How This D1 Softball Star Is Rallying Thousands of Female Scientists

How This D1 Softball Star

Is Rallying Thousands of Female Scientists

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Although athletics and scientific advocacy sound like they don’t have too much in common, according to Jackie Giovanniello, the two are actually quite synergistic. “Being part of a supportive, tight knit group of women was always part of my life, both in sports and in science,” says the talented softballer-cum-female scientist. “I’ve always been used to that.”

Giovanniello, a Ph.D. neuroscience student at Cold Spring Harbor Lab, has launched a new Women In Science Initiative (WiSE) with the goal of getting more women into lab coats. Giovanniello says she came up with the idea when she took note of the fact that she was one of the only woman in her research lab. “We have 19 percent female faculty,” says Giovanniello, adding that number is actually higher than the national average, which is around 11 percent. (That number represents all women in STEM who have tenured positions). “Nationally women get 50 percent of the Ph.D.s in science, particularly in biological sciences, and that’s caused a lot of people, particularly men, to think there isn’t much of a problem. But these women are leaking out of the pipeline for reasons that are often not their choice.”

According to Giovanniello, who employs a decidedly grassroots approach to her advocacy, the numbers tell a story. She reports that 35 percent of Post Docs are women, meaning after receiving a Ph.D., the industry loses 15 percent of women, and then another significant amount from that point to faculty. To help keep women in the industry, Giovanniello decided to take matters into her own hands. She and two fellow female scientists joined together to figure out how to provide women with more resources, policies and processes to be successful in the field. “I was shocked that so little was being done,” says Giovanniello. “It’s so commonplace because so many institutions are not addressing this issue from an administrative level.”

From there Giovanniello went to the administration and told them she wanted to start a Women In Science initiative, which would be part grassroots (i.e. offering professional development, mentoring, and networking), but also would encapsulate educational outreach for young girls in the community, notable underserved communities in Long Island. After receiving a $10K grant from the Patrina Foundation in the summer of 2015, Giovanniello got to work.

Among the female-specific offerings are The MccLintock Lectures, named after Nobel prize winner, Barbara MccLintock; where female scientific changemakers are invited to come share strategies for success to audiences filled with aspiring female scientists. “It’s not just going to be a girls group that meets to chat,” she says. “We want to create change and foster discussion [among scientific thought leaders].”

Additionally, Giovanniello  is working on a master list of established female scientists so that the community can rally behind itself, and more women can add to it and continue circling it. “When we don’t see women on scientific panels and are told it’s because there are no women in the field, we can say here, and show them a list of 3,000 women who are doing amazing things,” says Giovanniello, who plans to unveil the list to the public in December.

Here, we speak to the dedicated scientific advocate about her passion project, and how shifting the few can quickly mean impacting the many.

Dr. Lydia Villa-Komaroff, Molecular Biologist and Founding member of SACNAS
1. What was it like creating an initiative like this as a new graduate student? Where did you start?

Hard! But surprisingly educational and empowering at the same time. Scientists work incredibly hard, it’s part of the culture to spend 80 hour weeks in the lab for years – especially in your Ph.D. and Post-Doc years. So when I started to put a lot of my attention and time into building WiSE, I got feedback that I needed to focus more or that I wasn’t as committed to science as I should be. But anyone who’s worked with me knows that I’m pretty hard to dissuade from doing things I set my mind to. So I pushed through and sacrificed some sleep, to make sure my science still always came first. It’s a double standard, and it’s unfortunate, but women have to work much harder to make sure we don’t slip. And to make sure we don’t give male scientists any reason to doubt our commitment, our intellect, or our work ethic.

We started with a panel discussion and had women Faculty at the lab talk about their experiences in science and issues they’ve faced being a woman. We had over 100 employees attend, which was super encouraging as CSHL is a relatively small institution. It showed us there was clearly interest in the topic, and that people wanted to talk more about these issues. From there, we got to work planning workshops, organizing roundtable discussions, writing grants, and working with the administration shape our mission and realistic goals. It was a work in progress, we were constantly evaluating the effects of what we were doing and reshaping our focus to make sure we were addressing what women scientists needed from us.

