by Grace Gable
Research Technician
Sergey Krupenko Laboratory
UNC Nutrition Research Institute

Ada Lovelace, founder of scientific computing and the first computer programmer, approached science in a poetical way that still inspires scientific perspectives today. Rachel Carson was a marine biologist and environmentalist who authored the groundbreaking book Silent Spring, which shook Americans into an environmental awakening. Katherine Johnson, an African American space scientist and mathematician, made it possible for Alan Shepard to walk on the moon. Dr. Ellen Ochoa was a woman of two legacies: being the first Hispanic female to go to space and the first Hispanic director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center. These women were pioneers of their time, forging legacies in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) despite the bias and societal pressures women faced in these fields. Although most of these women’s stories are common knowledge, there are women who have been lost, forgotten, or pushed away from the STEM field due to lack of representation, loss of confidence, hierarchical culture, and other systemic barriers to female success.

Currently, there is a gender gap in STEM fields that results in only 28% of the workforce being female. Computer science and engineering see the most prominent underrepresentation of women in STEM. Systemic factors built on past biases against women are still causing barriers to success for women in STEM. These barriers include gender stereotypes, a professional culture that excludes women and minorities, a lack of female role models in leadership positions, and low confidence. All these obstacles have led to a disproportionately low number of women entering STEM fields, especially those that are more quantitative in nature and tend to pay higher salaries.

Effects of barriers faced by women can be seen most acutely when comparing incomes between men and women in STEM fields. This phenomenon is known as the pay gap. The pay gap is easily observed in healthcare. Although 80% of healthcare workers are female, only 21% of health executives/board members and 33% of doctors are female. Of all extant healthcare careers, women are most represented in the lowest paying careers, such as nursing and home healthcare. Another contributor to the STEM pay gap is a lack of women entering the workforce after college. For example, only 38% of female computer science majors and 24% of engineering majors enter careers in their fields. As a result of this underrepresentation in STEM careers, men on average make $15,000 more than women per year. The gap is even more evident for Latina and Black women, who make an average of $33,000 less per year than men. Economic and career losses experienced by women in STEM are major problems that need to be fixed to avoid loss of talent and diversity in the workplace. To overcome these barriers and foster women’s success in STEM, we all need to implement strategies to make STEM a more welcoming field for everyone.

There are several strategies that could be implemented to close the STEM gender gap. Promoting a growth mindset toward learning difficult STEM topics is a good way to foster confidence. Rather than being told they have no skill in mathematics, girls should be told they can build their skill through practice. Making role models visible to girls would increase their confidence in achieving success in STEM. Educating teachers and parents about implicit bias may help them avoid making blind judgements about girls’ quantitative skills. Emphasizing collaboration in STEM fields may allow girls to see these career paths as more welcoming. Diffusing the traditional hierarchical relationships between students and faculty members, promoting mentorship, and implementing male ally programs are ways to encourage women to feel more welcome when entering STEM careers. Lastly, creating equitable work environments with solid family, medical leave, sexual harassment, and anti-discrimination policies will attract more women to the workforce, regardless of the field.

Who knows what those women lost in the gap could have achieved if they were never turned away from STEM? It is important for women in STEM careers to be visible so they can act as role models to young girls aspiring to enter the field. Now is the time to tell the stories of some brilliant, ambitious female scientists working at the UNC Nutrition Research Institute (NRI). I interviewed several of them to ask about their inspirations to pursue their careers, what obstacles they face, and how they balance the demands of a scientific career with those of their personal lives.

The NRI is home to scientists on the forefront of precision nutrition. Precision nutrition refers to a personalized approach to dietary guidance based on an individual’s genetics, environment, microbiome, and other personal factors. At the NRI, women are leading research in nutrition related to significant health conditions such as cognitive development, cancer, and obesity.

Saroja Voruganti, PhD, is a faculty researcher leading studies in nutrition, genetics, and epidemiology. She has earned her current prestige through a lifetime of persistence. Dr. Voruganti was born into a traditional south Indian family. She pursued an undergraduate degree in Delhi and then relocated to western India after marriage. While balancing family life with her aspirations in nutrition, Dr. Voruganti pursued a post-graduate degree in hospital food service. In her work, she encountered reluctance of people willing to follow her dietary advice, eventually prodding her to further pursue advanced education in nutritional deficiencies and solutions to fix them. Dr. Voruganti found herself traveling to America when her husband found a career in the States. The move slowed her pursuit in academia but did not stop her. Once settled in Texas, Dr. Voruganti willfully applied to programs, despite rejections pointed at her lack of experience in science. Her hard work and perseverance paid off when she was accepted to the University of Texas-Austin to pursue a PhD in Nutritional Sciences. Dr. Voruganti faced obstacles in balancing work and family life but did not let anything stop her from pursuing her goals. She now is looking toward the future planning to overcome obstacles in nutrition science. Dr. Voruganti is dedicated to advancing the fields of nutrigenomics and precision nutrition to further advance human health. She concludes her interview with words of wisdom: “There is nothing that a woman cannot achieve with hard work and perseverance, the key to success is believing in oneself.”

Jaspreet Sharma, PhD, is a post-doctoral research associate studying the role of folate metabolism in cancer progression. She plans to continue her career in clinical research because of her interest in translational science, which builds on basic science to implement new medical therapies, techniques, and diagnostics. Dr. Sharma plays three important roles in her life: scientist, wife, and mother. She believes she can excel in all her roles despite some biases that still exist toward working mothers, which cause women to feel the need to work harder to prove their dedication to their jobs. However, Dr. Sharma feels that she can transition among roles smoothly and efficiently.  With strong time management and priority setting, she is making impressive strides balancing her career and personal life.

