Keeping a growth mindset: I learn from my students, colleagues, and even from my toddler (he teaches me to be patient) every day. Productivity becomes stagnant when you stop learning.
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Pallavi Tiwari who is an Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering and the Director of Brain Image Computing (BrIC) laboratory at Case Western Reserve University. Her research focuses on novel AI tools for diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment response evaluation of cancer and neuro-imaging disorders. She was recently awarded the Johnson & Johnson Women in STEM (WiSTEM2D) scholar award in the field of Technology. In 2015, She was named by Government of India as one of 100 women achievers for making a positive impact in the field of Science and Innovation. In 2018, she was selected as one of Crain’s Business Cleveland Forty under 40. Dr. Tiwari has received certification of commendation from the General Assembly of the State of Ohio and from Ohio Secretary of State for her research in brain tumors. She is currently leading a team of researchers on multiple projects using AI and image informatics for prognosis and treatment evaluation in adult and pediatric brain tumors.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Thank you for having me. I have been fascinated with Science ever since I was little. As I grew up, my desire to be an engineer/scientist stayed with me. I was good at Math and Science, so the path to obtaining an engineering degree was natural to me. I wanted to choose a field in engineering that would allow me to maximize impact. I choose biomedical engineering back then out of sheer gut instinct. No one in my family is a scientist but both my parents valued higher education. They trusted my decision and let me pursue my own decisions, which is rare from where I hail from back in India.
After finishing my undergraduate degree, I came to the US for my masters and PhD in Biomedical Engineering. I got the opportunity to work in a growing lab with my mentor who had back then just started as an assistant professor at Rutgers University. I worked on developing computational tools for prostate cancer grading and then moved my research area to developing prognostic and predictive computational tools for personalized treatments in brain tumors. I was fortunate to be offered a faculty role very soon after graduating. I have grown professionally since then and am now an Assistant Professor at one of the leading universities in Biomedical Engineering and direct the Brain Image Computing Laboratory.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
For a while after I became a faculty, students and other faculty who did not know me at the time would come to my office looking for Dr. Tiwari and would often confuse me as a graduate student working in “Dr. Tiwari’s lab”. As flattering as it is, over time, it made me realize that this may be because of a gender bias problem regarding how women are perceived in the STEM fields. There are not many women faculty in engineering so a young woman faculty member does not fit into the stereotypical image of faculty in STEM. I have since heard this happen to many other young women faculty members. I really like what Dr. Jen Heemstra, a fellow academician, rightly said (on Twitter) regarding a similar incident, “I’ve worked hard to be where I am, I’ve overcome discrimination, I’ve overcome harassment. I don’t want to be praised for my appearance, I want to be respected for my expertise”.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Well, something funny happened rather recently.
I was responsible for planning a large event and had to work around many people’s schedules to make it all work. It took me months to get everything together. However, at the last minute, one person who had previously agreed to participate suggested that they would prefer to back out without providing any specific reason. As you can imagine, I was quite upset. So, to vent out, I wrote a reply to them but saved it as a draft as I thought my reply might be too aggressive.
What was funny and also somewhat embarrassing was that my then 1-year old accidently hit send while he was playing on my phone. I still have no idea how he did it, but when I saw it, I was anxious! I kept re-reading my email wondering how I could have been more polite in my tone. In an hour, I got a reply. To my surprise, the person was not only apologetic for putting me in that situation but also said they would be happy to help with the event.
The lesson that I learned from this experience is that sometimes you need to be assertive to get the job done. This is particularly a problem with women (including myself) as we tend to hold back on our assertiveness in order to not come across as too aggressive. I guess I should thank my toddler for this lesson.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I work in the Biomedical Engineering Department at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. While Case Western is one of the top 15 Universities for Biomedical Engineering in the US, its contributions to science are somewhat under-appreciated. Case happens to be one of the oldest biomedical engineering programs in the country and our faculty have contributed to cutting edge translational research in biomedical sciences for over 50-years.
A unique aspect about Case is its vicinity to two outstanding hospitals, University Hospitals and Cleveland Clinic. I myself have forged multiple collaborations with clinicians at both hospitals and have benefitted from these partnerships. This unique ecosystem between an outstanding biomedical engineering program and two leading hospitals in close proximity is very rare to find anywhere else in the world.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
One aspect of my research that I appreciate is just how translational it is. We develop machine learning and AI models using routine MRI scans for identifying personalized medicine solutions for cancer patients. Using routine MRI scans for analysis makes our approach non-invasive but also non-disruptive from a clinical stand-point since no additional dollars need to be spent on advanced scanners or imaging equipment.
We are currently working on a project that is funded through the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and V-foundation to develop tools for response assessment in cancer patients. The plan is to leverage these tools to perform a limited clinical trial for surgical intervention in brain tumors. We are hoping to start the clinical trial by early next year. These clinical translational studies using AI will be very powerful as they will demonstrate how the AI and machine learning models can truly transform patient care in real time.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
For a systemic change to take place, there needs to be a multifaceted effort across board. At the top-level, better support and resources need to be available to women (STEM or otherwise), especially during and after child-birth (also known as motherhood penalty), and more recently with providing support to working parents in the middle of the pandemic when child care is home-based. Many women quit work after child-birth due to lack of support to sustain a healthy work-life balance. This is precisely the reason why there is a dearth of women in leadership roles in STEM and Tech. To give you recent and pertinent data from my own field, the rate of women researchers publishing their research in journals has dropped significantly during the COVID pandemic, while for male researchers the publications have gone-up (compared to their pre-pandemic submissions). Similarly, at home, spouses need to be equal contributors. The data suggests, child-care and household chores disproportionately impact women. We all need to step up to ensure a sustained pipeline of women in STEM by providing adequate support and resources. There is ongoing effort at some universities that are actively attempting to maintaining gender-diversity in STEM classrooms, however, the effort needs to be sustained beyond undergraduate education in order to normalize the status-quo.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?
