Perspectives on Women in Science Portland: An interview with members on the origins of the group and the road ahead!

By Daniela Saderi

When I first arrived from Italy to Portland five years ago to start a Ph.D. in Neuroscience at Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU), Women in Science Portland had just been formed. I remember first hearing about them when someone explained to me that a group of “bad-ass” women grad students and postdocs had successfully pushed through a new policy for parental leave for graduate students at OHSU, extending the paid leave time from two weeks to eight weeks. Passed the initial shock from learning that at some point in history two weeks was considered a reasonable amount of time for parents (especially mothers) to recover from the birth of a child, I was impressed by the incredible work those women had done to change something that would have probably never changed otherwise – or at least not so quickly! I learned these women were part of a new group at OHSU called Women in Science Portland (WIS PDX) and their mission was helping other women thrive in scientific careers and the academic environment.

You might ask, why do women need help to thrive, anyway? It turns out that even if women make up 47% of the total U.S. workforce, they are still largely underrepresented in the science and engineering fields – though in some fields more than others. For example, they comprise 39% of chemists and material scientists, 28% of environmental scientists and geoscientists, 16% of chemical engineers, and only 12% of civil engineers. The good news is that these numbers have been going up in the past 20 years, but there is still work to be done. The main problem seems to be less about women not pursuing sciences and engineering degrees, and more related to the fact that women more than men tend to steer away from these fields later on, thereby leading to a bigger gap in senior and leadership positions (more data on these issues can be found here).

WIS PDX’s primary goal is to build a community of supportive networks for the development, retention, and promotion of women in the sciences.

In the past two years the Women in Science community grew larger and the mission expanded to go beyond supporting women in academia at OHSU. WIS PDX now includes a variety of people with different backgrounds and career goals – women, men, non-binary people, students, teachers, researchers, computer scientists, science lovers, and many more. What all these people have in common is the willingness to support and value the work of women – and any person identifying as a woman – in the sciences and technology fields.

I joined the WIS PDX leadership group as a fundraising committee member last winter and I have already learned so much from each one of those amazing women. As WIS PDX moves forward to become a true non-profit organization, we want to hear from the community about priorities and ideas. Here is a survey we created to do just that, so please tell us what your priorities are. In the second part of this post, I asked some of the leadership members of WIS PDX to answer a few questions that will hopefully help you learn more about what WIS PDX was and is today, and why you should be part of it!

The following is an interview with some of the Women in Science leadership and former members. Answers have been lightly edited for clarity purposes.

How did Women in Science PDX get started?

Danielle Robinson (Communication Chair, founding member): In 2012 Dr. Judith Eisen, Biology Professor at the University of Oregon, visited Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) and talked about the Women in Graduate Science organization at the University of Oregon (an inspiring interview with Dr. Eisen can be found here). Encouraged and inspired by her story, we decided to start a similar group at OHSU, with the goal of organizing events and activities to address the concerns of early career women at OHSU. One of our first big achievements was playing a key role in the adjustment of parental leave for graduate students new parents (the revised policy adopted in 2013 can be found online here).

Molly Harding (Steering Committee alum, founding member): Meeting with Dr. Judith Eisen was really an eye-opening moment for me and the other women who founded WIS PDX. I honestly was shocked that such a group didn’t already exist, and starting something in Portland was empowering for us.

Kateri Spinelli (Steering Committee alum, founding member): I got involved with WIS as a founding member because I felt the need to address the lack of seminars/groups/information specific to women in science at OHSU. Women face unique biases and obstacles in academic research, and I wanted to help create a forum to openly discuss these obstacles and learn from other women who were more advanced in their careers. In the first year, I helped launching and organizing the Brown Bag Lunch and Learn sessions. I invited early-career and mid-career women to speak to us about work/life balance, mentoring and managing a lab, leadership opportunities, and non-academic careers. It was a huge hit and a lot of fun to get those seminars off the ground!

How has WIS PDX grown since it was founded?

Danielle: A lot has changed since 2012! All of the founding members who were in PhD programs have graduated with PhDs and gone into the workforce, occupying a broad range of scientific and technical fields. Two of those original members are in postdoctoral research positions, and the remaining five are in careers outside of the traditional academic path – a high school science teacher, a medical science liaison for a pharmaceutical company, a science and data analyst for a large research consortium, a scientific and partnerships director at a non profit, and a project manager at a scientific institute.

As I move forward in my career, the value of a diverse network, peer mentorship, and putting effort towards my professional development has only become more clear. Today our goal is to support the local community of people in scientific and technical fields. This year, we moved to incorporate into a non-profit to better serve and expand our community. By moving to non-profit status, we can fundraise and develop more amazing (and of course, free!) programs to serve the community. We hope to link Portland’s many different campus communities together, network with the growing tech community, and create safe and welcoming spaces to learn skills and develop as professionals.

Kateri: We have grown so much since the early days! In the last few years, one of our goals has been to expand beyond OHSU and reach a more diverse scientific Portland community. It is awesome to see the new members of our steering committee, many of whom do not work in research labs and/or are not affiliated with OHSU, bring a new energy to the leadership team. Diversity is essential as we grow to serve the wider Portland community of all women in science-related fields.

