Science is a big field with a lot of nooks and crannies. The four women featured in this story carved out compelling options to make an impact on research and patients at the Wilmot Cancer Institute.
At the seventh anniversary of the International Day of Women & Girls in Science, it’s important to note that although women have been traditionally underrepresented in science, Wilmot is making progress. Nearly 40 percent of Wilmot research members are women. Half of its recent post-doctoral fellows are women. All of Wilmot’s research programs include female leaders, and its executive committee includes three women.
In the question-and-answer segment below, learn more about a few of the many talented up-and-coming female scientists at the University of Rochester: Aslihan Petenkaya Ambeskovic, Ph.D., is a data scientist studying cancer cells and gene function; Po-Ju Lin, Ph.D., M.P.H., R.D., is staking out a career in exercise, nutrition, and cancer; Nicole O’Dell, Ph.D., is an education researcher whose job is to help the next generation of cancer scientists find their niche; and Elizabeth Pritchett, Ph.D., is focused on the most basic aspects of DNA, RNA, and cell function.
They are hard workers — juggling jobs and family obligations and earning advanced degrees amid personal challenges. Their collective advice? Anything is possible when a girl or woman sets her mind to it.
Aslihan Ambeskovic, Ph.D.
Po-Ju Lin, Ph.D.
Nicole O'Dell, Ph.D.
Elizabeth Pritchett, Ph.D.
What do you do in your current position?
Ambeskovic: I am a bioinformatician and a research program manager in a laboratory that investigates how cancer genes cooperate and evolve. I develop creative ways to answer biological questions computationally in my day-to-day work.
Lin: I am a research assistant professor in supportive care in cancer, in the Department of Surgery. I conduct studies using behavioral and integrative medicine approaches, such as exercise, yoga, nutrition, and health education, to help cancer survivors manage their symptoms and side effects caused by cancer and its treatment.
O’Dell: I am a senior instructor, which means I am a junior faculty member. My role is centered on developing new cancer-focused education and training opportunities at Wilmot and tracking the metrics of success for these programs once they are implemented.
Pritchett: I am a staff scientist at the Genomics Research Center, which supports many different types of cancer research that seeks information about DNA, RNA, cell function and mutations. I’m involved in project management, and get to work with exciting new technology like spatial transcriptomics, which allows us to map gene activity in a tissue sample.
What sparked your interest in science?
Ambeskovic: I have always been a curious person, and what better way to get answers than the scientific method! I remember dutifully observing the small spartium bush in front of the house and counting its buds and flowers as a child. I was excited to see how the plant was changing every day. That excitement of observation evolved into the pleasure of distilling years of work into an itty bitty kernel of knowledge during graduate school.
Lin: I have always looked to understand “Why?” since I was young. My parents always encouraged me and my siblings to try new things. My curiosity about science is also inspired by my father who loves biology but chose to become an engineer. He is my very first mentor who introduced me in the third grade to experimental design to test hypotheses and answer scientific questions. I am also a sports enthusiast and curious about nutrition and different dietary styles. My love of sports and nutrition made me want to be an exercise scientist and a registered dietitian. The biggest reward that keeps me motivated is when I witness how cancer patients benefit from behavioral changes and simply feel better and have a better quality of life.
O’Dell: In 2007, I joined the University of Rochester Medical Center as a secretary within the Clinical and Translational Science Institute (CTSI). I would take minutes during meetings that were attended by some of the brightest researchers on our campus and I was amazed by the research they were conducting and the potential impact of CTSI on our research infrastructure. Supporting research at the UR became my passion over the 13 years that I worked with the CTSI and it continues as we train the next generation of scientists at Wilmot.
Pritchett: I have always had an interest in science but my high school science teacher really encouraged me to pursue it as a career. Once in my undergraduate program, I did research with a lab studying sex-changing fish. This got me really hooked!
Tell us about a difficult time in your career.
Ambeskovic: In my career, I step out of my comfort zone quite often. After I received my Ph.D., having run hundreds of mass spectrometry experiments and spending countless hours in the tissue culture room, I recognized that the part that I enjoyed the most was finding patterns in the data. This epiphany led me to pursue a career in data science. Going into a new field can be scary, but it was one of the most rewarding decisions I've made with sweat and tears. This significant change was only made possible by trusting myself and having the support of my mentor, colleagues, and family.
Lin: I was struggling a bit when I pursued my doctoral degree. I experienced changing advisors, transferring schools, reapplying to programs, a lack of research funding, and my immigration status. All of these things made the experience more complicated and challenging. I overcame these challenges by believing in myself, accepting the challenges, and keeping my goal to complete the doctoral degree. I am blessed and very grateful that I always have support from my family, friends, and colleagues.
O’Dell: I think the toughest time in my career was completing my PhD while working full-time. Many times, I thought I couldn’t finish it or that I might give up. But I had a great support system at the UR that constantly pushed me and encouraged me to finish strong.
Pritchett: A difficult time was when I realized I wasn’t in love with the research I was working on. I knew I still had a passion for science and needed a career shift, which was quite scary! After networking with a lot of colleagues in the profession and conducting job searches, I landed in my current position at the Genomics Research Center, where I am exposed to many different types of research and have the ability to learn and use new technologies.
Any advice for girls and young women who are interested in science?
Ambeskovic: Be resilient, multidisciplinary, and know your strengths. Resiliency is rarely built alone. Surround yourself with people who build you up but are honest to inform you of your shortcomings. Be multidisciplinary. Answering complicated questions in science requires knowledge of many domains. Be a lover of learning. Also, know your strengths and communicate them. This will allow others to understand how you can contribute to a common goal.
Lin: Believe in yourself. Have no fear to try and don’t be afraid to fail. Seek resources and find mentors who can guide you and support you on your education and career path.
O’Dell: You can accomplish anything you set your mind to. ANYTHING!
Pritchett: There are many different options for a career in science. Attend seminars and workshops and network in the scientific community. Work hard to achieve what you want and carve a path that fulfills your passions. Times are changing and you no longer have to choose between a successful career in science and having a family, if you wish. Starting my family during my graduate work was a big part of my life. It wasn’t easy but it is possible!