Spotlight: International Day of Women and Girls in Science

11 February 2022

International Day of Women and Girls in Science celebrates the critical role women play in driving progress in science and technology. 

To commemorate the day, we caught up with 5 of our Cancer Grand Challenges community to discuss role models, learning from each other and the importance of aspiring to create an inclusive world.  

Wendy Garrett, Kimmie Ng and Candace Henley 

Co-team lead, co-investigator and advocate, Cancer Grand Challenges OPTIMISTICC team 

Physician scientists Wendy (Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, US) and Kimmie (Dana-Farber Cancer Institute) and patient advocate Candace (Blue Hat Foundation) are part of the team taking on our Microbiota challenge, unravelling the role the microbiome plays in the development of colorectal cancer.  

What drove you to work in cancer research and advocate for equity in healthcare?  

Candace: After my colorectal cancer diagnosis at 35, I was motivated to make something positive out of my experience. I became an advocate to learn everything I could about the disease, advocate for legislation around the Removing Barriers to Colorectal Cancer Act and increase funding for cancer research. 

Wendy: My interest in cancer research dates back to middle school. I lived close to a cancer research center where I dreamed of doing research. Subsequent life experiences and medical school training inspired and cemented that my path in medicine would be as a medical oncologist. Cancer research remains central to what my laboratory studies today. 

Kimmie: When I got to medical school and started taking care of patients, I realized that I wanted to pursue research that would have more of an impact on the lives of my patients and transitioned to projects that were more translational and clinical in nature. There is nothing more rewarding than the privilege and honor of helping a patient and their family through their cancer experience. 

What does pushing boundaries to create an inclusive world mean to you? 

Kimmie: Although it is amazing that there is a day to honor the achievements of extraordinary women everywhere, the very fact that we even *need* a special day designated for this purpose highlights the ongoing challenges that women face in regards to equity in the workplace – particularly in science and medicine. I’m inspired to continue striving to improve the care of my cancer patients, elevate other women scientists and physicians, and tread a path towards a more inclusive and equitable world for my 2 young daughters.   

Wendy: Reflecting and celebrating the achievements of those traditionally under-represented in science inspires me to better understand where our collective knowledge comes from; to appreciate women whose contributions have been undervalued so that they can be recognized and appropriately memoralized; and to take action to increase diversity and equity in science. 

Candace: Change happens when we challenge the status quo, push beyond the boundaries, and shatter the glass ceilings that still exist. It means to challenge ourselves to stay the course with what you want to achieve and drown out the negative voices that say, “you can’t” - and do! Do it to the best of your ability; even if you don’t succeed the first time, try again because I’ve always been told “nothing beats a failure but a try”. Failure happens when you don’t challenge or try. 

As we celebrate and honour women, is there anyone in particular who inspires you? 

Wendy: Just one? There are so many and while I will explain why for one, with your permission, I would like to list a few for people to hopefully read more about: Abigail Salyers, Ruth Ellen More, Esther Lederberg, Emmy Klienberger-Nobel, Rita Montalvani-Levi.  

Dr Rita Montalvani-Levi for her foundational work in neurobiology that also was fundamental for cancer biology and immunology. I find her inspiring not only for her indomitable spirit that enabled her to succeed as a woman in science but also for how she faced adversity, survived, and triumphed as an Italian Jewish woman during the Holocaust.   

Candace: So many women who inspire me. However, I'm most inspired by my daughters Monica, Tiffany, Sorina, Soraya, Tyler, and my bonus daughters Lindsey, Anitra, and Vanessa. Their resilience, love and support, during and after my cancer diagnosis, and the women they've become are amazing. Their success after all we have gone through inspires me as a mother and a woman.

Kimmie: There are so many people, but 2 who come to mind right now are Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Vice President Kamala Harris, both of whom chose to challenge the biased norms of their time and paved the way for women and girls everywhere. I am also inspired by all of my fellow female scientists who are dedicating their talents, insights, and passions every day towards improving the lives of our cancer patients while also juggling the responsibilities of family and personal life.   

What is your advice for aspiring female scientists?  

Wendy: Try to believe in yourself, find mentors, and nourish your curiosity and creativity. 


Elee Shimshoni 

Postdoctoral fellow, Cancer Grand Challenges STORMing Cancer team  

Elee (Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering) is part of the team taking on our Cancer Causes challenge, investigating how chronic inflammation drives tumour development.  