What types of programs does WIS PDX run?

Allison Schaser (President): Our programs fall into two different categories; professional development and outreach/education. The focus of our professional development programming is to support and encourage women who are currently in scientific fields. We want women to be successful in their chosen scientific careers. We also want to provide tools so that they feel confident and ready to move into leadership positions and take their careers to the next level. The focus of our outreach/education programming is to engage and introduce a new generation to the wonderful and diverse opportunities that are available for women in the fields of science and technology.

Who are WIS PDX’s events for?

Allison S: Everyone! WIS PDX events are for anyone that is interested in science, period. We strive to provide access, opportunity, and support for groups that have traditionally been underrepresented in the sciences. More specifically, our events are geared towards individuals that want to help us meet our goal of supporting women in science and technology related fields.

Rachel Clemens Grisham (Steering committee alum, founding member): I agree, everyone. I saw this as a group of individuals who were interested in community and diversity (particularly gender parity) in the sciences. I was inspired by all of the ideas our founding group came up with together that were inclusive of everyone while also addressing real concerns about women leaving science. We really accomplished so much in that first year! Programs like the brown bag lunches, the negotiating boot camp, happy hours and successfully changed student policy regarding maternity leave.

How does working with WIS impact people’s professional development?

Allison Anacker (Steering committee alum, founding member): Being part of WIS PDX helped me realize that mentoring and helping people, especially those who are paving a new way forward, is an essential component of my career and personal satisfaction. I went on to support women in science through teaching, research and mentorship at Smith College, an elite women’s college, in a postdoctoral teaching fellowship. I initiated professional development workshops for women in STEM fields as they applied for jobs and graduate school. I am currently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Columbia University and looking forward to starting as a Lecturer for the Undergraduate Program in Neuroscience at the University of Vermont starting Fall 2017.

Molly: I’m currently a high school science teacher. Now that I’m not actively doing science research, WIS events are an opportunity to maintain a relationship with the scientific community, and, as often happens, find amazing mentors for my students.

Kateri: The WIS Peer Mentor group was a huge help for me as I prepared to apply and interview for jobs outside of academia. Through that group, I spruced up my resume and LinkedIn profile, got tips for interviewing, including a packet of behavioral interview type questions to practice responding to, and had a forum for discussing my excitement and anxieties around seeking a new career path. The peer mentor group was invaluable for me. Being active on the steering committee helped me develop essential leadership skills and experience with program and event planning. In general, WIS events helped me become more comfortable with networking and gave my confidence speaking with strangers about my career goals.

Rachel: The experience itself was a great leadership skill-building opportunity for me. Especially with the policy change we made in the student handbook. Also, the negotiation boot camp was a fantastic way to get comfortable negotiating (shout out to Caroline Hostetler for headlining that!)

How do you envision WIS PDX in five years?

Allison S:  Our goal is for WIS PDX to continue to grow and diversify our programs over the next five years. Over the last year we have worked very hard to accomplish our most recent goal of establishing WIS PDX as a non-profit organization. We have gotten tremendous support and help for the WIS PDX community and are happy to say that we are now officially incorporated and we are in the final stages of submitting our 501(c)3 application! Obtaining non-profit status is a big step forward because it allows us to fundraise more effectively and reach out beyond our initial starting point as an OHSU student group to more easily serve and impact the larger Portland Science Community.

In the past year we have also been focused on building our internal communication and governance strategies, so that we are prepared to support our current and future growth. As we move forward, we are excited to continue our current programs including our negotiation bootcamp, our peer mentoring program, our networking events, and our outreach events. We also plan to reinstate and expand our lecture series, previously known as our “Lunch and Learn” series. Our hope is to host this lecture series, not just at OHSU, but at a variety of locations to make it accessible to the greater Portland Science Community. We are actively looking for partners to host lecture events and for speakers to share their wisdom. We also welcome ideas for new lecture topics!

In addition, we are launching a liaison program so that WIS PDX can serve as an information hub for our associates. We hope to bring together the multitude of groups that are already thriving in the Portland Science Community and let more people know about what these groups are doing and how to engage in their science and technology related programming.

As we continue to grow and diversify over the next 5 years we will continue to offer our programs and events for no or low costs. We plan to stay a volunteer-run organization and to use our fundraising efforts to support our programs and those connected to our organization. To do this we need the support and help of our community. Is there a program you want that doesn’t exist? Is there a skill you need that you don’t know how to obtain? Do you want to know more about a specific type of scientific career? Is there a lecture you want to attend? Is there a group you want us to talk to or engage? If so, let us know! We need your input to guide us and help us give you what you need!

How can people interested in helping WIS PDX thrive get in touch?

Join our mailing list and follow us on social media.

Let us know what you would like to see integrated in WIS PDX programs by filling out our five minute Community Survey!

Want to amplify events and organizations in the community? Pitch us a post for the Community Blog!

Want to collaborate on an event or join our leadership team? Come to our monthly Steering Committee meetings!