As I have implied in previous posts, gender equality for women working and studying in STEM fields is a topic that I’m interested in. Even though women represent 41 percent of awarded STEM doctoral degrees, female scientists occupy only 28 percent of full-time professor positions (National Science Foundation).
However, it’s hard to comprehend such a complicated issue in real-time. To understand the effect that being a female scientist can have on a career, I interviewed women, at various stages in their scientific careers, and documented their experiences. This is the first of several interviews.
Betsy Ott – Post-Doctoral Fellow
At least that’s the message that Elizabeth (Betsy) Ott wants to share. Ott is a post-doctoral fellow, researching how bacteria that cause urinary tract infections are able to infiltrate host cells.
Her interest in science has been a life-long pursuit.
“Probably the earliest memory I have of really loving science is in the fifth grade,” said Ott. “We had to do our first research project. I did marine biology. I was infatuated with Jacques Cousteau and oceanography…I remember bioluminescence was amazing to me and just knowing that it’s a chemical reaction done by these cells in the skin of these animals was so exciting to me. I couldn’t wait to learn more about it, all aspects.”
This desire to learn about every aspect of what she studies has led Ott through a very diverse research career. From pumping fish stomachs to document dietary choices in stocked versus unstocked lakes to analyzing urine samples in infants for defects in metabolic pathways, Ott dabbled in several arenas during her undergraduate career.
It was the repetitiveness of analyzing urine samples every day that led Ott to apply to graduate school.
“The idea (analyzing urine samples) was cool, but actually you just did the same thing over and over again,” she said. “I guess that was the biggest motivation for me to go to graduate school. So it was a very good experience for me because it wasn’t research and it was very clear to me that I wanted to be in research.”
Ott’s graduate research focused on following the degradation and movement of cellular membrane proteins in yeast. During her research, she discovered that the degradation pathway also regulated the multivesicular body (MVB) pathway during the starvation response. The interesting thing to Ott was “that these proteins that do the sorting of the MVB pathway are hijacked by HIV in human cells to get out.”
The combination of knowledge gained during graduate school and a desire to apply that knowledge to infectious disease is what led Ott to her current position studying uropathogenic bacteria. “Now I can still apply all my trafficking knowledge to a new problem that’s much closer to infectious diseases,” she said.
Ott talked about her transition from graduate student to post-doctoral fellow by stating, “the expectations are different, which is gratifying. I’m expected to, if I don’t know something, go figure it out, which is great. It’s kind of freeing to have somebody have that confidence in me.”
Ott hasn’t witnessed blatant displays of gender discrimination in regards to the NSF statistics stated previously.
“In college, our class essentially was more women than men. Also, the NIH (National Institutes of Health) does not discriminate [between] male or female post-docs. So I feel like that is equalizing. There’s no bonus for a PI (Principal Investigator) to hire more males than females,” she said.
However, in looking to the future, Ott does have one issue when it comes to gender equity. What happens when she wants to have children? Ott has a right to be concerned. According to the NSF, women who were single and without children showed the greatest gains in terms of obtaining full professorships than did women who were married and had children.
“Thinking about kids, I’m very nervous about that because I do want a family,” Ott said. “I do know that that will sacrifice my salary, it will sacrifice my position…it could very well sacrifice some of the respect that I think I deserve. I’m nervous about walking that delicate line.”
Regardless of the complications, Ott plans to stay in research. “I think I’d have to spend my time searching for the right job in order to be happy. I might have to look around a few times in order to find it and I’m willing to do that.”
Until that time, Ott continues with her own research and strives to find opportunities to share her love of science with others.
“I like judging science fairs because it’s just so fun to see kids get involved in science. They do these projects where their eyes just pop open and they’re like, ‘This is so cool!’ and I say, ‘I know! Just wait, you don’t even know,’” she said.