This is the fourth article in a series documenting the the pursuit of a scientific career by female scientists in an academic setting.
Janis Weis – Professor
In the eyes of the National Science Foundation, Janis Weis is one of the survivors, a female scientist who was able to make it through the gauntlet of an academic scientific career. Weis, however, doesn’t see it as such a miraculous feat.
“You just have to say ‘Well, this is what I want to do, this is my passion,’” Weis stated. “And then go through and do it.”
For Weis, her scientific career began like many others, with her formal education. “I took a microbiology class that I just really loved,” she said. “I thought it was really cool. I had a great Intro to Micro teacher.”
Weis also received guidance from an unexpected source. “I was taking all the science classes but I didn’t really know what I wanted to do,” she said. “My mother had a friend who had been a nurse and, as a probably 50-year-old woman, she went to graduate school and got a PhD and was doing research. I went into the lab to visit her and she told me ‘Molecular Biology.’ I said, ‘Oh, this is a vision. This is something I can do.’”
This moment of inspiration led Weis to complete a bachelor’s degree in microbiology.
After completing her bachelor’s degree, she decided to go on to graduate school after spending her summer break in a research lab.
“I was supposed to be reading papers and then talking to the mentor about the things that I read, and I knew I was not the one to just sit and do the experiments,” Weis said. “I had to be designing the experiments. I had to be planning the experiments. I knew very early on from that experience that I had to go to graduate school.”
After graduating with doctoral degree in microbiology, Weis continued her pursuit of an academic scientific career. For her that choice of careers was a natural extension of the work that she had been doing.
“All of my role models were my professors. And so that seemed like that’s what you wanted to do,” Weis stated. “I also saw it as an opportunity to have so much more control over my life, to choose where I wanted to live.”
Weis’ scientific interests have remained true to the subject that inspired her in the first place. “I like thinking about host/pathogen interactions. From the very beginning, it’s the bugs that make it exciting. That’s the thing that I think is interesting,” she said.
Her laboratory currently studies the development of Lyme arthritis. “We’re interested in how Borrelia burgdorferi causes arthritis and we’re interested in it because not everybody who gets infected gets arthritis. So we are interested in understanding how the bacterium causes arthritis and how the host regulates the response,” Weis stated. “If we can understand what regulates Lyme arthritis, we may get insights for other inflammatory diseases.”
With regards to the NSF statistics, Weis’ career has overlapped with the increase in the number of women pursuing scientific careers.
“There were lots of women in my program in undergraduate…but when I went to graduate school, I was the only woman in my class. Things were just opening up,” she said. “[But] I knew what I wanted to do…If I got sidetracked, it wouldn’t have worked.”
Weis also dealt with making the decision of when to start a family while still progressing in her scientific career. “Then we had kids. And that definitely is a sidestep. But I had a six-year grant before we had children,” she said. “And definitely that was a very difficult time. It’s just really difficult to have kids, to have children. But you just do it.”
However, she also points out the need for continued vigilance if one wants to have a scientific career and a family.
“The science moves on. If you’re not there to do it, then either somebody else steps in to do it or your competitors catch up with you,” Weis stated. “Those are just things that you have to decide. ‘Well, my job is important to me, my family is important to me so I’m going to do it all.’”
When asked about the key to her own career success, Weis stated, “I’m not sure how I was able to accomplish that [an academic career] but somehow I did.” However, she emphasized the fact that she would not have been able to achieve all that she has without the support of her spouse, especially during key transitional points in the early stages of her career.
As for the success rates of students and post-docs in her own laboratory, Weis said that “for the most part, the women have been just as successful as the men at getting through.” Also, Weis has failed to see a female scientist be hired at the University of Utah and not achieve a tenured faculty position.
For Weis, the issue is not the difference between the number of male and female scientists at an institution. The problem is having enough funding available for individuals who wish to pursue scientific careers.
“We’re hesitant to encourage anybody to enter science right now when everybody is so worried about funding,” she said. “So I guess one thing to encourage people to do, as a scientist, is to engage the public in the importance of science to continue the support.”