Analysis

International Female Scientists Inspire Future Generations of Researchers

Pew fellows from Argentina offer support as mentors to young women

Silvina del Carmen

Silvina del Carmen, a 2016 Pew fellow from Argentina, working in the Yale University lab of her mentor, Carla Rothlin, a 2002 Pew fellow.

Silvina del Carmen and Lindsey Hughes

This year’s theme for International Women’s Day on March 8 is “Press for Progress,” a strong call to action on gender parity. The idea behind this is to motivate and unite friends, colleagues, and whole communities to think about and act to address the challenges women face. The push for equality may be stronger than ever, but those taking part in The Pew Charitable Trusts’ biomedical programs have been supporting, encouraging, and mentoring female scientists for nearly three decades.

One of the obstacles for early-career scientists is finding the right lab environment and mentor to help guide their scientific journeys. Women are underrepresented in STEM fields—science, technology, engineering, and math—and are often underestimated in their abilities when compared with men. They continue to face hurdles as they move onto higher stages of their careers, so having the support of women in their field is a major boost.

For more than 25 years, the Pew Latin American Fellows Program has supported young scientists from Latin America who are receiving postdoctoral training in the United States. Today, the network of fellows has close to 270 people, including more than 100 women. The fellows community has gotten stronger and more interconnected, with program alumni mentoring younger generations of Latin American scientists.

In 1991, Ana Belén Elgoyhen of Argentina was a member of the first class of Latin American fellows. She did her postdoctoral work with the pioneering neuroscientist Stephen Heinemann at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California. After completing her research, she returned to her home country to start her own research lab at the University of Buenos Aires.

There she advised Carla Rothlin on her doctoral work in 2002. Through Elgoyhen, Rothlin learned about the Pew fellows program and was introduced to her future mentor, Greg Lemke, a 1986 Pew scholar at Salk. Following her studies in Argentina, Rothlin came to the United States as part of the 2002 class of fellows. She stayed to join the faculty at Yale University.

Although Rothlin did not return to Argentina, she remains committed to nurturing Latin American scientists. For example, she suggested and encouraged her postdoctoral fellow Silvina del Carmen, from the same South American nation, to apply for the Pew program because of the opportunities it had provided for her.

In 2016, del Carmen was selected as a Pew fellow.  She said her interest in the program stemmed from the support that Pew gives fellows to train in the United States as well as the  funds Pew provides to help start their own labs when they return home, something that del Carmen hopes to do after completing her time at Yale.

For researchers coming to the United States for the first time, mentorship and connecting with those who have gone through similar journeys can be critically important. After being mentees themselves, Elgoyhen and Rothlin decided to pay it forward by training other researchers, such as del Carmen. These three researchers have acquired experience in their fields, while also gaining access to the robust scientific network that is the fellows community.

Elgoyhen said she “encourages the next generation of women in science to follow their passion.” She tries to not only give advice to her mentees, but also to set an example for them to follow.

Rothlin aims to do the same, saying she “really hopes to create an environment where people can achieve their best and identify what is the most successful path for them.”

Del Carmen said this support had a big impact on her while working in the Rothlin lab because these female scientists created “a community for helping each other.”

All three researchers noted that the gender gap has closed significantly for women entering scientific careers, but they cautioned that there is still considerable progress to be made. Elgoyhen said part of that may be because “there is natural selection against women as they progress through their careers because of the challenge many face in balancing their professional and private lives.”

Rothlin, however, is encouraged about the prospects for progress because more people in the sciences and elsewhere are aware of potential bias toward women. She said that no matter the gender of those working in her lab, “their training is what enables each individual to achieve their full potential.”

Kara Coleman directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ biomedical programs, including the biomedical scholars, Pew-Stewart Scholars for Cancer Research, and Latin American fellows programs. 

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