Curious About Careers in Biomedical STEM

A cSw report by Akila Saravanan and Sophie Zhang

On October 12, 2018, the Great Hall at Rutgers Medical School was humming with activity, but not from its typical crowd. Over 260 female students from 17 high schools throughout New Jersey gathered to learn about the numerous career opportunities available in biomedical STEM. This huge undertaking was organized by Dr. Janet Alder, associate professor of neuroscience and cell biology and assistant dean for graduate academic and student affairs. Last year, her mission to guide young girls interested in STEM gave birth to one of the most successful Young Women in Bio events held in the U.S. When the program announced its return this year, teachers across the state responded immediately, not wanting their students to miss out on an incredible experience.

For half of the students, the day started out with a dynamic panel discussion. Six women with diverse experiences in science and medicine shared their personal journeys and reflected on various challenges they had encountered. Panelists included Tanaya Bhowmick, MD, assistant professor of medicine at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School; Estela Jacinto, Ph.D., associate professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, Robert Wood Johnson Medical School; Karen MacNaul, an executive director and head of discovery transactions, business development and licensing, Merck Research Labs; Valerie Fitzhugh, MD, associate professor of pathology and laboratory medicine, New Jersey Medical School; Kathleen Zavotsky, Ph.D., assistant vice president of the Center for Professional Development, Innovation and Research, Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital; and Ina Nikolaeva, PhD, senior medical writer, ClinicalThinking.

While the panelists shared humorous insights and practical career advice with their inquisitive audience, the other half of the girls observed rapid-fire demonstrations offered by scientists affiliated with a variety of supporting organizations including Liberty Science Center and the Rutgers Science Bus. Fascinating and fun experiments ranged from extracting DNA from strawberries to simulating the spread of contagious diseases.

After switching activities, all the students reconvened for a networking lunch. As the girls reached for their second slice of pizza, medical students and postdocs seated at each table talked about their personal experiences. Iman Ali, a medical student studying physiology, described how she fell in love with science after taking a high school course. “I was interested in how things worked and wanted a tactile experience with biology,” she explained. Stressing the importance of shadowing, she focused on nurses who do a lot of the actual work.

Medical student Sally Tarabey agreed about the value of career preparation through building connections, saying, “It’s really about who you surround yourself with.” To increase networking opportunities, she organized “Women in Medicine” week at Robert Wood John Medical School to connect with and empower female surgeons. Other students like Tara Ferrante developed their early interests in the biomedical field by becoming Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs). Tara believes that the experience helped her “learn good medical and interpersonal skills, as well as find ways to get involved in the local community,” combining two of the biggest factors – scientific and humanitarian goals – that often lead towards the field of medicine.

Students judged the event a resounding success, and teachers did not hold back their praise either. When asked for her opinion of the program, a biology teacher from Hunterdon Central Regional High School responded, “Getting exposure to outstanding role models like these is empowering for our girls.”

Hearing from so many passionate professionals confirmed that young women have plenty of opportunities in STEM fields. Beyond inspiration, every girl left with a roadmap for navigating pathways that women can take to realize their potential and pursue their dreams.