There currently seems to be great disparity in the transition of women in joining STEM graduate programs to women becoming STEM professors. I believe this is due to the inconducive nature of the pipeline into academia with family life in America. I think to change this, the academy needs to go into industry and government jobs and actively recruit women and people of color back into academia to become professors once they have financially established a life for themselves and their families.
As a part of my series featuring accomplished women in STEM, I had the pleasure of interviewing Arianne Hunter, Ph.D. Arianne is a Forensic Chemist at U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Laboratory. She holds a Doctorate in Organic Chemistry/Molecular Pharmacology. She is currently obtaining post-doctoral training in Forensic Chemistry at The Defense Forensic Science Center. Arianne, who is a first-generation college student, is also the founder of the nonprofit, “We Do Science Too.” She is an advocate for women and other minorities in STEM, and, most recently, recognized as a CAS Future Leader, a prestigious science award.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
In college, I was taking an Organic Chemistry class as a pre-med requirement and quickly fell in love with the laboratory work because of how closely it resembled cooking in the kitchen. After learning Organic Chemistry research, and learning I could pursue a career as a chemist, I was sold.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
When I first started graduate school, I failed almost every experiment I set up. I grew frustrated and thought that this career path was not for me. A week had passed by and I refused to go into lab because I was tired of failing, when my PhD advisor emailed me to come meet him. In this meeting, he told me I had to learn to deal with failure because 90% of the experiments I would run in lab would fail and it’s simply a part of the process. This advice changed my life.
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?
On my first day of lab, I dropped a huge bottle of hexanes solvent on the ground and had to force a building wide exhaust system to air out the lab. From that I learned that mistakes happen, and also to be a little more careful when handling bottles of hexanes solvent.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
The University of Oklahoma stands out because it is not a huge research university, unlike the many places that house top chemists. Rather, the University of Oklahoma boasts a supportive atmosphere which creates the perfect environment for chemists to succeed.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Recently I completed the CAS Future Leaders Program that provided me with leadership skills that I can’t wait to share with my colleagues. CAS Future Leaders consists of an elite group of Ph.D. students and postdoctoral researchers from around the world who work to blaze a trail toward scientific leadership. CAS arranges two weeks of opportunities for the Future Leaders to forge connections with potential research partners, gain exposure to global perspectives and be inspired by some of the best young minds in chemistry — this opportunity for inspiration could potentially help many people.
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?
No, I am not satisfied. There currently seems to be great disparity in the transition of women in joining STEM graduate programs to women becoming STEM professors. I believe this is due to the inconducive nature of the pipeline into academia with family life in America. I think to change this, the academy needs to go into industry and government jobs and actively recruit women and people of color back into academia to become professors once they have financially established a life for themselves and their families.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
My biggest piece of advice is to never underestimate yourself. If I would’ve told myself five years ago that I would have the number of publications, awards and honors such as the CAS Future Leaders Program, I would have probably laughed hysterically. I would’ve thought it was impossible for a black female scientist to do those things. However, if I hadn’t underestimated myself in the beginning, I probably would have been able to achieve way more than what I did.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
Recently, in the CAS Future Leaders Program, we had an entire day dedicated to uncovering the difference between being a boss and being a coach. Most successful leaders can coach their team instead of barking down orders, like a boss would. Therefore, the biggest piece of advice would be to coach the people you are leading and have actual conversations with them.
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?
Without Dr. Indrajeet Sharma at The University of Oklahoma, I would not be where I am today. When I first started graduate school, Dr. Sharma would take the time to actually teach me, instead of just telling me what to do in the laboratory. The time he took to teach me in those early years is what allowed me to be the successful chemist I am today.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I have used my expertise in science to start my own non-profit called “We Do Science Too” where I organize STEM programming for underrepresented girls in inner Oklahoma City. “We Do Science Too” provides free tutoring, monthly meetings and facilitating an opportunity for participants to visit Oklahoma University to do science experiments.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience as a Woman in STEM” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
5 leadership lessons I have learned are: 1) develop a strong network 2) find a good mentor 3) market yourself 3) have a positive mindset in all you do 4) be passionate 5) be open to failure.
You are a person of great 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. :-)
My movement would be to eliminate student loan debt in the United States. Currently, many people are ignoring their passions in order to land a higher paying job that will pay off their student loan debt. This is doing a huge disservice to society.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Do it right the first time so you don’t have to do it again;” my father told me that when I was younger in regard to my household chores. But now, as a young professional, it has helped me understand that I must put my best foot forward in all that I do from the beginning if I hope to have the best results.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment 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 :-)
Definitely Rihanna. The way she has reshaped her career into something more than a musician is admirable. I am a chemist, but by the end of my professional journey, I hope to be known as an expert in multiple fields, just like Rihanna.