National Cancer Institute NCI Cancer Bulletin: A Trusted Source for Cancer Research News
January 24, 2012 • Volume 9 / Number 2

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A Conversation With

A Conversation with the NCI Women Scientist Advisors

The NCI Women Scientist Advisors Committee hosted a career development luncheon January 12 at the annual NCI Intramural Scientific Investigators Retreat. The NCI Women Scientist Advisors are composed of representatives from NCI's two internal (intramural) research groups, the Center for Cancer Research (CCR) and Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics (DCEG). Representatives from DCEG, Drs. Katherine McGlynn and Mary Ward, talked with the NCI Cancer Bulletin about the Women Scientist Advisors' role at NCI. CCR's representatives are Drs. Ying Zhang, Brigitte Widemann, and Cheryl Ann Winkler.  

Who are the NCI Women Scientist Advisors and what sort of programs and activities are you involved with?

Attendees at Women Scientist Advisors luncheon Attendees of the 2012 NCI Intramural Scientific Investigators Retreat participated in roundtable discussions during a career development luncheon sponsored by the NCI Women Scientist Advisors.

NCI Women Scientist Advisors are part of the NIH Women Scientist Advisors Committee, which was established in 1993 when Dr. Bernadine Healy was NIH director. Dr. Healy created a task force to address concerns about the small proportion of women scientists who were senior investigators at NIH and about pay equity and work-life balance issues. The task force recommended that each NIH institute and center have a Woman Scientist Advisor who was a senior woman scientist.

Our responsibilities at this year's NCI Intramural Retreat included organizing a career development luncheon, sponsoring the NCI Rosalind E. Franklin Award Lecture for Women in Cancer Research, and awarding the annual Women Scientist Advisors mentoring and leadership awards for NCI senior investigators. Dr. Titia de Lange, a professor and scientist at Rockefeller University, received the Rosalind E. Franklin award this year and gave a tremendous talk about her research on the role of telomeres in protecting chromosomes. The NCI Women Scientist Advisors mentoring award recipients were Dr. Shelia Zahm of DCEG and Dr. Lee Helman of CCR.

In addition to the NCI Principal Investigator Retreat activities, the Women Scientist Advisors support and promote career development for the NCI scientific community and address issues that women scientists may face.

What was the theme of this year's luncheon?

This year's theme was "Focusing Your Science and Promoting Your Career: Steps to Make Your Career More Productive." Nearly 200 NCI researchers, male and female, attended. The lunch is open to all NCI scientists, and this year's theme was relevant to men and women scientists. The first topic was about promoting your science and networking in the face of budgetary and resource constraints. The other two topics were about assertive and effective communications and time management. We had eight roundtables for each of the topics, which allowed for discussion.

NCI Director Dr. Harold Varmus and the Rosalind E. Franklin award winner Dr. Titia de Lange were asked to add their thoughts on each of the three luncheon topics. Dr. Varmus noted the importance of considering work-life balance for all scientists and the importance of creating a more ethnically diverse workplace at NCI. Dr. de Lange encouraged women to speak their minds and to not concern themselves about being perceived as nice. She also promoted the idea of the three Ds: Do it now, Delegate, and Don't worry.

What other activities will NCI Women Scientist Advisors pursue in the coming year?

Since one of our main goals is to promote the careers of female scientists at NCI and NIH, whenever we have outside guests or visiting scholars, we try to find an opportunity for NCI scientists to meet with those visiting researchers. For example, we sponsor brown bag lunches with these guests that are open to anyone who wants to attend. If the guest is a female scientist, we organize an informal lunchtime discussion where she can provide pointers on how she got to her current position.

This past fall, for example, Dr. Silvia Franceschi, of the International Agency for Research on Cancer, visited NCI and participated in a brown bag lunch. Rather than deliver prepared remarks, Dr. Franceschi invited attendees to ask her questions, which she answered very candidly and openly. People asked questions such as: "How do you know when it's time in your career to move to another institution?" and "How frequently should you move to other institutions?" and "How do you get along in institutions that are male-dominated?" Dr. Franceschi was very insightful, and we literally ran out of time. It was quite lively!

—Interviewed by Bill Robinson

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