Delaware women working in STEM fields encourage others to join their ranks

Female scientist working in a lab.

Women are only 27% of the workers in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM jobs. (primipil / BigStock)

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, women make up just 27% of workers in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM jobs. That includes work as pharmaceutical researchers, biologists, computer network analysts, and other jobs.

While that’s an increase from 1970, when just 8% of STEM jobs were held by women, the sector is still dominated by men.

As part of an effort to encourage more women to join Delaware’s growing STEM sector, more than 150 students, educators, entrepreneurs, and others took part in the ninth annual Inspiring Women in STEM Conference, held virtually this year after taking last year off due to the pandemic.

The conference included a conversation between Dr. Katharine Knobil, chief medical officer at Agilent Technologies and Peggy Scherle, chief scientific officer at Prelude Therapeutics. They encouraged women just starting out in the STEM industry, or considering it as a career path, to push themselves and take risks.

“I learned that if I was going to learn, I needed to get out of my comfort zone,” Knobil said. “That’s a theme in my career, every new position I’ve felt outside of my comfort zone.”

Scherle agreed. “I feel like that was an important aspect throughout my career, taking those chances, doing something different that didn’t seem natural in the beginning, but really enjoying that and learning from that,” she said.

They said the medical side of the STEM field, where both Knobil and Scherle have focused their careers, offers big opportunities for rewarding work.

“I like knowing that I’m having an impact,” Scherle said. “The work that we do will really impact patient lives in our discovery efforts to find novel medicines. I think that’s really important for every individual to understand what they love because then it’s not a job, it’s part of your passion. And that’s so important.”

“The ability to be on the cutting edge to maybe have an impact in an area that no one else has cracked before was really, really exciting, but also stressful,” Knobil said.

About 150 tuned in for the live broadcast. The audience was a mix of STEM professionals and college students, said organizer Jamie Pedrick.

“Every year we strive to provide an array of dynamic and diverse speakers and programming that motivates, supports and inspires STEM professionals — including both women and men in all facets of their STEM-based careers,” said Pedrick, who works as marketing manager for the DelawareBio industry group. “The caliber of women participating in this year’s Inspiring Women in STEM Conference is extraordinary, and personifies the value and significance of this conference.”

The women also talked about the importance of supporting each other in such a male-dominated field.

“I actually helped found a women’s group when I first started, and it was an incredible experience,” said Kristin Giffin, Agilent’s vice president and general manager of new business models. She’s also on DelawareBio’s board of directors. “It was a safe place to develop a lot of leadership skills around other women in a very supportive environment. So, another example of, I’d say, women helping women.”

“I think mentors are so important and being a mentor for other individuals in the organization is critical,” Scherle said. “I had that in my own career where people, you know, took an interest and really tried to help, on a personal level, advance my career. And so, I try to do the same.”

Delaware’s biotech industry has seen a big surge in the past decade, with a 65% increase in new biotech research and development companies, according to a new report on the industry by the DelawareBio trade group.

While that report didn’t break down the number of women working in the industry in the state, Pedrick said the presenters and participants in Thursday’s conference are representative of the depth and strength of female leaders in the industry here.

Delaware now ranks seventh nationwide for venture capital funding spent on the life science industry per capita. Part of the industry’s growth here is due to an influx of federal dollars to support research and development. The National Institute of Health has doubled its funding to the state since 2000.

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