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 last month 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.