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Creating the Scientific Woman –Lessons From Google’s First Science Fair

Google’s first Science Fair , whose winners were named last week, was a worldwide phenomenon, with 10,000 entries from 91 countries. Much like science fairs of the past, Google’s was filled with bright young minds, eager to break new ground in research or invent the next great technology that will improve all of our lives. But Google’s Science Fair also differed from many of those of the past: this year young women took home the three highest honors.

Based on this, some will likely make sweeping generalizations about the rise of girls, the fall of boys, or some other societal shift. But even a cursory glance at the winners’ biographies reveals a much more important revelation and a simpler explanation. Each young woman benefited from the encouragement and guidance from teachers at a young age and access to targeted programs.

And perhaps most telling was 17-18-Year-Old Category Winner Shree Bose’s collaboration with an established woman scientist in her chosen field. Bose’s research occurred in the laboratory of Dr. Alakananda Basu, a professor of Molecular Biology and Immunology at the University of North Texas Health Science Center. Dr. Basu sponsored Shree Bose in her quest as a scientist. Without Basu, Bose could not have accomplished her work.

It is well known that career development is enhanced by mentorship relationships. Mentors help guide and give advice. A mentorship relationship is usually multi-faceted and takes a long time to create. But as the pace of achievement accelerates, the need for more specific, goal focused help has emerged. This new paradigm is known as sponsorship. Sponsors, senior professionals in their chosen field, provide access to specific experiences to help young scientists rapidly progress through the scientific process. Traditional education is, of course, essential to any scientific success, but in research-driven scientific fields, it is one-on-one relationships and directly working with career scientists that often make all the difference for aspiring scientists. More than a guide, the sponsor deeply invests in an individual with the potential for a lifelong career.

Sadly, the sciences lag in the development of such programs for women that foster these relationships. Why? Because senior women scientists have faced incredible barriers to advancement in the sciences. These are now only slowly being removed, and only in the most enlightened of places such as MIT. A lack of senior women mentors and sponsors, who might be preferred by younger women, has been touted as one reason for the dearth of young women in science. However, it must be noted that many men have played important roles as mentors and since they are more plentiful and experienced, engaging them is critical for women’s successes. I was lucky to find one such male mentor who continues to guide me even after 30 years.

Seeing three young women holding the winning trophies was gratifying to me as a woman who has spent her life encouraging other women in the field of medicine. I know the tremendous barriers that have to be overcome in a male dominated field. It was notable that the projects were all health based—a shift in in the sciences which will tend to benefit women. So as this demographic shift occurs, with more women wanting careers in medicine and in science, it will be critical to make sure that these women do not meet the barriers that are still prevalent in the halls of science and the house of medicine.

We must tackle the behemoth from both sides—individually and organizationally. Give our girls the tools they need. Restructure the workplaces to adapt to the rhythms and roles demanded of women in our society. Provide opportunities for our daughters to learn to succeed when young. Cooperation and collaboration should be replacing competition. Once this happens, everyone wins and we will see hundreds of faces smiling up at us from what should be the many winner’s circles that will showcase all the talent we need to bring the best scientific and medical ideas to the marketplace of healthcare. Let’s begin.

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