AMBRIDGE, Mass. — “Where are the women?” physician-scientist Dr. Anna Greka recalled asking at a recent open house at her son’s middle school. The science classroom she was visiting had posters of Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr, but no female scientists.
“So I went up to the science teacher and said, ‘There’s a big omission here.'”
She suggested Marie Curie, the only person to receive two Nobel Prizes in the sciences. But she didn’t wait for the teacher to take her advice. Days afterward Greka bought a poster of Marie Curie, which is now on the wall of her son’s science classroom alongside Einstein and Bohr.
Greka, who holds joint positions at the Broad Institute and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, told this story as the lead speaker at Tuesday’s Women in Science Luncheon, part of the HUBweek festival. Bringing more women into science will require cultural and societal shifts that could take generations, she said. Those shifts, however, are made up of small, meaningful efforts — “tangible action items,” in her words — on everyone’s part.
The luncheon was sponsored by STAT and Takeda Oncology. Greka was interviewed by STAT senior writer Sharon Begley. Nine other prominent women led discussions among small groups of attendees.
These small interventions, Greka said, should not solely be aimed at girls.
“Both boys and girls have to see things differently,” she said. For instance, she said, when research and teaching faculty are mostly male, men may not be accustomed to seeing women sitting alongside them sharing ideas. Her goal, she said, is to make the presence of women in the lab both common and expected.
To that end, Greka sometimes takes her son with her when she goes to speak at conferences, “so that he can see what I do when I disappear for days at a time.”
“He sees that both mom and dad will go to work in the lab, or go talk to people about their research, and both things are perfectly normal.”
Inviting high school students into her lab for the summer is another strategy Greka employs. She also makes a special effort to speak at events for children and teens.
But when talking to young people, she said, it’s important to let them know that they don’t have to be perfect to be successful. Greka illustrated this point with another anecdote. At a dinner for faculty and students, she said, a fellow faculty member talked about getting a coveted federal grant on first try.
“Then I quickly spoke up and said I got mine on the sixth try,” she said. “And the students came up to me later and told me they were glad I said that.
“To tell someone, ‘I got it on my first try’ doesn’t help,” she added. “We need to allow for the fact that there is failure as well as success.”
Littleton, Mass., resident Radhika Mehta, a high school junior, attended the event. She hopes to go into biochemistry and said she sees the limited numbers of women in her chosen field “as motivation to keep going.”
“The numbers,” she added, “are subject to change.”