Texas BME Celebrates Women’s History Month

March 25, 2021

We celebrate Women’s History Month to acknowledge the accomplishments of women on our society. Certainly in biomedical engineering at UT Austin women are making significant impacts in health care research. We have strong representation of women in our faculty and 50:50 gender equity among our undergraduate student population. We talked with three members of the Texas BME community to learn about their insights working and studying in STEM.

Associate Professor Amy Brock is a cancer researcher who dispels the myth of the “lone genius” in science. Andrea Trementozzi is a graduate student who counts her mother as one of her role models in STEM, and Ella Sugerman is a graduate student who explains why diversity is important in health care research. 

Dr. Amy Brock studies the role of heterogeneity in cell state transitions, cancer progression, and therapeutic responses.

What challenges have you faced in the field of STEM academia and what have you done to overcome them?

Naturally, science and academia are institutions that reflect the same systemic biases as the rest of society. These biases produce ideas about what scientific leaders look like, how they should act—which are often wildly inaccurate. We have the myth of the "lone genius," which almost never reflects how breakthroughs happen in science. As individuals and as institutions, we’ve often been willing to tolerate terrible toxic behaviors, if they come packaged up in such a “genius.” We even have the idea that perhaps you need to act that way to achieve success at the highest levels! 


When I face challenges of any kind, my first inclination is to research them (no surprises here). What I’ve learned from the research is that men could learn to become more effective leaders in every field by emulating women. Women tend to be better at leading with inspiration and at aligning people’s work with meaning and purpose. They tend to be better at mentoring, elevating teams, and recognizing opportunities, and acknowledging their own limitations.

Of course, this is changing all the time. The young men I know are overall more willing to develop the skills for collaborative work. They know it’s okay to listen rather than talk right away, especially if they have nothing useful to add. But we shouldn’t wait for younger generations to enact changes; otherwise we risk perpetuating a system that selects for the same set of characteristics with each generation of scientists.

Why is it important for women to work in STEM fields?

A diverse workforce of scientists ensures that the scientific questions we study reflect the widest possible concerns and creativities of our population.

Which women have you looked up to or found to be meaningful role models?

So many! My first lab mentor, Betsy Sutherland, was a pioneer in the field of DNA damage and repair. I spent three summers working with her at Brookhaven National Lab in New York. Betsy quite literally taught me to pipet—I spent a whole day measuring out volumes of water and weighing them on the analytical balance. She told me I needed to calibrate a set of Pipetman before I could use them. She was rigorous, direct, exacting— but she did everything in such a gracious way that it wasn’t until years later that I realized she was actually calibrating me. Betsy often collaborated with her husband John, a biophysicist who ran a lab in the same building. They had separate independent research programs and were true partners. They were wonderful role models.

Andrea Trementozzi is a graduate student who works with Associate Professor Jeanne Stachowiak.

When did you know you wanted to go into STEM/BME?

Both of my parents are engineers, so I definitely was interested in math and sciences from a fairly early age. I grew up in Massachusetts, and it wasn’t until high school when I had the opportunity to go on a field trip to the Broad Institute, that I started to consider what biomedical engineering even was and what possibilities lie in that field.

Why is it important for women to work in STEM fields?

I believe that diversity should exist in all places, and STEM fields are no different. The more diversity there is, the more creativity and ingenuity there can be as well. We as women have not always had a seat at the table, and we have not always been expected to excel in STEM fields, but we have exceeded those expectations and we will continue to do so.

Which women have you looked up to or found to be meaningful role models?

Among many women I look up to, I have always looked up to my mom as a role model. She was a rising female engineer at a time when women were really not given a voice in the STEM or the corporate environment at all. She was also an immigrant and spoke little English when she came to America in her 20s. She told me stories of men not taking her seriously as an electrical engineer and, even more so, for not being a citizen of this country. She was taken advantage of for her hard work without much reward, and she was openly talked down to at meetings where she was the only woman present. Yet she prevailed. She interviewed for jobs at almost 9 months pregnant and stood up for herself despite all odds. She is one of the strongest women I know.

What’s one piece of advice you’d like to give younger women considering STEM education?

You can do it! If you have any interest in STEM at all, explore it! Find people who will support you and show you examples of what types of careers and possibilities exist within STEM. The biggest thing for me has been finding a community that is also interested in science and engineering, specifically biomedical engineering. Once you find people who can share ideas, inspire innovation and hard work, and advocate for you, you are sure to not only succeed, but find fulfillment in what you do.

 

Ella Sugerman is a graduate student working with Assistant Professor Manuel Rausch

When did you know you wanted to go into STEM/BME?

My love of science emerged early in life and has been nurtured by wonderful instructors throughout my educational career. In high school, I had the opportunity to visit a variety of science and engineering research labs around the Portland area and meet research faculty. This experience reinforced my desire to pursue a degree in STEM, and my interests in both medicine and engineering led me to biomedical engineering. I have always seen BME as a means to use my curiosity to improve health outcomes in underserved populations.

Why is it important for women to work in STEM fields?

It has been well-documented that diverse teams of researchers produce improved outcomes in multiple dimensions (Horwitz & Horwitz, 2007). Working to make the field more hospitable to researchers who hold any minoritized identity will improve the relevance of our collective research to the most vulnerable populations. Specifically in regard to sex, it has only been since 2016 that the National Institutes of Health have required inclusion of sex as a biological variable in research that they fund. This resulted in decades of human and animal studies that occurred only in male subjects and cannot reasonably be applied to the health of non-male subjects.

Which women have you looked up to or found to be meaningful role models?

I have been extremely fortunate to have wonderful role models as science and engineering instructors. During my undergraduate and master’s degrees at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, I conducted research with the mentorship of Dr. Kristen Cardinal. She supported me in learning a wide array of experimental techniques and academic skills which laid the foundation for my research work as a doctoral student. She also demonstrated a reality that I aspire to every day: a truly healthy work-life balance. I also had the pleasure of being a teaching assistant to Professor Melinda Keller, who inspired me to pursue a teaching-focused career. Her inclusive attitude and exemplary teaching practices made me love both being in her class and working as one of her "minions."

What’s one piece of advice you’d like to give younger women considering STEM education?

It can be easy to forget you belong in an environment that may feel detached and impersonal. Persisting in STEM fields can be a challenge, especially when you hold a marginalized identity, but by remaining present in these spaces we can influence the climate for our students and our peers. Sometimes our efforts will fail, but we are inherently worthy of trying again. It is always okay to ask for help when we need it throughout our academic and professional endeavors, and doing so should not be seen as a moral failing.