Meet Five Inspiring Women in Science

Feb. 11, 2022
URMC Researchers Reflect on International Day of Women and Girls in Science

Be curious and inquisitive. Cultivate relationships with mentors. Never limit yourself. Follow your heart.

These are just a few pieces of advice that women researchers from across the University of Rochester Medical Center have for young women and girls interested in science.

Despite progress in recent years, women and girls from around the world are still less likely to enter and advance in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. According to the United Nations, female researchers are typically awarded smaller research grants, are less likely to have their work published by high-profile journals, and have shorter careers than their male colleagues.

And the COVID pandemic has only exacerbated these disparities as the burden of care in the home fell disproportionately to women.

To combat these disparities, the United Nations General Assembly declared February 11 the International Day of Women and Girls in Science in 2015. Today, we celebrate the work and achievements of women in STEM and promote full and equal access to STEM for women and girls the world over.

B. Paige Lawrence, Ph.D.

B. Paige Lawrence, Ph.D.

Chair and Wright Family Research Professor in the Department of Environmental Medicine

Lawrence has loved science her whole life. While she realized she wanted to be a scientist in 7th grade, that idea seemed outside the realm of possibility at the time. It wasn’t until college – when she saw female professors who were scientists – that she finally realized a career in science was possible for her.

Now widely recognized an expert on how the environment impacts immune function and development, Lawrence has been a role model and mentor for many a young scientist over the past few decades. She has won several mentoring awards and measures her own success by the successes of her protégés.

“When I look back on my career, I expect it will be their successes that provide me with the greatest sense that I have made a meaningful contribution,” she said.

Having struggled to find her voice early in her career, she is quick to pass on hard-earned wisdom. She attributes her success to three things: cultivating relationships with mentors, pausing and seeking information or counsel before reacting (i.e. never responding when upset), and maintaining a sense of humor.

She reminds budding female scientists: “Sometimes you are going to flop, but this does not mean you are a failure. Every experience is a learning opportunity, and some of the most valuable learning and personal growth comes from things that don’t go the way you had hoped or planned.”

Juliee Thakar, Ph.D.

Juliee Thakar, Ph.D.

Associate professor of Microbiology and Immunology, Biostatistics and Computational Biology, Biomedical Genetics

Thakar got interested in science in 7th or 8th grade when she began hiking around her hometown of Pune, India with a group of local enthusiasts studying biodiversity.

“I got hooked as I realized the complexity in life,” she said.

As a computational biologist, Thakar is no stranger to complexity. She builds computational tools to decipher large amounts of biological data to predict how your immune system will respond to infections or vaccinations. Specifically, her lab studies how factors like age, genetics, immune history and characteristics of an antigen (like a virus, bacteria or vaccine) impact how immune responses.

In her 20-year career, Thakar has had her fair share of challenges. “Rejections and criticism are a part of science,” she said. “But the biggest challenge is a lack of real team spirit among scientists. Women often have to work harder to be heard and for their work to be valued.”

Raising a girl and boy of her own, Thakar notices the differences in their perceptions every day. “Young women and girls are under different social pressures and are socially more aware. My advice to them is to be curious, inquisitive and to believe in themselves. Don’t look for acceptance, follow your heart.”

Hand surgeon Constantinos Ketonis, MD, and research scientist Alayna Loiselle, PhD, study tendon healing in the hand.

Alayna E. Loiselle, Ph.D.

Associate professor of Orthopaedics, Biomedical Engineering, and Pathology and Laboratory Medicine

Loiselle didn’t always want a career in research. She was originally interested in clinical orthopaedic surgery, but after spending time doing research in a lab as an undergraduate, she couldn’t imagine doing anything other than research.

Now she studies innovative ways to improve tendon healing in the hand. Following injury, tendons in the hand often adhere to the sheath that surrounds them, impairing range of motion. Loiselle and her lab use cellular and mouse models to understand the process of tendon healing on a cellular and molecular level.

Loiselle is grateful that she has been able to build a research career that also includes clinical and translational components – and she’s proud to be able to help others do the same.

“One of the things I’m most proud of is the success of the trainees in my lab,” she said. “I’ve been very fortunate to work with outstanding students, postdocs and technicians since starting my lab, and seeing the things they are able to accomplish while they are in the lab, as well as their careers after they have left the lab is extremely rewarding.”

Loiselle’s advice for young women and girls who are interested in science?

“Scientific pursuits, by their very nature, are going to have false starts and failures,” she said, “but tackling scientific challenges that you’re particularly interested in and finding an environment that will help you grow from these challenges makes these obstacles easier to overcome.”

Angela Branche, M.D.

Angela Branche, M.D.

Associate professor of Medicine, Infectious Diseases

Branche, who is both a physician and a researcher, ended up in those roles primarily out of a desire to help people. She chose to focus on infectious diseases because it is a deeply investigative and holistic field.

It also rapidly evolves and is wholly reliant on evidence, which is why her medical training required her to engage in research.

“Six months into my research year as a fellow, I realized two things: science is about invention and discovery, which starts with a really good question that needs to be answered,” Branche said.

Branche has been at the heart of answering some of society’s most pressing questions during the COVID pandemic. As a co-director of the URMC Vaccine and Treatment Evaluation Unit, she shifted her focus from influenza and RSV to help lead several clinical trials at URMC for COVID vaccines and treatments that are now approved for use.

Branche says she has never allowed gender, race, ethnicity or creed to be a limitation or barrier to her career. “I’ll never accept the idea that I’m somehow starting off with a disadvantage because I’m a woman and I dare anyone to treat me otherwise. The only limitations I have are the ones I create and accept for myself.”

Her advice to the next generation of women scientists is to find someone who has a career that inspires you and ask her how she reached that achievement.

Katherine Escalera-Rivera, Ph.D. candidate in Pathology - Cell Biology of Disease

Katherine Escalera-Rivera

Graduate student in the PhD Program in Pathology – Cell Biology of Disease and president of the UR chapter of the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS)

Escalera-Rivera caught the science bug in college. After taking a stem cell seminar as a junior, she wanted to learn more – and to get hands-on. But she really fell in love with scientific research while working as a laboratory technician in an osteoarthritis lab after college.

That experience led her to pursue a doctorate at URMC, which she kicked off with a 2019 Graduate Alumni Fellowship Award, which recognizes promising incoming graduate students. She currently works in the labs of Jennifer Jonason, Ph.D., and Jennifer Anolik, M.D., Ph.D., studying the inflammatory processes involved in osteoarthritis – and considers passing her qualifying exam as her greatest achievement yet.

Escalera-Rivera urges young women and girls to explore their interest in science. “Take the time to get experience in different areas that you might want to pursue as a career. It will help you discover what you truly are passionate about. As in many other fields, scientific research has its challenges, but never limit yourself. Follow your passion!”