Pearls of Wisdom

Building a career as a woman in biomedicine

Two pearls rest on an old shell on the beach washed by the waves of the sea

Women scientists and researchers at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) are accomplishing amazing things.

NLM in Focus has featured a number of stories about such wise and wondrous women here at the Library, and at the NIH level, the Women in Biomedical Careers program works to promote women’s entry to and  sustained advancement within the biomedical sciences.

That program includes short videos titled “Pearls of Wisdom,” which present brief excerpts from interviews with women scientists. These clips, all running about one minute, offer messages from women scientists on how to build a career in the field of biomedicine.

This year, as the program turns its attention to leadership as a career path for women within biomedicine, I was asked to participate, along with several other NIH Institute and Center directors. The interview included questions about leadership, my career, and the mentors who helped me along the way.

The edited video won’t be ready for a while, but I was so jazzed by the process that I want to give you a sneak peek—both of what I said and of what I learned along the way.

Tops among those lessons: you can’t simply declare yourself a leader. Leadership is demonstrated and earned. One becomes a leader by taking on roles that call for leadership and by contributing within those roles, whether that’s in the trenches or out front, at the head of an initiative.

In addition, I’ve come to understand more fully that leadership is not the same as management. As trite as that might be, it’s also true. Leadership can exist in any position and at any level in the hierarchy, whether a manager or not. I see leadership as an authority granted by others—administrators, peers, or subordinates—that reflects one’s ability to inspire others and to knit together their ambitions and efforts to accomplish something. Stated another way: leadership is the ability to motivate, inspire, cajole, and engage talented people to contribute to a common vision and achieve a common goal.

As the interviewer’s questions moved on to my career, we spoke of how my career developed, its highlights and key challenges, and how I came to be at NIH. She also asked what career advice I would give my daughter (if I had one) or another young woman I cared about.

My answer: Find your passion and your career will follow.

I’m not sure where that insight came from, but it has stood me in good stead all these years. Passion has driven me to work until 3 AM polishing off a proposal and what has comforted me when that proposal wasn’t received as I had hoped. Passion has pushed me to learn more, to collaborate outside my field, and to engage with others when I might otherwise have worked alone. Passion has energized and stimulated my lifelong career, pointing the way toward new work opportunities, including some—like my current gig—that I could never have imagined years before.

The interviewer also asked about my mentors and mentees. I am blessed with many of both, and I hope I have told each of you what you’ve meant to me and thanked you for what I have learned from you. But her question reminded me that, while we may seek out mentors (or mentees), sometimes we’re gifted with them even when we aren’t looking or don’t realize we need them. Sometimes fate, luck, and timing take a hand, and it’s our job to seize the opportunity.

Take this interview, for example.

What started as a meeting on the calendar, an obligation to check off, morphed into an opportunity and a gift. This interview gave me the occasion to stop and look back on a career that has brought me tremendous satisfaction, even joy, and that look back has renewed my commitment to the road ahead.

I also hope it will help other women navigate their own road, because biomedicine needs women’s intellect, talent, ideas, and drive if we are to solve our leading health problems. While women have long influenced and enhanced the practice of medicine, we need to inspire a new generation of groundbreaking scientists and medical pioneers.

So what about you? How have women inspired you in your career? And what career advice might you give young women who want to work in biomedicine?

 

Author: Patti Brennan

Director, US National Library of Medicine

One thought on “Pearls of Wisdom”

  1. I suggest readers also look at this inspiring NLM online exhibition, Changing the Face of Medicine, which celebrates women in medicine. There is a feature on local legends where readers can find women physicians who have made a significant impact on their communities.

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