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Evette Radisky, PhD, Cancer Biology Research consultant, reviews information on a transparent page with a researcher in a laboratory.

March 8, 2024

By Mayo Clinic College of Medicine and Science staff

During Women's History Month this March and in honor of the International Day of Women and Girls in Science on February 11, we share the perspective of women leaders at Mayo Clinic on the challenges some women face in scientific careers. Evette Radisky, Ph.D., associate dean of Mayo Clinic Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences in Florida, and professor of cancer biology and pharmacology, gives her experiences.

Dr. Radisky is a consultant in the Department of Cancer Biology and the associate dean of Mayo Clinic Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences in Florida, where she also is a professor of cancer biology and of pharmacology. She leads the Proteases in Cancer Laboratory at Mayo Clinic.

Evette Radisky, Ph.D.: Inclusive, flexible career pathways are crucial

Can you share some personal experiences or observations regarding the challenges that women encounter in biomedical research, particularly when it comes to career advancement?

Despite achieving gender parity at the graduate school and postdoctoral levels, we still see a leaky pipeline with lower representation of women as we look up the ladder of faculty ranks and leadership roles.

The journey toward career advancement involves balancing career aspirations with personal responsibilities, which for women often include family caregiving. The pivotal years of transition to research independence are demanding, marked by the need to obtain a highly competitive faculty position, establish oneself as an authority in a scientific niche, produce high-quality publications, win grants, and promote one's research. For many women, these years coincide with starting or expanding a family, or taking on other caregiving roles.

The tug of war between these competing demands can feel overwhelming. Reflecting on my own path, I remember many moments of doubt, like one late night alone in a hotel room awaiting my first faculty job interview the next morning, separated for the first time from my infant daughter, and very much questioning my career choice. Despite not securing that position, I remained determined, and after much practice and numerous interviews, I landed an amazing position at Mayo Clinic.

Later, as an assistant professor and new mother to my second child, I found myself in a stressed funding period for my lab and felt compelled to dedicate my six-week maternity leave to an NIH R01 grant application. The isolation I felt as I researched and wrote in my home office, depending heavily on others to care for my newborn, again made me doubt my path. Although that application was not successful, it laid critical groundwork for subsequent grant applications and eventually led to my securing the necessary support for the project, my laboratory, and my research.

Certain systemic attitudes and practices in science serve as barriers to the career progression of women. One is the absence of flexible mechanisms to pause and restart one's career trajectory, enabling time away from work to temporarily focus on personal or family responsibilities. This lack of flexibility often leaves women apprehensive that taking a leave could lead them to be judged as not serious or as insufficiently dedicated to their professional pursuits.

Another significant barrier is the entrenched expectation for scientists to relocate geographically and change institutions as a means of career enhancement. This expectation disproportionately impacts women, who may be reluctant to uproot their families in search of career opportunities. We see this in the pools of applicants for mid-career and established scientist positions; it is much less common for women to pursue moves that could lead to greater resources and leadership opportunities.

These systemic challenges emphasize the need for a shift toward more inclusive and flexible career pathways in the scientific community, acknowledging and accommodating the diverse life circumstances of its members.

Are there any strategies that you believe have been effective in promoting the career development and success of women in biomedical research, and what recommendations do you have for further improving gender equality in the field?

First, the visible presence of women as faculty and leaders has proven to be profoundly inspirational for those earlier in the career path, giving hope that achieving a successful career is not only possible but a realistic and attainable goal, worth the effort and sacrifice. I remember how impactful it was for me when the first few female faculty were hired in the chemistry department at my training institution; their presence and upward trajectory reinforced my aspirations and commitment to my career path.

Second, to further promote gender equality and support the career development of women in biomedical research, it is crucial to implement strategies that enhance career flexibility. The creation of off-ramps (structured opportunities to pause one's career) paired with on-ramps (pathways for reentry with support and mentoring) can give women greater flexibility in the tempo of their careers.

Third, expanding opportunities for career advancement within Mayo Clinic for our most promising internal candidates is essential. These pathways are particularly important for nurturing talented women who demonstrate great potential in research but are reluctant to relocate in search of career progression.

What words of advice do you have for women who are pursuing scientific careers? 

The challenges are real, and it is undeniable that the journey will present days when all the choices seem less than ideal. But patience, persistence, and consistent effort will be worth it.

Biomedical research is an extraordinary career with unparalleled levels of intellectual freedom, personal empowerment, and the flexibility to explore your ideas and design your professional trajectory. It is a privilege to contribute to scientific knowledge, and well worth the dedication and hard work involved!

This article was originally featured in Mayo Clinic's News Network.