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School of Medicine discoveries

October 24, 2018

8 guiding principles from 5 senior scientists

The first woman to earn a master’s from the VCU Department of Biostatistics graduated in 1973 and the first to earn a Ph.D. graduated in 1984; today women represent more than half of the 39 part- and full-time students pursuing studies in the department’s three M.S. and two Ph.D. programs.

For this issue, 12th & Marshall asked some of the alumnae who led the way and who have built distinguished careers for their advice to those following the path they blazed.

1. STEP UP – EVEN WHEN THERE ARE NO GUARANTEES

After joining a contract research organization early in her career, JENNA ELDER, PHD’96 rose from being the first woman hired as a statistician at the company to leading her department of 26. Leaving to launch her own consulting business was a risk. “I was the breadwinner in our family,” she says. “I was making good money, and I was going to give all of that up for no guarantee. And that was scary.” On her first day working for herself, however, she landed her first consulting client, and within a little more than a year she made another move to co-found her own CRO – it’s since grown to over 100 employees. Working in a CRO “is a great path,” she says, “for somebody who likes to be challenged.”

ANNE LINDBLAD, MS’81, confirms that every step he has taken in her professional life, from pursuing her Ph.D. to assuming her current role as president of her company, has represented a willingness to push outside her comfort zone. “When opportunities come up, don’t be afraid – when the door opens, walk through it,” she says. “Sometimes you may fail, but that’s OK – you’re going to learn a lot from it.”

2. FIND A MENTOR, BE A MENTOR

SALLY HUNSBERGER, PHD’90, remembers how important it was, early in her career, that others “were looking out for me,” she says. When colleagues invited her to get involved with their projects, “just being invited to collaborate with them and to watch how they attacked a problem – to let me experience a lot of different things without putting me in the hot seat – was really important.”

What she also took away from those experiences was a valuable model to emulate. “What I really liked was when I saw people treating people with respect.” Trust and respect “are hugely important in doing good research,” she says.

Today, she looks to offer others that same support she received. When you’re swamped with your own work, “pulling in somebody new can feel like so much more work,” she acknowledges – but making the effort makes a difference.

3. BE SOMEONE PEOPLE WANT TO WORK WITH

“One of the greatest keys to success is to collaborate with all the smart people around you,” JANIS GOODLOW GRECHKO, PHD’84, says. In her field of pharmaceutical drug development, “almost everything is done in the context of a team. You have to talk with all of those people and understand all of the implications of every decision that you make and every option that you have in front of you.”

“Interdisciplinary teams really can do better,” CHRIS GENNINGS, PHD’86, confirms. Not only does collaboration make the work more rewarding and enjoyable but, she, says it also makes the results better. “Everybody is helping each other improve their own interest and research.”

Notes Elder, “People always remember somebody who does great work.”

4. YOU NEED TO LOVE LEARNING

After decades in her field, Grechko says, her work has never become stale – and it challenges her every day. “The science is evolving so rapidly that you are rarely doing the same thing twice. You can’t sit back and get comfortable – you have to just continue to learn all the way through.”

Elder agrees that while “learning something new is interesting to me,” the challenges can go beyond science. “I went to graduate school to be a biostatistician,” she says. But in her role at her CRO, “I have had to learn how to rent office space and deal with hiring and firing. All those things I was not prepared for, I have had to learn on my own.”

5. IT’S OK NOT TO KNOW

Early in her career, Hunsberger says, “I felt that I couldn’t make mistakes, I couldn’t say something ‘dumb’ in a meeting, which held me back.” What she knows now, however, is that “In meetings we can’t be afraid of what we may think are  ‘dumb’ questions,” – because you might just be asking that question “in a different way that others haven’t thought about.”

“I would encourage anybody to bring forth their own ideas without fear,” Lindblad agrees. And when you don’t know what to do, asking for help by presenting your thoughts on the problem – “These are some of the things I’ve thought about, and why” – is better than simply saying “I’m not sure what to do.” Better solutions, she says, are found when everyone brings their ideas to the table.

6. SPEAK UP FOR YOURSELF AND FOR SCIENCE

While the number of women earning Ph.D.s in STEM disciplines continues to grow, men still outnumber women in fields such as math and statistics – and in positions of leadership. That imbalance makes it all the more important for women to express confidence in their knowledge.

Hunsberger notes that the NIH is “a very supportive environment” for women. Nevertheless, in her career, “I have been in meetings where I will say something and it’s ignored and a man beside me will say the same thing and it’s taken as a great idea,” she says. In another meeting, a man kept shouting over her. “My voice literally could not be heard,” she says. Finally she stood her ground and told him, “Just because you are louder than me doesn’t mean your voice is more important than mine.”

“Make your voice heard,” Gennings agrees. She points out that not only is it essential for women to contribute within their fields, but with the growing threat of science-denial, scientists as a profession need to become more effective at explaining their work to a nonprofessional audience. “Scientists need to do a better job communicating to lay people about science. About what it means and how important it is,” she says.

7. ANTICIPATE REVOLUTIONARY ADVANCES

Personalized medicine, big data, global collaborations – research in human health is in a period of unprecedented new possibilities. In pharmaceutical research and development, for example, “it is a completely different paradigm,” Grechko says. In the past, “you looked for a medicine that worked for the most people” – even if it didn’t work particularly well for many of them. Now, the focus is on finding “that very specific targeted population for whom a given medicine will work extremely well.”

At NIH, Hunsberger collaborates with researchers around the world to address global health threats like influenza or emerging diseases such as Ebola and Nipah virus. She notes how technology advances have made it possible to work with very large amounts of data – enabling advances into new areas of research such as the role of the microbiome in immunology, with “huge data sets that we would never have been able to analyze before.” And in cancer research, “it’s much more about figuring out the specific mutations,” she says. “Can we take the knowledge of a person’s genetics, the mutations in a tumor, and can we find a treatment that targets that specific mutation – that is where the research is going now.”

8. PURSUE WHAT INSPIRES YOU

“What’s important is that you have passion for what you are doing,” Lindblad says. “My advice is to follow something that really gives you energy, and stay curious to learn new things .”

By Caroline Kettlewell

Virginia Commonwealth University
VCU Medical Center
School of Medicine
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Updated: 04/29/2016