The Training Page: Breaking Through the Petri Dish Lid

Institutional and Personal Approaches to Enhancing Diversity

Mentorship and institutional change were the main themes at the symposium “Breaking through the Petri Dish Lid: Ways for Women and Underrepresented Groups to Advance Their Careers in Science,” held on October 5, 2018. Prompted by the underrepresentation of women and minorities at the upper levels of science, the symposium featured three panelists—Kathryn Zoon, Hannah Valantine, and Nesrine Taha—who discussed personal and institutional approaches to changing the existing paradigm.

Debbie Hinton, principal investigator at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disease, presented some sobering statistics in her welcome address. In the early 1990s, women made up 16.5 percent of senior investigators (PIs) at NIH, and in 2018, the number has barely increased to 24 percent, she said. There has been even less change in the upper leadership positions. While these numbers have often been attributed to a dearth of women scientists in the pipeline, during this same period the percent of women getting Ph.D.s in the biosciences increased from 42 percent to 52 percent.

The statistics for individuals from underrepresented groups are even more discouraging. Nationwide, they receive about 12 percent of Ph.D.s but occupy five percent of tenured positions, according to Valantine, who has been NIH’s chief officer for scientific workplace diversity since 2014 and is also a senior investigator at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute.

Zoon, a former scientific director and now scientist emerita at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, stressed the importance of good mentorship—perhaps even having multiple mentors—who can help in handling both scientific and life challenges. She identified several leadership skills for women who wanted to advance to the next level of science including networking; having ethics and integrity; being creative and innovative in solving problems; having an awareness of the scientific environment; being flexible; thinking strategically; listening to people and being willing to work as part of a team; learning how to manage conflict; and most of all being resilient. In addition, she said, “To be successful in science you need to focus and spend time on it, to make your mark.”

Valantine underlined the importance of supportive advisors. She recommended that aspiring scientists find “sponsors,” a step beyond mentors. A mentor might write good recommendation letters, but a sponsor will go to the next level and make phone calls to support those letters.

While individual efforts are certainly part of the picture, Valantine pointed out that these approaches had been tried for many years with limited success. It’s now time to fix the institutions. The culture has not changed over time; women and people from underrepresented groups do not have access to an even playing field, and there is no reward system for enhancing diversity in institutions. She has an evidence-based approach to changing this culture: As an example, scientific directors are presenting metrics such as resource distribution, salary, and speaking-engagement demographics to the new NIH Equity Committee every two years.

Valantine also suggested that there be more rapid turnover of laboratory and branch chiefs at NIH (many hold such positions for years, leaving little opportunity for others to have a turn at leadership). Although she acknowledged that achieving diversity and equity at the top scientific levels would take time, she was firmly of the belief that within two years, new scientific hires at NIH could be half women. That’s because with new methods of hiring that focus on broad, trans-NIH searches with a deeper talent pool (such as the Stadtman search), the percentage of women among new hires has exceeded the percentage of women applicants. Moreover, the proportion of women tenure-track investigators in the NIH intramural research program (IRP) is now 40 percent, a significant increase from even a few years ago. In contrast, the percentage of women in the tenured investigator pool has not increased much over the past 10 years.

Zoon and Valantine spoke eloquently about their own career paths and hurdles, as did Taha, a former pre-doctoral researcher (2013–2014) at the National Eye Institute and now a nanoscale research scientist and entrepreneur. After 12 years working as a nanoscale engineer, Taha took a four-year career break to raise her family. In doing so, she quickly realized the challenges facing women who return to the scientific workforce. She founded a nonprofit, the Foundation for American Advancement, to provide specialized training and fellowships for women returning to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) workplaces as well as scientific and technology-transfer programs for schools. She identified three elements for success: the individual, the mentor, and the system.

The panel also recognized that NIH’s new anti-harassment policies—which aim to create a culture of civility and respect—will foster a safe working environment at NIH that is friendly to women and underrepresented minorities. Although these new policies apply to NIH employees, contractors, and trainees, the NIH leadership is looking into ways to influence change at universities, too.

Audience members eagerly asked questions about every aspect of diversity in science. “It’s critical to get multiple perspectives at the table and build diverse experiences into policy,” said Valerie Virta, one of the NIH attendees, who said she had been very inspired by the symposium.

To sum up the conference, Zoon quoted Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg: “Fight for the things you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”


The event was hosted by the NIH Women Scientists Advisors (WSA) and the Bethesda chapter of the Association for Women in Science (AWIS). To watch a videocast, visit https://videocast.nih.gov/launch.asp?26094.

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