Women pursuing science add value to the endeavor, with support from mentors and allies
To celebrate International Women and Girls in Science Day, we co-hosted a panel discussion on Feb. 10 with Woman to Woman Mentoring and Hood College where successful women in science discussed their chosen career paths, allyship and mentorship in science and strategies for advancement. This was the second annual Women in Science event and the first in-person.
Women scientists are an asset to the field and bring a unique perspective to the laboratory. But Frederick National Laboratory scientist Christine Fennessey, Ph.D. said it took her a while to realize this.
Fennessey, who leads the AIDS and Cancer Virus Program Viral Evolution Core at FNL, was among five women scientists gathered for Women in Science Speak, a celebration of women and girls in science and a mentoring discussion about overcoming the substantial disparities and gender bias in the field. The event was held on Feb. 10 at Hood College in Frederick.
“I just felt like to be successful in the lab I had to be part of the boy's club,” while in graduate school, Fennessey said. “What I didn't realize at the time, instead of trying to think exactly like them and to not rock the boat and to just go along with their ideas, the fact that I was a woman and thought differently, that offered a unique asset that I didn't capitalize on at the time.”
Having a mentor can help clear a path for success, and Fennessey and others on the panel credited their mentors with improving their professional prospects.
Panelists included Banis Githinji, DNP, a National Institutes of Health research nurse practitioner, Nicole Fer, a RAS Initiative scientist at FNL and Debbie Ricker, Ph.D., Hood’s provost and vice president of academic affairs. The event, co-sponsored by FNL, Woman to Woman Mentoring Inc. and Hood, was moderated by Mary Kearney, Ph.D., deputy program director of the National Cancer Institute’s HIV Dynamics and Replication Program.
Somebody will say, ‘That’s not what girls do,’ or something slanted toward, ‘Women do this differently than men’ or ‘Women can’t do this.' My ultimate response is going to be, ‘Watch this.’
-- Debbie Ricker, Ph.D.
Modeling after Mentors
Much of the conversation related to mentorship. Githinji encouraged women in science to “stand on the shoulders of giants.” These, she said, are forerunners both in science and in life, senior-level women scientists just as much as respected women in one’s family or community.
Fer underscored that point with a story about one of her early mentors who not only conducted excellent science but also had a sound work-life balance.
“I like to model myself off of her and help other women see the same thing: that you can do both,” Fer said, speaking of her work and her family.
Advocacy is also important, Fer said. She mentioned mentors and supervisors who recognized her capabilities and fought for her to be able to lead scientific projects despite not having a Ph.D. herself.
Kearney noted that learning from mentoring relationships is a lifelong pursuit.
“Mentorship is throughout your career,” she said. “Even when you become a mentor, you are still mentored.”
But the ugly truth remains that women and girls in science face much criticism—and that women in scientific careers frequently become discouraged and leave the field or feel pressured to do so. Several of the panelists had things to say about that.
“Somebody will say, ‘That’s not what girls do,’ or something slanted toward, ‘Women do this differently than men’ or ‘Women can’t do this,’” said Ricker, a biologist. “My ultimate response is going to be, ‘Watch this.’”
The panelists’ comments emphasized pursuing a career because of passion for the field and a desire to make a difference, not to please anyone else. They said there was no point in listening to the critics.
“I work with kids who die,” said Githinji. “I can’t stop, because someone’s hope is in me and what I can do for them. For me, it’s the big picture. It’s not about me. It’s not about all the people who think I’m not meant to be in this.”
Balancing Work with Family
Another harsh reality are the demands placed on women scientists who choose to start families. These can cause them to leave the field due to economic strain or the struggle to find a balance.
Fennessey related an anecdote from her first postdoctoral fellowship, when many of her fellow female postdocs were forced to quit the program and seek alternative employment because they were paying their entire salary into childcare. Other times, she said, women rise to leadership positions and have increasing demands for their time that force them to choose between family and career.
Fennessey added that companies need to do more to support women, such as increasing maternity leave and adding a stipend for daycare or hosting on-site daycare if possible. She acknowledged that these would mean more corporate expenses.
“However, I think as companies—and I think this is happening—increasingly see the value in women in the workplace and see the value of retaining women in the workplace, that things are going to start to get better, and that women will no longer feel like they have to choose family versus their career,” she said, drawing a round of applause from the audience.
Fer agreed that more options would mean fewer women leaving science. She also encouraged women not to let others take away opportunities because they believe a woman might be “too busy” with her family.
“No one else but yourself can understand what you can put on your plate,” she said. “Don’t ever let anybody tell you how much you can put on your plate. You know.”
And for the women who do pause their careers to care for family, Ricker and Fer encouraged them to be clear and honest when asked about it in future job interviews.
“There’s no shame in having to take care of your family—ever,” Fer said.
Banis Githinji, Ph.D.
Research Nurse Practitioner, National Institutes of Health
Banis Githinji is a former mentee of the Woman to Woman Mentoring program. She completed 2 years of mentorship in 2011. Banis works as a research Nurse Practitioner at the National Institute of Health. Her current research is focused on pediatric rare disease. Banis holds a Bachelor of Science degree in nursing from Sojourner Douglass College, a Master of Science degree in nursing from Chamberlain University, and a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree from Liberty University. Banis prides in delivering safe, evidenced based, and patient centered care to her patients. During her free time, Banis Githinji enjoys dancing, spending time with her son, travelling, and watching documentaries.
