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Women helping women make history at the Wyss

The Wyss Institute commemorates Women’s History Month by celebrating the mentors and role models who are developing the next generation of world-changing scientists

By Lindsay Brownell

Nicole Black, Ph.D. almost didn’t become a scientist. She was interested in biomedical engineering as an undergraduate student and took a work/study position in a lab, but didn’t find the experience as inspiring as she had hoped it would be. “My first wet lab experience was working more in the role of a technician, changing water baths, maintaining cell cultures, and sterilizing equipment,” Black recalled. “I appreciated the opportunity, but without having been taught the fundamental reasoning behind scientific experiments, I really wasn’t sure I would enjoy a career as a scientist.”

The following summer she gave science one more shot, signing up for a summer undergraduate research program in a lab at Columbia University, and things couldn’t have been more different. “My mentor did a fantastic job of actually helping me design my own project from the ground up. She helped me think through the motivation behind each of the studies on which I worked. Additionally, she encouraged me to present my work at a conference. I found it very rewarding to explain my work to others and to think about its long-term implications,” said Black.

She hasn’t looked back since.

Women helping women make history at the Wyss
Jennifer Lewis, Sc.D. and her mentee Nicole Black. Ph.D. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

She applied for and won a National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowship to pursue a Ph.D., and joined the lab of  Wyss Core Faculty member Jennifer Lewis, Sc.D. in 2014. Black had always been interested in industry and bringing new innovations out of the lab and into the marketplace, and she said that Lewis consistently encouraged her to pursue those interests during her degree, which she completed in November 2020.

“I think that’s what really distinguishes a good mentor: they’re not just focused on what value you can bring to them and their group, like an employer might be. They recognize that you have a future beyond their lab, and they actively support you so you can get there,” Black said. She is now leading the PhonoGraft Wyss Institute Project as a Gliklich Healthcare Innovation Fellow, and hopes to spin the technology out into a startup company this year.

“I personally feel that as a mentor, my number one job is to help my students achieve their dreams, whether that is founding a startup company, joining an established company, or pursuing a faculty position,” said Lewis, who is also the Hansjörg Wyss Professor of Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS). “Nicole’s startup could help people around the world recover from perforated eardrums by improving their hearing and quality of life. I’m fully committed to helping her succeed!”

A symbiotic relationship

Higher education in science and engineering can be a very intense experience, encapsulated in the infamous expression that being a student at MIT is like “drinking from a firehose.” Learning the skills to become an independent scholar is more accurately described as an apprenticeship rather than employment, and research groups often take on an almost family-like quality in which their members support and nurture each other personally as well as professionally. And the faculty advisors of these groups are not just their trainees’ bosses, but their mentors.

Women helping women make history at the Wyss
Pam Silver, Ph.D. (center) with her mentees Kasia Kready (left) and Kailyn Doiron (right). Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

“To me, good mentorship is a symbiotic relationship. My mentor, Pam Silver, is incredibly supportive of me, not just as a scientist or a student but on a personal level, too,” said Kailyn Doiron, a graduate student in Wyss Core Faculty member Silver’s lab. “I have always felt supported in my endeavors both inside and outside of the lab by Pam and the other members of our group. Everyone is learning together and sharing knowledge with each other, and I’m actively encouraged to help move our work forward, even though I’m still a student.”

Kasia Kready, another student in Silver’s lab, agrees. “Pam is genuinely interested in our growth as people, not just hitting milestones or getting certain results. And it’s definitely a two-way street. The support from our mentor helps us to get over the many hurdles we face, and as a result we have opportunities to contribute more to the group,” she said.

University faculty have multiple responsibilities and are often spread thin between their teaching, research, writing, travel, and administrative duties. But the best mentors take time from their hectic schedules to think about, advise, and talk with their mentees about both their current work and their future goals.

“My trainees are my life. I’m constantly thinking about whether they’re happy, fulfilled, or struggling. When I’m in the lab, I keep my door open as much as possible, in the spirit that any of them should be able to just walk in and start talking to me, about anything,” said Silver, Ph.D., who is also the Elliot T. and Onie H. Adams Professor of Biochemistry and Systems Biology at Harvard Medical School (HMS). “My students are my inspiration. I might have more overall experience in our field, but they’re on top of the latest scientific advances. Looking at Kailyn and Kasia, I know I’m going to learn as much or more from them than they’re ever going to learn from me. So really, we’re all mentoring each other.”

Plugging the leaks in the pipeline

Outside of Silver and Lewis’ labs, the prospects for women in the sciences are less rosy. The White House reported in 2012 that 80% of women and minority groups who enroll in a STEM field ultimately switch to a non-STEM field or drop out of their degree programs, a phenomenon now known as the “leaky pipeline.” Women also accounted for only about 35% percent of faculty in STEM fields across top U.S. universities in 2019. This lack of female leaders in science and engineering is often cited as a primary driver of the leaky pipeline, as women can often feel isolated and unsupported in a male-dominated environment without ready examples of women who have successfully advanced to the top of their fields.

