MD Today: The Science of Perseverance (ft. Jessica Vitak)

Maggie Haslam | Maryland Today | UMD - February 12, 2024

UMD female scientists reflect on overcoming moments of doubt

A grid style photo with women who work in the science sector.

From left, Megan Newcombe, Min Wu, Rita Colwell, Jessica Vitak, Mia Smith-Bynum, Stephanie Lansing and Kawthar Zaki. All experienced moments of uncertainty in forging their careers in science, where women are a distinct minority, but found inspiration to continue.

It’s hard to imagine the world of science without trailblazing environmental microbiologist Rita Colwell. An expert in global infectious disease and the first female director of the National Science Foundation, Colwell has conducted seminal research on cholera that transformed our understanding of how the deadly disease behaves and spreads.

But one semester in the late 1950s, that almost became the case. After Colwell’s doctoral adviser at the University of Washington suggested that she had no future in science, she switched her graduate degree to English literature. But a young assistant professor in marine microbiology saw in Colwell, whom he’d hired as a lab worker, what her adviser had not.

“He said to me, ‘You don’t want to be a technician, you need to be my grad assistant,” said Colwell, who became that professor’s first Ph.D. student and is now a distinguished university professor at the University of Maryland. “I was out of science for half a semester. But I did develop a strong love of poetry.”

Much has changed. Today at UMD, over 45% of students studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) are women. Still, a sizable gender gap continues to pervade the STEM disciplines, particularly in higher education. Women researchers typically receive smaller grants than male colleagues, have shorter and lower-paying careers, and account for a fraction of research talent (around 30%), according to the United Nations.

Colwell says that where male students bring swagger to science, she’s seen bright women demure at the idea of a Ph.D. “I tell them, ‘Find a way to get over, under or around that hurdle,’” she said. “There is so much satisfaction to being right in the end.”

Eleven years ago, the UN’s General Assembly adopted Feb. 11 as International Day for Women in Science to celebrate the achievements of women in science and draw new generations of women to STEM. As the date approaches, we asked six female UMD scientists to reflect on a moment they could have gone off course—and what helped them persevere:

Megan Newcombe, Assistant Professor, Department of Geology
Megan Newcombe is in the depths of an unanswered question: Where did earth’s water come from? An experimental petrologist and volcanologist from the United Kingdom, she has faced uncertainty in her young career—from experiments going south to her going west, taking a job an ocean away from her family. Finding the opportunity to do the research she wanted was a challenge, and she felt like giving up at times. “Whenever life seems uncertain, I like to remember that each scientific discovery we make and each paper we publish represents a lasting contribution to our understanding.”

Min Wu, Professor, Christine Yurie Kim Eminent Professor in Information Technology / Associate Dean for Graduate Programs, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Min Wu’s biggest culture shock after arriving in the U.S. in the 1990s was the surprise on people’s faces when she told them she was studying electrical engineering. It was common for women in China to pursue STEM degrees, she says, as part of the country’s push to build a strong workforce and economy. That U.S. mindset can manifest in women earning fewer advancement, research and leadership opportunities than men, but what keeps her moving forward are the women who came—and overcame—before her. One of her mentors, Professor Emeritus Kawthar Zaki, was the first female faculty member in UMD’s engineering school; when she arrived in 1970, there was just one stall in the building’s only women’s restroom and a virtually non-existent maternity leave policy. Zaki helped leadership recognize the need for stronger support networks for female researchers, something that Wu credits for her success. “Knowing how much Kawthar had to overcome gave me the appreciation but also the drive to do my part to help my female colleagues be more successful,” Wu said.

Mia Smith-Bynum, Professor and Chair, Department of Family Sciences
As a young academic struggling in her first faculty position at another university, Mia Smith-Bynum found herself faced with a choice: Fail, or ask for help. With the “merciless tenure clock” ticking, she went to her department chair, who switched her mentor. She found other trusted counsel in colleagues and former professors, like Robert Emory, who she trained under at University of Virginia; he reminded her, “Mia you have something to say to the field.” In her current role, she recalls Emory’s words daily, working to provide the support that young female faculty need to keep them on track—and excelling. “When you get that talent in the door, you have to support it, validate it and say, ‘Yes, you’re green, but you’re gonna be great.’”

Jessica Vitak, Associate Professor, College of Information Studies
An expert in data privacy and ethics, Jessica Vitak has weathered bumps along her career path (including being rejected at UMD for grad school—twice). But after receiving tenure and starting a sabbatical in 2019, she was diagnosed with breast cancer and lost her mother. “I don’t know that I thought about giving up science at that point but I definitely re-evaluated my life that year,” she said. “But science brings me a lot of joy and was something I could turn to in this very challenging time to bring me a sense of fulfillment. I think at a basic level I have the ability to bring clarity to the unknown; I can definitely have an impact, and that’s really powerful.”

Stephanie Lansing, Professor, Department of Environmental Science and Technology
After earning her bachelor’s degree in environmental science, Stephanie Lansing found herself at a crossroads: medical school or the Peace Corps. The Peace Corps won out—and changed her trajectory. Teaching environmental science to educators and high school students in Belize, Lansing experienced firsthand the repercussions of the country’s lack of wastewater treatment. She wondered if there was a way to create a system that worked harmoniously with its environment. Returning to the U.S., she found a professor at Ohio State who was studying exactly that, and who introduced Lansing to anaerobic digestion, in which microorganisms create energy by consuming organic material. Now it’s her specialty. “My work has ebbed and flowed over the years, and that’s OK, because I was always curious,” she said. “It’s about finding something you’re passionate about.”

The original article was written by Maggie Haslam and published in MD Today on February 12, 2024.