Women have been investigating the natural world since antiquity -- but probably a lot of people would be hard-pressed to name a female scientist besides Marie Curie. Most often, these intrepid female researchers have been forced to go it alone, driven by curiosity to understand the world around them. Despite their efforts, a clear fact remains: there are simply not enough women in science.
My own interest in science developed at a young age. When I was six, I horrified my two sisters by dissecting frogs on our front walk during the summer. They were much more enthusiastic when I attempted to rescue dying flowers with my homemade concoctions. My father was a physician-scientist, and on the weekends, I would trot along by his side to visit both his skeletal biology lab and his orthopedic surgery patients. I liked to watch all the rat and chicken bones being stirred up magnetically in beakers, while the amino acid analyzer printed reams of paper filled with graphs. Both of my parents nurtured my natural curiosity at a young age, and I never questioned whether science was a field I could pursue. Later on, when I was an undergraduate, I caught the "research bug" while working in my father's lab. I soon discovered that I had a knack for thinking up experiments that might shed light on why the immune system sometimes goes awry, attacking the body's own tissues. I was immediately hooked and decided to become a physician-scientist myself.
That transition -- from childhood enthusiasm to choosing a career -- often gets interrupted when it comes to women in science. According to a report released this week by the L'Oreal Foundation, women are three times less likely than men to become scientists, and this gap begins to open up right after high school, when students decide what profession to pursue. To this day, many young women grow up believing the stereotypes telling them that science is not for them -- and we need to change that by providing them with viable role models.
At the age of 31, having completed my medical and scientific training, I found myself at one of the most exciting and challenging times in my life. All at once, I was appointed to my first faculty position, setting up my own immunology lab, seeing patients, and studying to become a board-certified rheumatologist. And on top of this, I had a toddler daughter and an infant son, while my husband, a surgical resident, was on call all the time.
What I lacked back then was a mentor. There was no senior faculty member who was looking after my intellectual, emotional, or financial welfare. I didn't have anyone telling me that what I was trying to do was not just possible on a personal level, but also scientifically necessary.
One of the most urgent challenges that we face around the world is how to provide the best health care to current and future generations. People in developed countries are living longer now than ever before, and as they age, are becoming more prone to chronic diseases such as cancer, heart disease, and neurodegenerative disease. Countries in transition require more effective treatments for infectious diseases and greatly expanded access to basic health care services.
Only through research can we develop new therapies and better health care solutions. And women must be a part of the next generation of physician-scientists who will be shaping our future health and wellbeing. According to the L'Oreal report, if we were able to close the gap between the number of women and men in science, we would have about 300,000 additional researchers per year. I cannot emphasize how essential it is that we support and mentor the young women who do choose a scientific path so that they not only succeed, but go even farther than they thought they could. We need them to be the scientific leaders of tomorrow.
This week, I'm honored to be in to Paris to receive the L'Oreal-UNESCO For Women in Science Award alongside four other female scientists with exceptional talent, a deep commitment to their profession, and remarkable courage in a field largely dominated by men. This award is especially meaningful to me because mentoring women has been a priority for me throughout my career. I hope that the girls and young women who aspire to become scientists learn about -- and are inspired by -- the groundbreaking work of all the talented researchers who have received the L'Oreal-UNESCO For Women in Science Awards over its 16-year history.
Over the years, I've learned a lot of things I wish I had known just starting out. To be a successful scientist, you can't be afraid of taking risks. Laboratory breakthroughs require both daring and innovation. Having children as well as a research career isn't easy, but if you want both, have them, and stop at nothing until you reach your dreams. Finally, there's no need to try to do everything perfectly, just as long as your scientific data are impeccable.