Female scientists discuss career struggles, rewards

Four female scientists from Johnson and Johnson Pharmaceutical Research fielded students’ questions in panel-style at “An Evening for Women in Science” on Nov. 2.

“Based on the questions, there’s a lot of doubt about what to do after graduation,” Deborah Knox, interim dean for the School of Science said after the session. As a result, she said “(the discussion was) good for women to hear as transitions present themselves.”

Many juniors and seniors considering the job market confirmed that.

“I’m not sure what to do after graduation,” Elizabeth Janeczko, senior biology major, said. “It was good (to hear the speakers), because I’m deciding whether or not to go to grad school or work.”

The scientists presented their daily lives, struggles and rewards of their work as women in science, highlighting the effects of a scientific or medical career on family, the challenge of earning their degrees and the equity of women and men in the field of science.

Touching on issues such as whether or not to continue education and balancing other values, such as family, with work, the scientists portrayed what they viewed as success.

“Success is getting what you want and being satisfied with it,” Danielle Coppola, physician and director of benefit-risk management, said. “For my mother, it was making sure your children are successful in their lives. For me, it was using your talents to the best of your ability to influence in a positive way.”

The division between men and women in graduate school is about equal, the women said, and most could not name instances of women being looked down upon in their workplaces.

Coppola, however, said that although times had changed, certain areas such as orthopedics were considered only for males.

She added that coming from an Italian-American family with two older brothers, her father had not expected her to be a career woman.

“He said being a woman is a good thing because you can experiment with your education – you don’t have to worry about supporting a family,” Coppola said. “That drove me even more.”

Because science is an ever-changing field, the cost of taking time off from the field to support a family could be difficult for a woman who later wants to return. This was another concern among the students present.

“I don’t see many coming in that have been out,” Sharon Burke, associate scientist of neurological disorders, said. “It could be that they got out and enjoyed what they were doing.”

“Women expect to come back at the same or higher level, but that doesn’t happen as easily as for men,” Coppola, who has two children, said. “I’ve thought about it and I don’t want to lose my status.”

Most of the women felt they could feasibly balance work and family.

“In my function, looking at your output – if you meet timelines and provide required output, the supervisor will be willing to give you more time for family and kids,” Pilar Lim, director of clinical biostatics, said.

As for their past and present directions, the scientists said they have endured both rough and smooth paths.

Burke said she is nowhere near where she thought she’d be. Although she once thought she would get her Ph.D, an engagement to a man in the Air Force brought her to New Jersey from Boston. She had six subsequent jobs in succession and is now an associate scientist studying Neurological Disorders.

Lim said she thought she would be a teacher.

“There’s still time. I will be a teacher,” she said, drawing laughs from the audience.

Students were also curious about whether work as a scientist seems monotonous or not.

“Doing experiments can be monotonous, but analyzing the data makes it worthwhile,” Patricia Pelton, principal biologist researching new drug compounds through chemical phase I trials, said.

“Thinking about who is this going to help down the road erases the monotony,” Lim said.

The scientists had to overcome obstacles from their personal and career lives, and challenges in school.

“My husband used to complain about me working too much,” Pelton said. She also said it was financially difficult – she didn’t have the support she needed and required grants and scholarships.

Coppola said she was an English major, and medicine did not come naturally to her.

“I couldn’t write my way out of anything,” as was sometimes possible as an English major, she said. She said she tried to read textbooks all the way through, like she had read novels to get her undergraduate degree. She failed her first anatomy exam.

“If you’re ambitious, it’s very painful,” Coppola said. “Work as hard as you can possibly work.”