Meet Georgetown Women in STEM

By: Sarah Martinez Roth

Hello Georgetown, my name is Sarah Martinez Roth, I am originally from Brooklyn, New York. I graduated from Colby College in 2011 with honors in Biology, and minors in Chemistry and Theater & Dance. Currently I am a second year PhD student in the Tumor Biology program pursuing my degree in trying to discover liquid biopsies in order to discover Pancreatic Cancer at early stages. Throughout my time at Georgetown I have been lucky enough to get to know several amazing of my colleagues who are incredible women in STEM. I wanted all of you to get to know them so I asked them all a few questions so that you all could get to know them! Here we go!

Alana Lelo: I'm originally from New York.  I went to NYU for my undergrad, where I received a degree in Chemistry.  I am a fourth year in the Tumor Biology department here at Georgetown. 


What inspired you to pursue a career in science?

Since I was a little kid, I remember always being interested in science and medicine.  My interests first manifested as a near-obsession with the tv show "Trauma: Life in the ER."  I took to reading my mom's old college microbiology textbook in middle school. I joined a medical explorers club in middle school where I was able to shadow doctors every month in different departments.  Towards the end of middle school and in high school, an incredible biology teacher and invaluable chemistry teacher, respectively, helped me to realize that I could further study my interests in college.  I graduated with a degree in chemistry and for a long time considered studying physical chemistry at the graduate level.  However, going back to all my experiences- internships, volunteering, my tv and reading preferences- I realized that my true passion lied in the sciences immediately pertinent to humans. It really was the sum of my experiences that made me realize my interest in science but it was really my supportive network- my mom, family, teachers, mentors- that inspired me to actually pursue a career in science. 

What is it like to be a woman studying to be a PhD? Do you feel supported and challenged in a positive way? Do you have a network of people to reach out to?

I have been very fortunate because all of the workplaces I have been in have been very supportive.  I haven't felt different for being a woman. Sadly, that is not the case everywhere and gender bias is still a very real problem in the larger scientific community. I am very fortunate in that should anything happen, I do have a very supportive network in my corner. In fact, several of my peers are very involved in ensuring workplace equality.  

Catie Sevigny: Iā€™m from York, Maine. I received my BS. from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Biochemistry and am currently a third year studying in the Tumor Biology PhD program. 


Who inspires you to be the woman and scientist you want to be? 

My family has been lucky to have some pretty inspirational women in it. My dad passed away from cancer when I was a child and I grew up with several strong matriarchs. My Great Grandmother and Mom are probably the biggest two influential factors on me to be the best woman I can be. I grew up surrounded by women who were not afraid to chase their dreams and work hard to accomplish them. They encourage me to chase my dream of pursuing cancer research and be the best I can be. A lot of my scientist inspiration comes from the women around me in my program. We're lucky at Georgetown to have many strong female researchers as role models for our students. Whenever the research gets tough, I can rely on them to help me get through it.  

What has been your greatest challenge in science?

The greatest challenge in science for me has been learning how to articulate my work to others. I am not the best scientific writer and learning how to phrase what I'm doing to present in a group setting is a challenge. What has helped me learn how to overcome this challenge has been teaching others in the lab such as Masters students and presenting a poster at the American Association for Cancer Research Conference. I think as scientists we can always work on improving our communication and presentation skills for sharing our research. This challenge is something I hope to continuously improve upon during my PhD. 

Shannon White: I am a DMV native; I grew up in Gaithersburg, MD and attended the University of Maryland in College Park, MD for my undergraduate education. I'm a second year PhD candidate in Georgetown's Tumor Biology program.


What do you like about science and being a scientist? Do you think people have any misconceptions about what it's like to be a scientist or about the field itself?

A career in science has so many rewarding aspects. In research, everyday we work towards our goal of discovering something novel than will positively impact cancer patient care, which is extremely rewarding in itself. I love planning and running experiments to chip away at the scientific unknown. An extremely motivating and self-satisfying result of my work is that through my experiments I'm contributing novel knowledge to the scientific community. It is such a unique field where your specific curiosities or ideas can be studied and lead to something that has never been thought of or reported before. It is also thrilling to be in an environment where you are encouraged to learn new scientific principles, topics, or techniques everyday. Being in a field that is constantly evolving keeps me interested and eager to learn more.

I think there are many misconceptions about what it's like to be a scientist, even from younger students who are interested in becoming one. It's important to have some level of patience, as impactful discoveries do not happen everyday, every week, every month, or even every year. Being a scientist is about being able to persevere throughout these times and appreciate the small discoveries you do make because they may lead to big, impactful ones. On another note, I think people also assume scientists are introverted people who prefer to work alone. Although that is the stereotype, it is far from true. One of the most important parts of being a successful scientist is being able to present your data in a clear and exciting way. That's how you get any audience member (scientific or not) to pay attention to your discovery and learn from it. Also today's scientific questions are so complex, most work is done in collaboration with other scientists in a multi-disciplinary fashion.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?

The coolest project I have worked on is the project I am currently doing in Dr. Chunling Yi's laboratory. I am working towards defining a novel regulatory mechanism of tumor cell metabolism in cancers with a specific genetic mutation in the Neurofibromatosis Type 2 gene. This project allowed me to learn a variety of new techniques including metabolomics and electron microscopy. It's been exciting to not be limited to a small focus and to use these global techniques to identify global cellular changes.

Allison O'Connell: Originally from Long Island, NY, I graduated from Colorado College in 2011 with a degree in Biochemistry. From there I went on to do cancer research at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. I began the MD/PhD program here at Georgetown in 2015 making me a third year in the program, a first year PhD student. 


What do you hope your legacy will be?

First and foremost I'm flattered to be asked such a question-it is accompanied by the pretense that I will have a legacy. I suppose I hope my legacy would be two pronged. Within one context I hope I'd be known for a kind and caring disposition towards patients, family and acquaintances alike. To have a positive impact on the people I interact with and to support others, facilitate their goals, whatever those goals may be. In another context, I hope for not a personal legacy, but a legacy for my work. It is my goal to become a physician scientist that conducts meaningful research that improves cancer patients' lives after our interactions are over. I hope to make meaningful contributions to the scientific field so that others can work off of it and continue to advance how we treat and care for patients with cancer after my time doing so is done.  

Do you think it is getting better for women in science as a whole? What work is left to do?

While I do think things are getting better for women in science, we still have a long way to go. According to data from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the percentage of doctoral students in science and engineering who are women has steadily increased from the 1990s. As of 2014, women hold about half of all bachelor degrees and doctoral degrees in science and engineering. The struggles for women lie in life after graduation. The same data shows that in spite of the fact that half of science and engineering graduates are women, women make up only 28% of the science and engineering workforce. Even more worrisome is the dearth of women in leadership positions, even at our very own institution. Take Georgetown's School of Medicine as an example-out of their 24 department chairs, only three are women. In addition to focusing on these problems, I believe we need to pay special attention to the problems facing minority women in science. Out of all working scientists and engineers, black women and hispanic women make up only 1.6 and 1.8 percent, respectively. While seeing this data can be discouraging, we have the opportunity here at Georgetown to make these issues a centerpiece. I encourage everyone who is a member of our Georgetown community engage in dialogue around these issues and partake in actionable items to actively address them. 

I hope you enjoyed getting to know all of these phenomenal future doctors. I hope they inspired you as much as they inspire me. I am grateful that there are women who are being trained to be our future generation of scientific leaders who care so much about science, mentoring other women and changing the environment for generations to come!


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