Kaylee Helfrich is a graduate research assistant who is making an impact on women’s and children’s health. She studies the effects of maternal alcohol consumption on a baby’s iron and how supplementing iron may increase the health of the baby. Ms. Helfrich earned a Bachelor of Science from Clemson University and is working toward a doctoral degree. Despite her successes, she suffers from self-doubt. She worries she will need to achieve perfection to be seen as even half as successful as her male counterparts. Ms. Helfrich offers this advice to women pursuing this career path: “Although the world will try to force you to act more like a man to succeed, try to remain yourself. Women have a lot more to offer the world than people think, and a unique way of viewing things that offer different and diverse solutions to problems.”

Another successful researcher at the NRI is Claire Gates. Ms. Gates earned a double major as a Bachelor of Science in Biology and Bachelor of Arts in Chemistry. She is now studying how single nucleotide polymorphisms, or single base changes in DNA, may change the activity of a certain protein which has the potential to kill cancer cells. She plans to continue her cancer research at UNC-Chapel Hill while pursuing a doctorate degree and aims to become a professor, leading her own team in academic research. Ms. Gates wants women entering the STEM field to know they should be aggressive in pursuing goals, know their worth, and always be a self-advocate. When asked how she achieves work-life balance, she said: “I think the key for me is consistency. I allow myself little breaks for fun, but make sure I’m working hard when I need to be. I think work/life balance looks a little different for everyone, but the key is being introspective and figuring out what you need to stay productive, happy and satisfied with your quality of life as well as your career progress.”

Brea Nance is a research technician who also focuses on children’s health. She seeks to help improve the health of others, either through research or healthcare. Ms. Nance shared an obstacle she faces as a woman in STEM. “Most people in the older generation, especially from the south, think women should be “home-makers”. Luckily, my grandmother always had a strong head on her shoulders and pushed it onto us.”

It was interesting hearing Ms. Nance’s take on southern perspectives toward gender roles and how she had a mentor early on who encouraged her to pursue her career in science. Some of the other women interviewed mentioned a teacher or family member who served as a role model that inspired them to pursue STEM, showing how important visibility is for young women.

Maricela Lara is a research technician working toward a degree in microbiology. When she became aware of the wide array of opportunities available for those with a STEM degree, she decided to pursue this path. She emphasizes that pursuing education is the best way to empower your future in STEM. Knowledge is power, especially in the sciences.

A post-doctoral researcher, Cecilia Kwan, PhD, RD, studies maternal nutrition and prenatal alcohol exposure. Dr. Kwan’s path to where she is now is quite fascinating. She suffered from preeclampsia during pregnancy, which almost led to the loss of her child. The mental and physical pain resulting from this experience pushed her to want to lessen the same suffering other mothers and babies experience from this condition. As a working mother, Dr. Kwan faces obstacles balancing her career life and personal life. Science is a demanding career that requires a large time commitment, so she is most likely not alone in her struggle to balance everything. She says that having a strong network- scientific, professional, and social- has contributed to her success as a woman in STEM: “Your PI and your lab mates/colleagues should be part of this network. Science is hard, scientific research is even harder, but we can get through it if we support each other. The friendships built through this journey are the most valuable part!”

Finally, Melissa Shafer is a study coordinator with a Bachelor of Science in Psychology. She plans to earn a Doctorate in Developmental Psychology so she can teach and further pursue research. Although teachers attempted to push her toward the arts, Ms. Shafer is now conducting a diet intervention study to see the impact of maternal nutrition on cognitive development in breastfed infants. She shared her insight regarding imposter syndrome: “So much of feeling incompetent or like an imposter is just a matter of needing more time in the field. STEM is in many ways a foreign language and it’s okay that it takes you time to learn it.” Low confidence may turn women and girls away when they experience imposter syndrome but having a growth mindset like Melissa’s will propel them further in their careers.

The NRI strives to make everyone feel like they belong. Those women interviewed mentioned that the NRI’s StrengthN program has made them feel included and connected with their coworkers.  The StrengthN program splits participants into randomized groups of three each month to meet and get to know each other over coffee, lunch, or any other small activity. Also mentioned were the regular celebrations, seminar series, and morale committee events have made these women feel like welcomed members of the NRI family. One interesting suggestion to further foster inclusion was to create a support group for women with children. Perhaps more family-friendly events could foster a stronger feeling of belonging, especially in researchers who follow a non-traditional career path. It is evident that scientists working at the NRI have developed close relationships with each other as many responses mentioned lab group meetings and daily walks on campus which made them feel included.

The NRI employs female scientists and leaders at all points in their career. For this reason, it is important to highlight their perspectives on what it is like to be a woman in STEM. After interviewing women at the NRI, I was interested to see how they all have followed different paths to success. Although these women study different topics and are at different stages in their careers, a common thread exists among them. This common thread lies in the internal and external struggles faced by women in science. Another commonality is an ambitious attitude toward expressing future goals, lessons learned, and advice shared. Thank you so much to everyone who shared their insights and to all the women making an impact at the UNC NRI.


About the author:
Grace Gable is a technician in the Krupenko laboratory and aspiring to earn a Master’s in Public Health. From there, she hopes to promote awareness of infectious disease in lower income communities and prevent widespread epidemics working as a public health professional. Ms. Gable is passionate about writing and using her passion to promote diversity and inclusivity in her community.