5 Recommendations for a Successful Career in Science
Eight weeks ago I moved across the world, from the east coast of the US to Sydney to join Vow, a cultured meat company creating entirely new categories of food.
Cultured meat is one of the most complex biological and engineering challenges on the planet, combining cell biology, tissue engineering and bioprocess development. And I am expert on, well, absolutely nothing science-related, although I can offer advice on moving around the world in the middle of a global pandemic.
Roughly half of our team are women. They vary in age, skills, and experiences from recent college graduates to seasoned food industry veterans. The mere range of PhD topics is astounding, from tissue engineering, 3D bio-printing, to immunology, awarded at some of the world’s most prestigious research institutions on earth.
Regardless of degree, age, or job title, the women of Vow are unanimously a bright, ambitious, and kind cohort.
A couple weeks ago, this group sat down to discuss our experiences and perspectives, specifically as women working in science. This blog post, in honor of International Women’s Month, is theirs.
The observations we share are by no means limited to other women. They are intended to be useful and insightful to all scientists, engineers, and any other crazy dreamers looking to help make the world a little better with technology.
I’m honored to share the following thoughts and advice from the women of Vow, a summary of our advice and insights based on our collective experiences working in science.
1) Expect and embrace unpredictability.
“I have a love-hate relationship with biology. While it’s a huge motivator for me, it is also the one thing that is so unpredictable and can throw spanners all over the shop. That’s also what makes our work so wonderful.”
“Unpredictable” was unanimously the most frequently cited word in discussion with regards to working in science.
At Vow, we’re trying to culture finicky muscle cells to grow into an entirely new category of mind-blowingly tasty food. There’s no part of this process that’s predictable, and our work requires constant patience and a willingness to learn from failed experiments. This isn’t unique to Vow. In fact, this unpredictability has given the world of science a number of historic discoveries ranging from x-rays, to Velcro, to LSD.
“The research lab is a place where we can learn more. I love the feeling of the moment when you learn something in the lab that literally no one else in the world knows. I love that I can use my brain to try to solve a puzzle that might make the world better for people. That was instilled in me during my time in that first lab… I couldn’t walk away after that.”
Expect this unpredictability and embrace it. A healthy dose of resiliency and humor for unexpected explosions, spills, and results are necessary for success. While this unpredictability is sometimes the most trying part of our jobs, it’s also one of the aspects we love the most. No two days are the same, and we’re addicted to the excitement of trying to solve problems that have the potential to change how our global food systems work.
2) Science is unpredictable, and so are our career paths.
For many of us working in science and other fields, the days of a “one-stop shop” for one’s entire career are gone. We thrive today by embracing non-linear career paths and being open to taking advantage of new opportunities as they present themselves. Many of us have degrees in biology, but some have degrees in mathematics, agriculture, or food science. We’ve worked at Arnott’s, pharmacies, and insurance companies.
Some words of advice from one of our young scientists at Vow:
“Just do it! Try a degree that’s flexible enough for you to pivot and choose electives that you’ve always wanted to learn about. I’m glad I joined a flexible degree and was able to choose Biotechnology as my major. At the beginning I kept an open mind as to whatever might pique my interest and I found a great cause along the way.”
Non-linear career paths are completely normal in science. They can take many forms — including unexpected relocations. At Vow, multiple women on our team moved to Australia during the pandemic, some without having ever set foot in Australia prior to the move.
“Moving to a brand new country for my dream job was the most terrifying, but simultaneously exhilarating experience. If someone would’ve told me I’d be boarding a flight around the world in the midst of a global pandemic one year ago, I would’ve never believed it. I haven’t regretted the decision for a minute though. It’s been an absolute blast and one of the best, albeit craziest decisions, that I’ve made for my career and personal life.”
3) Along that non-linear journey, reframe all failures as learnings.
“Having ideas and improvements not work out the way they were supposed to allows for opportunities for growth and continual improvement, allowing the team to collaborate further, which is fun in a way!”
You will fail in your career. Many, many times. Embracing this will make you a much more successful scientist.
We firmly believe that the word failure shouldn’t have such a negative connotation. Take the plunge, be willing to take calculated risks, and in the very likely case where things do not go according to plan, reframe that failure as an opportunity for learning.
At Vow, we do this every two weeks, as we kick off new “sprint” cycles, experiments, and tests. Many — most! — of these fail in the technical sense of the word, but these failures are absolutely critical to our overall learning and long-term success.
4) Encourage participation, and leave space for all voices to be heard.
“I think being female does lend itself to certain additional challenges. I do need to really make an effort to speak up and not wait for a lull in the scientific discussion — otherwise I will never speak. I need to be okay with sometimes being labeled “aggressive” even if men are acting the same way and seen as competent leaders. I need to balance the need to be seen as “nice”, because as a woman, being likable is important for getting people to help you, while also making sure I don’t get walked over.”
Even the best intentioned men and women, especially those in startups running at breakneck speeds, should remember to pause, to ask for input from different voices, and to listen.
Some of the women at Vow felt this keenly. Some of us wish we spoke up more, and that we had others who encouraged this from us.
We may shy away from speaking up for many reasons: fear of being incorrect, worries about being labeled as “aggressive.” But, we don’t pretend that these feelings are unique to women in science. They’re normal human feelings in any workplace.
In your next meeting or group discussion, reflect more on who speaks, and how frequently. Science, as well as engineering, operations, and most other teams, are team sports. Failing to provide room for some of your team to speak and contribute is like trying to win a game with only half of your team in attendance and ready to play. Be intentional about encouraging and sourcing input, and create and hold people accountable to not interrupting and to listening and responding to previous comments.
“I am a really strong believer in how important it is to be humble in science. We do not have it all figured out, and it’s foolish to think that we do understand this world fully in a scientific sense.”
5) So far we’ve talked a lot about work. But there is life outside of work, and we should make conscious choices about our priorities.
How often is it that we have the feeling of being swept up by work and many other things that overwhelm our day to day lives? At Vow, there are high-intensity periods of research and testing during which our waking hours are indeed consumed by all things science. But, in aggregate, be intentional about that prioritisation.
“I feel like balance is one of those things we will always work on achieving, but the difficulty lies in the ability to actually achieve it for extended periods of time. Life is prone to imbalance and change, and sometimes we need to stop resisting and just let it be. I check in with myself more regularly as time goes on and base my expectations on how I feel at the time. Some days, doing basic tasks is considered a success. Others, I feel like I can run marathons. It’s always changing so I just try to keep in tune with where I’m up to to find my balance.”
Take honest pulse checks with yourself, maybe every month or two. How are you spending your time? Is your time a reflection of your priorities, values, and what you really care about? These will flex and change over time, and that’s normal. There may be times in our life where we prioritise our work; but there will be other times when taking care of a sick friend or family member, or supporting children, is more important. Being proactive about actively making these choices, instead letting prioritisation happen to us, is critical.