I recently had the honor of being named the 2019 winner of the Nature Research Award winner for Inspiring Science. I just wanted to provide here a full transcript of my award acceptance speech as I had intended to deliver it. A set of videos, podcasts, news articles, and interviews will likely be available through Nature Research and The Estée Lauder Companies within the near future.
Thank you to the leadership at Nature Research and The Estée Lauder Companies for leveraging their power and privilege to creating this Nature Research Award to acknowledge and highlight the accomplishment of women in science in spite of the systemic and institutionalized challenges we may face.
For me, when I was first accepted into Harvard as a graduate student, a family friend told me that I had only gotten in because Harvard needed a token minority woman. So I ignored him and went on to graduate with my PhD in Bioinformatics and Integrative Genomics. When I published my first scientific research paper in Nature Methods on a computational approach for characterizing transcriptional heterogeneity using single-cell RNA-sequencing data, my colleagues told me that they assumed my male advisor had done all the work. So I ignored them and went on to publish many more papers. When I received my first grant on computational analysis of subclonal evolution in chronic lymphocytic leukemia, my classmate downplayed my achievement, noting that my grant was rather small particular in comparison with the grant that his well-established male advisor had just won. So I ignored him and went on to win more grants.
At every step in my career, I, like many other women and minorities in science, have been held to biased and arbitrary metrics that question our competance, intellect, productivity, and leadership quality. But in spite of the bias, discrimination, harassment, and apathy, I was fortunate enough to find friends, allies, mentors, and advocates, many of whom encouraged me to apply for this award, and it is thanks to them that I am with you here today.
Beyond my scientific pursuits, I volunteer to mentor and teach young girls science. And it was through these teaching experiences, I noticed how some of my girls would casually say things like “I’m not a math person” and “I don’t see myself as a scientist.” So as an end of the school year present, I made for each of them a personalized storybook that depicted them in a variety of STEM careers so they could learn about all these cool STEM careers I didn’t get a chance to teach them about and see themselves as future scientists. Seeing how much they enjoyed these personalized storybooks, I then created a non-profit organization called CuSTEMized and leveraged my computational skills to create a website at custemized.org so that other parents and teachers could create and download for free these personalized science storybooks for their children. Over 15000 personalized storybooks have been created since our launch.
With the funding support from this Nature Research Award, CuSTEMized will be expanding our collaborations and outreach activities to continue educating and encouraging kids to pursue their scientific curiosities with new personalized storybooks, opportunities to interact of tangible relatable female scientific role models, and hands-on learning STEM enrichment activities.
But beyond the financial support this award provides, I hope that its visibility will serve to remind us that by broadening and opening access to scientific educational resources, be they in the form of personalized science storybooks or scientific research publications, we can empower each other with the knowledge to bring about change in our respective communities.
To my fellow scientists, I hope this award will motivate us to reach across disciplinary divides and collaborate, bringing together our diverse perspectives, not necessarily just as women or people of color or members of the LGBTQA and so forth, but also as scientists from diverse scientific disciplines. And I hope that publishers will facilitate these collaborative efforts by prominently highlighting resulting equal contribution co-first authorships in their publications and on their websites.
To my fellow women in science, I hope this award will encourage you, more than the statistics on the lack of women, particularly at the higher tenured professor and other leadership levels, may discourage you. Because you are more than a statistic. You are not the rule. You are the exception. Just because a woman hasn’t done it before, doesn’t mean you can’t do it. Just because this is the way things have always been done, doesn’t mean it’s the way things always have to be. In the words of Clara Barton, you can defy the tyranny of precedent. And when challenges surely present themselves, I hope we can step out of our comfort zones and become more than what society has told us we are capable of, because that is what it takes to address the scientific questions at hand, and, perhaps more importantly, because that is what future generations of girls who look up to us demand of us. And when we finally get the chance to sit at the table, in that corner office or at that grant study section, I hope we will use our power to bring about the change that we wish to see, rather than letting that power change us. May we all strive to be who we needed when we were younger.
To my fellow men in science, I hope that you will continue to be allies to women in science, because when science is more inclusive and diverse, it becomes more rigorous, more thorough, and more complete. And for that, we all benefit. So when you are organizing your next list of award nominees, faculty recruits, conference speakers, or even just lookng at a list of scientists on wikipedia, I hope you will take a look and see: are there any women or minorities on this list? And if not, leverage your power and privilege and put in the effort to making a change. Because the status quo doesn’t change unless we put in the effort to change it. And while dreams are universal, opportunity is not. So I hope that we will all make strides towards ensuring that opportunities are accessible to all of us.
Lastly, to the girls: I hope the success of fellow women on this award shortlist, at Nature, Estée Lauder, and beyond, will inspire you to pursue your own scientific curiosities because discovering things about the world using science is just really fun and the critical thinking that science demands is really important for all aspects of life.
As it notes in our CuSTEMized books:
Sometimes it will be tough,
sometimes it will be rough,
sometimes it may feel like enough is enough,
Though you may first fail,
though you may stumble,
though you may doubt,
though you may fumble,
I hope you will try again! Because you will make it through!
These big dreams you can chase! These big dreams you can pursue!
With hard work, your big dreams will someday,
surely change the world in a really big way!