Christine Fennessey, Ph.D.
Scientist / Manager, AIDS and Cancer Virus Program, Frederick National Laboratory
Christine Fennessey is the head of the Viral Evolution Core and a staff scientist in the Retroviral Evolution Section in AIDS and Cancer Virus Program of the Frederick National Laboratory (FNL). She obtained her Ph.D. from the Georgia Institute of Technology in molecular biology in 2010 and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Vanderbilt University prior to joining FNL as a postdoc.
She has since been promoted to scientist and head of the sequencing core. She developed the first barcoded SIV which has now become the gold standard virus for nonhuman primate studies, having been distributed to over 50 different laboratories nationwide. For this work, she received the International AIDS Society Lange-van Tongeren Prize for Young Investigators in 2017 and the Leidos Publication Prize for Life Science and Medicine in 2018.
Her current work is focused on providing expert sequencing and phylogenetic analyses to collaborators across the country and using the barcoded virus to examine unanswered questions regarding HIV transmission, viral dynamics, and cure.
She resides in Frederick MD with her patient husband, two rambunctious children, two affectionate dogs, and cranky old cat.
RAS Initiative Scientist, Cancer Research Technology Program, Frederick National Laboratory
Nicole Fer is a scientist with the National Cancer Institute’s RAS Initiative at the Frederick National Laboratory for Cancer Research (FNL), where she studies novel RAS biology and develops new tools to aid in the discovery of future RAS inhibitors.
Nicole began her career at what is now FNL when she graduated from McDaniel College. She worked with the Functional Genomics Laboratory, conducting mechanism of action experiments on “hits” for the drug discovery group and contributing to several poster presentations and publications. She earned a master’s degree in biomedical science from Hood College while working at FNL full time. She moved to “bench-to-bedside-back-to-bench" research with NIH clinical trials in the Tumor Hypoxia Group in FNL’s Developmental Therapeutics Program.
Nicole is co-author of several book chapters, Employee Invention Reports, and scientific journal publications. She lives in Frederick where she enjoys playing basketball and baseball with her husband and four sons and coaches her son’s baseball team in spring and fall.
Debbie Ricker, Ph.D.
Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs, Hood College
Debbie Ricker received her bachelor’s degree in biological science from Mars Hill University, her master’s degree in biological science from East Tennessee State University and her doctorate in reproductive biology from The Johns Hopkins University. Ricker also completed the Harvard University Institute for Educational Management program.
Ricker began her administrative experience at York College of Pennsylvania in 1996 as a coordinator of the secondary education program in biology. She has served in that capacity until 2002 when she became chair of the department of biological sciences, leading more than 300 students, 15 faculty members and two staff members. In 2008, she took the role of associate dean of academic affairs where she stayed until she accepted her current role in 2010.
She helped lead the design and deployment of York’s new general education program called “Generation Next.” The curriculum is focused on closer coordination of courses, vertical integration of core competencies within each major and systematic, ongoing assessment of student learning outcomes endorsed by the campus community. The curriculum includes a cohesive first-year seminar, foundational courses, disciplinary perspectives, and constellation components, as well as co-curricular learning opportunities, many of which are administered through the division of academic services.
Along with her administrative positions, Ricker was an assistant professor from 1995 to 2000. She was promoted with tenure to associate professor in 2000, and she has been a professor of biological science since 2010. As a lifelong academic and biology professor, Ricker became Hood's vice president of academic affairs and provost on July 1, 2016.
Mary Kearney, Ph.D.
Senior Scientist and Head, Translational Research Section
Deputy Program Director, HIV Dynamics & Replication Program, National Cancer Institute
Chair, NIH Women Scientist Advisors
Mary Kearney received her B.A. in Biochemistry from Hood College in 1996 and her M.S. in Biomedical Science from Hood College in 2001. In 2008, she received a Ph.D. in Biology from Catholic University and was awarded the Benedict T. DeCicco Award for Excellence in Graduate Research. Dr. Kearney has been an integral part of the HIV Dynamics and Replication Program since 2001.
In 2008, Dr. Kearney was promoted to Head of the Translational Research Section where she oversees a team that investigates viral genetics and expression in vivo, the sources of persistent HIV during antiretroviral therapy (ART), the sources of rebound viremia after stopping ART, the mechanisms for maintaining the HIV reservoir, and the mechanisms for the emergence of drug-resistance mutations in HIV and other RNA viruses. Key discoveries include demonstrating that ART is fully effective at blocking HIV replication in vivo, that HIV persists through cellular proliferation of cells that were infected prior to ART initiation, and that HIV has differential expression among cells within infected cell clones.
Dr. Kearney is the recipient of four Bench-to-Bedside Awards, three NIH Intramural AIDS Targeted Antiviral Program Awards, a U.S.–South Africa Initiative U01 Grant, an Office of AIDS Research Congressional Award, and an NCI Flex Technology Award. In 2019, she was promoted to Senior Scientist and in 2021 to Deputy Program Director of the HIV Dynamics & Replication Program. Dr. Kearney served as Chair of the NCI Women Scientists Advisors (WSA) from 2018-2020 and currently serves as Chair of the NIH WSA. The WSA advise NIH leadership on improved recruitment, retention, and promotion of women scientists.