Women helping women make history at the Wyss
Sangeeta Bhatia, M.D., Ph.D. and her mentee Ava Soleimany. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

Wyss Associate Faculty member Sangeeta Bhatia, M.D., Ph.D. has been working to correct this problem throughout her career as an engineer, starting when she noticed that her female classmates were dropping out of her undergraduate program. As she progressed and started to attract more attention as an accomplished woman in STEM, she decided to use that attention to advocate for gender equality.

“My visibility reached an inflection point around 2014, when I was recognized with an award and was asked to write a blog post about my science for the press releases. I found the self-promotion uncomfortable, so instead I wrote about the need for plugging the leaky pipeline in STEM. Ever since then, whenever I give an interview or sit on a panel, I talk both about my science and the need to diversify our profession because I feel a responsibility to try and use that platform to affect change,” Bhatia said. She is also the John J. and Dorothy Wilson Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator.

Bhatia’s intentional approach has inspired members of her own lab to become more engaged in advocating for their work and the things they care about, says Ava Soleimany, a Harvard Biophysics graduate student working in Bhatia’s lab.

“Over the last few years in Sangeeta’s lab I’ve grown into my own as a scientist, and I’ve also become much more vocal in terms of expressing my ideas, raising questions, and contributing to meetings, both within the group and in public settings. I think it’s extremely important for everyone who is on this career path, especially women, to take advantage of opportunities you are given to take ownership of and celebrate your work,” Soleimany said.

In addition to her research, Soleimany leads and teaches an MIT course called “Introduction to Deep Learning,” which enrolled 550 registered MIT students in 2021 and is also available as a public course online, with over 20,000 global registrants and a YouTube channel whose lecture videos have garnered millions of views.

“I don’t see all of that publicity as pressure, but more as a call to rise to the challenge of carrying myself with the poise, grace, and confidence that this opportunity presents and demands. I hope that I can inspire others to do the same,” she said.

Women helping women make history at the Wyss
Joanna Aizenberg, Ph.D. and her mentee Ida Pavlichenko, Ph.D. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

Ida Pavlichenko, Ph.D., a Technology Development Fellow at the Wyss Institute and co-founder of PionEar Technologies, confirms that having highly visible women leaders in STEM has been crucial to her success. “The humility that women often have about their own abilities often works against them, because men typically advocate for themselves in a stronger manner,” she said. “Thankfully, I’ve had great examples of women in positions of power and prestige during my career, like my advisor Joanna Aizenberg. They showed me that it’s absolutely natural for women to be leaders. As a result, I never questioned whether I was capable of a career in academia or industry, because I thought, ‘If she can do it, I can do it.’”

“I always try,” said Aizenberg, Ph.D. “to base my selection of group members not only on their credentials and potential, but equally on their ability to contribute to the team atmosphere where everyone can reach their best. I am really happy that I have been lucky to have had so many young female scientists come through my group who are extremely capable and passionate about science, teamwork, and team spirit.” Aizenberg is an Associate Faculty member at the Wyss Institute and the Amy Smith Berylson Professor of Material Sciences at SEAS.

Are you my mentor?

Mentorship isn’t just for women, scientists, or grad students – every employee can benefit from having a supportive relationship with someone who is more experienced in their field and takes a personal interest in helping them learn, grow, and succeed as an individual, not necessarily in a particular job.

Women helping women make history at the Wyss
Paula Cornelio, Senior Administrative Officer. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University.

“When people are supported in their workplace, not just as an employee but as a whole person, they’re just better contributors. They feel fulfilled, their opinions are respected, their skills are appreciated, and they’re willing to take more risks and try new things because they have a safe space to work through challenges,” said Paula Cornelio, a Senior Administrative Officer at the Wyss Institute who has also served as a mentor in the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ Staff Mentoring Program.

“Women in particular need to be supported, not just because traditional workplaces were designed around men, but because they tend to have more demands on their time due to their dual roles as caregivers. I sometimes bring my daughter into the office with me, and that achieves two things: seeing her mom running a meeting shows my daughter that she can aspire to lead others one day, and seeing their colleague include her child in daily life shows the rest of my team that they can be both a parent and professional at the same time, and that I will support them in both of those roles,” Cornelio said.

All of the women interviewed for this story agree that finding a mentor isn’t something that just happens – seeking out supportive role models, advisors, and friends requires intentional effort, but the payoffs of having your own cheering section to help you through the ups and downs of life, both personal and professional, are well worth the effort.

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