This is a gist of our interview with the amazing Jackie Giovanniello a PhD student in Neuroscience.
Listen to the entire episode on our “Podcast Episodes “page.
STEM programs for girls have seen a surge in numbers at middle and high school levels around the world. But what about the women who are already a part of the STEM higher education system. Many universities and colleges still lack the resources to support the growth of Women scientists and professors. It was an evident gap that our guest today clearly noticed and decided to fill, while still working on her Ph.D. Today we are talking to Jackie Giovanniello, a Ph.D. student in Neuroscience at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in NY and co-founder of the Women in Science & Engineering Initiative also known as the WiSE Initiative at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. WiSE has succeeded in securing $30,000 in funding and over 100 members in the last 2 years. It works to provide professional development, networking, outreach, and other resources for women scientists throughout the tri-state area. WiSE is also helping to tackle another major factor in gender disparity in STEM that exists at Scientific Conferences and meetings all around the world. Let’s talk to Jackie to find out more about her innovative initiative and how she plans to get more women to put on and RETAIN their LAB COATS!!
Her STEM Story: So how did you decide to start the WiSE initiative?
Jackie: Early on in my Ph.D., two colleagues and I were discussing the lack of professional development resources tailored to women at our institution. We decided to try and tackle the problem ourselves with a grassroots approach – we started by getting scientists at CSHL together for a presentation about some of the data available on gender biases in STEM and a panel discussion with women faculty and administrators about their personal experiences. Over 100 people showed up to this first event and that was enough to convince us that this was going to be a worthwhile project.
Her STEM Story: How do you approach the development of women in the scientific community?
Jackie: We know there’s no silver bullet to fixing the leaky pipeline in STEM – which is this phenomenon where even though comparable numbers of graduate students are women, you find fewer and fewer women in the field as you ascend higher in the ranks. So we did some research on the data, and talked to a lot of women and men in the field, to come up with our three-prong approach. First, we bring in organizations to provide professional development resources particularly tailored toward women – so workshops on things like navigating difficult conversations in the workplace, how to negotiate for salary and scientific resources, how to network at conferences and meetings, and improving presentation skills and giving more confident talks. We also partner with other institutions and organizations to create more networking opportunities for women scientists. Second, we work with the administration to increase the representation of women scientists – because you can’t become what you don’t see. So we started an honorary lecture series at CSHL, called the McClintock Lectures, honoring Nobel Laureate and former CSHL research Barbara McClintock who first discovered transposons in maize. For this series, we bring in two prominent women scientists each year who have significantly contributed to their field and also to advancing women in science. We’ve hosted really amazing women, like Ann Graybiel who pioneered our understanding of the basal ganglia in the brain, Leslie Vosshall, who is working on engineering mosquitos to fight disease, and Nobel Laureate Carol Greider, who discovered the critical enzyme that prevents premature aging. This lecture series guarantees we have more top women coming to speak at CSHL and provides networking and collaboration opportunities for our women scientists. Third – we create more education and outreach opportunities for young girls, particularly in underserved communities here on LI, to expose them to science and technology and help set them on the path to pursuing careers in STEM. In addition, we’ve partnered with the Meetings & Courses department at CSHL to create the Women in Biology speakers list, a massive searchable, filterable database of prominent women scientists in a range of disciplines in Biology that organizations can you use when organizing conferences, courses, and other events. The goal of this project is to get rid of what’s called, “the YAMMM”, or “yet another mostly male meeting”. We’ve partnered with organizations like the Association for Cell Biology, the European Molecular Biology Organization, and others to compile this database of tons of women so it’s a really valuable resource. It was just unveiled at the ASCB annual meeting this month and is now in beta testing.
Her STEM Story: Let’s discuss how someone can start something similar at their university?
Jackie: Many institutions already have similar groups to ours actually, but we’ve found they are often unsure of what resources to provide or how to provide them. To address this, we hope to work with other groups to share what we’ve learned along the way and recommend organizations and projects that are particularly useful. But generally, it’s really helpful to talk to women at your institution first. Find out what they would want out of a group like this and what is lacking in the community already. Then dive into addressing those specific issues. They vary from place to place, so you want to make sure you’re not trying to implement a one-size fits all approach, but are addressing the specific needs of the women you are trying to empower.
