Rabail Aslam Rai, MD

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My name is Dr. Rabail Aslam Rai.  I attained my MD degree at one of the premier medical schools in Pakistan, and I can proudly say that I was the first female in my family to come independently to the USA, where I have established myself as a physician scientist. I am currently completing my postdoctoral fellowship training at RUSH University Medical Center. My team at RUSH has worked on innovating a new multiplex imaging technique which has the potential to revolutionize diagnostic medicine. Throughout my career I have taught, encouraged and mentored hundreds of students, consistently motivating them not to give up on their dreams. Dreams do come truemine definitely did, as I am starting residency training in pathology at my dream institute, Case Western Reserve University, this summer. Attending a Chicago Women in Science STEM symposium was very inspiring to me, as it was a great opportunity to learn from world renowned female STEM leaders, and understand how we as women can overcome hardships in career progression together. In addition, one of  my long term career goals is to branch into patent law, and through the STEM symposium, I had the honor of getting introduced to representatives of several prestigious law firms in Chicago. I feel very fortunate to be a part of this organization, as STEM will open doors to brand new collaborations and connections with not only fellow scientists but incredible mentors.

Bring your own table: Advice from local women leaders in STEM

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3rd Annual Chicago Women in STEM Symposium

“Who run the world?” Almost all of us know the answer to that question. Beyoncé’s unapologetic message promotes female empowerment. Yet, women everywhere struggle to be leaders in their own right. The Chicago Women in STEM initiative sought to provide leadership guidance to our ever-growing base of women professionals. ‘Advancing Tomorrow’s Women Leaders’ was about bringing together women at different stages of their careers showing us how they built themselves up from the ground and are paving the way for other women.

Monica Vajani and Dr. Preeti Chalsani, both hammered home the point that career paths are rarely linear and knowing how to adapt is what defines you as a leader. Leadership comes in different forms and not just with a title. Leading by example not only helps you but helps the people around you. Dr. Dominique Carter reminded us that we need to actively take up space. Often, women hesitate to actively take credit for their accomplishments, but we shouldn’t minimize ourselves for the convenience of others. Everyone deserves to be at the table and if you aren’t given a seat, bring your own table.

What about those who struggle to have a voice? This is where mentors and, more importantly, sponsors come into play. ‘Lift as you climb’ as Dominique put it. As a mentor you provide advice and passive support when asked. As a sponsor you actively speak for your protégé. Promoting protégés increases their visibility and strengths. This potentially will prevent women from being discouraged to take up careers in STEM and fix the “leaky” STEM pipeline responsible for seeing fewer women in leadership roles. Dr. Beth McNally highlighted the importance of having your allies and I can personally vouch for how important it is to have your circle of trust. These are the people who keep you honest and lift you up when the chips are down. Our keynote speaker, Jhaymee Tynan, did a fine job of not only reiterating the points made by the previous speakers but adding key management skills. My personal favorite skill – six hours of networking a week. This highlights the importance of being active when it comes to personal and professional development because your success will never be handed to you. You have to know your value and show your value. Aptly stated by Ban Ki-Moon, former UN Secretary-General, “The world will never realize 100% of its goals if 50% of its people cannot realize their full potential. When we unleash the power of women, we can secure the future for all.”

Written by Sumitra D. Mitra, Ph.D.

Celestia Fang

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Hello! I am an MSTP student at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and currently am well into my third year of the PhD phase of the program. Originally from Vancouver, Canada, I then swapped coasts to complete my undergrad at Cornell University where I majored in both economics and biology. I had a chance to dive into research during undergrad, and 2 more years of working as a research assistant in the Ivashkiv lab at the Hospital of Special Surgery convinced me of my passion for biomedical science and medicine. Here at Northwestern I am studying the relationship between chromatin topology and gene expression in T cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia in the Ntziachristos lab. At this moment I am wrapping up my first publication from my thesis lab and am excited to continue my work in a new project!

I was drawn to the Chicago Women in STEM initiative because of the wide variety of informative events that encompass career advice, outreach, scientific communication and beyond. In addition to my passion for biomedical research, I strongly believe in increasing access to STEM and education for young students striving for opportunities. Currently I am helping to run a student-led group teaching basics of medical science to high school students at the Boys and Girls Club of Chicago. Through Chicago Women in STEM, I am hopeful that I will find more opportunities to advance science education and communication, and many role models who are doing the same.