Well, the obvious challenge is that of juggling between work-and raising kids, which is much harder for women due to the added responsibilities at home compared to men. Another challenge is that the playing field is often not the same between men and women. The quintessential example of this is the famous resume experiment, where for the exact same qualifications on the resume, the only difference being the name (John versus Jane), women were considered much less competitive than their male counterpart. This implicit bias puts women at a disadvantage. I don’t believe in giving artificial advantages to women for them to succeed. Although I do think that the playing field should be level to start with, which currently is not the case.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Tech. Can you explain what you mean?
Surveys show that up to 74% of girls in middle school are interested in STEM. However, this number drops significantly by the time they are in high school. This I believe is in part because of the myth that women in STEM are “nerds” and “less approachable”.
One of the woman faculty colleagues I know plays ice-hockey in her free-time. I myself grew up as an athlete and continue to play tennis on a daily basis. Most women in STEM I have interacted with are fun and have a great sense-of-humor. They are also very approachable in my experience. People in STEM are fun and cool!
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM or Tech” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- You will miss 100% of the shots you don’t take: Be ready to take chances. My mantra is to grab all the opportunities I can get and go for them. It often means I overcommit and have more on my plate than I can handle but I like my schedule to be that way. If I fail I know at least I tried. You never know how sometimes things work out when you least expect them.
- Be Assertive: This one I am still learning to incorporate in my own leadership style. You can be assertive while being polite.
- Be more resilient to failure: In academia, we deal with a lot more failures than successes. Very often we start with a hypothesis, and it does not pan out. Our research papers and grants get rejected. It has helped me to remember through all the rejections that every failure is a lesson. You have to pick yourself up after every failure, and try again, even it means you fail again, at least you will fail better.
- Always go above and beyond when working on a project: I encourage my team to go above and beyond in terms of due diligence when working on a project. The extra effort almost always gets recognized and it pays off in the end.
- Keeping a growth mindset: I learn from my students, colleagues, and even from my toddler (he teaches me to be patient) every day. Productivity becomes stagnant when you stop learning.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
I think the most important aspect for a team to thrive is to have like-minded people in the team working towards a common goal and lifting each other while at it. This is a lesson I learned early on from my own mistakes. It’s interesting how one person can negatively impact the entire team dynamics and bring down productivity.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
I haven’t managed a large team (yet) so I am not sure if I am the right person to give advice on that front. My team is rather small (6–7 people) but we are more like a close-knit family. One thing that has helped me in managing my team is to ensure channels of clear communication. This is even more relevant during the COVID times since we are not in the same physical vicinity of each other and the interactions are limited to zoom calls. Most of my team members are in different geographic locations but I make sure that there is dedicated time allotted every week for me to connect with them. Apart from these one-on-one meetings, we also have weekly team meetings where every team member gets to present their work and others provide feedback. These channels of communication help me ensure that the projects continue to run in a smooth manner in spite of the hiccups with physical distancing.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I have a few people in life that I am grateful for. First is my dad who is my biggest cheerleader. He still calls me every day to ask me about my work. Secondly, my PhD mentor who I have known for over 14-years now. The guidance he has provided over the years has helped me on multiple fronts in life. He is now a colleague and friend but continues to be a big proponent of my work. Lastly, my husband. We both support each other’s careers the best that we can while raising our 2-year old. I am a firm believer of #HeforShe since many men in my life have been a great source of inspiration for me.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I am grateful for the opportunities I got and try to do my bit to pay-it-forward to the young generation of men and women wanting to pursue STEM as a career. Being in academia, I am in a fortunate position to mentor many bright young men and women scientists in my own group. I also serve on different leadership roles on improving diversity in the fields of computer science, AI, and medical imaging. I am currently serving as an Ambassador for the American Cancer Society’s ResearcHERS campaign. We are raising funds to create a sustained pipeline of women in cancer research with the eventual goal of increasing the numbers of women in visible research and leadership roles to help act as role models for the next generation of cancer researchers.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I don’t think of myself as a person of enormous influence. That said, if there is one movement that I can think of that can bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, it would be making basic education accessible to every kid in the world.
I come from a developing country (India) where I have seen first-hand how most young kids do not have access to basic education. In my mind, education in the long-term is the biggest equalizer, in spite of geographical, racial, gender, and other differences. Having said that, I realize that this is no easy feat to achieve.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“There is freedom waiting for you, on the breezes of the sky. And you ask, “What if I fall?” Oh, but my darling, “What if you fly?” These lines are from a poem written by Erin Hanson, a 21-year old Australian poet.
I often read these lines in times of self-doubt to get me out and be ready to take the plunge. I also appreciate the fact that a young mind came up with such beautiful lines.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)
One person I admire is Michelle Obama. I love how she has always handled herself with so much grace even in times of adversity. The other thing which is commendable is that she is connected to her roots. I loved her book Becoming where she shared how the lessons she had learned growing up in the south side of Chicago, shaped the person she is. She is a great role model for women across the world and there is much to be learned from her wisdom and experiences.