Ada Lovelace, Marie Curie, Irene Joliot-Curie, Rosalind Franklin, Chien-Shiung Wu. Jane Goodall, Ada Yonath, Jennifer Doudna. Do any of these women sound familiar to you? To the average young girl, they may not be. However, these women and many others have greatly contributed to science and yet their stories are being untold or not told enough. In March 2017, Cyclica featured a blog post titled “Recognizing the importance of women in STEM”, which can be found here. Young individuals are told they can be whoever they want to be, but many young girls are still not considering the field of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) as a viable career option . So why is that? Let’s take a closer look.
In Canada, the number of women earning degrees in STEM field has doubled in the past two decades, but keeping them in the workforce is another story. It has been reported that women only represent 22 per cent of the STEM workforce . There have been speculations as to why women are underrepresented in the STEM field, including cultural stereotypes, gender inequality, lack of inclusion, low self-confidence, and lack of education about opportunities at an early stage .
According to Susan Wojcicki, (CEO of YouTube) “...the system does very little to encourage girls to consider computer science as a future career” . Society has led girls to believe science and technology is antisocial and is practiced in an isolated environment, when in fact it is all about teamwork. In a world striving for innovation to solve challenging problems of climate change, fighting disease, and eradicating poverty, the STEM field has a lot to offer. Melinda Gates, a former Microsoft employee and wife to Microsoft founder, Bill Gates, believes women can play a leading role by contributing their intelligence, insights and unique multi-tasking capabilities.
Gates encourages other women in STEM to let young girls hear their stories: “Right now, there’s a young woman out there wondering if computer science is the field for her. Make sure she hears your story. Let her see you out there doing great things in your own unique style” . This is of course true for any of the STEM fields.
Taking Gates words of wisdom, this blog post will highlight the talented and dedicated women who work at Cyclica. Learn about their stories, with the hope that this will encourage others to choose a career in STEM and make a difference in the world
- Naheed Kurji, President and CEO
Shoshana Wodak - Chair, Scientific Advisory Board
I was born in Israel, went to high school there and then in Geneva Switzerland. I majored in theoretical physical chemistry at the Free University of Brussels Belgium, and earned my PhD degree from Columbia University in New York City in 1974. I have been fascinated by science very early on. I read encyclopedias and stories of great discoveries in physics, astronomy and medicine. As an only child I was often very lonely and read a lot (and still do). I thought biology and medicine were fascinating, mysterious of sorts, but that physics was really cool, because you could use it to explain the world around you.
So I kept looking for ways to combine these disciplines, and when in Graduate School at Columbia U., I drafted my own curriculum in ‘Biophysics’ - luckily my professors, Sherman Beychock and Cyrus Levinthal, my PhD Thesis advisor and the one to formulate the so-called Levinthal Paradox were happy to help.
The idea of using computers to investigate protein interaction, or for that matter to model these interactions from basic physical principles was exciting, but also daunting, as it has never been done before. It required learning the science, and becoming proficient enough in writing code and implementing it on the unwieldy IBM 360-91/95 behemoth and clunky Evans & Sutherland interactive graphics, the only computers powerful enough at the time (late sixties early seventies) to tackle these problems. Needless to say that back then coding was a nightmare by today’s standards, and it didn’t help that I had no prior experience whatsoever. But I was determined to take on the challenge, assailing with a million questions anyone who I thought could remotely help, and labored my way to the stage where I was able solve problems.
I was the only woman graduate student in the lab during my Doctoral studies. I was also one of very few women working in the field of computational structural biology (2 or 3 at most) for a good number of years after I graduated. Although I was aware of this, it didn’t bother me, as I rarely felt a condescending attitude from male colleagues I closely worked with, and the rare times I did, retribution of some sort was never far. My positive attitude in this regard probably owed much to my secular Israeli upbringing. In Israel, boys and girls were raised and educated as equals (and still are, although nowadays there are unfortunately more exceptions) from elementary school through high school, and everyone serves in the army. Another big influence on my professional life was admittedly my father, a pioneering clinical researcher in otorhinolaryngology and expert of the inner ear. He taught me chemistry as a child and we did all kind of science quizzes together. This kindled my passion for science and learning, which has motivated me all these years and helped me navigate through a truly fulfilling career.
I immensely enjoy serving as the Chair of the Scientific Advisory Board of Cyclica, and working closely with the dynamic and motivated men and women on its Science Team. We share the same passion for science, and the deep motivation to develop the next generation computational and data analysis tools for the drug discovery industry of tomorrow.
Sonia Seto - Web Designer
To some people, art and science are two opposites of the spectrum. That is simply not the case in biomedical communication, an interdisciplinary field that uses visuals to effectively communicate complex scientific information in clear, accurate and compelling way to a wide range audience. I have always enjoyed both art and science and have struggled to find a way to combine the two without sacrificing the other. I can finally say that after graduating from the Masters of Biomedical Communications Program at University of Toronto Mississauga and working at Cyclica, I am able to utilize the skills and knowledge that I enjoy doing.