Julia Downing

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My journey in science has come full circle. In 5th grade, I won the county science fair with my project called “What’s in Your Water?” studying water quality of local bodies of fresh water with a friend. Fifteen years later, I am using advanced top-down manufacturing techniques to fabricate flexible sensors that will one day be able to detect lead and other heavy metal contaminants in drinking water. As a PhD student at Northwestern University, I am able to leverage knowledge of nanoscale materials like graphene and boron nitride in the design and creation of novel device systems (transistors, sensors, and batteries). I love my job!

I’m originally from Maryland, USA and got my B.S. in Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Maryland, College Park on a full scholarship that motivated me to work as hard as I possibly could beyond the classroom. I quickly fell in love with research by my sophomore year and participated in a research experience for undergraduates in Kyoto, Japan five years ago focused on nanotechnology. After NanoJapan, I knew I wanted to pursue a doctorate within this discipline and came to Northwestern to learn from some of the most ambitious thought leaders in the nano world. I am also the incoming president of the Graduate Society of Women Engineers (GradSWE) at Northwestern, and a GEM Industry Fellow (being half-Cuban, half-American). My experiences as a multi-ethnic woman in STEM have catalyzed a desire to make academia more accessible to women and people of color, while becoming the first member of my family to earn a PhD. However, it takes a village, and my PhD journey has been enriched by the community of women in STEM and having the opportunity to support one another. My long-term goals are industry-focused; I dream of leading a team of researchers in research & development, bridging the gap between advanced materials and consumer products. I can’t wait to see devices reimagined by nanotechnology improving lives of those around me! I would also love to teach someday, perhaps as an adjunct professor, but there’s no telling what the future holds. 🙂

Barbara Szynal

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Hi! My name is Barbara Szynal, and I am a current first year PhD student in UIC’s Graduate Education in Medical Sciences (GEMS) program. My training includes a B.S. in Biochemistry and a minor in Polish Studies from Loyola University Chicago, where I proudly led my own research project for 3 years. My research in Dr. Kenneth Olsen’s lab consisted of synthesizing novel photodynamic therapy agents and testing them in cell culture and zebrafish models. I was honored to be able to present my findings at 3 different symposia. In this position, I was both a mentor and mentee, and I continue to guide undergraduates in the lab as they push the project further. During my undergrad studies, I also participated in a summer internship at Vetter Pharma, a pharmaceutical contract manufacturing company. The following summer I was invited by Vetter to work as a quality control microbiologist until I began graduate school.

My proudest achievements in my career thus far include the pharma industry positions as well as my undergraduate research and mentorship. Through these experiences, I discovered that my professional goal is to lead the discovery of novel pharmaceuticals in industry. However, through my participation in the Chicago Women in STEM Initiative, I anticipate that I will be introduced to many other alternative careers that may expand my future goals. Being the first in my family to attend institutions of higher education in the US, I have had a unique insight into the hardships many students in my position, especially women, face. I hope that through my participation in the Chicago Women in STEM Initiative and my experience as a research mentor I will be able to encourage fellow girls and women in the sciences along their paths.

Kacey Suvada

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I am a Neuroscience PhD candidate at Northwestern University. At Northwestern, I work with Dr. Ana Maria Acosta and Dr. Julius Dewald researching human motor impairments after a hemiparetic stroke. Specifically, my thesis project focuses on bettering the understanding of postural control during reaching. In my program, I have completed almost all of the coursework as well as passed the qualifying exams. Most recently, I presented my thesis project and preliminary data at the Society for Neuroscience Conference in Chicago as well as successfully proposed my work for my dissertation to the committee. I also take part in various types of outreach including working with elementary school kids and teaching them basic scientific principles through Science in Society, educating high school teachers about the field of neuroscience and how they can teach their students about the brain through NU Brain Awareness, advocating for gender equality specifically in STEM fields through the NU Women in STEM Initiative, and speaking about mental health awareness in high schools around Chicago through the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). I hope to meet more strong and successful women through the Women in STEM Initiative and continue to increase awareness of the organization to the Northwestern Community. In the next year, I will continue to drive my thesis work forward while maintaining involvement in leadership for the Women in STEM Initiative and my other organizations.

Medina Dzaferi

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I am a first-generation student from Florida who has completed a Bachelor of Science in Biomedical Science, a minor in Public Health, and a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology within 3 years. After graduation, I managed a research laboratory studying X-linked intellectual disabilities through its association with ZDHHC9 while working closely with the Chair of Molecular Medicine. I am now a student at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law studying to earn my Masters of Science in Law. I chose this degree because a thorough understanding of how legal aspects are applied to the scientific field is vital but absent from the standard curriculum. This additional legal proficiency is needed for a more comprehensive application of the exceptionally complex healthcare system and I am grateful to have the opportunity to learn from such a prestigious university.   I would not be in the position I am today without the guidance of strong women who have helped me along the way. Chicago Women in STEM provides a strong community of support in a field where not many women are present. This unification enables mentorship and connections to prosper and I am excited to get more involved with such a program. 

