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SD Union Tribune – Success tips from women in science, for girls who want to go into science

Learning from mentors, taking chances and showing passion go a long way

By BRADLEY J. FIKES NOV. 16, 20196 AM

Seek advice. Get mentally tough. And let your enthusiasm show. That’s some of the advice nearly 300 high school girls from San Diego got Wednesday from local female scientists.

As described in an earlier story, the scientists discussed career challenges in the event at the Salk Institute in La Jolla. But they also gave tips on how to succeed, gleaned from their own experience.

One of them is Pantea Khodami, associate director of global marketing at gene sequencing giant Illumina.

“When I joined Illumina, I was the youngest ever product manager, and I think through my career I’ve constantly been the youngest ever.”

Khodami said when she was 24, she wanted to get in on the launch of a sequencing product. After a few months, her persistence paid off. She got on the team.The team leader briefly commented on her youth and inexperience in their first discussion.

“I made it a point to actually work extra hard to prove her wrong, and within 23 months, she actually gained so much respect for me,” Khodami said.

This seeking out help extended to that perpetual concern of work-life balance.

“I would just look at … who are the female execs that have kids, have working partners, and are also in senior positions,” she said. “I would reach out to them, have a one-on-one and try to figure out what’s the magic formula.”

Karen Nelson, president of the J. Craig Venter Institute nearby in La Jolla, said there’s a lot to be gained just by asking. That’s how she joined the institute as a newly minted postdoctoral scholar. Out of the blue, she emailed Craig Venter and said she wanted to work there.

“And he hired me,” Nelson said. “Sometimes you’ve got to be creative and take chances, and realize that you’re taking a risk. But it worked out for me.”

Nelson cautioned that it’s essential to mentally toughen up when rejection happens, as is often the case with any scientist. This is especially true for grant applications, Nelson said.

“And they tell you that you suck, and you’re really not that good … Your experiments don’t work every time you try,” Nelson said. “And so you just have to realize that it’s a part of your research career that you’re gonna have a setback sometimes. But you just keep on going at it and believe in yourself.”

Asked what she thought about failure, Nelson said even that has a positive side.

“Failure might be a tough word, but I don’t think it’s a bad thing,” she said. “Plus, it builds character.”

Enthusiasm also helps, said Charlotte Miller, who works in the plant biology laboratory of Salk Institute professor Wolfgang Busch.

Miller said her path was improbable. As one of five sisters from a low-income family, she wasn’t able to attend the top schools as a girl. They were too expensive.

So while Miller loved science, she didn’t think she had the grounding to pursue a scientific career at a university. She decided to major in art, with the goal of becoming an art therapist.

“Two months in I was like, I really want to be a scientist, but it just seemed kind of stupid,” Miller said. “I begged the university to let me swap to science. And they let me, even though I definitely didn’t have the grades to do it. Once I had made that decision, everything just made more sense to me.”

Miller said that experience drove home how enthusiasm can overcome challenges that seem at first glance insurmountable.

“If you really care about stuff, people will love that about you as well,” Miller said.

“And that means that you get the luxury of asking for help and people will want to help you. And then you just become part of this beautiful thing where everyone is helping everyone and you’re just doing amazingly at the thing that you love.”

The event is part of the STEAM Leadership Series. The San Diego Foundation is the lead sponsor.

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SD Union Tribune – The Places Your Imagination Takes You — The 5th Annual Women in Biotech at the Salk Research Institute

Women in science tell high school girls they, too, can change the world

By BRADLEY J. FIKES, NOV. 13, 2019

Nearly 300 local high school girls interested in life science got a pep talk and hard-won perspective from Karen J. Nelson, president of the J. Craig Venter Institute, and a panel of other successful female scientists Wednesday at the nearby Salk Institute in La Jolla.

Nelson gave the keynote address at the event, the 5th annual program devoted to encouraging girls to pursue a career in biotech.

She warned aspiring scientists they must be prepared for frequent disappointments but urged them to continue because science provides the power to change the world.

“It’s gonna be difficult,” Nelson said she tells those who ask for advice. “You’re going to get rejected. You’re not going to be having fun days every day. But they just want to know that there’s a route to get there and I’ve traveled all over the world. I’ve ended up in places I never thought I would be.”

Nelson had just returned from science work in Paris.

Nelson’s accomplishments include performing a pioneering study on the human microbiome, the collection of microscopic life that lives in and on us.

Today, a growing number of companies are tapping into the microbiome for treating diseases. Nelson takes pride in having been there first.

It helps to have a sense of humor and perspective, she said. Especially in her early days, humor was essential.

A native of Jamaica, Nelson started her American career at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. For the first time in her life, she encountered an American winter.

“I bought my first car in Ithaca and I crashed it within a month because I thought the ice was sand,” Nelson said.

Panelists described their own challenges, including how to be comfortable with themselves in a male-dominated science culture.

Ida Khodami is associate director of global business operations at Illumina, the San Diego DNA sequencing giant. When starting her career, she found it intimidating to deal with more experienced men, even when they were wrong and she was right.

One incident stands out in her mind, an attempt to tactfully inform a senior engineer he had made a design mistake.

“He said, I’m not gonna tolerate an 18-year-old with pink shoes (telling) me what I need to do,” Khodami said.

“I excused myself, went to the bathroom, cried a little, looked in the mirror and told myself that I’m really proud of myself for doing that,” she said. “I stopped wearing pink shoes for almost a couple of years.”

Khodami said she eventually decided she would dress as she pleased because hard work and intelligence are what really matters in science.

Elena Blanco-Suarez, a Salk Institute scientist studying neurobiology, said she discovered the challenges of being a woman in science when studying for her Ph.D. — and a short woman at that, just 5 foot 1 inch.

She had to speak up to be recognized, but not be too loud.

“They will say to me that I was like a Chihuahua when they get angry and they bark really loudly,” Blanco-Suarez said.

Blanco-Suarez said she also had to deal with stereotypes about what female scientists look like.

“They expect you to be like a nerdy girl with glasses and flats and which, if you are, it’s fine,” she said. “But … we all look different. Sometimes I wear makeup. Sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I’m gonna put heels on. Sometimes I won’t. It doesn’t matter.”

The event is part of the STEAM Leadership series. The San Diego Foundation is the lead sponsor.