The COVID-19 pandemic reaffirmed the incredible power of scientific discovery and focused the world’s attention on the complex processes behind innovation. Indeed, that sharpened focus may even drive more people to make their mark on the world through careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. At the same time, innovation-driven roles in a diverse range of industries have challenged old assumptions about what a STEM career looks like.
The Estée Lauder Companies and Fast Company recently hosted an Innovation Festival 360 event that brought together three accomplished women in STEM to discuss how the perception of what a scientist can be has become more expansive and what young people need to understand about STEM careers. Here are four key takeaways from the event.
STEM BEYOND THE BENCH
Dr. Mariana Matus, CEO and co-founder of Biobot Analytics, is herself a testament to the possibilities open to scientists today. Rather than working in a lab and engaging primarily with experiments and data, Matus runs a company. “It’s becoming now more common to see scientists…who are starting their own companies,” she says. “They care about building valuable businesses that are solving problems.”
Scientists aren’t confined to conventional STEM industries, either. Lisa Napolione, senior vice president of Global R&D at The Estée Lauder Companies, cites the range of fields represented on her team as an example. “I have neuroscientists, immunologists, pharmacologists, pharmacognosists, anthropologists, biomedical engineers—I could keep going—that all work in my labs,” she says. “There is no single direction. And importantly, each person can find themselves.”
STEM IS CROSS-DISCIPLINARY
To solve real-world problems, scientists frequently collaborate across fields of study and even with non-STEM areas. Matus points to her own work, in which genomics and molecular technology are fused with public-health and government policymaking. “We need to bridge deeply scientific work with users who actually don’t have expertise in this space,” she says. “It [takes] collaboration across disciplines to make it happen.”
STEM training also can open unexpected doors. For example, Dr. Selma Masri, assistant professor of biological chemistry at the University of California Irvine School of Medicine, has drawn on several areas of interest—from biological clocks to circadian rhythms—to inform her work studying cancer. “I’ve merged these disciplines and fields together to create my own research concepts that I’m really interested in,” she says. “Scientific research allows you to pave your own path, to basically create your own space, your own niche, and to really move forward in something that you think is super cool and interesting.”
Napolione encourages STEM students not to limit themselves to one field, adding that the biggest breakthroughs often happen at the intersection of disciplines. She credits her current success to her own multidisciplinary background, which was encouraged by a professor at Clarkson University who supported her efforts to combine chemical engineering and biology into her major. “That allowed me to pursue this intersection, which I have just found to be a beautiful combination,” she says.
MENTORS ARE EVERYWHERE
In STEM, good mentors are critical to developing STEM talent. That’s why Napolione brought a mentoring component to two awards her organization at The Estée Lauder Companies cosponsors to recognize women in STEM and STEM programs serving girls and young women. “We ensure that all short-list winners have the opportunity to be mentored,” she says. “I think that makes such a difference.”
Fortunately, potential mentors aren’t hard to find. In Napolione’s experience, she’s found that “most people love to answer questions about what they do and offer perspective.” It’s largely a matter of daring to ask them. For instance, Masri turned a work-study job washing dishes in a lab into a mentorship that paved the way for her current career. “I was looking over people’s shoulders and asking questions,” she says. “Someone noticed that’s what I was doing and…took me under his wing and was like, ‘Let’s get you started on a small research project.’ ”
PASSION DRIVES STEM SUCCESS
Scientific breakthroughs aren’t fueled by data and logic alone. They depend equally on the passion of scientists to relentlessly pursue the next discovery. For example, it’s Masri’s enthusiasm for the field of health that keeps her coming back to the lab to face the challenges of scientific research. “We’re not just studying something in a test tube.” she says. “We’re studying something because it has translational potential for human health and disease. That is, ultimately, I think, the thing that drives my passion in what we do.”
Matus says that same passion can keep you going as an aspiring scientist working hard to break into a STEM field. “If you don’t compromise on your dreams and what you care about, you will get there,” she says. “People will open doors for you.”