Toni Gutierrez, PhD

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I am the Assistant Director of the Driskill Graduate Program in Life Sciences at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. I began my training and career in immunology, studying B cells and autoimmunity. I then made the transition towards student support and graduate training in 2012 when I joined the Scientific Careers Research and Development Group led by Dr. Rick McGee at Northwestern University, which is leading a nation-wide study of graduate training experiences. After a year investigating how nuances in the graduate experience encourage career choices, I moved into the role of Assistant Director of the Collaborative Learning and Integrated Mentoring in the Biosciences (CLIMB) Program at Northwestern. As part of CLIMB, I support graduate trainees in 5 bioscience programs across Northwestern’s Chicago and Evanston campuses. In addition to individual coaching, I’ve led professional and career development seminars that focus on early graduate development for CLIMB and other Graduate School partners.

In July 2019, I joined the Driskill Graduate Program leadership team. I saw this as an exciting opportunity to broaden the impact of several lines of interest. First, the importance of individualized training and support for graduate students. I hope to expand my work coaching individual students to empower them to guide their own training. Second, I will continue facilitating mentor training for both DGP faculty and students. The relationships between mentors and trainees are the cornerstone of successful careers and vital to broadening participation in STEMM. And last but not least, I will work to promote and support an inclusive culture that enhances the graduate training environment at Feinberg.

I am a South Texas native and first-generation 4-year college graduate. I received my BS from St. Mary’s University (San Antonio, TX) and my PhD from University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.

Rachel Burga, PhD.

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I recently joined the Northwestern community as a Postdoc in the Department of Neurological Surgery (ready to experience my first Chicago winter!), where my research focuses on developing targeted nano-immunotherapies for glioblastoma. I’m a Canuck, but I grew up mostly in the New England area, and so am SUPER biased for my New England sports teams 🙂 Also, fun fact, I just ran the NYC Marathon for the first time (so if you see me hobbling around the Chicago campus, that’s why)! I received my PhD in Immunology from George Washington University, and my Bachelor’s degree in Biomedical Engineering from Columbia University; throughout my academic career I’ve strived to combine these two fields in order to develop innovative therapies for patients with solid tumors. I love sharing my research with all kinds of audiences, and so have presented my work nationally and internationally. This past Spring I was honored to be selected to participate in and win an award for my research on genetically-modified NK cells at the Immuno-Oncology Young Investigators’ Forum.

I’ve always been THAT kid who knew what they wanted to be “when they grew up” – since I was 8 years old I told everyone that I was either going to be a linguistic film editor (NOT a thing), or a biomedical engineer (thankfully this IS a thing)! I went to all girls’ school from grade 1 through 12, and was lucky enough to have a handful of teachers who really encouraged my STEM interests and helped to shape my passion for biological sciences (Shoutout to Mrs. Norwood-Chase and Mr. Souza!). As an adult, this really motivated me to become involved with middle school and high school outreach, with the goal of keeping the next generation informed and excited about STEM opportunities. 

I learned about the Chicago Women in STEM initiative from a colleague, and was so excited to attend the first STEM circuit event of the season! Not only did this event connect me with like-minded women in science, but it was a rare opportunity to talk openly and honestly about some of the struggles we face as women in STEM fields, as well as how succeed in diverse STEM-related career paths. Through Chicago Women in STEM I hope to continue to grow my network of women and men with a range of scientific (and non-scientific) backgrounds, and to connect with organizations that support STEM outreach and workshops for younger students here in the Chicago area. 

Julie Ores

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Hello, I am a Virtual Sales Executive with American Well. My formal education includes an undergraduate degree from Colorado State University and a master’s degree from Loyola University Chicago. After years in due diligence and investigations, I found myself looking for a transition and was given an opportunity with a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) care coordination organization for bundled payments and value-based care. This is where I took a step into healthcare and technology, and it continues to be wholeheartedly where my career interests lie. In 2018, a natural curiosity brought me to Northwestern University’s Coding Boot Camp where I completed a 24-week program learning both front and back end web development. My professional goals include creating a positive impact for improved access to convenient and affordable care. I’m thankful to be part of this initiative to bring awareness and share these STEM stories with others.