March is Women’s History Month in the United States, meant as a time to remember and recognize the amazing achievements women have made over the course of history in a variety of fields including STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics). Did you know that some of the world’s most notable scientific and technological milestones, from the unveiling of DNA’s structure to the building of modern programming, have involved women?
As part of Women’s History Month we’d like to highlight a few of the many inspiring women on the BioAgilytix team. We’ve asked them to share some of their stories about pursuing a career in STEM: what drove them to their field, challenges and opportunities they’ve faced, accomplishments they’ve made, and advice they would give to other women and girls interested in making science or technology their profession.
Today we’re getting a viewpoint from the science side of our business from Dr. Jennifer Zemo, Director at BioAgilytix.
How old were you when your interest in science was first sparked? How did it happen?
Since middle school I have always loved math and science. In high school I thought I wanted to be a math teacher, but once I took chemistry in 11th grade, I knew that science would be my field. In my senior year I took Biochemistry and fell in love with the subject.
Tell us a little about your educational background. What drove you to pursue a STEM field of study and then make it your career?
Math and science always felt like a natural fit for me. I majored in Chemistry and minored in Math in college, then decided to go to grad school and focus on Biological Biochemistry at UNC Chapel Hill. It was there that I discovered the world of signal transduction of immune cell receptors. I moved on to a postdoc at NIEHS to further my knowledge in this area. I’ve always wanted to be involved in human health initiatives, but on the research side of things. I love that there is always something new being discovered, and my career now allows me to be involved in the creative nature of drug discovery.
Describe your journey in pursuing the STEM field as a woman. What were the biggest challenges?
During graduate school, I noticed that there were very few female professors, especially in the Chemistry department. Of those few professors, only 1 or 2 were married with a family. It was very difficult to find a female mentor whose career mirrored what I wanted for myself. During my postdoc, my PI was very upset that I decided to have a child. He told me it was very inconvenient, and that I had just ruined my career. I honestly wasn’t sure if he was right or not until I moved from academia and took an industry job. Once I was in the industry, I saw more women in positions of authority who were successful in their careers and also maintained a family life. When I decided to have my second child, my supervisor was extremely supportive. I finally felt that I had found my path.
What do you consider to be the greatest accomplishment of your career so far?
Honestly, I feel that my greatest accomplishment is being able to have a successful career that allows me the flexibility and support to also be a wife and mother. I love what I do, and I worked very hard to build the team that I have – a team full of hard-working, dedicated individuals who share my passion for advancing human and animal health while maintaining a family-oriented culture.
I don’t necessarily consider the science I do as my greatest accomplishment because I also spend a lot of my time teaching, training, and supporting scientists at BioAgilytix. What I am most proud of is seeing their growth; not only in their titles and positions within the company, but also in their science knowledge and their confidence in presenting data, and knowing that I had a hand in that.
Who have been your greatest mentors – past and/or present?
Dr. Frank Creegan, one of my chemistry professors in college, has been a great mentor to me. He really cultivated my interest in chemistry, and he knew exactly how to push me to what he knew was best for me, even if I didn’t know it myself yet. He encouraged me to apply to grad school, and he pushed me not to settle – to go to the best school I could. I think he was pretty excited when I chose UNC – he and his wife even visited me in NC. We still keep in touch, and I know that if I ever need advice, he will be there to help.
Dr. Cristina Cruz, one of my past supervisors, gave me the groundwork for all I know today. She taught me the science of immunogenicity, trusted me to do good science, and most importantly, showed me what it was like to have a supportive boss. I try to emulate her management style with my team, as she always made me feel respected, appreciated, and important.
My most important mentors, though, must be my parents. They always told me that I could be whatever I wanted. I never doubted that. They instilled in me and my siblings a strong work ethic, a stubborn streak that keeps us pushing through tough times, and a love of learning.
What advice would you give to young girls and women pursuing careers and interests in the STEM fields?
I guess my advice would be similar to what my parents told me – you can be whatever you want! The STEM field is exciting – new things are discovered every day. It’s not about being the smartest person in the room. It takes tenacity and hard work, but having a successful career in a STEM field also requires skills in social interaction, leadership, and communication. Girls and women need to be confident in their skills and keep pushing for opportunities in the STEM field. It’s a great place to be!
What women in science/technology inspire you? Why?
Trudy Elion is someone that I didn’t really know of until I started working in the drug development field. She had to work extremely hard to get into the STEM field, but persevered and made significant contributions to rational drug design. After she retired, she continued to encourage women to pursue careers in science. Her strong desire to stay in the science field, despite the road blocks she encountered, is an inspiration.
We thank Jenn for sharing her stories and are proud to have her as a part of the BioAgilytix team! Tomorrow we’ll post another Q&A which features our IT Support Specialist Whitney Gonzales, providing perspectives from a career on the technology side of STEM.