The value of good mentorship: Amy Schade and Karen Cichowski celebrate #IWD2021

10 March 2021
Amy Schade and Karen Cichowski

Amy Schade joined Karen Cichowski’s lab (Brigham and Women's Hospital, Harvard Medical School) as a postdoctoral research fellow in 2019. Karen is Amy’s mentor, and both are part of the Cancer Grand Challenges SPECIFICANCER team.   

For International Women’s Day 2021 and our Cancer Grand Challenges Women’s Week, we caught up to find out more about their mentorship relationship and why they #ChooseToChallenge. 

The slogan of International Women’s Day 2021 is #ChooseToChallenge. What does this mean to you? 

Karen: I firmly believe that one of our most important goals as a field is to provide equivalent opportunities for everyone – to speak at meetings, join collaborative group grants like Cancer Grand Challenges, publish in high profile journals, hold meaningful leadership positions. It’s important that we do more than ‘count numbers’ but make sure that we spread out these opportunities to many different women and at various stages of their careers. As a more senior member of the field now I work hard to provide these opportunities to my junior colleagues and when necessary, remind my contemporary peers of our shared mission. 

Amy: I strongly value the drive for equitable opportunities for all people including gender, race, ethnic, and socioeconomic status minorities. A more inclusive and diverse workforce can yield more productive and creative workplace. I have been involved in several programs that sought to promote these values through mentorship of undergraduate students. 

Could you elaborate on your mentorship relationship?  

Amy: Karen is a fantastic mentor who encourages me to pursue tough scientific questions and challenges me to fully delve into the complexity of the biology. Importantly, Karen gives me many opportunities to present my project at meetings and collaborate with other scientists. It has been really great to learn a new scientific perspective from Karen and I think it is helping me become a more well-rounded scientist. 

Karen: Mentorship is one of the most enjoyable aspects of my job. As a mentor, my goal is to provide a robust multidisciplinary training in cancer research and help my trainees achieve their professional goals, whatever they may be. At the same time, I try to foster independence by teaching them how to teach themselves, develop collaborations, read, think about the biology, ask for advice etc. Amy and I regularly talk about science and trouble-shoot big picture questions together.  

Which female scientists inspire you?  

Karen: Dafna Bar-Sagi, Joan Brugge, and Karen Vousden. In addition to their leadership roles, they are all scientists first. They are also fearless.  

Amy: Andrea McClatchey and Joan Brugge. Both scientists ask targeted and insightful questions, give practical and useful advice, and are outstanding leaders. 

What is your advice for aspiring female scientists?  

Amy: Step outside your comfort zone – learn about a new field, ask questions at seminars and lectures, and try new things experimentally in the lab. All of these things can help all of us become better scientists.  

Karen: Think about what you really want – and then put your head down and move forwards one step at a time. Sometimes people get anxious thinking about the future and want to plan a guaranteed successful trajectory 10 years ahead. My advice is to follow your passion and learn as much as you can every step of the way. There are many great careers in science, but if you pick the one you love you will have boundless energy to succeed. 

As told to Emily Farthing.

Find out more about the SPECIFICANCER team.