This profile is part of the story Women Unlimited: Closing the Gender Gap in Medicine and Science.
Growing up a member of the working class in the Midlands, in central England, Deborah Fowell pushed up against certain boundaries because of her family’s socioeconomic status.
She has found no such hierarchy in her work as an immunologist.
“What I find so amazing is that science is a huge leveler,” she says. “You’re respected for your intellect, which really does drive how far you can go. Everything else kind of fades away. “I can’t say I’ve been discriminated against, or not gotten to a position I wanted, because of anything other than not being the best one for the job,” she adds. Fowell believes women could, however, be better at self-promotion, a skill that might remove some of the hurdles they face in moving into leadership positions.
“We are often not very good at advocating for ourselves,” she says. “I’ll fight fiercely to advance people in my lab, and for colleagues in my department, but have a tough time doing it for myself.”
The University of Rochester Medical Center has done a stellar job recognizing this reality, Fowell explains, by developing a helpful program called “Developing from Within: Exploring and Enhancing Career Choices for Mid-Career Women.” The program is for current or future department or institutional leaders across science and medicine disciplines who want to come together to develop leadership skills.
Despite her hesitations, Fowell, who came to the Medical Center in 2000 as a junior faculty member, has worked her way up through promotions to full professor. Her research focuses on mechanisms of immune regulation at tissue sites of inflammation.
“I’ve come to appreciate how special science is—that, for the most part, appearance doesn’t influence people’s opinion of you,” she says.
When Fowell has been the only woman in the room, she hasn’t noticed. For example, while reviewing grants with some 15 other scientists at the National Institutes of Health, one of them pointed out—to her surprise—the gender imbalance at the table.
Remembers Fowell: “I’d been so excited about discussing which grants had done well and which hadn’t done well. That sort of scientific interchange was so stimulating that I hadn’t paid any attention to the make-up of the room.”
Through her own grant from NIH, Fowell organized a group of scientists from within and without the immunology field to adapt and develop cutting-edge imaging techniques that could lead to new approaches in manipulating the immune system and improving treatment of infectious diseases.
That sort of collaboration transcends the subject of gender, according to Fowell.
“It’s more about being smart, being dedicated, and thinking creatively,” she says.