Her STEM Story: What do you think will be a game changer in this fight for equality? (Policies, more efforts, or women in leadership roles)
Jackie: Like I said earlier, there’s not going to be a silver bullet. I believe groups like ours are slowly moving the dial on this but there’s a lot more work to be done. One of the biggest, I think, is teaching our field about implicit bias, and helping them accept that everyone has subtle biases and ingrained stereotypes that we operate with because of our experiences, our cultures, and how society has shaped us. It’s okay to admit that you’re biased because that’s a necessary part in working to counteract it, particularly when you are in a position of power – such as a hiring committee, writing a letter of recommendation, nominating someone for a promotion, or mentoring younger scientists. So we need to do a better job, as a community, of becoming aware of the fact that the gender gap, as well as the lack of diversity in STEM doesn’t exist solely because of explicit discrimination, but that it’s perpetuated by smaller, micro-aggressions that we don’t even see most of the time.
Her STEM Story: What’s your source of inspiration?
Jackie: All the really amazing, persistent women scientists that climbed to the top of our field – both past and present. Whenever I see a prominent woman scientist giving a talk or recognized for an important discovery, I feel really proud of her, because I know it probably wasn’t easy for her to get there. Also, every Wednesday, our group writes a profile – called our WiSE Wednesday – of a historical woman in STEM that defied expectations and made groundbreaking discoveries, usually without the credit she deserved. They’re written by a really talented younger graduate student on our team, and they’re super inspirational to read. They’re a much-needed reminder that women have been pushing the field forward for decades and help motivate me to keep working toward solving problems – whether they be in my research or in advancing underrepresented scientists.
Her STEM Story: Why is diversity in STEM so important?
Jackie: Science and technology are fields that are driven by those that think outside the box. We succeed when we approach problems from new angles and bring in a collaboration of perspectives – which is only possible when you have a group with a range of backgrounds, experiences, and personalities. Sampling only one demographic of the population limits our scientific and technological potential. It’s not just about fairness and equality – it’s about tackling more and bigger problems and pushing these fields forward.
Her STEM Story: How can our listeners get involved with WiSE?
Jackie: Well, if you live on Long Island, or in NYC, we’re always partnering with other groups for different events – so look out for those on our website www.cshlwise.org or on our facebook page. Otherwise, feel free to contact me if you want to chat about getting a group like this started at your own institution. I’ve also recently moved on to work on the leadership teams for two other groups – 500 Women Scientists and the Scientista Foundation. These groups work on empowering women scientists throughout STEM fields as well so check them out and feel free to contact me if you’d like to be more involved.
1) Favorite Book
“The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness” by Sy Montgomery. It’s a really thought-provoking piece of science writing that makes you consider how we define consciousness and whether we should be expanding the list of the types of animals that can perform higher-order cognition. I’m also just completely enamored with Octopuses in general, they’re brilliant creatures and can recognize places and faces, and solve complex problems in their environments. It’s a must-read book for sure!
2) A cause that’s close to your heart
Destigmatizing mental health issues. I have anxiety and panic disorder and it’s had its ups and downs throughout my life. So many young people struggle with a range of mental health issues and I want to help show them that it’s okay to talk about them and seek help because it can get better. Depression and anxiety are particularly prevalent among grad students and postdocs in STEM fields and we need to do a better job of providing resources for that.
3) Favorite Quote
There’s a quote that some attributed to Einstein but is probably misattributed to be honest. It’s “Everybody’s a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life believing that it is stupid.” It resonates with me because I feel like a lot of scientists put people in boxes and carry expectations of what they can and cannot achieve based on what they look like, what institute they’ve come from or what journals they’ve published in. It’s important that we realize that everyone has different strengths and thinks about problems differently, and that diversity of thought is really integral to advancing our field.
CSHL Women In Science & Engineering InitiativeTwitter: @CSHLWiSe