Scientists and administrators from institutions throughout the Tri-state area gathered at the 2nd Annual Greater NYC Summer Networking BBQ in August.
2. How did you know there was a need for WiSE and what gaps does WiSE address with its three areas of focus?

I did my undergraduate work at Brown University. Brown’s a place where very early on, students are taught how and why advocacy is so important. You’re taught to never stop speaking up and that if you don’t see what you need, it’s up to you to build it. I’ve carried that sentiment with me since, and when I realized there were no resources for women scientists at my institution, despite the huge gap in representation here and throughout the field, I didn’t think twice about trying to solve that problem.

WiSE now works to address the lack of women in STEM fields at three levels. First, we provide professional development resources and networking and mentorship opportunities for current women scientists. We particularly focus on Ph.D. and Post-Doc level women, as studies have shown that those are the career points when women tend to leave the field. Second, we work to increase representation of women scientists at the institutional level. Third, we provide STEM education and empowerment opportunities for young girls in underserved areas in our community.

WiSE Technology Initiatives Chair, Shaina Lu (left), posed with a friend at the 2nd Annual Greater NYC Summer Networking BBQ.
3. We hear a lot about the fact that we need more women in STEM, but not much about why. Can you share why this is such an important crusade?

Science is a discipline that awards those who think outside the box. Discoveries aren’t made by following the status quo, but by attacking problems from new angles and with new techniques. Creativity is a huge part of making that happen and a diversity of backgrounds, experiences, and strengths, fosters that creativity. Sampling from only a select group of the population stifles that diversity and limits our scientific potential.

4. Can you speak a little bit about your experience as a woman in science? Was it harder for you?

I’m what they call “First-Gen”. Meaning, I was the first in my family to go to college. I’m also the only person in my family to go to graduate school. So I’m used to feeling like I don’t quite fit the mold. But even with that experience, it was hard to ignore the shock-factor of being a woman in science. It’s a common scenario to be one of just a handful of women at a scientific meeting or conference or to scroll through a list of 25 seminar speakers and find only one or two women invited. Almost every woman scientist can tell you about a time a male colleague “mansplained” them at a seminar, or dismissed their ideas in a lab meeting. Many women can even speak about instances of overt gender discrimination or sexual harassment at their institution. It’s, unfortunately, part of the culture of working in a male-dominated field – not unlike business or politics. Part of what WiSE tries to provide is a supportive network where women can learn how to address those experiences, and how to make sure they stop happening to both themselves and other women scientists. We really focus on turning those experiences into tangible solutions.

WiSE Vice-President, Lital Chartarifsky (left), and President, Jackie Giovanniello (right), with Keynote Speaker, Ivy Algazy (middle), CEO and Founder of the Ivy Network
5. Can you speak about women in science historically? Is it true many were not given the credit they deserved for their discoveries?

Absolutely, it’s improved but it’s still not great. Look at this year’s list of Nobel Laureates – all men. It’s definitely not for a lack of women scientists making groundbreaking discoveries. In fact, WiSE writes “WiSE Wednesday” profiles on historical women scientists who made major discoveries in STEM. We’ve been doing this each week for two years and have still not run out of women to highlight. I think the problem is two-fold, it’s the fact that men and women are unconsciously more likely to champion the achievements of men and that women often do not feel confident enough to advocate for themselves or their work.

6. Do you have any statistics you can share about women currently in science in the US? Is this also an international issue?

In the US, women receive 42% of doctoral degrees in STEM fields. However, only 36% of Post-Doctoral Fellows are women and 20% of tenured faculty in these fields are women. Despite arguments that this discrepancy is due to women leaving the field entirely or choosing positions in industry instead, these studies have shown that 51% of all doctoral degree holders in STEM fields are women and these ratios are similar in industry and government STEM positions. This tells us that women scientists are not leaving STEM en masse, but that they are not occupying the highest-ranking positions in these fields. Because science is a very global community, this effect is seen throughout the field. While some countries skew better than others in the proportion of women scientists, there are always substantially more men at every level.

7. How important is having a culturally and racially diverse female pool of scientists tapped to solve our world’s most pressing problems?

