As the Chief Medical Officer at The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS), Gwen Nichols, M.D., has spent her career advancing cures for cancers by drawing on her clinical, academic and pharmaceutical experience.

Recalling the early days of her own career, Nichols remembers the challenges she and her female peers faced at the University of Chicago as the largest class of females the program had ever had. “This was in the 1980s, and they were not prepared.” As a result, the women had access to fewer resources and more crowded sleeping quarters. “For many medical classes now, over fifty percent are women. So it’s quite different than thirty years ago,” she says.

Two challenges

The most important thing is to discover what you, your child, loved one or friend is passionate about and encourage pursuit of that passion.

Although conditions for women in STEM careers has improved, many of challenges that Nichols and her peers faced are still primary. The challenges, explains Nichols, were both external and internal. Externally, women who wanted to have children often reached their peak biological time just as they finished training and were starting their careers. “People didn’t take you as seriously if you also wanted to have a family life,” says Nichols, “but I think that’s definitely changing now.” This change is to the benefit of both men and women who wish to start families and take leave.

The internal struggle addressed the heightened importance for women to self-advocate through both their education and their careers. “Women still need to be willing to be fearless and fight for themselves, and I think that we have to learn how to do that.” Finding a mentor is invaluable, says Nichols, and women might need to put themselves out there more than their male counterparts to connect with potential mentors. “In order to be successful, we have to be our own advocates. We can’t expect that just because we do a good job it will be recognized.”

Developing diversity

Grant and fellowship opportunities have the potential to provide support to those who are underrepresented in medical research and STEM careers generally. LLS, for example, offers Career Development Awards for researchers at different stages of their careers. These types of funding opportunities help to diversify medical research, of which Nichols passionately supports. “Innovation will only come if we diversify the people who are doing science,” she says. “This applies across the board. If we all look alike and think alike, we are not going to get really innovative change.”

Another way to improve diversity is to scrutinize stereotypes in medical research. “Careers in science and medicine require diverse brain power, so presuming you have to be a certain way to be involved in the sciences is not good for science in the future.” The most important thing is to discover what you, your child, loved one or friend is passionate about and encourage pursuit of that passion. Because that passion, says Nichols, is “most important ingredient.”