Advancing an ancient cause in the scientific world

Participants in the inaugural Women-in-Science (WinS) Career Advancement Programme (CAP) celebrate their graduation from the programme

Unlike Pythagoras, Sima Qian and other celebrated ancient scientists, the names of Tapputi from Babylonian Mesopotamia and Algaonice from Ancient Greece ring few bells today. Both were female scientists who broke new ground. Tapputi was the world’s first chemist and Algaonice the first female astronomer. And like many other female scientists, their names have been largely lost to obscurity.

More than 2,500 years have passed since their time, so it would be easy to imagine that things would have changed for female scientists by now. But no.

As recently as the 1960s, female scientists, who wanted to pursue engineering careers at the University of Pennsylvania, had to do so in a building without a women’s bathroom. And the pipeline of women scientists continues to leak talent. A UNESCO report published in 2015 found that while women outnumber men at the undergraduate level, their numbers drop off at the PhD level.  

To address this continuing loss of female talent, Dr Ann-Marie Chacko, an assistant professor with the Cancer and Stem Cell Biology Programme and lead for the Cancer ImmunoTherapy Imaging (CITI) programme, set up an initiative aimed specifically at female scientists through the SingHealth Duke-NUS Women in Science (WinS) Network, called the WinS-Research Scientists Initiative

“Having a formal programme was a call to action to address some of the challenges around gender balance, diversity and inclusion in science at all levels of education and training,” Chacko said. “Further, we will track and measure outcomes in such a way that can lead to greater change. We want to see more representation in our hallways. We want to see our women empowered to be successful and serving as role models for all of our scientists at our institution.”


Making leaders and mentors out of female scientists

In 2017, the WinS Network was launched by Professor Koh Woon Puay—and will soon to be taken over by Chacko—to provide a platform that connects women in science and academic medicine in the SingHealth Duke-NUS Academic Medical Centre (AMC) community.

“In setting up WinS, Woon Puay demonstrated that she can draw everyone together. With her boundless energy, she got the buy-in and support of the senior leadership at both Duke-NUS and SingHealth and has really made an impact,” said Chacko. As Chacko takes over the helm from Koh in 2021, she is committed to maintaining its momentum and growing the WinS Network in a meaningful way.

A key event of the WinS Network is the WinS Leadership Programme, a one-year programme that develops leadership skills in female scientists and leaders in academic medicine in the AMC while also providing in-depth opportunities for personal growth and peer-mentoring, giving individuals the necessary skills to navigate research and academic medicine.

“We saw the success of the leadership programme in the number of National Medical Research Council awardees who are past or current participants in the programme,” said Chacko, “and that’s very motivating.”

After having completed the leadership programme herself, Chacko realised that early career female scientists could benefit from similar opportunities. Together with Dr Lakshmi Ramachandran, Programme Manager for the CITI programme, Chacko started the WinS-Career Advancement Programme (CAP), which aims to reverse the loss of talent at the post-doctoral and research fellow stages.

“Besides individual career talks and seminars, what WinS is doing different is that it offers a structured, formalised self-development and professional training programme for female scientists, which I don’t think has been done before,” said Ramachandran. “As a coach and mentor for students and junior scientists, I was quite excited about the fact that this was also being made available to early-career women scientists, and not only the leaders, to help support their career advancement.”

The yearly programme involves four main components: workshops from external trainers, mentorship by the faculty, career talks and networking and feedback and debriefing sessions.

“In the programme, the coaches, mentors and peers have shared a lot of their experiences, successes as well as their struggles in their career paths,” said Zhou Jin, a Senior Research Fellow from the Cardiovascular and Metabolic Disorders Programme at Duke-NUS who was part of the WinS-CAP Programme 2020. “I have learnt a lot during these processes and gained a deeper understanding of how resilience and excellence sustained us.”

This has been reinforced by the participants’ feedback, confirming that female mentorship can play a significant role in a young scientist’s career development. Such mentors, often considered inaccessible, share practical advice, help to build connections and provide insights and perspectives on different career paths.

But above all, the programme creates a space where female scientists can safely and openly ask any questions that they need to, be they professional or personal. Chacko and Lakshmi mentioned that often times, women’s experiences from a young age prevent them from asking questions that are especially important in navigating how to move forward. Such topics that are fundamental in anyone’s career path are covered in the programme.

Mara McAdams, who was enrolled in the inaugural WinS Leadership Programme and is the Associate Dean of Duke-NUS’ Alumni Relations, added: “It’s crucial to have a safe space where women can be thinking about how to progress in their careers. Part of that is learning concepts and strategies taught in the workshops such as how to negotiate with others.”

“The bigger part of it was taking time out from the work, research, the committee demands, the home life stuff and having dedicated time and space to talk about these topics with a like-minded group of women,” said McAdams.


Empowerment beyond confidence-building

Thus far, both the WinS Leadership Programme and the WinS-CAP have been immensely successful: They have empowered female scientists, enabling them to attain a larger number of substantial grants, including ones from the National Medical Research Council, become finalists for scientific pitch awards and even branch out to put together the cover art for a paper in the journal PNAS, just by creating a community that shares a hivemind.

These achievements were inspired by the mentors in the programme, as mentioned by Ramachandran: “You are getting that inspiration and example right in front of you. So, this is very different from having unreachable role models like big super successful women whom you are not able to relate to. I think that this is also a very, very important aspect.”

In addition to that, WinS-CAP has also garnered the support of a handful of male scientists who are just as passionate in pushing for the success of female scientists.

“The goal here is gender balance and equality in science,” Chacko said. “Hence, we have to include our male counterparts in this conversation to gain their perspective and to widen the conversation. As our field is still predominantly male, it is imperative that male colleagues and mentors are aware of these unconscious biases [against women], and other challenges faced by women, so as to make a significant impact on the community as a whole.”

And the WinS programmes do not just end once the year is up. Afterwards, these alumni continue on their profession journey inspiring other female scientists like themselves.

“The insights that I learnt via the programme have given me the confidence to model a nurturing and collaborative environment to grow my own lab team,” said Dr Nicole Keong, a Senior Consultant at the National Neuroscience Institute. “I have also taken on a research leadership role within my department, which is now providing me with an opportunity to influence the attitudes of the next generation of neurosurgeons. Hopefully, we can aspire towards greater representation in gender and diverse personalities to enrich our next generation of clinician-scientists!”