talk to about my career ambitions and personal struggles. There are many aspects that contribute to helping someone be successful in science as a graduate student or postdoc. I watched in amazement how she taught each and every one of us exactly what we needed to know in order to succeed in the lab.

She was very rigorous in terms of my experiments at the bench, and very critical of my writing and scientific presentations, but also celebrated when I got my U.S. citizenship or when my scientific papers were accepted. But I never quite appreciated any of this until later on. Another thing I didn’t realize when I was in her lab is that she was one of only two female faculty members in my department. The other was my husband’s former PhD advisor, who had a lab close to hers, and they frequently discussed how to enhance both of our trainings as much as possible while we were there. In addition, my advisor’s best friend at the university was the only female faculty in another department, with whom we also interacted frequently. I was surrounded by very strong female academic role models for several years, and observing how they dealt with this environment at a high profile university on a daily basis greatly influenced my interests in this area.

How I became an advocate for women in STEM

During my postdoc training, I sought to become more informed about broader challenges experienced by women in STEM, and to combat the idea that women could be any less successful than men in academia. Joining the Association for Women in Science (AWIS) during this time exposed me to many more great female role models. Feeling encouraged and supported by AWIS national leadership, I founded the AWIS Kentucky Affiliate Group whose goal was to create a forum where women in STEM could make their voices heard on various issues, build a local network and participate in activities in the state of Kentucky. Almost immediately afterwards, a female faculty member offered to give a more general presentation to our group about AWIS, as well as to discuss her experiences in academia. Later, two male industry professionals also wanted to talk to us about gender bias in their field. While I was a bit surprised by this, I greatly appreciated their willingness to discuss these issues with a group of young women in science. Hearing both sides of the story was both an encouraging and eye-opening experience. To this day, hearing their views out loud and having female scientists in the room respond to their ideas has been one of the most rewarding events from this group.

Following this experience, I gave a talk at the Women in Science & Engineering (WISE) club at a local high school in Kentucky, which provided me with an opportunity to do more research on this topic. Upon reading more about it, I became motivated to change the perception of women in science, particularly when seeing the hopeful faces of these high school girls. I wanted to tell them that they, too, could become scientists, while also trying to paint a fairly realistic picture of what academia may hold in store for them. I also felt very inspired by their willingness to expose younger (4th-6th grade) girls to science by engaging them in simple and fun experiments at a local camp in Kentucky that was part of a national program. They opened my eyes to what it meant to mentor girls in STEM in a truly selfless way.

Ideas on changing the academic culture for women in STEM

Nowadays, I remain interested in supporting women in STEM through similar programs and events, as well as thinking more about how to help them achieve meaningful leadership positions in academia, while also making them feel valued and respected in these positions. While these are not trivial tasks, and they require a larger culture shift, I believe that it is critical for women in STEM to mentor each other, and also for men to participate in this effort (as I have experienced in Kentucky), if we truly want to create a diverse and inclusive scientific enterprise. Perhaps more importantly, we must also encourage high school girls (and even those of younger ages) with an interest in science to pursue this path, and expose them to science activities early on.

At the same time, true change can only come if we increase transparency about the scientific enterprise, which is one of my goals at Future of Research. As part of this goal, I believe that we must also create appropriate spaces for women to speak out on particular issues in academia. Personally, I have made it a point to shared my own story in multiple ways and settings, and hope to encourage other women to do the same. While these experiences are often very personal, common themes likely emerge across the board, making this a larger systemic issue that must involve the entire scientific community in effecting lasting change for women in STEM.

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