Now if you told my 14 year old self that I was going to be in a career involving computers and technology, that girl would have thought you were kidding. When I was in Grade 2 I remember being very timid about playing on computers because I was afraid I might cause something that can’t be fixed. Although I was raised by a father who was in computer engineering and technology, as a kid, I didn’t have much interest in this field. I’ll admit at the time, they seem boring and it was more of a “guy (and perhaps) nerdy thing.” This discrepancy was prevalent when I took an intro to computer studies class in high school. I decided to take this class because I started noticing some really neat things you could create with a few lines of code on the computer. The only problem was I was one of the three girls in a class size of ~25 students. Although I wasn’t treated much differently from the rest for being a female and visible minority, I was afraid to ask for or receive help as I did not want to seem incapable just because I was a female amongst my peers. As you can imagine then, I did not pursue further interest in computers and technology. It hasn’t been until now that I have come to realize there are so many exciting things you can do with technology especially when you combine it with science and engineering. Had my 14 year old self know the endless possibilities that could be made I think she would have asked for the help she required for the right path, regardless of what others thought.
As for my experience so far working at Cyclica, I think it has been incredibly rewarding to work at a company that embraces diversity and is open to new ideas and innovation. I am glad that I get to work along with others on projects that challenges me to think creatively and analytically to solve visual problems. It’s an encouraging company that allows me to improve my skills, learn new concepts, and for that reason I do not feel limited because I am a woman.
Sana Alwash- Bioinformatics Scientist
Two years ago, if someone told me that coding would be my career, I would have probably laughed. As I was one of many who saw a person coding is a nerd male, but fortunately, entering the field of bioinformatics changed all my perceptions. I grew up passionate for two subjects: Biology, as it explained life around us, and Mathematics, as it always gave the rush of problem solving. Hence, I chose to pursue both subjects in my undergraduate studies.
When it came time to choose my graduate studies, I wanted a program that combined both, biology and mathematics. I was unsatisfied with the choices I found, until I came across the master’s program of Bioinformatics. I was very intrigued by the field description as an interdisciplinary between biology, mathematics and computer science. When I got into the program I was both excited and worried, as I was going to work in the fields I love, but the coding aspect was a little intimidating as I had no prior experience in coding. Also, I had the expectation that I would be one of the few females in the program as this was a coding intensive program after all. However, when I started, I was surprised to see the program had equal proportions of males and females, which was encouraging. As I learned more and more about the field, as I became more fascinated about the field of computational biology and its potential impact on healthcare. I also found the work involved very exciting where problem solving skills must be used in coding everyday, while keeping in mind the overall biological questions to be answered using the codes we write.
When it came to choosing a company/ institute to do an internship, I was attracted to Cyclica’s profile right away. Discussing project ideas and preparing a proposal was a great learning experience. The Cyclica environment was very welcoming and friendly, the staff were helpful and ready to share their knowledge with the rest of the team which makes a great seed for success.
Cyclica Alumnus: Aparna Shukla - Bioinformatics Developer
When I tell people that I studied bioinformatics, they usually don’t know what it means. Their next question is delivered with a tone of surprise. “So you can code?”. Yes, but I didn’t always know that this was what I wanted to do. I got interested in the sciences at a very young age. I wanted to learn how things worked, especially in chemistry and biology.
Later, in high school, we were asked to choose our courses, which would eventually pave the way for our future and careers (no pressure!). While going through the options, I came across Computer Science. I had no idea what to expect, all I knew was that being able to get a computer to do what you ask was intriguing. Knowing that it would be outside my comfort zone, I decided to give it a try; and I’m glad I did. It gave me the opportunity to explore something other than the physical and biological sciences.
I continued taking some computer programming courses through high-school and towards the end of university, but I always noticed that there were far fewer women in the classes than men. Which didn’t surprise me, considering people often stereotyped it as a field for men. This didn’t really bother me, because I really enjoyed the problem solving aspect of it.
When it came to figuring out what was next following my undergraduate studies, I came across the field of Bioinformatics. It was perfect. I could learn how to use computer programming techniques to help solve the many problems that exist in the life sciences. I was also pleasantly surprised when I noticed that the classes no longer had a male majority, but rather a balance between both genders. It went to show that programming was no longer seen as a “male only” field, but women were also embracing the opportunity to get involved and contribute.
Joining Cyclica has been very inspiring. It’s great to be surrounded by people that have the same interests as yourself and are more than willing to share their knowledge and experiences with you. Cyclica’s culture also encourages innovation and creativity from all employees. Having such a system is not only incredibly important for the success of an organization but also an individual.
National Science Board. 2016. Science and Engineering Indicators 2016. Arlington, VA: National Science Foundation (NSB-2016-1).
Shendruk, A. (2015, June). Gender inequality in the sciences? It’s still very present in Canada. Maclean’s. Retrieved from http://www.macleans.ca/society/science/gender-inequality-in-the-sciences-its-still-very-present-in-canada/
Jones, C. (2017, March). Girls draw even with boys in high school STEM classes, but still lag in college and careers. EdSource. Retrieved from https://edsource.org/2017/girls-now-outnumber-boys-in-high-school-stem-but-still-lag-in-college-and-career/578444
Clancy, H. (2015, October). YouTube CEO: How to get girls excited about tech careers. Plus, how to get women to stay. Fortune. Retrieved from http://fortune.com/2015/10/16/youtube-ceo-tech-careers/
Gates, M. (2017, June). Melinda Gates: How Women Grads Can Succeed in Tech. Fortune. Retrieved from http://fortune.com/2017/06/06/melinda-gates-microsoft-women-college-graduates-tech-jobs/?linkId=38433414