Workshop brings top female junior biomedical researchers to campus

The annual Rising Stars event includes professional development workshops, networking activities, and panel sessions for women in STEM fields

Women attend Rising Stars workshop

Image credit: Larry Canner for Johns Hopkins University

Although women earn roughly half of all advanced degrees in science and engineering, they account for less than a third of senior faculty in those fields, according to data from the National Science Foundation. Those numbers are even smaller for technical disciplines such as engineering and computer science—23% and 17% of tenure-track faculty, respectively. Experts have proposed a variety of theories about the cause of such a gender gap, including bias, a lack of female role models in academia, the pressures of family life, and low self-confidence.

The Rising Stars workshop is an annual conference designed to help women overcome these and other barriers they face while pursuing academic careers in science and engineering. Held in late October, the workshop brought more than 20 of the nation's best female junior biomedical researchers to Johns Hopkins University's Homewood campus for two days of intensive career development workshops, networking activities, and panel sessions.

"Evidence shows that women tend to lack confidence in the critical years of transitioning from postdocs to independent researchers," said Sri Sarma, associate professor of biomedical engineering, vice dean for graduate education at the Whiting School of Engineering, and co-organizer of the event. "This workshop aims to develop professional communication skills that will help women deliver more impactful speeches and interview more effectively."

Rising Stars participants, who were nominated by their faculty advisers to attend the workshop, participated in small groups with faculty from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University, and the Johns Hopkins Department of Biomedical Engineering to craft impact statements and storyboards that describe their research. Participants helped one another identify ways to improve how they communicate the significance of their work—what might non-experts find confusing, what is most important about their findings, or what aspects of their research might others find interesting, for example.

When Colleen Garvey, a senior PhD student at the University of Southern California, met with her small group for the exercise, she described her work identifying colorectal cancer patients who are unlikely to respond to a particular type of treatment.

"How common is this treatment? What other options exist for these patients?" asked fellow Rising Star Aurélie Pala, a postdoctoral researcher at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

"If this is the default therapy for patients with colorectal cancer, that is really important to know," added Natasha Hussain, scientific director of the Kavli Neuroscience Discovery Institute at Johns Hopkins, one of the event's supporters. "Your work could potentially spare patients from unnecessary and unpleasant treatment."

By the end of the workshop, Garvey and other Rising Stars were prepared with interview-ready impact statements that incorporated feedback from faculty and their peers.

"Researchers tend to present their work the same way over and over with only one type of audience in mind, the expert scientist who already supports and is excited about their work," said Hussain. "This activity helped participants understand how others perceive what they are saying so that they can learn to communicate more clearly when they go on the job market."

In addition to effective communication techniques, Rising Stars developed other important interviewing skills through a series of exercises led by representatives from HFP Consulting. Participants learned strategies for releasing nervous energy before an interview or presentation, being proactive and making their own opportunities, personalizing their elevator pitches to align with their passions, and gaining confidence while talking about themselves and their work.

The Rising Stars workshop also provided participants with opportunities to build their professional networks.

"Most STEM fields remain male dominated, which means there are fewer role models for female students," Sarma said. "Women want and need to see mentors 'doing it all'—being brilliant scientists, amazing teachers, and if they choose, awesome mothers."

Sarah Capostagno, a PhD candidate at Johns Hopkins, added: "As senior PhD students and postdocs in engineering and applied sciences, we know that it is notoriously difficult to get a position in academia, and that women can be grossly underrepresented in faculty positions. This workshop has given us valuable, realistic skills in self-presentation and interviewing to tackle the job search process with confidence. But perhaps more importantly, it brought together an incredible group of women for two days to share our unique aspirations as a community and to build relationships that we can call on as we advance in our careers."

Faculty from the Johns Hopkins Department of Biomedical Engineering and MIT, as well as representatives from IBM and Abbott, answered questions during two career panel sessions. Panelists in various stages of their careers discussed the importance of community, finding good mentors, balancing work and family life, and handling moments of transition.

"It is important to bring your passion and make the decision you feel most strongly about every time you are faced with a tough decision," said Michael I. Miller, director of Biomedical Engineering at Johns Hopkins. "Life is what happens when you are making other good plans. Go with the flow, but at the same time, you need to swim really hard to create the future you want."

This event was sponsored by Abbott and United Therapeutics.