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#WomenofPenn: Forging a Career in Neuroscience – Female Leaders Share Advice for Future Scientists

The following post is part of a year-long online campaign highlighting #WomenofPenn. The campaign, developed by FOCUS on Women’s Health and Leadership and Penn Medicine Communications promotes the work being done by women at Penn Medicine and aims to inspire early-career women in academic medicine through the examples of successful women role models.

Scientific organizations, academic centers, and global agencies have made substantial efforts to end gender bias in science. Collective action aims to address cultural and community changes to the scientific community and inspire more women in the field. The United Nation’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals platform outlines a global call for gender equality in science, technology, and innovation. Additionally, organizations like the Girl Scouts of America have concentrated efforts on promoting  early educational programs to get girls interested in STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics).

Professional organizations have taken note as well, creating their own taskforces to uncover how they can directly impact the gender gap. The American Academy of Neurology’s (AAN) Gender Disparity Task Force developed recommendations for improving gender parity in neurology—such as enhancing leadership education options for female members and increasing transparency by sharing compensation and productivity data.

Here at Penn, you don’t have to look far for inspiration, barrier-breakers, and mentors when it comes to women in science. In 2018, Penn Medicine was even listed as the #2 best employer for women in the nation by Forbes. And programs such as FOCUS on Health & Leadership for Women—a dean-funded program in its 25th year—are in place to improve the recruitment, retention, advancement, and leadership of women faculty, and to promote women’s health research.

Despite the strides to close the gender gap in medicine, women still represent only 5 percent of practicing neurosurgeons and about 31 percent in neurology. According to a 2014 study in the Journal of the American College of Surgeons, neurosurgery is one of the specialties showing the lowest percentages of female medical school graduates entering as residents.

Across Penn programs and international initiatives, many point to mentorship opportunities and increased flexibility and support for females and students in the field as ways to improve gender equality. We turned to our own neuroscientists to ask them for their recommendations and advice for future female neuroscientists.

Forge Your Own Path

Frances Jensen
Frances Jensen, MD

Frances Jensen, MD, chair of the department of Neurology, was inspired in high school to pursue a career in neuroscience by volunteering at a summer program for neuro-developmentally delayed kids. However, there was no neurology or neuroscience major at her college—so she made up her own, with a focus in Neuropsychology. Jensen continued this drive through medical school, focusing on exploring the limits of brain plasticity through research opportunities and finding mentors early on in her career.

“I was fascinated at an early age and followed my own path with one goal in mind—to continue and grow a career in Neurology,” Jensen said. “I love what I do. When you find something you love, it pushes you even further. To this day I still forge my own path, but as a Chair I also get to help others craft their own careers, which is an invaluable experience in itself.”

Early on in her career, Jensen found challenges in making a name for herself. “When you first start out, you are constantly having to prove your research and replicate it. It takes time to really put a stake in the ground on a specific research area, but if you’re accountable to yourself and disciplined you can get there.”

Minghong Ma, PhD

One recommendation – always have two irons in the fire. “Half the time results from research aren’t what you expect them to be, but you can’t let that get you down,” Jensen said. “If you have one main research focus and another related topic, you can be flexible—this way, if one focus doesn’t work out as intended, there is always another source for opportunity.”

It’s also important to take the effort to find the research questions that interest you the most. “If you take the time to find out what truly excites you, that passion will help you deal with the many frustrations scientists have to face on a daily basis,” said Minghong Ma, PhD, a professor of Neuroscience.

Utilize Mentors — And Pay It Forward

Mentorship plays a large role for many neuroscientists—including Zarina Ali, MD, an assistant professor of Neurosurgery and the first female neurosurgeon in Pennsylvania Hospital’s 267-year history.

Zarina Ali, MD

Through her mentorships, Ali was able to better understand the realities of being a surgeon, such as the emotional toll of caring for patients and supporting their families. She appreciates the support and relationships she has fostered with her male mentors, but she recognizes some limitations in the lack of gender-specific role models. Because of this, she’s become an active mentor herself, paying it forward by offering advice to many young female medical students and trainees.

“My best advice is to be open-minded about the possibilities that come your way, but also be realistic about your limitations. Hold true to your values while recognizing and embracing the dynamic nature of how priorities may shift at different times in your life,” Ali said. 

Connections outside of mentorships can play an important role as well. Such as networking and introducing yourself to senior leaders and experts at conference.

“Do not underestimate the value of networking,” said Amita Sehgal, PhD, a professor of Neuroscience and the director of the Chronobiology Program. “I used to avoid senior people at conferences, as I felt more comfortable with people at my level or more junior, and I think it hurt me. I wish someone had impressed upon me earlier in my career the importance of making connections—I now share this advice with young neuroscientists as they start their careers.”

Promote Balance

“I get many questions from female neuroscientists about the challenge of raising a young family and pursuing a demanding career at the same time,” Ma said. “The last few decades have witnessed gradual improvements, but certainly more could be done. For instance, in time-sensitive funding and promotion mechanisms, more extensions could be granted to child-bearing and -caring female scientists.”

Amita Sehgal, PhD

More vocal role models—male and female—can also help champion and support younger female scientists as they start families and find out how to balance their careers. “Positive reinforcement and encouragement from advisors could also make a big difference,” Sehgal said.

Ali knows the balancing act well, she gave birth to her first son at the end of her postgraduate Year Three of training in 2012 and recently gave birth to her fourth child. “My children have helped me become a better doctor by showing me resilience and perseverance,” Ali said. “It’s a very dynamic process and I’ve learned to be more fluid with what I do in my life across work and at home.”

Jensen has two sons, both currently in medical school, and shares that while having a family is a balancing act, it’s given her family new experiences as well. “It was a challenge to figure out how to preserve family time and professional time. The best way to manage is to delegate whenever you can to preserve the time you need to focus on family,” she said. “I like to think that my sons got something unique from me as a mother—they saw someone who is happy with their career and can even be a role model for themselves.”

Pushing Beyond Barriers

Ali shares that while she’s experienced bias from patients and staff members, she tries to avoid getting wrapped up in the fact that these disparities exist. Instead, she tries to focus on what she has trained to do—be a great neurosurgeon. “At the end of the day, actions speak louder than words,” she said. “Be good at what you do, actively support others around you, and provide the best care for your patients—those things matter more than what you look like.”

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