What I mentioned before, about workforce diversity enhancing our scientific potential, is just as true for cultural and racial diversity as it is for gender. Women scientists who are also underrepresented minorities are doubly disadvantaged in our field. This is something WiSE has expanded to work on in the last year. We’ve created a Diversity Committee and hosted Dr. Lydia Villa-Komaroff, the founding member of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native American in Science, and all-around amazing advocate for increasing diversity of underrepresented minorities in STEM. She gave a presentation about the current (abysmal) demographics in STEM and then she, and a panel of URMs at our institution spoke about their experiences and specific strategies we can take as a community to empower these groups. This is definitely something we need to focus heavily on moving forward.

8. What do you think the most important advice for women scientists is?

Be the strong, confident, and determined version of yourself. Many of the women scientists who’ve succeeded in STEM, did so because they acted more like their male colleagues. They felt they needed to be competitive, aggressive, and the loudest voice in every room. But we know that women don’t need to be like men to be brilliant, creative, successful, scientists. They just need to be themselves. So even though we encourage women to give more confident presentations, and take on riskier projects despite doubting themselves, it’s important that women identify and utilize the traits that make them unique and great contributors to this field. Science needs to change to appreciate women, not the other way around.

9. What are WiSE’s long-term plans?

We’re really excited because WiSE was awarded our second grant from the Patrina Foundation this year. This funding will allow us to almost double our efforts in providing professional development resources and STEM outreach programs for girls in underserved communities. Long-term, we hope to work with more WiSE groups in NYC and the tri-state area to help implement some of the programs that have been successful here at CSHL. One of the areas women are often great at is collaborating and we want to make sure we’re using what we’ve learned to help to lift up more women scientists at other institutions.

10. What are other areas you’d love to advocate for related to the culture of STEM?

I think there needs to be way more discussion about the mental health of trainees (graduate students and Post-Docs). STEM fields are intellectually and culturally rigorous. Science can be isolating and deliver you failure after failure no matter how hard you work. While the stress often helps scientists develop their perseverance and grit, it can also ignite and exacerbate mental illnesses – particularly anxiety and depression. We need to shed light on the vast number of trainees suffering from these disorders, get rid of the stigma, and provide resources to address them so they can flourish personally and scientifically. Science benefits from a physically and mentally healthy workforce.

11. Have you seen any proof that the needle is being shifted? Can you give examples?

Gender and racial biases in STEM are broad problems that are rooted in the endemic patriarchal and racist structures of our society and manifest as implicit, unconscious biases in daily decision-making. So they’re hard to tackle and hard to measure on a large scale.

Rectifying these issues will take more than providing professional development workshops and mentorship networks. It requires conscious and continual correction by all scientists and administrators in every decision they make. But I do think the needle is being shifted. In every sector, more women are rising up to the highest ranks and most importantly, are turning around and helping to pull other women up with them. We need to harness this momentum and build on it exponentially.

Shaina Lu, Jackie Giovanniello, CSHL Director of Research Operations Sydney Gary, Lital Chartarifsky, Professor and HHMI Investigator Leemor Joshua-Tor, and her daughter, Avery Joshua-Tor at the 2nd Annual Greater NYC Summer Networking BBQ.
12. Can you share some of the most unsung female heroes in science?

I love sharing the stories of women who made cool discoveries that are still resonating today. One of them is Hedy Lamarr, she developed a frequency-hopping technology that served as the foundation for WiFi, GPS, and Bluetooth technologies. She was also an actress and composer – how cool is that? There’s also Nettie Stevens who discovered that biological sex is inherited and termed the male-hereditary element, the “Y” chromosome. Unfortunately, she didn’t get credit for this discovery as a male scientist made the same discovery shortly after and over-shadowed her contribution. This is a phenomenon you encounter frequently when reading about historical women scientists. However, WiSE brings these women’s discoveries into the limelight with our WiSE Wednesday highlights each week. Find the rest of them here.

Belisa Silva

Belisa is an editor with more than 10 years of experience. Prior to SWAAY, she worked as freelance writer, covering lifestyle, fashion and beauty industries. Belisa was a Market Editor at Women's Wear Daily for five years, where she interviewed rockstar business women like Drew Barrymore, Jennifer Lopez and Iman. Belisa also contributes to Cosmetic Executive Women, where she highlights female executives making an impact in the beauty industry.

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