What drove you to work in cancer research?  

I have been fascinated by the human body, and especially by human disease, from a very young age. As a child, cancer simultaneously fascinated and scared me. Cancer teaches us how normal processes in our own bodies can just go awry when the “checks and balances” are removed. I see cancer research not solely as the study of – with the aspiration of treating – a disease (or rather a group of diseases), but also as a field that can teach us about the very basic cellular and tissue processes that make us alive. 

What does pushing boundaries to create an inclusive world mean to you? 

I think that the notion that some people hold in which there is a “prototypical scientist” is inherently flawed and counterproductive to the scientific mission. Science is a creative endeavour and as such, it can only benefit from a larger variety of people with multitudes of ideas and ways of thinking. Wherever the scientific culture nurtures only the type of so-called “super-human scientist”, with a personal life that always comes second to science (and who does not get pregnant or go on parental leave), we lose great scientists who will constantly feel like they cannot compete. That is a loss for all of us, as a society and as humans who want to push the frontiers of knowledge.   

As we celebrate and honour women, is there a particular woman who inspires you? 

My mother. She is a theoretical physicist, was the first female faculty member in her department, and throughout her professional life has usually been one of the only few women around. Having the privilege of living with a real-life example of a female scientist in an overwhelmingly male-dominated field almost made me oblivious to the voices in society telling me that certain things “are not for girls”. This allowed me to think about what really interests me, without being distracted by the fear of failure or alienation that unfortunately drives away many women and girls who could have otherwise succeeded in STEM.  

Most importantly, my mother has always had what I would call “a normal life”, which extends beyond her identity as a scientist. Sure, not many girls have a theoretical physicist for a mother, but other than that she did everything a mother would do to care for me and my brother, in full partnership with my father. This shaped the way I view scientists in general – human beings who just happen to have a cool job. But most importantly, I live by similar rules – my partner and I are equal parents to our two amazing and curious children, and my science and my personal life are both vital parts of who I am. The balance in my life is key to my wellbeing and professional success.   

What is your advice for aspiring female scientists?  

Easier said than done, but – never compare yourself to others. Do your science your way, and in the direction that intrigues you. Most importantly, we only live once, so be sure to live the life you want and that is sustainable for you – do not let a perceived career path stop you from practicing self-care, investing in your personal relationships and, if you wish, starting your own family. That is my advice to all aspiring scientists – whether female or otherwise. 


Emma Lees  

Imperial Cancer Research Fund/Cancer Research UK PhD Alumna 

Emma leads Bristol Myers Squibb’s Mechanisms of Cancer Resistance Thematic Research Center in Cambridge (US) and took part in 2021’s US-UK Bilateral Scientific Cancer Summit, part of a broader partnership between our co-founders CRUK and the NCI in the US.  

What does pushing boundaries to create an inclusive world mean to you? 

At junior levels in the research labs there is good equity between men and women, but women are still poorly represented at higher levels of academic departments, company management teams, and VC boards. In a male-dominated environment some women are intimidated to speak their voice and we therefore limit the contribution of diverse viewpoints. We have to cultivate an inclusive environment where everyone feels they can contribute their ideas and be heard. Women also need to see examples of other women progressing up the career ladder so that they know that the opportunity to do so exists, and then we can continue to recruit more women into leadership roles. Mentorship and sponsorship of young female scientists will encourage them to stay in science and take on those leadership roles. 

As we celebrate and honour women, is there anyone in particular who has inspired you in your life?

As a young girl I was inspired by Marie Curie as the first female to win a Nobel Prize for Science.  Her passion and dedication to science, and the story of her discoveries inspired me to become a scientist. I was so excited to get my first microscope at the age of nine, I spent my pocket money on slides, and dreamt of all the possibilities to discover. I hope young girls and young women today see all the amazing examples of female scientists leading in so many different fields. 

Why should we approach science and research in a global, multidisciplinary and collaborative way?

We have critically important work to do as we try and combat cancer. We need to work with urgency towards cures. Leveraging different opinions, different experiences, different thoughts, and different scientific approaches only enriches the available data and idea.   

What is your advice for aspiring female scientists?  

Pursue your passion, trust your instincts and make sure you are learning every day. I have always considered it a privilege to follow my passion and do what I do – this is not just a job for me. 

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